Radical Politics in Winnipeg: 1899-1915
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 29, 1972-73 Season
In the late 1890s the great economic expansion of western Canada began, and capital and immigrants poured into the region to generate growth of unprecedented proportions. Boom conditions produced a boom psychology. Economic expansion came to be revered as an absolute good; nowhere was this faith kept more devoutly than in Winnipeg, the gateway to the golden west. The commitment to growth produced social and economic conditions which presented the workers of Winnipeg, and their comrades across the West, with special challenges. Aggressive employers, anxious to share in the West's new wealth, struck out at any obstacle which restricted freedom of action in the expanding economy. Though some might treat their employees in a paternalistic manner, Winnipeg businessmen refused to recognize the men's unions, which could only undermine their authority in their firms. The workers could expect no relief from the provincial government which refused to pass adequate labour standards legislation, apparently fearful that safety and sanitary regulations, age minima and other such protective devices would discourage investment. Even the rather inadequate legislation that was on the books was seldom properly enforced. Finally the workers had to contend with the development policies of the federal government. The annual influx of immigrants, many of whom were eastern Europeans not easily assimilated, resulted in regular over-supplies in the labour market, and this substantially reduced the effectiveness of trade unions.
Winnipeg's workers were not opposed to economic growth per se but to economic growth which appeared to be achieved, in large part, at their expense. Around them they could see evidence of the new prosperity - galas, automobiles, stately houses - but it was not a prosperity in which they shared. Over the years there have been many accounts of the squalor and degradation of the north end. Recent research has demonstrated that some city workers experienced no significant increase in this standard of living before 1920. Among the workers there developed a sense of common grievance, if not class solidarity. And many came to feel alienated from the basic ethic of the society in which they lived. 
Dissatisfaction fostered the growth of radicalism.  Radical ideas were part of the cultural baggage which many of the immigrants brought with them, and their former experience did much to shape their response to the conditions they encountered in Winnipeg. The city became one of the dynamic centres of radicalism in the West, and in the years before World War I, political activism was a persistent and significant aspect of Winnipeg's labour movement.
This tradition demonstrates very effectively the impediments faced by the political movement of the workers. Institutional factors like the single member constituency and a restricted franchise in municipal elections had to be overcome, but they were of secondary importance. The movement's basic weakness was its inherent lack of solidarity. Doctrinal disputes continually caused schisms among the radical politicians themselves. Even more important was the absence of solidarity among the workers; most apparently lacked class consciousness. This attitude, which was manifested in an attachment to the old-line parties, particularly the Liberals, resulted from ethnic heterogeneity and, more important, the worker's continuing hope of upward social mobility.
A slight economic revival resulted in the formation of a trades council in January, 1894, and five months later C. C. Stewart, a printer, founded The People's Voice as the council's organ.  Inspired by labour gains in the British General Election of 1892 and the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) the following year, Stewart and other labour leaders, many of whom were recent British immigrants, began working for the formation of a labour party, in order that Winnipeg workers could participate in the "social revolution" which had begun in their homeland.  Before this could be achieved, however, it was necessary to overcome the opposition of many trade unionists based on the fear that the introduction of politics into the labour movement would result in fatal disunity. By the beginning of 1895 the trades council was able to take the lead in forming an organization which by no coincidence was called the Independent Labour Party.  Almost immediately, however, this body collapsed, and it was not until March, 1896 that the party was revived. The Winnipeg Labour Party (WLP), as it was now called, was a reformist body, which had as its primary objective the education of the working class.
The radical movement which emerged in Winnipeg was class oriented. From the outset the advocacy of independent political action was based on the assumption that only a workingman could represent workingmen. Labour's interests could not be effectively promoted by middle class politicians, because "they do not shovel mud nor carry bricks nor a thousand other things that we do for a living; they never walk miles and months on a hopeless search for work, nor go hungry to bed, nor tell their children fairy tales to try and make them forget their hunger."  But if the movement was class oriented, it was never doctrinaire or sectarian; the radicalism of the British trade unionists who led the movement was the moderate political labourism of the United Kingdom. Rather than immediate and total revolution, the labourites sought certain basic reforms which would reduce the inequities in society and improve the quality of the workers' lives. This objective could best be achieved by an inclusive labour party which could unite all workers and thus utilize their commanding strength at the polls. The model was the British ILP. Like the leaders of the British party, those in Winnipeg refused to include the word "socialist" in the party's name for fear that it would alienate potential support among conservative trade unionists. Nevertheless, socialists were members of the party and came to play an increasingly important role in its counsels. But, because of its inclusive nature, the WLP was also able to gain some middle class support. It became a meeting place and forum for the progressives and intellectuals of the labour movement and the community at large.  Indeed, this first party came closest to the inclusive organization for which the city's labour politicians would work in future years.
The death of Winnipeg's Member of Parliament in February, 1899 resulted in a call for a nomination of a labour candidate from Arthur Puttee. His was a voice of some authority. British-born and much-travelled, Puttee was a printer, who had settled in Winnipeg in 1891 and had taken a leading role in the founding of the trades council, the labour party, and The Voice; by 1899, he was the editor of the paper. Early in March the party and the trades council began to make preparations to contest the vacant seat. Much to the satisfaction of the radicals, the unions responded "generously" to appeals for support. It is in this context that the labourites' desire for an inclusive party can be fully appreciated; the unions were essential to the establishment of a viable organization. In June a joint meeting of the labour party and the trades council nominated Puttee to contest the Winnipeg seat. 
Puttee was not entering a normal race. The Winnipeg Liberal Party was badly split as a result of a rebellion against Sifton's leadership, and only the rebels nominated a candidate, E. D. Martin.  In addition, the "kickers," as the rebels were called, had the active support of the Conservatives who chose not to run a candidate in the hope of prolonging the insurgency and discrediting Sifton.  Consequently the by-election became a straight contest between Puttee and Martin.
When the campaign became active in January, 1900, Puttee ran on a conventional reformist platform which advocated direct legislation, a land tax and public ownership of "all natural monopolies."  Despite their essential moderation, Puttee's platform and his public statements provided the ammunition with which he was attacked. As a result, the basic issue in the campaign emerged as the question of labour's right to have independent representation. Both he and Martin, who fancied himself a sort of Canadian populist, admitted that they agreed on general principles, but Martin argued that he was running as the candidate of all the people whereas Puttee could only represent the workers to whom he made his primary appeal.
These tactics obviously caused Puttee concern. From the outset, he had taken pains to avoid being identified as a narrow class candidate; the accusations now levelled against him could not only alienate potential middle class support but also that of conservative trade unionists. In reply, The Voice argued that the reforms which Puttee advocated would benefit all classes. But, despite these claims, his campaign was dependent on the support of the workers, and to make an effective appeal to this constituency, Puttee and the labourites were obliged to emphasize the legitimacy of the movement for independent labour representation. On one occasion, William Scott, president of the WLP went so far as to trace its origin to "an upper room in Jerusalem." 
Puttee carried the by-election held in January, 1900 by ten votes and thus became the first labour member elected to the Canadian House of Commons. The victory came as a result of the prevailing political abnormality in Winnipeg. Party allegiance broke down, and both the Liberal and the Conservative vote split between Puttee and Martin. An examination of the returns in the three sections of the city demonstrates that party allegiance was replaced by class allegiance. In the south end Martin received 69 per cent of the vote. In the north end, the response was almost as decisive for Puttee; he received 66 per cent of all ballots cast.  Only in the centre of the city was the contest relatively close, reflecting the mixed socio-economic composition of the area.
The split in Liberal ranks continued during 1900, and the party's weakened condition caused the Siftonites to conclude that only by supporting Puttee in the forthcoming General Election could they retain some measure of political control in Winnipeg. It is impossible to state categorically that Puttee made specific commitments to the Liberals. However, it seems likely that he did, and certainly, it became obvious that the labour MP was willing to accept their help in the campaign. Ironically, had it not been for this help Puttee would probably have carried the seat by acclamation. But the Conservatives and the "kickers" refused to allow Sifton's candidate, as they regarded Puttee, to take Winnipeg unopposed and so, at the end of October they nominated Martin. 
Nevertheless Liberal backing spelled the difference in the second campaign. Puttee received a majority of 1200 votes; he even got 50 per cent of the poll in the south end. The Free Press called it a "splendid victory," and Puttee attributed his success "to the fact that the labor people had won the confidence of the citizens generally."
Winnipeg radicals had been united in Puttee's second campaign of 1900, but this unity was not to continue. The need to assume a position separate from, and to the left of, labour parties was an essential aspect of the growth of the socialist movement in western Canada. Socialists had been active in the city's labour movement since the mid-'90s. Some, mainly German immigrants, had established a local of the Socialist Labour Party in 1899, but this doctrinaire Marxist sect had a short and unimpressive life in the city."  Much more important were the British socialists who formed an influential faction within the labour party. In 1900, encouraged by socialist growth in both Ontario and British Columbia, this group began to demand that the party declare for socialism and affiliate with the Canadian Socialist League (CSL) which had emerged in the East in 1899. 
The League took a direct part in this controversy when its organizer John Cameron arrived at Winnipeg in March, 1902. Despite harassment from "A Loyal Subject" who threatened him with a thrashing should he deliver revolutionary talks, Cameron began efforts to unite the city's socialists. At the end of March, the socialists in the WLP bolted from the party, and Cameron had succeeded in organizing a "small" CSL local.  Inaugurating what was to become a radical institution in Winnipeg, the socialists began holding propaganda meetings on the Market Square, which on warm summer evenings would draw crowds up to five hundred people. During the summer of 1902 socialist propaganda made good progress, and this resulted in the formation of the Socialist Party of Manitoba (SPM) in November. The party's platform had as its essential object the collective ownership of the means of production, but, at a time when British Columbia socialists had already decided that they could be satisfied with nothing but the destruction of the present order, the manifesto also advocated a number of reforms of capitalism. 
When the socialists left the labour party, it collapsed. Puttee naturally found the growing disunity disturbing. His early conviction that a broadly based party was the only vehicle for labour had been reinforced by a visit to England in 1902. There, as the first labour-man elected to the Canadian parliament, he met, and came under the influence, of Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. After his return Puttee began to promote the British Labour Party as the ideal working-man's political organization; he would do this throughout his career. In Puttee's view, the main obstacle preventing the formation of such a party in Canada was the "irreconcilable" socialist, of whom he had always been suspicious. He told his readers that European socialists, who were "well versed in Marxian economics," had long since rejected the ultra-revolutionary doctrines which were becoming a disruptive force in the western Canadian radical movement.  The socialists naturally resented such criticism but, at this point, opinion in their ranks on Puttee was divided.  During the time he was in parliament, no open breach occurred between Puttee and the Marxists. The editor had too much tolerance in his make-up and was too committed to working class unity to make all-out war on the socialists. And for their part, Winnipeg's socialists, in these early years, were a more tolerant breed than their coast comrades and seldom displayed the sectarianism so much a part of the B.C. movement.
Factionalism hurt Puttee in his campaign in the 1904 General Election but not so much as the loss of Liberal support. The growing importance of the socialists in the labour movement and the trades council's endorsement of militant industrial unionism precluded the broad support Puttee had enjoyed in earlier elections. But more important, the Liberals no longer needed Puttee; political normality had been restored by the Siftonites who had suppressed the rebellion of the "kickers." 
The united Liberals nominated a candidate and began an energetic campaign an important aspect of which was a drive to undermine Puttee's power-base in the north end. Perceptively, they recognized that the emerging immigrant vote would be an important factor in the election and made early plans to capture it.  The main vehicle of this campaign was a newspaper printed in Galician and edited by the Dominion Immigration Commissioner in Winnipeg.  So thorough were their efforts that the Liberals organized the foremen of the Winnipeg Public Works Department, a traditional place of employment for eastern Europeans.  The campaign to draw the labour vote away from Puttee was no less painstaking. The Liberal candidate judiciously distributed patronage among leading trade unionists, but probably the most effective aspect of the campaign was a labour column in the Free Press conducted by a local Liberal wheelhorse, John Appleton. Capitalizing on the division in the city's labour movement, Appleton charged that the trades council was dominated by "socialistic parasites" and urged responsible trade unionists to support Laurier, who had done a great deal for the working man. 
From the beginning Puttee was on the defensive, and as a result, his campaign took on a new aggressive tone. Although he ran on essentially the same platform that he had used in 1900, Puttee emphasized the independence and legitimacy of the political labour movement as never before. But this glorification of independent action became a class line, and thus a tactical principle which had been observed since the inception of the movement in Winnipeg was violated. In previous contests Puttee had campaigned as a representative of all classes; but in 1904 he was the candidate of "Mr. Workingman." Appleton skilfully took advantage of the campaign's new tone; he told his readers, many of whom had always been suspicious of the radicals, that Puttee and his associates were "revolutionists" and "assassins." 
The election demonstrated, as the Free Press observed, "a clear cut issue between the parties."  The Liberal carried the seat; Puttee ran a poor third and lost his deposit. That Puttee had no place in a party fight was most clearly demonstrated in the north end. In the General Election of 1900, he received 71 per cent of the vote in that area; in 1904 his proportion of the vote fell to 21 per cent. In part the dismal showing demonstrated the return of the British working class voters to the old-line parties when political normality was restored. In addition, the collapse of Puttee's north-end support demonstrated the emergence of the eastern European vote which was solidly controlled by the Liberals and Conservatives.
After Puttee's defeat Winnipeg's radical movement entered a period of quiescence. But developments during 1906 allowed the city's labourites to establish another party. The workers were aroused in the spring by a dramatic street car strike, which was climaxed by the calling-out of the militia, and in the autumn by a general strike in the building trades.  Also important in reviving the movement were the great gains made by the British Labour Party in the General Election of 1906. To many of the city's British immigrants who had been active in working class politics in the United Kingdom, these gains represented "our" victory, and they were inspired to take up the fight in the new land. Puttee wrote, "hundreds of men, and women too, are here now who have been trained in the SDF and ILP of the old land and something should be done to bring us all together." 
During the summer considerable progress toward the formation of a labour party was made by some former members of Keir Hardie's ILP. Appropriately, Ramsay MacDonald visited Winnipeg at this time and urged the workers to follow the example of their comrades in the United Kingdom. In the autumn, with the support of the trades council, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was established and Puttee named chairman. According to The Voice the party, which adopted a reformist platform, was "the British expression of the socialist aim of other countries." 
One of the objects of the new party was to provide its members with "reasonable [and] rational recreation," and like the British ILP, it became a social organization in which all varieties of progressive thought from humanitarianism to anarchism were discussed. Similarly, the Nonconformist sentiment important to the ILP in Lancashire and Yorkshire was an aspect of the Winnipeg party, the Sunday afternoon meetings of which were known as the "Industrial Church." 
From the time of the emergence of radicalism in the city, there had been an important link between the movement and progressive men in the church. Leading radicals like Fred Tipping and Dick Rigg had taken up the workers' fight after theological experience. And Puttee, whom Allen regards as the "most notable" advocate of the social gospel in the Unitarian Church, regularly opened the columns of his paper to radical theologians.  The Methodists were the most important influence upon the movement in Winnipeg, and while labour radicalism across the West was affected to some extent by the social gospel, nowhere was the impact so great as in the prairie capital, because nowhere was there collected such a group of brilliant and energetic radical churchmen. Wesley College became the dynamic centre of the social gospel in Canada when. Salem Bland went there in 1903. Because of his sympathy for the workers and his commitment to reform, Bland was respected by all radicals and was influential among the labourites.  In 1907 J. S. Woodsworth began work in the north end; and although he was not political in his early years at All People's Mission, his efforts to improve the lot of immigrant workers won him the respect of labour-men.  The regard that most radicals had for the Methodists was demonstrated when Tipping persuaded the trades council to allow the Ministerial Association to affiliate so that Woodsworth, Bland and his students could sit in the labour body. 
If the labourites could expect support from the radical churchmen, Puttee and his associates could now expect nothing but animosity from the socialists. In 1905 Winnipeg's Marxists had affiliated with the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC); the SPC was a doctrinaire and sectarian organization which had its main strength in British Columbia.  The class polarized nature of the coast province's society had done much to shape the party's revolutionary doctrine which consisted, in its essentials, of a denial of the utility of trade unions, a rejection of reforms as impossible and an exclusive reliance on political action as the means to destroy capitalism. This doctrine, called at the time impossiblism,  had a general relevance in British Columbia, and the socialist party became a political force in the labour movement there. But impossiblism was not viable in Winnipeg, and when the SPC local here enthusiastically took up the doctrine, the socialists became isolated from the mainstream of the city's labour movement. Because of this position, the labourites were easily able to suppress the socialists' attempt to have the convention, which established the Independent Labour Party, in 1906 adopt the SPC's starkly revolutionary platform. The socialists made the attempt because they were convinced that nothing short of the destruction of capitalism could bring relief to the proletariat; therefore, only their revolutionary party could serve the working class. Indeed, parties which sought to reform capitalism were actually counter-revolutionary, because, by holding out false hope to the worker, they kept him from taking up the struggle to destroy the present order. Consequently the socialists made unceasing war on Puttee and the labourites.
The political baptism of the Independent Labour Party came in the municipal campaign of December, 1906. Because local politics, concerned with franchises, contracts and transportation, affected the workers directly, the trades council took an active interest in them, and labour candidates regularly ran, and lost, in civic contests. Following this practice, the ILP nominated W. H. Popham and Ed McCann to contest two north end wards. Running on platforms which emphasized the "gas and water" socialism so dear to the hearts of British workers, they suffered the usual fate of labour candidates in such contests. In addition to the workers' ordinary reluctance to cast a class ballot, municipal candidates were hampered by the franchise which, based on property ownership, excluded a significant proportion of workmen from the vote. 
The socialists treated the campaign with studied contempt. Popham had complained about the street railway's ban on smoking, and so a member of the SPC observed with characteristic venom, "the bold demand for the `right' to smoke on street cars ... is a reform ... too far in advance of its times.... We suggest that a start be made by working for the right to chew tobacco on street cars on condition that those who do this shall expectorate in their pockets or in their sleeves - or on one another - but not on the car floor."  These remarks demonstrated very well the SPC's attitude toward municipal politics. W.H. Stebbings, a leading Winnipeg impossiblist, explained that civic government was solely concerned with property matters, and because the proletariat owned no property the issues were purely bourgeois. In addition, the socialists believed that no real power was vested in local administrations, and, therefore, they were compelled to concentrate their efforts in provincial and federal politics. 
This attitude further isolated the SPC from the city's workers who were vitally concerned with many of those local issues which the socialists contemptuously dismissed.
To contest the provincial election in the spring of 1907, the labour party nominated Kempton McKim, president of the trades council, in the constituency of West Winnipeg, which contained a substantial number of labour voters centred on the CPR shops. McKim's campaign emphasized labour standards legislation, which was badly needed in Manitoba, and public ownership of utilities. Much to Puttee's chagrin, the Liberals nominated Tom Johnson, a popular reformer, against McKim. This exasperation demonstrated the labourites' belief, stemming from their British experience, that an informal connection existed between them and the more advanced members of the Liberal Party. As it would until the progressive break-through of 1914, the labour vote went Liberal, and Johnson was returned. The Voice lamely described the contest as "a fine educative campaign," but in the pragmatic British tradition, actual gains were of much greater importance than the education of the working class.  Those who formed and led labour parties had, in most cases, a definite ideological commitment to the end of labour's improvement, and thus they could accept defeat with a measure of equanimity. The rank and file, however, lacked such commitment. They could be, and were, caught up in the enthusiasm of the party's formation, when Puttee told them that they were fashioning a means whereby they would effect immediate relief, but when the party failed to fulfill this promise their commitment, based wholly on pragmatism, quickly waned. This process of disillusionment was an important reason for the ephemeral nature of Winnipeg's long list of labour parties and certainly dealt a severe blow to the ILP.
Another continuing problem for labour parties also contributed to the decline of the ILP. The inclusive nature of such organizations encouraged almost any type of dissident to join and thus substantially increased the possibility of factionalism. As long as the vague goal of the worker's betterment could be kept before the membership by the hurly-burly of active campaigning, unity could be maintained, but when the party came to discuss the actual means by which the lot of the worker could be bettered, the number of solutions which were pressed produced division. Puttee might fondly believe that the Winnipeg party was "largely composed of men of socialistic tendencies," but it also contained a significant number of non-ideological trade unionists and middle class reformers.  Early in 1908 the fragile unity of these groups was destroyed when pressure began to build for the party to define its philosophic position. Some socialists urged the Winnipeg party to endorse socialism in the light of the gains made by the Socialist Party of Canada in Alberta and British Columbia. But more important was Keir Hardie's call, made when he visited Winnipeg in the autumn of 1907, for the ILP to declare itself a socialist party. Then the British Labour Party's 1908 convention announced that the collective ownership of the means of production was its ultimate aim.  As a result, former members of the British ILP, led by W.J. Bartlett and W.C. Turnock, began demanding that the party make a similar declaration.  The campaign immediately ran into bitter opposition from the reformist group led by Fred Dixon, an eloquent and superficially clever single-taxer. Dixon argued, correctly, that if it were to declare that the collective ownership of the means of production was its ultimate aim, the party would have declared for socialism, and that was repugnant to the liberalism of his single-tax creed. The dispute resulted in the collapse of the party in June, 1908. 
The disintegration of the labour party set the scene for the SPC's first and only federal campaign in Winnipeg. Many eastern European immigrants had been members of the Social Democratic parties of their homelands, and socialism had been growing for some time in various north end national and cultural organizations. But the British leadership of the SPC made no special propaganda effort among the eastern Europeans, until the Russian internal crisis of 1906 resulted in the immigration of several revolutionary intellectuals, like Herman Saltzman and Jacob Penner, who provided the emerging movement with a leadership which promised to make it a force in the immigrant community. Consequently in 1908 the SPC began a campaign to organize Winnipeg's Jews, Germans, Poles and Ukrainians, and several locals were established.  Even if the British-born would for a time retain control of the socialist party, the growing importance of these so-called language locals ensured that socialism's numerical strength, and to a large extent its character, would be eastern European in Winnipeg. The SPC was very much encouraged by these gains; a party member boasted, "socialism has a grasp on the political situation in North Winnipeg undreamed of by the old parties." Therefore, the party nominated J. D. Houston to contest the federal General Election of October, 1908. The socialists concentrated their campaign in the area north of the CPR tracks, and most of their nearly 2,000 votes, 12 per cent of the poll, came from this quarter of the city.  But because they knew their ultimate victory was assured by the ongoing development of history, the socialists were not discouraged by these meagre results. A member of the SPC observed, "when one considers the proverbial crass ignorance and pigheadedness of the average working plug with a vote, [it] is a magnificent showing." 
The year 1910 saw the beginning of a new political ferment in Winnipeg. By that year, because of the long Conservative ascendancy, the middle class reformism, which would be an important force in Manitoba politics for a decade, was in full swing.  The labourites were associated with this movement in its early years, and to capitalize on the ferment associated with it, they began to work for the formation of yet another labour party. The continuing strength of the British Labour Party in the first General Election of 1910 provided additional encouragement to these efforts.  In anticipation of a provincial election, the short-lived Manitoba Labour Party (MLP) was formed in early May. The platform of the new organization, which again contained moderate socialists, trade unionists and middle-class reformers, was made even broader than that of earlier parties in an attempt to avoid divisions. The founding convention declared "the ultimate object of attainment shall be to preserve to the worker the full product of his toil" instead of a more radical declaration in favour of the collective ownership of the means of production. In addition, the platform contained a number of reforms very similar to those advocated by the Liberal Party. 
The platform did not find favour with the socialists. To the moderate Rigg it represented an incongruous combination of "individualistic and socialistic principles." The English local of the SPC, which had become the stronghold of impossiblism, professed to see a sinister influence in the party's formation: "the Manitoba Labour, Liberal, Single Tax, any old crank party, must be another case of the immaculate conception - Puttee, political pimp and spineless animal though he is, could not have gathered such an aggregation." 
The usual sectarianism of the English impossiblists had come to verge on paranoia because of the growing tensions within their party. By 1910 the language locals had come to recognize that their Social Democracy was essentially incompatible with the impossiblism of the SPC. In addition, the SPC was not ethnically integrated, and the eastern Europeans, particularly the Ukrainians, bitterly resented the superior attitude which British party members adopted toward their "foreign" comrades. Consequently a campaign developed to exclude the English local from north end politics. Early in 1910 friction developed between the impossiblists and the language locals over the question of the party's candidate in the provincial constituency of North Winnipeg, the eastern Europeans pressing for "an opportunist, step-at-a-time guy."  Neither the choice of the impossiblists, George Armstrong, nor that of language locals, Saltzman, was nominated; instead a compromise candidate from Brandon was brought into North Winnipeg. 
To avoid a fight with the socialists, the Manitoba Labour Party chose to nominate only in Centre Winnipeg, a constituency which, because it contained many boarding houses, had in it a substantial number of working men. The party's candidate was Dixon, who despite the earlier doctrinal dispute, accepted the nomination, because, he said, "it will give me scope to work for several much-needed reforms." Although he made it clear that "this is not a Single Tax fight," Dixon also ignored the basic principles of the labour party and campaigned as one of the progressives who could rid the province of the corrupt and incompetent Roblin administration. From the outset, Puttee was confident that his party's candidate could carry Centre Winnipeg and thus inaugurate the process of change. 
If Dixon's prospects were relatively good, they seemed to be immeasurably improved when the Liberal Party gave him its support. His deep involvement in the progressive movement, his commitment to free trade, and his essential liberalism made Dixon feel a real sympathy for the Liberal Party. Recognizing this, Norris and his associates were prepared to accept him as one of their own."  But this support, rather than assuring an easy victory, resulted in his defeat. Because they viewed his acceptance of Liberal help as a betrayal of the working class, it became the impossiblists' "most important" task in the campaign to defeat Dixon, and they nominated a spoiling candidate, W.S. Cummings. The members of the Socialist Party of Canada believed that by fighting such Lib-Labs they could turn the workers away from the shibboleth of Liberalism. Dixon lost the election by 83 votes; Cummings polled 99. Bitterly disappointed, Puttee told the trades council that the SPC's nomination in Centre Winnipeg was "the most despicable piece of political work which has been done in the labour movement in Canada" and charged that the socialist campaign against Dixon had been financed by the Conservatives. Although they denied the charge that Conservative money had actually been used, the impossiblists were delighted by the election's results, because "we dealt Puttee a good blow," and they called upon all socialists to unite to "destroy the Labour paper and the Labour Party." 
But it was the SPC which soon faced destruction. The party's spoiling tactics resulted in a strong and bitter reaction against it in labour movement. More important, the incident precipitated the long-expected exodus of language locals, by far the largest proportion of the party in Winnipeg, from the SPC. A delighted Puttee found this development "full of encouragement for the real Socialist cause in the country." In reply Stebbings claimed, "what the S.P. of C. lost in numbers she gained in prestage [sic]," but he was whistling in the dark. After the split, the SPC "sunk very low" in the city; indeed, for a time, it ceased to exist. 
Three months after the break-up of the SPC, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) published its platform, which had been drafted by Rigg, Penner and Saltzman. A product of the Social Democracy of the party's majority, the document was firmly based on Marxist principles, but it also contained a list of reforms which would facilitate, what Rigg called, "active practical work."  The platform's blend of the revolutionary and the pragmatic epitomized the socialism of the SDP which firmly believed that some relief could be brought to the worker under capitalism. The party, therefore, pledged itself "to work unceasingly" for reforms and was "determined to wrest from the ruling class every concession for the improvement of the life of the workers within the present system." The Social Democrats' commitment to immediate reforms was tactical as well as practical; they believed that by effecting some improvement in the workers' lot, or at least holding out the hope of some relief in the not too-distant future, they could mobilize the worker and make him a part of proletarian army. The reforms for which the SDP pressed were many, ten in all, and varied, ranging from the eight hour day to the abolition of the Senate. The party consistently emphasized, however, that reforms could only "minimize the present effects of capitalism." 
The SDP's pragmatism should not, therefore, be misconstrued as indicating an absence of revolutionary zeal. The Social Democrats were not reformers who affected revolutionary rhetoric, as one historian has recently suggested.  They were Marxists. Their propaganda emphasized that capitalism was destructive and that the workers were obliged to take up the class struggle as a matter of "self-preservation." The Social Democrats, like the impossiblists, conceived of themselves as a revolutionary vanguard whose historical destiny it was to educate the proletariat. This task had but one end, "the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of the co-operative commonwealth." 
Indeed, the essential difference between the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Party of Canada was one of tone and tactics rather than principles. For example, the Social Democrats eschewed the academic formalism which distinguished the SPC. Instead, their socialism, even if they believed it to be "scientific," was, in the words of David Orlikow, "almost a religion, golden rulish." Similarly, the Social Democrats shunned the jargon which often cluttered the propaganda of the SPC. Fred Tipping recalls, "the doctrinal body is liable to use terminology that is peculiar to itself, [but] the language of the Social Democrat tended to be more the language of the street."  This difference in tone and tactics, between the two parties, was by no means an insignificant one, however. The SPC alarmed and alienated the great majority of Winnipeg's workers, but the SDP was able to develop a significant measure of support.
The Social Democratic Party was, by far, stronger in Winnipeg than in any other centre in Western Canada. And the party's strength was based on the support it enjoyed in the north end. The membership of the SDP was drawn almost entirely from eastern European immigrants, organized in language locals. As the SPC had found earlier, the north end's various national and cultural organizations provided valuable recruiting places. Indeed, Tipping believes that the SDP was "really a reaction from life in Europe."  But the importance of the various non-Anglo-Saxon groups to the party meant that their particularism would also be a significant aspect of the SDP. As a reaction to what was regarded as the centralized control of the Socialist Party of Canada, the Social Democratic Party emerged as a loose federation of national units. Although relations between the various locals were good, they were not particularly close. The periodic conventions, which Tipping remembers were "long" because each speech would have to be translated into four or five different languages, were the best co-ordinating mechanism which the party possessed. Despite the party's multi-national character and the relative numerical insignificance of the English local, the British-born played a leading role in the SDP, "simply because they were the men who could express themselves on behalf of the party." 
The English-speaking face of the SDP probably contributed to the important role the party immediately began to play in the city's larger labour movement. But of more importance in this development was the Social Democrats' attitude toward trade unions. Unlike the SPC, they believed that such organizations were beneficial to the workers under capitalism and therefore actively supported unions. For example, during the summer of 1911, leading Social Democrats played an important role in organizing immigrant carpenters in the north end.  Such activities made for friendly relations between the SDP and the unions and allowed members of the party like Rigg, Tipping, and A.A. Heaps to play a prominent role in the trades council.
The Social Democratic Party's strength in the north end and its good relations with the unions made it a much more significant political force in the city than the SPC had ever been. In addition, the party's inclusive nature allowed it to co-operate with the labourites, and this co-operation became an aspect of Winnipeg radicalism from the time the SDP was formed. This new spirit in the movement encouraged the labourites to begin building yet another inclusive party, and late in 1912 they succeeded in establishing the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), modelled, once again, on a British organization. The LRC's platform contained conventional reform planks, such as the eight hour day and municipalization of utilities, but it declared the organization's ultimate aim to be the collective ownership of the means of production.  Despite the radical tone of the platform, the SDP's reaction to the new organization was cautious. The Social Democrats believed that, like earlier labour parties, the new organization lacked sufficient revolutionary zeal and for this reason they refused to affiliate. 
The caution of the SDP did not, however, preclude co-operation with the Labour Representation Committee, and the two organizations worked together in the municipal campaign of 1913. This joint action and a solid immigrant vote resulted in Rigg's easy election to an aldermanic seat from a north end ward.  The victory was a landmark in Winnipeg radical politics; from this time onward there would be strong labour representation on city council.
Rigg's election and the labour unrest caused by the pre-war depression encouraged the radicals to launch their most important political effort to that time in the provincial election of 1914. Both socialist parties and the LRC nominated candidates in the various city ridings with high concentrations of working class voters. As usual the campaign was damaged by characteristic radical disunity. But in the north end the Social Democrats' campaign, which was directed almost exclusively at the immigrant community, encountered an additional serious problem. In a period of severe unemployment, which was almost daily being aggravated by the arrival of new immigrants, labour leaders, including Rigg the SDP's most prominent member, had been demanding that the traffic be immediately stopped. Such demands were, of course, highly unpopular in the north end, and the Social Democrats were hard pressed to reconcile their claims to be the champions of the trade unionist and the immigrant.  None of the radical candidates were returned. This failure gave rise to the usual bitter complaints from leading labourites about the rank and files' failure to recognize its class interests. 
The most significant fight of the campaign was that in Centre Winnipeg. There Dixon, unlike other labour candidates, chose to retain his connection with the middle-class progressives and ran as an Independent, instead of an LRC candidate. His platform was virtually the same as that of the Liberals, and he was completely identified with the Liberal cause.  Puttee participated to a limited extent in Dixon's campaign, but because of the Liberal connections, the editor refused to regard him as a true labour candidate.  The impossiblists were even less inclined to support Dixon, whom they despised, and they pledged to do everything possible to defeat the "fake." Wherever Dixon spoke he was followed and harassed by George Armstrong and Bill Hoop, the SPC's spoiling candidates in Centre Winnipeg.  These tactics again gave rise to charges from the labourites that the impossiblists had become the "tools" of the Conservatives. The SPC officially denied these charges, but the help that one Tory labour boss was prepared to give the socialists lends some credence to the allegations. 
Despite socialist harassment, Dixon was able to win a convincing victory and thus begin a political career which would span the years until his premature death in 1928. Liberal support, the progressive upsurge, and the discontent caused by the depression all contributed to Dixon's election in 1914, but something more played a part in his victory and his continuing popularity. The additional, and most important, factor was Dixon's essential moderation. He might make violent and emotional attacks on the inequities of society and the privileged few who ruled and robbed, but the remedies he proposed would cause no fundamental change in that society. In addition, he had about him a kind of respectability, derived from his middle class associations and his acceptance by the Liberals, which the labourites, and certainly the socialists lacked, and this the British-born workmen who formed his constituency found reassuring. 
During the legislative session which followed the election Dixon was a staunch defender of labour's rights, and won the approval of Winnipeg trade unionists.  But he also maintained a cordial relationship with the Liberal Party and this drew criticism from leading labourites like Puttee. 
In the election of 1915 called by Norris after Roblin's resignation, Dixon again enjoyed the support of the Liberal party.  Again the SPC nominated a spoiler, even though they now regarded Dixon as unbeatable.  Certainly the results indicated that Dixon had great strength in the riding; he carried all but two of Centre Winnipeg's sixty-one polls. 
In North Winnipeg the SDP nominated Arthur Beech and Rigg, both of whom were officially endorsed by the LRC.  The Social Democrats refused to trade on the popular corruption issue but instead conducted a vigorous campaign which, though it stressed reforms, was firmly based in the class struggle.  Despite this line the impossiblists, who regarded the Social Democrats as a "conglomeration of Labor Fakirs, Justice seekers, sentimentalists and Christ lovers," continually harassed Beech and Rigg. Relations between the two groups of socialists were so inflamed that impossiblists were physically ejected from SDP election rallies.  Nevertheless, Rigg won what Tipping called "a glorious victory." High unemployment, the general political ferment of the times, and the absence of divisive issues in the immigrant community all contributed to his election. Probably most important was the unity of the various ethnic groups. As an Anglo-Saxon and a popular labour politician, Rigg was not identified with any single group, and thus he was able to unite the north end politically. 
By 1915 Winnipeg's radicals and all other Canadians had entered a new phase in the nation's life, and the War was effecting basic changes in society. The political initiatives made before the war demonstrated the many impediments which have been faced by radicals in this country. Both labourites and socialists had been plagued by factionalism growing out of doctrinal differences and a lack of solidarity among the workers caused by ethnic heterogeneity and the hope of upward mobility. Despite these impediments the achievements of Winnipeg's early radicals were by no means insignificant. They had elected Canada's first labour MP, even though this had been something of an aberration. And by 1915, they had achieved solid representation on city council and sent two members to the provincial Legislature. More important the radicals had firmly established a tradition of working class politics in the city. As a result of the bitter frustration of the Wartime Election, this tradition was, for a time, challenged, but the massive defeat of 1919 returned the labour movement to moderate political action. Impossiblists like George Armstrong, Social Democrats like Herman Saltzman, and labourites like Arthur Puttee - all of these radicals, but especially Puttee, laid the foundation for the party that J. S. Woodsworth would build in Winnipeg after 1919.
1. For a discussion of the socio-economic basis of radicalism see A. R. McCormack, "The Origins and Extent of Western Labour Radicalism: 1896-1919," (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Ontario, 1973), Chapter 1.
2. Throughout this essay the term radicalism is used to describe a general category which subsumes all forms of political insurgency associated with the labour movement, from the most moderate labourites on the right to the most revolutionary socialists on the left.
13. Specific examples of this process of class identification within the Liberal Party can be cited. For instance, Isaac Campbell, a staunch Siftonite, could not bring himself to vote for Puttee and gave his support to Martin. But John Appleton, who considered himself a "representati[ve] liberal" loyal to Sifton, had strong connections with the city's labour movement, and he supported Puttee. [PAC, Sir Clifford Sifton Papers, Vol. 77, Campbell to Sifton, Jan. 18, 1900 and Appleton to Sifton, Aug. 2, 1900 and The Voice, Feb. 9, 1900].
21. Citizen and Country, July 13, 1900; Western Clarion, Sept. 17, 1903; G. Weston Wrigley, "The Recent Canadian Elections," International Socialist Review, V (Jan., 1905), p. 400 and The Voice, Nov. 28, 1902.
35. Kenneth McNaught, A Prophet in Politics: A Biography of J. S. Woodsworth (Toronto, 1959), pp. 40-52; G. N. Emery, "The Methodist Church and the 'European Foreigners' of Winnipeg: The All People's Mission, 1889-1914," paper read before the Manitoba Historical Society, 1972, pp. 13-35 and The Voice, Nov. 10, 1911.
38. Because it was at times a pejorative term of combat in a controversy not yet finished, "impossiblist" was used only reluctantly in this essay. It is, nonetheless, a term which seems to characterize particularly well a major tendency within the socialist movement, and is employed descriptively and without any prejudicial connotation.
50. W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History (Toronto, 1957), pp. 315-7; Lionel Orlikow, "A Survey of the Reform Movement in Manitoba 1910 to 1920," (unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Manitoba), 1955, pp. 45-84 and Catherine Lyle Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (Toronto, 1950), p. 14.
60. Jacob Penner, "Recollections of the Early Socialist Movement in Winnipeg," Marxist Quarterly, Summer, 1962, pp. 29-30; Jacob Penner, "Reminiscences of Early Labor-Farmer Elections," undated manuscript, p. 4 and The Voice, Oct. 28, 1910 and April 7, 1911.
73. The Voice, Feb. 16, 1912; April 24, 1914 and May 8, 1914; Dixon Papers, Bland to Dixon, July 1, 1914; Stubbs to Dixon, July 9, 1914 and "Candidates Supporting the Liberal Policy;" Manitoba Free Press, July 6, 1914 and July 8, 1914 and Roy St. George Stubbs, "F. J. Dixon," Prairie Portraits, (Toronto, 1954), p. 101.
Page revised: 15 March 2018Back to top of page