A Catholic communist decades before the words “liberation theology” were ever thought of. A radical working-class poet long prior to the emergence of others of this tradition to more acclaim on the literary landscape, such as his protegé Milton Acorn. A revolutionary journalist considered so politically dangerous by the government of Mackenzie King that he was rounded up and held without trial from 1940 to 1942.
This is Joe Wallace–whose life, work and legacy is the subject of A More Radiant Sphere, a 2022 documentary by Sara Wylie. The film was screened May 18 at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax, in conjunction with the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts.
Wallace’s story cries out for the telling.
Born in 1890, he was a successful young advertising executive and Liberal Party functionary, when he experienced a political conversion during World War I and joined the radical workers’ movement, which at that time was going through the most tumultuous period in the labour history of Nova Scotia.
Wallace became editor of the Halifax labour paper, The Citizen. In 1922, he joined the Workers Party, precursor of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), where he worked as a journalist and organizer, and made his political home until his death in 1975.
Wallace’s resistance, as a Canadian anti-fascist, in the World War II internment camp at Petawawa, Ontario, forms the core of the central drama of that little-known, dark chapter in the history of civil liberties in Canada.
Upon release from internment in 1942, Wallace published Night is Ended, the first of his five volumes of poetry. The last, A Radiant Sphere, which provides the documentary’s title, was published in 1964. Wallace’s poetry was especially appreciated and well known (in translation) in the Soviet Union.
Filmmaker Sara Wylie is particularly well qualified to tell this story. She is Wallace’s great-great niece. The film operates within a warm overlay of family, as Wylie uncovers and recovers elements of family connection (her father plays Wallace in the film), in the course of opening up her great-great uncle’s work.
Wylie was present for the Mayworks screening, as was a considerable delegation from the extended Wallace family. (Joe Wallace’s nephew, the late Ron Wallace, was Mayor of Halifax in the 1980s and 1990s; another nephew, the late Bruce Wallace, was a candidate in Dartmouth for the NDP.) Following the screening, the Q & A with Wylie was an engaging oscillation between the worlds of socialist history and family connection.
No 44-minute documentary could be expected to capture the breadth and depth of Wallace’s life story, and unsurprisingly, there are places in A More Radiant Sphere of a certain incompleteness.
Wallace did not, in fact, move directly from the Liberal Party to the CPC. He became General Secretary of the Independent Labor Party (ILP) of Nova Scotia in 1920, and was an ILP candidate in the election of that year, in which the combined Farmer-Labor Party formed Nova Scotia’s first elected left Official Opposition.
Wallace’s singular approach to Marxism and Christianity does not–regrettably, from my point of view–garner much of the film’s attention.
The film may also leave Wallace’s stature as a poet in unnecessary question. Some of Milton Acorn’s not entirely laudatory retrospective comments on Wallace’s work are drawn upon here. Acorn later repudiated this earlier assessment, apologized for it, and said, “You cannot look at a single poem of Wallace’s that doesn’t move you.”
“Moved”–yes, that’s the word. A person is moved by this film–by its images, its narrative, its craft, for sure. But more by its urgent implication–that capitalism stands now, as it did then, between us and where we are meant to be, and that something more radiantly worthy persists as the goal of the struggle for us to get there.
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