150+ Canadians Day 47: James Woodsworth

James Woodsworth contributed to peace by going to great lengths for workers’ rights, social justice, and peace. #Canada150

James Shaver Woodsworth (born Etobicoke, Ont 29 July 1874; died Vancouver 21 Mar 1942) was a Methodist minister, social worker, and politician. As first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), he was the best known of the reform-minded Social Gospel ministers and led many of them into the politics of democratic socialism. Woodsworth moved to Brandon, Man, in 1885 where his father became superintendent of Methodist missions in the Northwest. Ordained in 1896, he spent 2 years as a Methodist circuit rider in Manitoba and a further 2 years studying at Victoria College and Oxford.

Observing the grim results of industrial capitalism in Canada and Britain, Woodsworth concluded that his church’s stress upon personal salvation was wrong. Moving from middle-class pulpits to a city mission, All People’s, Winnipeg, he worked with immigrant slum dwellers 1904-13. At the same time he wrote extensively, expounding the “social gospel” – a creedless movement calling for establishment of the Kingdom of God “here and now.” By 1914 he had become a controversial supporter of trade-union collective bargaining and an ardent democratic socialist – on Fabian and British Labour Party lines.

He was also adamantly pacifist, seeing war as a product of capitalist and imperial competition, and he was fired from a governmental social-research position in 1917 for openly opposing conscription In 1918 he resigned the ministry in protest against church support of the war. To support his young family he joined a longshoremen’s union and worked for a year on the Vancouver docks.

In June 1919 Woodsworth was arrested in Winnipeg and charged with seditious libel for editorials written during the Winnepeg General Strike. Following the arrest of 10 strike leaders on June 17 and “Bloody Saturday,” June 21, when a nonviolent protest parade was broken up by mounted police and soldiers.

When the Depression struck, they joined with various labour and socialist groups to found a federal socialist party in 1932, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), with Woodsworth as its first leader. Woodsworth said: “I am convinced that we may develop in Canada a distinctive type of Socialism. I refuse to follow slavishly the British model or the American model or the Russian model. We in Canada will solve our problems along our own lines.”

Woodsworth became a master of parliamentary procedure and used the Commons as a public platform. In so doing he helped establish a multiparty political system and his own reputation as the “conscience of Canada”.

In 1926 he demonstrated the worth of the parliamentary process when he bargained his vote (and that of one colleague) in return for a promise from the politically insecure PM Mackenzie King to enact an old age pension plan. Introduced in 1927, the plan was the cornerstone of Canada’s social-security system.

For Woodsworth the tragedy of the Depression was increasingly overshadowed by the impending horror of WWII and he gave his attention to Canada’s international position. Inside the CCF he faced the growing concern of some of his colleagues that Hitler’s threat could only be met by force. Believing that war breeds only war he strove to persuade the government to declare Canada’s right to neutrality. He failed, as he did in the CCF National Council in Sept 1939 which gave limited support to a Canadian declaration of war.