EACH YEAR I show the students in my Canadian film class Michel Brault’s remarkable 1974 film, Les ordres, a film all too few Canadians have seen. Les ordres dramatizes what it was like to be one of the 450 political prisoners jailed as a result of Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in October 1970. And each year, the students are incredulous. How can it be, they ask, that such a thing could happen in Canada? How could it have happened and they not know about it?
Of course, it’s not just the War Measures Act. Canadians, it sometimes seems, have the shortest memories of any people on earth. It allows us to feel superior to the Americans; we know about the awful things they did under McCarthyism. But how many of us know that sixty years ago this month, in November 1931, years before Joseph McCarthy appeared on the scene, Tim Buck, the former leader of the Communist Party of Canada, and seven of his colleagues, were jailed, not because of anything they’d done — only because of what they believed?
They were charged under a section of the Criminal Code (Section 98), which had been enacted during the First World War; it declared unlawful any association advocating the use of force to change society. As a result of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, Section 98 had been broadened to allow for the arrest of anyone suspected of seditious conspiracy. That, as F. R. Scott pointed out in the Canadian Forum, could mean almost anything. Seven of the eight Communists were sentenced to five years in Kingston penitentiary; the eighth got two years and was then deported.
Buck had become leader of the CPC in 1929 following a purge of its former leaders, who were having increasing difficulty accepting the Moscow line. Buck, on the other hand, had no problem following the party line. Nor did he ever, at least not publicly.
Had it not been for the Depression, the rift between the right and the left wings of the CPC might have split the party. But by the summer of 1929, police surveillance and harassment of Communists was giving way to public beatings — in Queen’s Park in Toronto in the summer of 1929, for example. By 1931, much had changed. More and more Canadians were beginning to listen to what Communists — and anyone else with radical ideas — were saying. Something had to be done to help the millions who were suffering. The CPC offered a simple program: the establishment of non-contributory state run unemployment insurance; a seven hour work day; and a national minimum wage of $25 a week. Petitions in support of these proposals were widely circulated. Communist publications lashed out at R.B. Bennett, the Prime Minister: “Bennett is my shepherd,” read one.“I shall do nothing but want./ He maketh me to lie hungrily in hard, cold, unpleasant places./ He leadeth me forth to beg in the streets, to look for jobs that are not, to listen to optimistic statements that feedeth me not./ He restoreth my doubt in the blessings of capitalism.”
In June 1931, five members of Montreal’s CPC were sentenced to a year of hard labour following their conviction on a charge of sedition. They were guilty of having urged 300 unemployed workers to organize and demand that the authorities relieve their hardship. The meeting was broken up by 150 police.
Two months later, on August 11, 1931, the Communist Party’s offices in Toronto were raided; Buck and seven colleagues were arrested. Although Buck and the CPC had been operating in the open for years, they were now seen as a threat that needed to be suppressed.
The trial took place in November 1931. The crown’s chief witness was John Leopold, a five foot tall RCMP officer, who’d been an undercover member of the CPC from 1921 to 1928, when he’d been expelled. Leopold testified that the Communists planned the overthrow of the existing order through the use of force and that the Communist International, centred in Moscow, had given the CPC $3,000 to help it get started.
Buck argued that there had never been any violence as a result of the activities of the CPC. Whatever violence there had been had been instigated by the authorities. In a closing three-hour speech in his defense he said, “When we are charged with teaching or advocating force or violence, we point out that if the workers are learning anything about ‘force or violence’ these days, they are not learning from us. We do not consider it necessary to teach or advocate the use of ‘force or violence.’ We do not believe that governments, systems of society, or states are overthrown by a conspiracy — but rather by undeniable forces.”
The Communists were found guilty as charged. Before sentencing them, the judge asked Buck if there was anything he wanted to say. Buck responded simply, sounding as if the world he believed in was just around the corner: “Your Lordship, I have done what I have done because of my convictions, and for nothing else … . I have been tried and found guilty in this court. I hope you will not think it bravado if I say that I will not be found wanting by the organizations and the workers that I have tried to represent. I will try to take whatever sentence you give me in the same spirit I have tried to do the work I have done.”
In October 1932, just months after their arrival, a major prison riot broke out at Kingston Penitentiary. During the riot, an attempt was made on Buck’s life by two guards who fired eight shots into his locked cell. The authorities denied that anyone had attempted to murder Buck and blamed him and the other Communists in Kingston for having fomented the riot.
The attempt on Buck’s life and the events that preceded it became the basis of a godawful propaganda play, Eight Men Speak, written by a committee. It had its first — and only — performance at Toronto’s Standard Theatre on December 4, 1933. The play was closed not by its producers, The Toronto Progressive Arts Club, but by the police. They threatened to cancel the theatre’s licence if it were performed again. In Winnipeg, a theatre licence was revoked in order to prevent the play’s being presented there.
Eight Men Speak argued that the Communists in Kingston were political prisoners not criminals, that the government was not only murdering workers at places like Estevan Saskatchewan but that it had attempted to murder Buck. Eight Men Speak is entirely lacking in subtlety. For instance, a guard accused of shooting at Buck is defended by a legal firm called Capitalism, Capitalism, Capitalism and Exploitation. But when the police banned Eight Men Speak, declaring that it was “distasteful,” it wasn’t the play’s literary merit they had in mind. The Communists were clearly getting under the skin of the establishment.
A month later, in January 1934, the Progressive Arts Club organized a meeting to protest the closing of the play. The main speaker was the Rev. A. E. Smith, a man who’d abandoned the pulpit following the Winnipeg General Strike to work on the left. He was now a member of the CPC. Smith described how a delegation he’d led had brought a petition signed by 459,000 Canadians to R.B. Bennett in Ottawa in November 1933. They’d called on the government to repeal Section 98 (under which the Communists had been convicted) and to investigate the attempted shooting of Buck. According to Smith, Bennett, “frenzied with rage,” had thrown them out of his office. That’s when they decided to organize the production of Eight Men Speak. Smith went on to describe the banning of the play and the attempt that had been made on Buck’s life. Two weeks later, A.E. Smith was charged with sedition, accused of intentionally “spreading discontent, hatred and distrust of the government.” Police quoted Smith as saying that Bennett had personally ordered Buck’s shooting.
At another rally, this time in a packed Massey Hall, Smith asked why politicians like Mitch Hepburn, a Liberal and Premier of Ontario, weren’t also being charged with sedition. Hadn’t Hepburn also sought “to create disaffection” against R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government through some of his public statements? I am charged,” declared Smith, “because Bennett is in an unstable position.” Public sympathy for Smith was mounting. When his lawyer was given only two weeks to prepare his case after asking for two months, even the ultra conservative Toronto Telegram questioned the fairness of what was happening. Smith was given a further boost when E. J. McMurray, who’d been Solicitor General in Mackenzie King’s government, offered to take on the case.
McMurray demanded that Tim Buck be brought from Kingston as a witness at Smith’s trial. That would help determine if there had been “an error in the administration of justice,” an error Smith had been attempting to redress. To everyone’s surprise, McMurray’s request was granted. The trial gained still more publicity when Leo Gallagher joined the defence team. Gallagher was a lawyer who had gained an international reputation by defending the Communist who had been accused by the Nazis of starting the Reichstag fire.
The trial of A.E. Smith began in March 1934. Buck appeared in court long enough to state that he had been shot at. His statement was disallowed but there’s little doubt that it affected the proceedings. Defence witnesses contradicted police reports of what had been said at the rally. The defence then proceeded to demonstrate that even professional stenographers couldn’t produce the kind of verbatim transcript of Smith’s remarks that the police had offered the court as evidence. In closing, McMurray argued that Smith had been the victim of a political trial; he compared the process to the Spanish Inquisition.
The jury found Smith not guilty. An editorial in the Toronto Herald reflected the views of many observers: “The rev. gentleman is no friend of ours — not even an acquaintance, and he seems to harbour a lot of views on life and its problems which we entirely disagree with…. But we are glad the jury squelched the proposal to send him to jail for venturing to air his opinions. If we are going to send every man to the pen who holds views contrary to our own or who ventures to severely criticize the government in power, we will have to build bigger and better jails to hold them all.”
Shortly thereafter, an embarrassed Hugh Guthrie, Minister of Justice, admitted in the House of Commons that shots had in fact been fired into Buck’s cell — but just “to frighten him.” Within months, the seven remaining Communists (the one had by then been deported) were released. They’d served barely half their terms. The last to be freed, in November 1934, was Tim Buck.
Thus began his one brief, heady period as a popular hero. The train bringing him from Kingston was greeted at Union Station in Toronto by 7,000 men and women who, according to the Toronto Star, “wept, cheered and sang as he was carried in triumph through the crowd.” A few days later, Buck addressed a crowd of 17,000 at Maple Leaf Gardens; 8,000 others were turned away. He began a cross-country speaking tour. Newspaper photographs show him standing on cars, speaking to the curious and enthusiastic crowds that had come to greet his train.
Buck had been jailed because of his political beliefs. An attempt had been made to kill him while in prison. What he’d been saying about the need for radical reform in the face of the Depression was being borne out. Protest parties were springing up everywhere — the CCF, the Social Credit, the Union Nationale, the Reconstruction Party. Within months of his release, the Conservatives had been defeated; R. B. Bennett fled the country. Mackenzie King’s Liberals repealed Section 98 and eventually brought in unemployment insurance.
People’s momentary sympathy for Buck and the Communists didn’t translate into votes. Their sympathy, I suspect, had far more to do with a sense of fair play. The only time Buck himself came close to being elected to office was a 1939 bid for election as a city controller in Toronto. His endorsement of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact several months later changed things forever. His days as a popular figure were over.
One of the many ironies of this story is that another famous Red, “Red” Ryan, formerly one of Canada’s most wanted men, was serving a life sentence at Kingston when the eight Communists arrived there. Ryan had been working for some time at impressing prison authorities with how much he’d changed since he’d been returned to Kingston in 1923. He’d become altar boy to Wilfred Kingsley, the Roman Catholic prison chaplain, a priest at the appropriately named Church of the Good Thief. When the prison riot broke out, Ryan helped to quell it, denounced the Communists for fomenting it, and asked to be paroled. (A 1938 Royal Commission into Canada’s penal system officially exonerated Buck. Yes, he’d participated in prison demonstrations. But he had not fomented the riot; he’d urged the men not to riot.)
In the summer of 1935, Ryan was released. Even R. B. Bennett had visited Kingston to see for himself the remarkable transformation that had taken place in the former criminal. Ryan produced a series of articles for the Toronto Star on the theme: Crime doesn’t pay. His articles had an anti-Communist, pro-capitalist, subtext. Tom McEwen, one of the eight who were jailed, writes in his autobiography, The Forge Glows Red, that when he and Buck ran into Ryan in Toronto shortly after his release, he asked them to “forgive him for all this newspaper ‘bull.’ ‘You boys know how it is,’” he reportedly told them. Then, good free enterpriser that he was, Ryan went back to what he was best at — robbing banks. The embarrassed authorities discovered that almost a year later when Ryan was killed in a shoot-out at a hold-up in Sarnia.
Much of my generation, born at the end of the Depression, regarded Buck as a comic figure. I wrote a skit in high school in the 1950s about “Tim Buck, Too,” making fun of his kneejerk acceptance of Moscow’s line on everything from Molotov-Ribbentrop in 1939 to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Like my Canadian film students on the subject of October 1970, I was unaware of what had happened in Canada twenty years before. All of us knew, of course, what Joe McCarthy had done in the U.S., but we were oblivious to the fact that Canada had been the first English-speaking country in the world to declare its Communist Party an unlawful organization and to jail its leaders.
— The Canadian Forum, December 1991