There was little cause for optimism in Canada in July 1933.
Thirty percent of the labour force was out of work. One-fifth of the population was on government relief. And severe drought had turned huge swathes of Prairie farmland into dust.
But amid the deprivation and misery of the Great Depression, a new socialist party emerged with a comprehensive vision for a better tomorrow.
The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation had formed in Calgary the previous summer.
“For the first time, you have this national movement of trade unionists, intellectuals, religious leaders, farmers, and organizers coming together to talk about what Canada should look like,” says Jonathan Weier, a history professor at George Brown College and board member with the Douglas Coldwell Layton Foundation.
While the party was explicitly socialist, it was not a revolutionary organization.
“It’s radical, but the people who are proposing it are people who still value democracy as an underpinning of this kind of socialism that they see,” says Weier. “There is an abhorrence of violent revolution.”
On July 19, 1933, more than 130 delegates arrived in Regina for the CCF’s first national convention. Over the course of the three-day gathering, they debated and approved the Regina Manifesto, a sweeping policy document that continues to inspire Canadian leftists nine decades later.
‘A blueprint for the transformation of Canadian society’
“What is painted in this document is a more compelling vision for the future of the country,” NDP Member of Parliament Matthew Green says of the Manifesto. “It is a beautifully written document that is as pertinent today – in this kind of cartel capitalism that has evolved in Canada, and the material conditions of working-class people – as it was in the 1930s.”
The Manifesto described the economic system of the early 1930s as “the cancer which is eating at the heart of our society.” It called for the eradication of capitalism and the implementation of a “full programme of socialized planning.”
The CCF wanted to nationalize the country’s financial system and bring under public ownership “transportation, communications, electric power and all other industries and services essential to social planning.”
The Manifesto also demanded a national labour code and “a properly organized system of public health services including medical and dental care, which would stress the prevention rather than the cure of illness be extended to all our people in both rural and urban areas.”
Green believes the tone, urgency and radicalism of the Manifesto reflected the growing class-consciousness of Canadians during the Depression.
“I think it was a response to the economic conditions of its time, an understanding that a social and financial elite were rigging the economy against working-class people,” he says.
The 4,400-word CCF program covered a number of other topics, including international trade, foreign affairs, co-operative institutions, freedom of speech and assembly, and the implementation of a more humane justice system.
“I think it was a blueprint for the transformation of Canadian society,” says Weier. “It really was this sort of all-encompassing idea for how Canada could be remade in a way that would end the power of capital and give power to everyday citizens.”
Suzanne MacNeil, former president of the Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council, admires the Manifesto for the potency of its language and the clarity of its purpose.
“It is really interesting to read something that came from, in my opinion, this major force in Canadian politics that was profoundly anti-capitalist,” she says. “It laid out a program for improving things for Canadian people, for Canadian workers, that was just so unapologetically radical.”
Early successes, eventual decline
The CCF and its policy platform enjoyed some notable successes, particularly during the Second World War.
The conflict proved that a planned economy – the first of fourteen pillars in the Regina Manifesto – could work in Canada. The longer the war went on, the more popular the CCF seemed to become.
In 1943, the party topped a national public opinion poll and became the official opposition in the Ontario legislature. The following year, Tommy Douglas became premier of Saskatchewan after the CCF won 47 of 52 seats in a provincial election result that shocked – and frightened – the political establishment.
In an effort to take the wind out of the CCF’s sails, the federal government began plucking policy items from the Regina Manifesto, including unemployment insurance, improved collective bargaining rights, and family allowance payments.
“Like the left in Canada, one of the ways the Regina Manifesto is the most successful is the way that many of its ideas were adopted by Liberal and Conservative governments,” says Weier.
But the war years would be the high-water mark for the CCF. The party found itself losing support in the 1950s as the standard of living rose across Canada.
“The country was prosperous, rather than sunk in depression,” historian Michael S. Cross wrote of this period in The Decline and Fall of a Good Idea: CCF-NDP Manifestoes 1932 to 1969. “Capitalism was relatively genteel now, unlike the naked exploitative business climate of the thirties. Workers had a measure of protection, in unions and in the welfare state erected since the war by the Liberals.”
The CCF responded to its changing fortunes by lurching towards the political centre.
In 1956, it replaced the Regina Manifesto with the more moderate Winnipeg Declaration. When that failed to produce results, the CCF was fused with the Canadian Labour Congress to create the New Democratic Party in 1961.
According to Weier, that was the point where the Regina Manifesto began fading from view in terms of the party’s policy – and its official history.
“I don’t think a lot of New Democrats or people on the left really remember the Regina Manifesto,” he says.
“There’s been a move in the NDP, especially in the 21st century, to kind of move away from ideas of socialism to ideas of a left-liberalism where the left accepts the natural ascendancy of capitalism and it just becomes about making capitalism slightly less horrible for working people,” Weier says. “The left in Canada, especially the institutional left, has done a lot of work to disassociate and move itself away from ideas of even peaceful revolutionary socialism.”
Carrying the torch
But while some in the party have forgotten, or even suppressed, the radicalism of the early CCF, there are others still carrying the torch.
Green is a self-described democratic socialist who draws inspiration from Stanley Knowles, a legendary CCF/NDP parliamentarian who joined the party shortly after the adoption of the Regina Manifesto.
The Hamilton Centre MP believes elements of the 1933 program can help build support for a socialist alternative to what’s being offered by the populist right.
“If we don’t use popular education as an organizing principle to define the terms of debate, we’re going to have working-class people used in scapegoating other working-class people by the ultra-wealthy in this country,” Green says. “In this moment of uncertainty, if we don’t capture people with a compelling alternative, we will lose them to right-wing populism. And that is an existential threat to our democracy, in my opinion.”
MacNeil, who currently volunteers with Justice For Workers in Nova Scotia, agrees that a forward-looking approach, informed by the early days of the CCF, can help organizers reach and mobilize Canadians.
“What the Regina Manifesto shows – which I think maybe we’re just starting to get our heads around today – is the importance of coming up with a program and a vision for how things can be better,” she says. “People were coming together from different backgrounds, different perspectives, to find some common ground. And I think that’s really key towards creating something new, fighting for a different kind of future and coming up with a vision that can get people inspired.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Delegates to the first national convention of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Regina in July 1933. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-029298
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