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Manitoba History: Documents & Archives: The Forkin Letters [1]

by Errol Black
Brandon, Manitoba

Number 56, October 2007

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.

Historical working class, labour, and labour political organizations in Brandon, fashioned in response to the boundaries and subjugation of the city’s liberal capitalist order, provide a remarkable and diverse testament to the rich variety of influences that mediated the experience of Brandon’s workers. Records of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council, and Brandon chapters of the Socialist Party of Canada, the Dominion Labour Party, the Canadian Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party disclose rich seams of working class discourse and agency in the city. They also tell us about the agency of individual activists—men and women—in the city, some of whom went on to acquire national reputations for their work on behalf of working class Canadians. [2]

The Forkin family of Brandon made an unusual contribution to working class activism in Canada. Six children of the Forkin family became activists in the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) after its formation in 1921. Martin and Hannah Forkin and their six children (Joe, 1899; Stephen, 1901; Patrick, 1903; Stan, 1905; Ruth, 1909; and Tom, 1911) [3] immigrated to Canada and settled in Brandon in 1912. Martin found work as a boiler washer’s helper on the Canadian Pacific Railway and they lived in a small house at 545 Douglas Street on the outskirts of the city’s east end. They had another son, Frank, in 1913.

The character, values and ideas of the Forkins were shaped in the context of a closely-knit family living during turbulent times in a turbulent world. Among the critical events that affected them were World War I, the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland (their father Martin was born into peasant stock in 1870 subsequently migrated to Dublin and then England, where he met and married Hannah), and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. As well, they were profoundly influenced by the grinding poverty faced by working people in Brandon and conflict between labour and capital that culminated in 1919 in a general strike in Winnipeg and a sympathetic general strike in Brandon.

Throughout his adult life Pat Forkin suffered from the debilitating effects of tuberculosis. In 1924, Pat was sent to the Ninette Sanatorium, where he remained until 1929. Major surgery helped to mitigate the ravages of the disease, but it also left him in a weakened condition because of reduced lung capacity. But these circumstances did not prevent him from taking an active role in the activities of the Communist party and related organizations.

After his release from the Sanatorium, Pat threw himself into party work in Brandon. In 1930 and 1931, he was elected to the executive of the Brandon Unemployed Association. He became a key speaker at Association meetings and demonstrations and succeeded his brother Joe as Brandon and area correspondent for the CPC paper, The Worker. [4]

In 1932, Pat moved to Winnipeg where he became an executive member of the Unemployment Conference of Winnipeg. As it turned out, he did not have the stamina to undertake the work required of him as an organizer. However, his talent as a writer had been noticed and in short order he was invited to Toronto to work full-time for the Communist Party Worker. Health problems continued to plague him in Toronto, however, and in 1936, the Party decided to send him to the Soviet Union as Moscow correspondent for the now renamed Communist party newspaper—the Daily Clarion. Party leaders also believed that Pat would receive better treatment in the Soviet Union than he was getting in Canada. Phoebe Singer, a party activist from Montreal, who became Pat’s wife, went with him to the Soviet Union.

The letters home from Pat and Phoebe while they lived in the Soviet Union provide a window into the warm, loving and open relationships that existed between Pat and Phoebe and Pat’s parents and siblings. They also provide valuable insights into the problems they experienced while contending with their jobs and Pat’s health problems.

The bulk of the letters Pat sent home from the Soviet Union dealt with issues of everyday life relating to agriculture, industry, community and politics from the bottom. Often, he linked his stories on Soviet life to conditions in Canada, and especially Brandon. Pat’s account of the Soviet Union was shaped by his hope that progress there would provide a model for the improvement of the lives of working people in Canada and around the world. And much that he saw in the Soviet Union from health care to the provision of paid annual holidays for working people were in sharp contrast to the conditions he was familiar with in Canada. Pat and Phoebe’s uncritical accounts of the Stalin show trials should be viewed in this context.

Unfortunately, Pat’s health deteriorated further and he spent increasing time in sanatoria, which he found frustrating because it prevented him from doing the job he was sent to do. Pat died from tuberculosis on 12 December 1939. At the time he was in the Mountain Sun Tubercular Sanatorium in Miskhor, Crimea. He was buried in Yalta.

There were many tributes to Pat following his death. A tribute from Tom and Rosa Ewen [5] written to Pat’s parents in Brandon is especially poignant: “The Canadian people have lost a great tribune in the death of Comrade Pat. His was the ability to translate the great drama of the building of a New World into warm proletarian language. Pat loved the Soviet People; he was deeply interested in everything they did; he could see a humorous as well as a serious side of things; he never poised as “an expert” of Soviet affairs and he poured the warm love of his heart into his writings.” [6]

After Pat’s death, Phoebe eventually married Andrei Curato and moved with him to Italy, where she lived for ten years. She returned to the Soviet Union so her son Andre could complete his education. While she lived there, Phoebe worked as a translator for Radio Moscow. She returned to Canada in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Phoebe died in Toronto at the age of 95 in 2005.

Pat Forkin

Pat Forkin convalescing at the Ninette Sanatorium, 1928.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University, Errol Black Collection


October 8th, 1936.
Gulf of Finland

Dear Folks:

We land this afternoon in Leningrad from where I will post this letter.

I didn’t prove as good a sailor on this trip as I did on the Atlantic passage, possibly because the weather was rougher and the boat much smaller with consequent pitching and rolling. We sailed last Saturday. Sunday in the North Sea was terrible. I didn’t eat a meal all day and spent the time between my bunk and the bathroom … trying to give up what I hadn’t eaten. That night we got into calmer waters near the Kiel Canal and I began to feel better and got a couple of slices of bread down me.

We went through the Canal in the early morning. It was quite an experience and I got up especially early to see as much of Germany as I could.

At the other end of the Canal we came out into the Baltic Sea and into another gale. Monday wasn’t so bad but Tuesday was worse. However, I began to get my sea legs and didn’t miss any meals although I felt little like eating them. Wednesday was fine and today it is nice and smooth also. We have seen the coasts of Holland, Germany, Denmark, the Swedish island of Gotland, the Estonian island of Dago and other smaller ones, and this morning we are passing some of Finland’s islands.

I have managed to keep warm for the weather hasn’t been as cold as I thought it would be in these northern latitudes. The winter won’t be so bad I take it, for some of the Americans working in the Soviet Union who are now returning from holidays on this boat, tell me that the coldest temperature in Moscow is about 30 below. We [have] worse than that in Brandon.

We have only 15 passengers on the ship this trip although there is accommodations for about 150. It is too late for the tourist season now. However, the ship earns its way in carrying cargo. This time it is loaded with cocoa and race horses. One of the race horses died during the storm and had to be heaved overboard. The Soviet Government had just paid $12,000 for it in England and were taking it back for breeding purposes. Fortunately they had it insured against loss. The third mate tells me they buy many Irish and Arab horses, in fact, he says, they have some aboard every trip back.

The grub has been excellent. Better than that we got on the Aquitania. However, it is served up in a different way to what we are used. Tea is very weak, served in tumblers, with a slice of lemon instead of cream. We have had chicken, meat, fish, candies, cake, ice cream and a host of other stuff … all Russian. If this be starvation … then lead me to it.

Well, I won’t tell you too much about the trip because I’ll be writing it up for the paper anyway and you will borrow a copy from Stan and read it there. Just now I see through the port hole that we are getting close to land and I must get up on deck and see as much of it as possible. I’ll never get another chance to see this part of the world perhaps.

Don’t worry about my health for I am feeling first rate in spite of my coming out second best on a couple of day’s bouts with the Old Man of the Sea. There’s one thing about sea-sickness – when it’s over, it’s over.

I’ll drop you another line just as soon as I get a bit settled down in Moscow. That may take me a day or two. Until then “so-long”. Remember me to Stan, Marge, Duffy, and Patricia, [7] and also to Gav and Ruth [8] and the 657 folk and all other inquiring friends. [9]

Yours as ever, Pat (signature).


Khovreeno San. U.S.S.R.
Jan 30th, 1937

Dear Stan and Marge:

Just a short note to send this answer back to Duffy. Phoebe and I were tickled with his letter. He’s making very good progress, that’s evident.

I’m still here and will be till Feb. 20th. However, I have my typewriter now and permission to work in the evenings so I am beginning to turn out copy again. I should really have been at the trial for the paper but have made arrangements that it be handled. Feel rather bad about not being right on the spot though. Folks here are sure steamed up about the case – and no wonder. Talk about a treasonable sell out if you ever saw one! Prominently placed people too. Don’t suppose all the evidence will find its way into the Canadian paper on account of its great length but believe me, it’s hair-raising. They stopped at nothing.

Am enclosing a couple of exhibits for the souvenir box. One is a pass for Patrick Martinovitch Forkin to the Red Square on November Seventh, [10] and the other a pass for the same to the Moscow Province Congress of Soviets. [11] I have one for the All Union Congress but it is at the hotel. Best regards to all. Must pipe down for now as the bell has rung for bed.

So-long, Pat (signature)

Forkin Pres Card

Pat Forkin’s press card to get into Red Square for the 19th anniversary of the Great October Revolution.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University, Errol Black Fonds.


February 4th, 1937.

Dear Stan:

Just a short note to say that the enclosed stamps are for Mrs. Broadhurst. Sorry I overlooked it when I sent out the last letter. There will be several new issues of stamps featuring Pushkin [12] and several other famous people and I’ll send them along when they are put out for sale.

Pat is still stacking away the meals and showing resulting gain in weight. By the way, I forgot to tell you in my last letter that ocean voyages in mid-winter are nothing to rave about and I don’t know beans about tractors – I’m a stenog.

Everyone is still het up about the trial of the Trotskyites, although the 13 who were condemned to death have already paid the penalty. [13] But it is almost unbelievable that men who once risked their lives to bring about the revolution should now pay with their lives for trying to overthrow it. Such is the end of those who take the opposition. I wish every Canadian could have been over here and followed the trial, day by day, and heard the evidence disclose the enormous crimes they had committed. I know you will be getting something about the trial, but not in complete detail as we here did, and it is hard to get a complete picture. I am going to send you all the issues of the Moscow Daily News containing the evidence, even though I know you will get some of it in the Clarion [14] and the Inprecorr. [15] The spontaneous demonstration that was held on the 30th of Jan. hailing the sentence meted out was something to see! The crowds shouted so that the windows rattled and tramped so that the earth shook. No mistake as to their feelings about the Trotskyites. I would have marched too, but didn’t know anything about it, as it took place on rest day, and was spontaneous, so that only those shifts that worked on that day knew about it. As it is, it was big enough and impressive enough.

Well, I must stop typing as it is late and I’m disturbing the neighbours on both sides of my room. I think I told you about my work – in any case, I mean to write something about office workers here, for the benefit of my union back in Toronto. Knowing the grievances of office workers back home, and working on the job here, I can do a better job, from the point of view of facts, than Patrick can.

Regards to everyone there, although the only one I know personally is Ruth.

As ever, Phoebe (signature)


Box 360, Gorky Street 17
Moscow 9, U.S.S.R.
June 22/38

Dear Folks:

It seems I always make good resolutions about writing more often, but when it comes to checking up I don’t carry them out. It must be well over a month ago since I last wrote you … I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. However, I hadn’t heard from you either in the meantime, and as I got a letter just yesterday this breaks me out of my stupor to drop you a line.

Thanks for the little sprig of shamrock you enclosed. In exchange I’m sending you a marguerite and a little bit of forget-me-not out of a bouquet of wild flowers Phoebe and I gathered last rest day.

You ask me in this letter if I got the letters you sent “a short time ago with a note from me.” If you mean the one including letters to you from Peggy and from Taimi – yes, we got that one all right … but it was over a month ago I think.

You mention that Joe [16] and Fay will likely be coming to Brandon in July, so may be they will be there when this arrives. If so say “hello” for us. Hope Joe is feeling o.k. and that the adhesions you mention are not proving too much trouble. After their visit you say you may be going up to the coast for a trip. If so, I hope you have a good holiday and enjoy yourselves up there with the part of the family residing in those parts. If Frank is home give him a greeting from this part of the world too. You suggest me dropping a line sometime to Mike and Mrs. Kane. I’ll do that one of these days. I don’t think Mike will see any of my stuff because they get the Clarion weekly in Moose Jaw and my articles appear generally in the Daily.

We got a letter yesterday also from Taimi [17] after not having heard from them in a long time. They enclosed in it the letter they had recently received from Stan, so we learned in that way about his trip down through the mining country of Ontario in search of the very illusive job.

We two have been wishing very much that it would have been possible for Jim to have accepted the ticket to the Soviet Union as his prize instead of the money. What a good time we could have shown him here during his stay. I would have steered him around during the daytime and then Phoebe would have taken hold in the evenings and we could have almost run him off his legs going to interesting places and seeing things he would never forget. However, it’s no use crying about spilt milk, and I guess that a few ready dollars looked pretty big to them after so long on relief diets. You say in your letter that he won both the ticket and the money, but he really won the ticket OR the money.

Well, things with us are pretty much as usual. Both are o.k. I’ve had a pretty heavy cold for a couple of weeks but have shaken it now except for the last remnants. We have had some fairly rainy weather of late and maybe I picked it up that way.

We have both taken to going out into the country for the rest day and intend to keep up this idea during the summer. It’s so nice to get away from the city and out into the meadows and woods. We have discovered a nice little rest home where for a reasonable cost we can go out the night before rest day, sleep there overnight, have three splendid meals (and afternoon tea too) and then come back in the evening of rest day. We were out there last week and enjoyed it immensely. I took a morning and afternoon nap but managed to get in quite a little countryside roaming besides. Phoebe covered an enormous amount of territory (without a hat) and got a wee touch of sunstroke for her pains. We came back at night with a great bundle of wildflowers of all sorts and descriptions.

The Russian countryside is lovely and there are many beautiful wildflowers. The meadows around our little rest home remind me somewhat of those I remember at Saltend so many years ago. There were fields of marguerites there too. However the woods here are different to English woods and are more like our Canadian type. The rest home is set in a copse of pine and white popular woods and the rooks make an awful din cawing and rushing to and fro from their nests in the tops of the trees. I didn’t realize till I got out there that I was so lonesome for the grass and meadows. Of course, there are wonderful parks right in Moscow, but somehow this year we don’t seem to have got around to going there of an evening.

Some time ago I wrote a letter to a chap I used to know in Toronto who is now in a T.B. sanatorium near that city. I told him about the sans here. Recently I got a letter from the editor of a sanatorium newspaper at Gravenhurst, Ont. asking me for more information about the Soviet methods of fighting T.B. Its seems that my personal letter had been handed all around the san by my friend and then when they were through reading it there, they had sent it along to another san at Gravenhurst where it had gone the rounds again and finally finished up getting published in the paper. Hence the request from editor for more information. So, this month, in answer to the request I wrote a quite long letter to the San paper telling them about treatment here. I suppose they will use some of the material for their columns. It certainly shows how interested people are in all phases of life in the Soviet Union. Of course, there is every reason for it. And especially so in the field of T.B. fighting for they have made such wonderful strides here in stamping out the disease.

Just now I am writing a series of articles on Soviet (some text missing here) Dad may be surprised to know that they have started producing locomotives here (steam locomotives) that make a sustained speed of 111 miles an hour. They have roller bearings instead of brasses on the main journals and are streamlined to look like a steel-jacketed bullet. Put these engines on a train between Brandon and Winnipeg and they would cover the distance in very little over an hour.

This last week I have also visited a big bread factory here in Moscow and also a big dairy. You can hardly call a place that bakes 220,000 loaves of bread a day, a bakery … that’s why I say “factory”. I’ll be writing about these places after I finish my railroad series.

Phoebe and I intend to take a trip down the Moscow-Volga canal soon. It will be a two day journey to the city of Kalinin and back. She has been down the canal before (last year while I was up north) but I haven’t made the trip yet.

Well, it’s getting near bed time and the “missus” is telling me about it. I should start writing earlier in the evening. So long for the time being. Give Duffy and little Pat a good hug for both of us and best of regards to Stan and Marge. As soon as I get extra energetic that long promised letter I owe Stan will be on its way. I’ve been going to write Gay for months and months and finally this last week both Phoebe and I chipped in and we sent a letter off to 657 enclosing a bunch of stamps that we had gathered up. Well, again, so-long for the present. Write soon and tell us all the news. It’s always a good evening when we get a letter from home.

As ever, Pat (signature)

Notes

1. The correspondence published here was given to Errol Black by Taimi Davis, wife of Jim Davis (aka Stephen Forkin – see note #17). Taimi had acquired the correspondence from Phoebe Curato (Forkin). Taimi had befriended Phoebe after Phoebe’s return to Canada. Phoebe Curato died on 29 September 2005. Taimi Davis died on 19 January 2006.

2. Readers interested in exploring this terrain will find an introduction to many of these themes in Errol Black and Tom Mitchell, A Square Deal For All And No Railroading: Historical Essays on Labour in Brandon. St. John’s: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 2000.

3. Tom Forkin’s remains are somewhere in the former Soviet Union. He traveled there to visit the gravesite of Pat Forkin only to die while on the trip.

4. On this organization and Brandon in the 1930s see Donica Belisle, Granting “a square deal”: the Brandon Unemployed Worker and the political education of Brandon’s jobless during the Great Depression, Manitoba History, No. 36, pp. 37-40.

5. Tom Ewen (also spelled McEwen) was secretary of the Workers Unity League. Rosa Ewen was his daughter. On both see Andrée Léveque, Red Travellers: Jeanne Corbin and Her Comrades. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal-Kingston, 2006.

6. Tom and Rosa Ewen to Martin and Hannah Forkin, Errol Black Collection, S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University.

7. The reference here is to Stan Forkin and the various members of his immediate family.

8. Gav and Ruth Broadhurst were members of the Broadhurst family in Brandon. Gavin was a militant in the Brandon Communist Party throughout the 1920s and 1930s. His father H. C. L. Broadhurst had lead the Brandon Civic Employees Federal Union (now CUPE) during the Brandon labour strife of 1919.

9. The reference to “657 folk” is almost certainly to the address of the Broadhursts at 657 Seventh Street in Brandon where activists on the left met to socialize and talk politics.

10. Pat Forkin evidently attended the anniversary celebrations for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution held 7 November 1936.

11. The Moscow Province Congress of Soviets, once a formal governing body, was without real power by the 1930s.

12. Alexander Puskin (1799 - 1837), celebrated Russian poet, dramatist and novelist.

13. This is a reference to the 1930s show trials engineered by Joseph Stalin as part of the great purge of the Russian Communist Party to consolidate his hold on the Soviet Union. Fictionally portrayed by Arthur Koestler in his novel Darkness at Noon, the 1937 trials involved seventeen individuals thirteen of whom were shot while the balance were sent to labour camps.

14. The Clarion was the newspaper of the Canadian Communist party.

15. Inprecorr, an abbreviated form of International Press Correspondence, was a publication of the Third International.

16. Joe Forkin had a celebrated career as a municipal politician in Winnipeg .

17. Taimi Davis was Stephen Forkin’s wife. After his involvement in the infamous Bienfait coal miners strike which culminated in the deaths of two coal miners shot by the RCMP, and at the behest of the Communist party leadership, Stephen changed his name to Jim Davis so that he could move to Sudbury and renew his work for the party.

Page revised: 15 September 2013

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