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J. S. Woodsworth - Personal Recollections

by Grace MacInnis, M.P.

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 24, 1967-68 season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

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Your invitation to me to address the members of your Society was a little like the circumstances surrounding my birth. Both came as a surprise to me. Both conferred on me at once a great honor and a great responsibility. And both had led to a mixture of inescapable apprehension and pleasurable anticipation.

I do thank you warmly for giving me this opportunity to share with you some of my impressions of J. S. Woodsworth, whom I knew for many years both as a father and a colleague, and whose influence continues to grow across the country and across the years. But please do not expect an address consisting of playful incidents recalled from my childhood. I must speak of my father as I remember him, the most important thing I remember was what he tried to do.

From the beginning he regarded life as a trust to be spent in the service of others. All I can do is to give you some recollections of how he spent it. The fact that many of you will know the story already will not, I hope, diminish your interest in hearing it told by his daughter.

Some men are judged mainly for their concrete accomplishments. Others are judged mainly for what they are in themselves and for their influence on those whom they come in contact. J. S. Woodsworth had solid accomplishments to his credit. He knew and was beloved by Canadians from coast to coast. But neither of these criteria will be the one by which he is measured in history. J. S. Woodsworth will, in the final analysis, be remembered and revered for what he represented. He was a symbol, a pure flame held high and passed from his own generation to those of the next and thence to those who will follow.

As long as men and women are prepared to strive for higher forms of human evolution so long will the spirit incarnated for a brief time in the person of J. S. Woodsworth continue to pass from person to person like the torch of the Olympics.

He believed to the core of his being that in this world there is only one race, the human race. He regarded every human being as his neighbor and, in so far as it was possible for him to meet individuals, he treated them as equals, regardless of their color, creed, sex or geographical location. But he realized urgently that in the twentieth century person-to-person relationships were no longer adequate. There must be cooperative action through public and governmental bodies as well to build the Golden Rule into the very fabric of society.

His work in Parliament to realize his ideals has been recorded in print and in legislation. But his greater work, that of bringing understanding to people and firing them to action remains embedded in the memory of those it reached.

He was a born teacher. Long before the age of television he worked with charts and diagrams which he rigged up, bed sheet-size, to drive home his points and remain for a lifetime in the memory of those who saw them.

I remember vividly his way of teaching his own children and others that the world had become a global village—he called it a neighborhood—and that it was up to us now to transform it into a friendly place, a family. It was when I was in my early teens that one day, as we sat at our midday meal he asked: “Who set the dinner table?” “Mother did,” we chorused. “But where did she get the tablecloth?” “At the store,” we replied. “But where did it come from before that?” he persisted. Ireland—and a vision of men and women working in green fields drenched with sun and rain. The dishes? A picture of England’s Black Country as he remembered it, the workers in the sooty pottery towns helping our mother and other mothers set the dinner table. The knives and forks? More people working to make it possible for us to set our table. By this time we had become eagerly involved in a fascinating game and vied with each other for the answers.

By the time we got to the food on the table the problem had involved the farmers, the railwaymen, the millers and bakers, the butcher, the milkman, the grocer. Then there was the pepper from Oriental islands, the rice in the pudding—from Asia, and the currants from somewhere over there, too. By the time Mother had finished setting the dinner table she had been helped by men, women and children all over the world. Thousands of people we had never seen were helping us every day. That led to other thoughts. What about us? Surely the only thing we could do was to get ready for a worth-while job in life, a job that would prepare us to help set the world’s dinner table or help clothe the world’s people or help tend the world’s sick or help educate the world’s children.

The children—and there were many children who played with him the game of “Setting the Dinner Table” have never forgotten it. Nor have we forgotten the little “Grace Before Meat” which my father composed at about the same time and which cues like this:

“We are thankful for these and all the good things of life.
We recognize that they come to us through the efforts of our brothers and sisters the world over.
What we desire for ourselves we wish for all.
To this end may we take our share in the world’s work and the world’s struggles.”

Life was always a struggle for J. S. Woodsworth—a struggle against the powers of darkness whether in his own conscience or out in the world where hard-pressed people needed his help. His early letters and diaries show a youthful zeal to root out the sins of the flesh. Coming from his staunch Methodist home, he was, as a young minister, appalled by swearing and the use of tobacco. But a year at Oxford University, including time spent in the slums of London, quickly convinced him that the real sin is to allow human beings to be born into a world where dirt and disease, deprivation and damnation are their predestined portion.

That was why he came back to Canada fired with the resolve to prevent its budding cities from putting forth flowers of evil. That was why he left Grace Church with its comfortable congregation for the muddy streets of North Winnipeg, rapidly filling with European immigrants whose very arrival had been a profitable enterprise for railway and steamship company stockholders but whose welcome was dubious and whose immediate presence called for help and understanding from fellow-Canadians whose folk had been immigrants only a couple of generations earlier.

J. S. Woodsworth always hated charity in the form of handouts. Rather he loved the handclasp of fellowship and helping people help themselves. While he toiled to improve bodily conditions for the immigrants, he toiled even more diligently to involve other Winnipeggers in making them feel wanted and needed. This was a slow business. Comfortable householders in South Winnipeg regarded the new immigrants as strange, dirty, of doubtful moral character and potentially dangerous. A puritanical city mistrusted the chatter of strange tongues, the color of strange costumes, the smell of strange foods, the thrill of strange music and dancing. Winnipeggers resented being shaken out of their accustomed ways.

It took an epidemic of what was called “summer complaint” to do it—that disease compounded of heat, dirt and flies that carried off so many immigrant babies during their first summer. On one occasion, as he stood by the open grave of one such baby, conducting its funeral service, the Reverend J. S. Woodsworth protested against using the ritual words: “The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.” Suggesting that the Lord had been responsible for the death of a baby, a death so clearly and needlessly caused by the neglect of man, was blasphemous and he would have no part of it.

But when the epidemic spread to South Winnipeg and babies there began to die, the people learned that disease and death know no frontiers arid that human responsibility ends only with the end of humanity.

Many immigrants got their first taste of Canadian ways in Stella Avenue Mission or in the Sunday Night Forums which my father inaugurated and whose programs were a mixture of church hymns, sermons and practical talks by interested Winnipeg citizens from many walks of life.

It was at this time, around the first decade of the century, that he wrote his two books Strangers Within Our Gates and My Neighbor. Both were compilations built around the idea of improving city conditions and planning for better cities in the future. Underlying both was the idea that human beings can realize their possibilities only in surroundings of beauty and security. Both are menaced by modern industrialism.

The stranger within our gates was always sure of help from J. S. Woodsworth. Years later, when the Doukhobor leader, Peter Veregin, son of Peter the Lordly, was being deported from Canada my father fought vigorously and successfully to prevent the move. He declared openly that he hadn’t much use for young Peter Veregin—(everyone knew that he had been a good friend of Peter the Lordly)—but that the Immigration Department had no right to hustle him away from Canada without a proper investigation being made.

British Columbia’s Oriental problem had long been a source of trouble, flaring up dangerously at election times. J. S. Woodsworth had always protested against denying these Canadians the right to vote and the right to qualify for many professions and callings that were barred to them. So it was that, just prior to the 1935 federal election, when a West Coast Cabinet Minister called across the floor of the House: “Is the hon. member in favor of enfranchising the Orientals in British Columbia?” my father replied that he certainly was and that the CCF was solidly behind him.

Well, it was an unpopular position to take and many CCF members were dismayed. Undoubtedly it cost the party votes and seats in the elections that followed. But J. S. Woodsworth was never deflected from the distant goal, and these became but short-run considerations. Today British Columbia is proud of having wiped out almost the last vestiges of discrimination against its citizens of Oriental origin. In that long battle my husband, the late Angus Maclnnis, played a signal part.

J. S. Woodsworth had great influence in persuading people inside the CCF and outside it to adopt positions and policies based on social justice and reason, even if they were unpopular at the time. But it was a grief to him that he was unable to do this with the cause that was perhaps dearest to his heart. Ever since his year in England at the age of 25, he had been a life-long pacifist. What he saw and heard and thought about the Boer War in England had convinced him that war is inherently evil. His deep emotional experience shortly afterwards in the Garden of Gethsemane had steeled him to a life of pacifism. regardless of what the consequences might be.

The first test came in 1916 when the federal government called for National Service Registration. Rightly regarding this as a prelude to national conscription, J. S. Woodsworth opposed it immediately and vigorously by a letter which was published in the Manitoba Free Press. At that time he was holding a very responsible position made possible by the governments of the three prairie provinces and by which he was surveying the conditions and needs of prairie people. Following publication of his letter he was at once dismissed and the Bureau of Social Research was closed within a month.

This habit of speedy and firm decision in the light of principle was characteristic of J. S. Woodsworth. For months, of course, he had watched the development of the war and had discussed with his wife the possible decisions that they might have to make. Through long, anxious sessions they had decided that, come what might, they must remain true to their ideals.

When the moment for decision came he was ready. But it made heavy demands on him. Here he was, in his mid-forties, the father of six children, the youngest being three months old, his work in ruins, his income gone, his health none too good, his friends shunning him, his future uncertain, to say the least.

Apart from his own unshakeable character, he had one irreplaceable asset, his wife. Mother was with him, all the way, and beyond. As I speak to you she has lived through a quarter of a century of widowhood and is well and serene as she approaches her 94th birthday in January. This 1916 ordeal was surely one of her most severe. She had always had so much of the care and development of the children as her share of the partnership. Now, thoroughly aware of the cold shouldering of many of those whom she had known as friends, she must leave with her husband and children for the unknown West Coast where they hoped to find some means of livelihood. Mother may not always have known every detail of what Father was doing though he kept her as closely informed as letters could do it. But she understood him, she was in complete sympathy with what he was trying to do and she was tremendously proud and grateful for being able to help him. She knew exactly what to do to help him at every stage of his life.

The Methodist Church found a little West Coast charge for my father at Gibson’s Landing, but by the end of a year he found that he could no longer live with his conscience and remain in the ministry. Twice before he had submitted his resignation on the ground of doctrinal differences. Twice his resignation had not been accepted. This time he resigned because of the attitude of the Church in regard to the war. In part he said:

“Christianity may be an impossible idealism, but so long as I hold to it, even so unworthily, I must refuse, as far as may be, to participate in or to influence others to participate in war.”

This time the Church accepted his resignation. And once again he faced the economic insecurity and the social ostracism that he had come to know as the price of adhering to principle. Some people said he had no right to involve his children in these consequences of his decisions. But in my opinion these people were wrong. Most of us were quite young at the time but all of us had a sense of pride that Father had stood by what he believed. Our sense of pride was enhanced by watching Mother’s pride and firmness. Undoubtedly she had her moments of anxiety, but she never showed them to the children.

Twenty years later, on the eve of the second World War, Father faced his supreme test. He was then sixty-five and his health was showing the strain of years of merciless work in Parliament and throughout the country. He had been the leader of the CCF ever since its inception. Now, in its National Council’s emergency meeting, he called on his party to follow him in his pacifist course and oppose Canada’s participation in the war. The Council was torn, some members genuinely sharing his beliefs. But the majority had come, over the years of Hitler’s horror, to the conviction that Canada could no longer stand aside. The Council took the decision to enter the war. At once J. S. Woodsworth would have resigned, both on principle and because he was heartbroken.

It was at this point that he received his highest tribute and revealed his own greatness most fully. They begged him to stay as the leader of the party. He would, of course, speak in Parliament, not for the party, but for himself. The party would have another spokesman who would put forward its position. When in history, one wonders, did a party so feel the greatness of its leader that it implored him to remain and put forward a position that the majority could not accept? And when, one wonders, did a leader who had been deserted on his strongest conviction, accept the trial of remaining with those who had refused to follow him?

Truly this was the revelation of a spirit above all pettiness, all self-hurt, a spirit filled with compassion for fellow human beings, a spirit which could continue to honor the sincerity and accept the love of those whose decision hurt him infinitely.

When he spoke in Parliament the following day it was as a man apart, as a prophet. Frail and aging, he poured into that single speech his whole molten hatred of war, of its utter senselessness and uselessness, of his personal determination to oppose it to the end and of his hope that some day men would learn to live as brothers. As he finished his speech, silence, the silence of utter respect, brooded over the Chamber.

Two years later, within weeks of the end of his life, as he lay in bed in our little apartment in Vancouver, he told me once again of his conviction that all war was wrong and how he had decided forty years ago to hold to that conviction regardless of what changes might cone in the world. “Forty years ago I made up my mind about war,” he said, and added: “That question was settled forever as far as I was concerned.”

I find it impossible to think of this whole matter without deep emotion for it went very deeply into the fabric of our own family relations. My husband and I were among those who had reached the slow conclusion—he a few years more quickly than I—that when war came—and we had felt since 1936 that it would come—we could not do other than support it. I can never forget that, in spite of everything, Father and Mother showed to us a respect and confidence that remained undiminished.

Such greatness of spirit was born of a tremendous faith that, no matter what might be the immediate appearances, good would triumph over evil. My father had himself been born into a home where his parents were dedicated to human service. His father, James Woodsworth, had come with his six young children, as a pioneer Methodist minister to Manitoba at about the same time as the railroad. Grandfather became the first Superintendent of Methodist Missions west of the Great Lakes and his territory extended to the West Coast. No wonder his son inherited wide horizons! From his parents he inherited the intention to devote his whole life to his chosen work. Very recently Mother recalled to me that, on one occasion in Father’s life she spoke to him of the quiet enjoyments they would have when he retired. “Retired!” he exploded, “I don’t want to retire. I want to work, and when my work is finished, I want to go.”

Father had a quality of thoroughness which was memorable. His sister, now in her late eighties, recalls that, as children they were given the task of filling a barrel with the leaves they raked up from the yard in the fall. Her father being away on a pastoral trip, young James, the eldest, was given the task of supervision. When the other children had the barrel full James would leap into it and tramp down the leaves until the barrel appeared once more discouragingly empty, meanwhile reminding them that the barrel had to be filled to the very top.

In my own childhood I recall asking him on more than one occasion to help me with some problem in school homework. Instead of dealing directly with the problem, lie would first go all round the subject to make sure I understood the background. Meanwhile I would watch the clock ticking off the minutes between me and freedom! Once I remember him taking out a drawer in my bedroom and supervising me while I tidied it, admonishing me that I should strive to keep things so that there was a place for everything and that everything was kept in its place. The fact that he himself lived up to this motto made it doubly difficult for me to disregard it!

One more little recollection is of when my grandmother, his mother was suffering her last illness. She, of course, had from his earliest infancy brought him up on the Bible and the sayings of Christian leaders and teachers. As she lay in bed in her Winnipeg home, she found the time irksome, for she had always been a very active woman. Her son went down to the basement, emerging shortly with a clean piece of board which he stood up where she could see it. On it he had lettered the words “Let patience have her perfect work.” He smiled—and I think she smiled too—for she was very fond of him. In many ways she was very like him.

Father’s life had several watersheds but perhaps the most decisive was that of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 for it changed his course from that of trying to improve the status quo to that of trying to get rid of the status quo entirely. The Winnipeg Strike pitchforked J. S. Woodsworth into politics. True, he had become, by almost imperceptible degrees, a democratic socialist. But when, accidentally, he became involved in the Winnipeg Strike, he became convinced that Canada was composed of owners who had things and workers who owned nothing except their power to work, and that, by and large, the law and the government were on the side of the owners. The Winnipeg Strike convinced him that the two traditional political parties in this country were not subject to the control of the ordinary man and woman in the street and field, kitchen and office. He began to dream of a party that would one day be strong enough to become the government of Canada and that would put the interests of ordinary men, women and children in the forefront of their legislation.

Although he was held in jail for some days, he was never brought to trial. The fact that his close friend and fellow strike leader, Fred Dixon, had been acquitted following his own magnificent address to the jury was thought-provoking. Doubtless the authorities felt that it would not be too rewarding from their point of view to put J. S. Woodsworth on trial in his own city of Winnipeg, especially when two of the counts against him for sedition consisted of two quotations from the prophet Isaiah. People still knew the Bible pretty thoroughly in 1919! So he was let out of jail with the warning that the charges against him had not been dismissed and that he could be brought back for trial for sedition at anytime.

He never was brought back. His next trial was by the federal general elections of 1921 when he was sent to Ottawa as Member of Parliament for a Winnipeg seat which he held until his death in 1942.

Of all his achievements, the one that will evoke the warmest memories in the hearts of the greatest number of people is undoubtedly the passage of the first Old Age Pension legislation in 1926, Having closely observed the Prime Minister, McKenzie King, he knew that he must leave nothing to chance. He consulted his Labor Party colleague, A. A. Heaps, also of Winnipeg. They knew that Government and Opposition were of almost equal strength and that their two votes could be crucial in saving the Government or defeating it. By letter they asked both Prime Minister and Official Opposition leader whether or not, they would give old age pensions to Canada. Mr. Meighen gave a lawyer’s answer. Mr. King said “yes” and signed on the dotted line, thus garnering support of the two Winnipeg M.P.’s. They, in turn, managed to ensure the passage of the first piece of social security legislation ever to appear on the federal statute books at Ottawa. No piece of legislation in Canada has brought so much comfort and so much peace of mind to the pioneers who built this country. It was finally secured by an individual with firm convictions and the ability to bring them to fruition. Old Age Pensions will stand as the finest and most enduring tribute to his memory.

The life of J. S. Woodsworth is filled with examples of such achievements—many of them achievements which he could not finish in his lifetime but which he helped to inspire for the lifetime of others. As the small seaman philosophizes in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem:

“Way down the river
A hundred miles or more
Other little children
Will bring my boats to shore.”

So his thinking and his influence have helped in the achievement of such measures as family allowances, hospital insurance, wider educational opportunities, more humane immigration laws.

So his thinking and his influence will continue to help in securing universal medicare, a guaranteed minimum income below which no Canadian is allowed to fall, modern housing and town planning, parks and recreational developments to enhance the quality of living for people across Canada, cultural opportunities that will reveal riches of personality to match the natural riches that we have had in such abundance.

These were his dreams, all of them, these and the dream of a world where a Parliament of Man can establish a framework of law and ,justice wherein there will be planning and cooperation so that all the peoples of the earth may live in comfort and security and with the opportunity to develop fully the possibilities within each individual.

And so the clouds of the present and of the future keep drifting across the figure that was J. S. Woodsworth. You asked me to speak of my impressions of him as you would ask me to speak of my impressions of one of the giant peaks of the Canadian Rockies. All I have been able to do is to show you a few fleeting glimpses of a lofty summit before the clouds rolled in. One final insight I should like to give you from my book “J. S. Woodsworth—A Man to Remember,” which was published a decade after his death. It sums up my feeling about his place in our future.

“More than any other single individual of his day J. S. Woodsworth represented leadership for the new moral force that was beginning to shape itself within the Canadian community. He was horn into a Canada which believed that the Golden Rule could and Should be applied in people’s private lives, but that in public life the ethics of competition should prevail. He was a force in strengthening in thousands of minds the dawning idea that the Golden Rule must be applied in our public life with the same uncompromising logic as in private conduct; he helped much in confirming the growing suspicion that a society based on the ethics of self-advancement had become not only economically unworkable but morally rotten. He gave leadership in creating for these thousands of minds the knowledge that they were not alone in their thinking and the conviction that the problem of realizing their dream of a better society, the dream of the ages, was within the grasp of the modern world. The will and intelligent effort of ordinary men and women like themselves could bring it to reality.”

The dream of the ages? Yes. And if the human animal can evolve qualities of heart and spirit quickly enough to save himself from the consequences of his own mechanistic civilization, J. S. Woodsworth, and others like him will have had their part in the miracle of human survival.

Page revised: 12 November 2014

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