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Manitoba History: Review: Thomas Clement Douglas, The Making of a Socialist: The Recollections of T. C. Douglas

by Allen Mills
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The Making of a Socialist: The Recollections of T. C. Douglas. Thomas Clement Douglas. Edited by Lewis H. Thomas. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1982. xiii, 400 pp. ill., ports. ISBN 0-88864-070-6.

It has been rumoured that, since his retirement from Parliament in 1979, T. C. Douglas has been working on his memoirs. To date they have not appeared. In the meantime historians will have to rely on The Making of a Socialist. This book is in fact Douglas’s memoirs of sorts. It is the edited result of some twenty-four hours of taped interviews conducted by Chris Higginbotham, a Regina journalist, between September and December 1958. The interviewer, a political journalist for the Leader-Post for much of Douglas’s term of office, obviously knew his subject and clearly sympathized with him. Nonetheless his questions were quite searching. Douglas’s life down to the moment of these interviews is covered and, with the extensive editing and footnotes of Lewis Thomas, this book will be an important source of prairie history for some time to come, or at least until Douglas comes forth with his definitive memoirs.

T. C. Douglas, student minister, Carberry, 1927.
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

Douglas’s life is well known to Western Canadians, so perhaps the interesting aspect of this book is some of the unexpected things revealed about him and the historical gaps filled. For instance, it is little known that Douglas lived as a child in Winnipeg between 1911 and 1914, and as a young man in Winnipeg and Brandon between 1919 and 1930. However, I was slightly disappointed with this section of his memoirs, which deals with his early life. He tells us little of this period that we couldn’t independently anticipate. In Winnipeg, it seems, the family was somewhat peripatetic, living on Jarvis Avenue, then Gladstone Street and Gordon Avenue, and finally settling on McPhail Street. His father was employed as an ironmoulder at the Vulcan Ironworks on Sutherland Avenue until his death in 1936. By far the most interesting aspect of Douglas’s description of his early life is the account of his grandparents and, especially, his father. Here the reader is introduced to an almost classic example of Celtic, labourist non-conformity. The grandparents were part Baptist and part Plymouth Brethren in religion and Gladstonian Liberal in their politics. The father was a Boer War and Great War veteran, and a hard-working artisan from Falkirk in Scotland. In his lifetime, he moved from Liberalism to the British Labour Party and, after his final emigration to Winnipeg in 1920, supported the Independent Labour Party of Manitoba. Douglas’s father was a man of sterling moral qualities, as honest as the day is long, deferential to no one, but friendly and fair to all. Clearly he was a fundamental moral influence on his son.

The memoirs are also particularly instructive in their illumination of hidden aspects of Douglas’s personality. Until I read this book, I hadn’t quite appreciated the full extent of his optimistic outlook. He has no sense of the human condition being given over to the triumph of evil and ignorance. Even when evidence of such a possibility occurs, Douglas dismisses it as inconsequential. In his world, juvenile delinquents and hoodlums only need a little human attention and care to turn them into well-adjusted citizens. At political meetings in Saskatchewan in the 1930s, when violence breaks out and Douglas defends himself with a broken bottle, he gives the impression that really this is only a little naughtiness and silliness. Boys will be boys, but all will work out well in the end.

Indeed this is perhaps the clue to understanding Douglas as the generous, joking socialist, the unthreatening radical with a heart of gold. He has a way of building up the hopes of the poor and downtrodden, while gently pricking the pretensions of the great and deflating the pomposity of exalted institutions. It is as if he is saying: we are all fundamentally alike and human, kings and common folk. Thus, his politics have been not those of class resentment, but of a sensible, down-to-earth egalitarianism.

I was surprised as well by the degree to which Douglas, in spite of his socialist reputation, was a frustrated businessman. His memoirs reveal that on two occasions he started business ventures, curiously first as a mink farmer and then as the owner of a drive-in movie. Only the obligations of public office, it seems, kept him from later entering the propane gas distribution business.

This is a long book packed with the details of a full life. It is an indispensible mine of information about the CCF administration; as well Douglas’s long political career has given him a bottomless fund of anecdotes and jokes not only about Canadian political leaders such as R. B. Bennett, J. S. Woodsworth, and Mackenzie King, but also British politicians such as Clement Atlee, Sir Stafford Cripps, and Aneurin Bevan. This is an endlessly interesting book about a phenomenal man and his phenomenal times.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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