Manitoba History: Review: Nelson Wiseman, Social Democracy in Manitoba: A History of the CCF/NDP
by Henry Huber
Nelson Wiseman’s Social Democracy in Manitoba: A History of the CCF/NDP fills a gap present in earlier histories of Manitoba. While W. L. Morton’s Manitoba: A History and James A. Jackson’s The Centennial History of Manitoba have become the standard source books for students of Manitoba history, they make only fleeting reference to the rise of the Manitoba CCF/NDP. Indeed, Morton’s book was published before the NDP was formed in 1961 and Jackson’s book was published in 1970, a few months after the NDP achieved power in Manitoba under the leadership of Ed Schreyer. The Manitoba New Democratic Party has since 1969 been re-elected to power in 1973, defeated in 1978 and again returned to office under Howard Pawley in 1981 and 1985. Nelson Wiseman is the first to chart the rise of the NDP as a political force in Manitoba and to provide a detailed account of the activities of the political left over the last ninety years.
This study was first begun as a Ph.D. dissertation in the early 1970s and then was modified and expanded in 1979. It is well researched and extensively footnoted, and it has the benefit of interviews with numerous early socialists such as Beatrice Brigden, Stanley Knowles, Russ Paulley, Lloyd Stinson, Fred Tipping and Fred Tufford. The largest collection of papers used by Wiseman were the CCF Papers at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. (These contained large gaps, however, since most of the pre-1940s papers had been destroyed in the Winnipeg flood of 1950.) He also consulted CCF Records at the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa and the files of party officials.
Wiseman began to research and write this book on the NDP as a strongly partisan insider. In the 1960s, he served as president of the University of Manitoba NDP Club and sat on the party’s provincial executive committee. He was active in the left-wing Waffle and quit the NDP in 1972 when the party refused to move closer to the Waffle position. Wiseman’s Waffle perspective is evident in this book, especially in his probing, thoughtful, and often critical account and analysis of the Schreyer years.
The reader is led through the early years of the socialist movement, the formation of the Independent Labour Party, and later the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. There is a good account of the “Non-Partisan” Government of 1940, the problems with the Communists, the changes of the party in the forties and fifties, and the formation of the NDP in 1961. The book concludes with a critical look at the party at present in power. Throughout the book the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and its “lasting political legacy” (p. 10) is never far away.
Wiseman contends the polarization brought on by the Strike has been and continues to be part of the fabric of Winnipeg and Manitoba politics. He states that Manitoba governments in the first half of the twentieth century “reflected an alliance of Anglo-Saxons in the southwestern wheat lands and in south Winnipeg” (p. 149) and that both the Strike and Citizens’ Committees were ethnically Anglo-Saxons, differing only in “class and heritage.” (p. 149).
Wiseman states that between the 1920s and the 1970s the NDP rose to power in Manitoba primarily because of redistribution, wider support, and moderate leadership. There had always been strong support for labour in Winnipeg’s North End going back to the early 1900s. However, up to 1949, Winnipeg had only 10 out of the 55 legislative seats and “in the 1922 election, labour votes equalled those for twenty-seven non-labour MLAs, but Labour won only six seats.” (p. 150). With redistribution in the late sixties this inequality was corrected and in the election of 1969 the NDP gained power.
As the NDP rose, the provincial Liberals declined. As both the Liberals and Conservatives moved to occupy the far right of the political spectrum, the NDP “successfully moved towards the centre.” (p. 124). This, according to Wiseman, resulted in the new political reality in Manitoba, “a pure two-party system with one party on the left and one on the right.” (p. 151).
Another reason for the success of the NDP, according to Wiseman, was that the ILPICCFINDP was able to change itself from a “city based party representing British-born workers” to one that could represent “more of the province’s non-Anglo-Saxon population in the city and the poorer areas of the country too.” (p. 151).
The third reason was the leadership of Ed Schreyer. Schreyer, the social democrat from Beausejour, spoke four languages and had the “personality and ideological orientation” (p. 119) that the NDP caucus, senior party officials, and rank and file members felt would give them success at the polls. According to Wiseman, “by 1969 the CCF-NDP had become a party whose leadership and membership, like Manitoba’s population, was increasingly indigenous and of non-British extraction.” (p. 124). The cabinet no longer met at the Manitoba Club and as Wiseman stated, “for the first time Anglo-Saxons were in a minority in the cabinet.” (p. 127). Schreyer’s 1977 cabinet was composed of six Anglo-Saxons, four Ukrainians, two Franco-Manitobans, two Jews, one Dutchman, one German and one Métis. His cabinet represented an ethnic distribution that was starting to reflect the true multi-cultural nature of Manitoba.
Wiseman, the ex-Waffle member, is very critical of Ed Schreyer’s leadership and the NDP in power. He observes that “little in the NDP government’s performance diverged from what non-NDP government’s did” (p. 139) and that in office the NDP was just like any other government. He charges that little notice was taken of party policy and instead the “cabinet and caucus” (p. 132) were responsible for making policy. Wiseman chides the Schreyer government for failing to promote greater worker control in crown corporations, for failing to bring about major redistribution in income and for failing “to move towards public ownership of natural resource industries and urban land.” (p. 139).
Wiseman points out that Schreyer never tired of boasting that under the NDP Manitoba had attained “its highest rating ever on the New York bond market” (p. 143) and that such a boast would have been ridiculed by the CCFers of the 1930s and 1940s. Such measurements, according to Wiseman “ignored the issue of distribution of the province’s wealth and income among the different classes of society.” (p. 143).
Though usually critical, Wiseman does list the many excellent social programs the NDP initiated and admits (p. 140) that the 193 bills passed in the NDP’s first fifteen months in office represented an “unprecedented performance by Manitoba’s legislature.” As well, he admits that Autopac did “challenge the interests of a large private industry” (p. 140) and thus is different from the legislation of other governments. Nevertheless, Wiseman states (p. 146) that the Manitoba NDP had come to accept an “economic system which in earlier years it was so eager to transform” and that, in the 1970s, the party had become “pragmatic, non-ideological and politically respectable.”
Wiseman is correct in his basic analysis that the Manitoba NDP has not fulfilled the dreams of the early socialists. It certainly did not satisfy the radical left-wing Waffle or New Democratic Youth (NDY) of the early 1970s. While it is still not the party of the establishment, it has members and voting support across a wide spectrum of Manitoba society, a party that “has securely established itself as a force in the mainstream rather than the periphery”. (p. 152). Wiseman ‘s Social Democracy in Manitoba: A History of the CCF/NDP is a thorough and well-researched chronicle of the NDP’s journey to its present position and will be required reading for students of Manitoba history looking for the left-wing perspective on their past.Back to top of page