Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Winnipeg’s North End


Winnipeg’s North End

Yesterday and Today
Winnipeg’s Historic North End. Photo Courtesy of The Winnipeg Tribune / University of Manitoba Archives.
Images: 123
Winnipeg’s historic North End was a contradictory place. Poverty was widespread and deep; out of its midst grew a rich and vibrant culture. Today’s North End is similar in many respects — deep poverty and racism, and an emergent culture of resistance, for example — yet different in important ways.

Poverty in Winnipeg’s Historic North End

After 1896 Eastern European immigrants arrived in large numbers in Winnipeg, settling in the North End to work in the vast rail yards and associated industries. Housing was inadequate and terribly overcrowded. The 1908/09 Annual Report of All-Peoples’ Mission, then headed by J. S. Woodsworth, said of a part of its North End neighbourhood: “in 41 houses there were 120 ‘families,’ consisting of 837 people living in 286 rooms,” more than 20 people per house. Overcrowding, plus half the North End houses not being connected to the water supply, produced disease: in 1904 and 1905 Winnipeg had more deaths from typhoid than any North American city. A 1913 study by Woodsworth found that a “normal standard of living” required wages of $1,200 per year; many in the North End were earning less than half that.

Most people were working; they just didn’t get paid enough. Others worked seasonal jobs on farms or railway construction and endured cold, hungry winters in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg was deeply segregated, a city divided, the North End cut off from the rest of the city by the vast CPR yards and distinguished by its “foreign” character. A 1912 publication described the North End as “practically a district apart from the city,” adding that “those who located north of the tracks were not of a desirable character.” The largely Eastern European working class residents of the North End were called “dumb hunkies,” “bohunks,” Polacks; anti-semitism was rampant.

In Under the Ribs of Death, John Marlyn’s novel set in early twentieth Winnipeg, Sandor Hunyadi, a young Hungarian immigrant, lives in the North End, described as “a mean and dirty clutter … a howling chaos … a heap seething with unwashed children, sick men in grey underwear, vast sweating women in vaster petticoats.” When the young Sandor visits Crescentwood, the south end home of those of Anglo-Saxon descent who controlled the political and economic resources of the city, he was shocked to see that “the boulevards ran wide and spacious to the very doors of the houses. And these houses were like palaces, great and stately, surrounded by their own private parks and gardens. On every side there was something to wonder at.”

Much was extremely positive about the North End. Selkirk Ave was a thriving commercial street with a dazzling variety of shops and stores whose owners typically spoke several Eastern European languages. A rich and varied cultural life characterized the North End: newspapers published in many European languages; literary associations, drama societies, and sports clubs; a wide range of alternative schools; and according to one author, “a music teacher in every block in the North End to give the Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish kids massive degrees of musical instruction weekly.” There was a thriving co-op sector, mutual aid societies, a labour temple, and radical politics of a bewildering variety of kinds.

Most of this was invisible to those outside the North End, but as Roz Usiskin has put it, from this vibrant culture North End residents “derived a dignity denied them by the dominant society.”

Post-War Change in the North End

In the post-Second World Large numbers of North End residents who could afford to do so moved to the larger, newer houses and greener spaces of the suburbs. Businesses andcultural organizations followed; economic and cultural life in the North End atrophied. Housing prices dropped; many became rental properties, some owned by slum landlords.

By the late 1960s-1970s manufacturing began to leave, and the character of the labour market shifted, with full-time unionized industrial jobs gradually being replaced by part-time, non-union, low-wage service sector jobs.

Just as these broad social forces — suburbanizationand de-industrialization — were unfolding, Aboriginal people began migrating to western Canadian cities, and especially Winnipeg, starting in the 1960s and growing by the decade. In 1951 there were 210 Aboriginal people resident in Winnipeg; in 1961 there were 1,082. By 2006 there were 68,380, the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada. Many Aboriginal people located in the North End, attracted by cheap rental housing. When they arrived they were, generally speaking, ill-prepared for modern urban life, the result of a century of marginalization, colonization, and the damage inflicted by the residential schools. They arrived just as the good jobs were leaving, to the suburbs or out of Winnipeg entirely. And upon their arrival they faced a wall of racism.

Aboriginal people have replaced Eastern European immigrants as the poor and frequently reviled residents of the North End. They face the same racism and exclusion today that the newly-arrived Eastern European workers and their families did early in the twentieth century. They experience similarly inadequate and over-crowded housing conditions — the result of the severe shortage of low-income rental housing all across Canada that is accentuated in Winnipeg’s now sprawling inner city.

They have suffered racist abuse for decades. In a 1962 Winnipeg Tribune story, Jarvis Ave., just north of the CPR yards and previously the heart of the pre-Second World War Jewish North End, was described as “the worst street in the entire city.” Houses had long been little more than shacks; many of the small lots had two or more dwellings squeezed onto them. The Tribune story began: “The police, with ponderous legal irony, call it Jarvis Boulevard. Others, with more bitterness, have called it Tomahawk Row.” Aboriginal newcomers had located there, in search of low-cost housing. Their socio-economic circumstances were the root cause of problems in the area.

But, like their Eastern European working class predecessors who had occupied the same neighbourhoods before them, they were blamed for their poverty. A half-century earlier, in 1912, Winnipeg’s Associated Charities Bureau had written, referring to the Eastern European working class immigrants squeezed into inadequate North End housing and underpaid as they were, that “the large majority of applications for relief are caused by thriftlessness, mismanagement, unemployment due to incompetence, immorality, desertion of the family and domestic quarrels.” Such simplistic and stereotypical claims echo across today’s North End.

These things about Winnipeg’s North End have not changed. It is home to deep and widespread poverty; those who are poor are reviled and blamed for their own fate; and the North End remains spatially and socially segregated from the rest of the city. Many in Winnipeg do not venture into today’s North End; most are largely ignorant of life in the North End; it has ever been thus.

It’s Still the Same, but Different

Whereas the poverty of the early twentieth century North End was a working class phenomenon, today, because of dramatic shifts in the global economy, a much higher proportion of those in poverty are the jobless poor, largely outside of and in many cases with little or no experience of the paid labour force. This is disproportionately the case for Aboriginal youth, and is a source of many problems. Massive, publicly funded job creation is needed.

The North End poor of the early twentieth century typically lived in and benefited from intact, two-parent families, and ethnic cultures that were a source of strength and pride. Today, a much higher proportion of those who are poor live in families and communities that are less strong and resilient than was the case in the past, and in many cases their cultures have been seriously damaged. In the case of Aboriginal people, this is the result of the historic and contemporary process of colonization, by which the Canadian state set out deliberately to destroy Aboriginal families and cultures.

The route out of poverty taken by many of the descendants of the Eastern European working class is less readily available to the disproportionate numbers of today’s North End poor who are Aboriginal. Eastern Europeans were able to, and wanted to, assimilate into the dominant culture. Aboriginal people are less able to assimilate, less able to escape racism than their White predecessors in the North End, and less willing to do so.

The poverty of today’s North End has changed dramatically because of the intensified crime that plagues the inner city. Street gangs, the illegal drug trade, and damage done to families and cultures, and the almost complete disconnection of large numbers of young people from the labour market, have created a serious problem of crime and violence that is qualitatively different, and worse, than what existed in the North End during earlier periods of the twentieth century.

Finally, the poverty of today’s North End is experienced by many as a sense of hopelessness, of deep and dark despair. Inadequate housing, deep poverty, the prevailing crime and violence, the absence of jobs that pay a wage sufficient to support a family, have created a “spiritual” malaise among many that is particularly debilitating.

In many respects, today’s North End is unchanged from that of the early part of the twentieth century: deep poverty; widespread racism directed at the poor; their spatial segregation in a devalued part of the city. In other respects, it is different, perhaps even worse: the disconnection from a changed labour market; the erosion, in many cases, of families and cultures; the widespread crime and violence; the deep sense of despair and hopelessness amongst many.

Rebuilding from Within

These poverty-related problems notwithstanding, there is a dramatic process of rebuilding from within that is currently underway in Winnipeg’s North End and broader inner city. Like the vibrant culture of the early twentieth century North End, it is largely invisible to those who do not live there. It takes the form of a wide range of community-based organizations that have emerged from the ground up, and that use a community development approach to heal and empower those who are poor and have been damaged by poverty, racism, and colonization. Aboriginal people and Aboriginal women in particular are among the leaders in this work. The best of their efforts is aimed at rebuilding awareness and appreciation of their rich cultural heritage. Women’s centres of a wide variety of kinds, family resource centres, alternative educational institutions and neighbourhood development organizations are all part of an increasingly strong infrastructure of community-based organizations. Their work is creative and innovative; they hire local people thereby creating employment opportunities; they work in a way informed by their workers’ and leaders’ own experience of poverty and racism.

This rebuilding process is slow and difficult. For every step forward, another is taken back. It would be faster and less difficult with more public sector support. The civic and federal governments are largely absent from this process. The provincial NDP government has been supportive in many important ways. They have not done and still do not do enough to nurture and support this indigenous rebuilding process, but they have been quite supportive in some very important ways, and would be likely to be more so if they thought that there was public support for a stronger anti-poverty strategy.

The North End and the Left

The anti-poverty strategy that has emerged out of Winnipeg’s North End and broader inner city over the past quarter-century has not taken a form familiar to most leftist readers of Canadian Dimension. It has been and is being built by the poor themselves, and has taken a form that they have defined, and that has grown out of their realities. The labour movement is largely absent from this struggle; the far Left, to the extent that it exists at all in Winnipeg any longer, is absent from this struggle.

It is striking, however, that growing numbers of progressive young people are becoming interested in and active in this struggle. Although what follows is impressionistic, it may be that many young people recently energized by the anti-globalization movement have now turned their attention to local, community-based anti-poverty struggles in the North End and broader inner city.

If young, urban Aboriginal people were also to become politicized as part of this struggle, and were to begin to mobilize around demands related to antipoverty efforts, the pace of change would surely accelerate. There are few signs yet of that happening, and in fact an Aboriginal middle class is emerging, anxious to distance themselves from the poverty and related problems of the North End.
Yet there is deep anger in Winnipeg’s North End, the product of poverty, racism, and segregation. Much of that anger is inner-directed, in such forms as addictions and domestic abuse, but also in the form of increasingly severe street-level conflict and violence confined largely to the North End and directed largely at other North End residents, and frequently at police.

Most Winnipegers, spatially and socially segregated from the North End and its residents and steeped in stereotypes previously used to describe Eastern Europeans, are removed, in every respect, from these issues. If they could be mobilized in support of genuine, publicly-driven anti-poverty efforts, and/or if North End youth, and especially Aboriginal youth, were themselves to become politicized and direct their anger outwards, real gains could be made in the North End. Until that happens, and despite the exceptional community development efforts in the North End, change will be unbearably slow, and will come too late for many.

Canadian Dimension January/February 2010 This article appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW to get a refreshing and provocative alternative delivered to your door 6 times a year for up to 50% off the newsstand price.


  • I live in the South End of Nanaimo, which is considered the skuzziest neighborhood in the city.  Yes, you do see some poor young girls in the sex trade walking down Victoria Road, and that is because men in fancy cars from the North End come looking to exploit their drug addictions which were induced by some other exploitative men.  On what is considered THE worst block in this city, a couple of blocks from downtown,  my friend just bought an 80 year old house, a Craftsman,  which has unsurpassable charm.  Three stained glass windows, original fir floors in good condition, coved ceilings, french doors with etched leaded glass panels, a sun room with windows on 3 sides, which leads to a sundeck with a sweeping view of the estuary and Gabriola Island, and spectacular sunrises which are reflected on the water.  There is a walk-in closet off the master bedroom. There is a little inner courtyard outside, and a peach tree and 2 Kiwi fruit trees, and a fish pond in the yard.  Next door to her live 4 men who are a brass quartet, and they have a big old boat in their backyard.  My point in all this is that it is possible to find beauty and charm where you least expect it, and it doesn’t have to be about big money at all.  In fact there can be something ugly about big money neighborhoods - the pretentiousness of them, and the lack of originality, spontaneity, history,  and variety.
    #1. Posted by Madeline Bruce, RPN in Nanaimo, B. C. on January 8th 2010 at 4:35pm 

  • So , it would seem to me to solve the problem of poor people living in the North End, would be to double the rents to get rid of the poor .
    #2. Posted by rosencrentz in winnipeg on January 28th 2010 at 6:58pm 

  • No, that doesn’t sound nice at all.  Speaking for South Nanaimo, the poorer section of Nanaimo, the price of houses and rentals is lower than the rest of Nanaimo.  Gradually the old houses are being re-vamped, which makes for a very charming ambiance.  As for unemployed people, many impoverished people are employed - just not getting enough hours, or enough wages.  As for the chronically underpriviledged, some kind of entreprenurial initiative is needed to help them.  Perhaps the teaching of new skills by retired people,  which they could then market themselves, would get them on the road to a renewed self-confidence and hope for the future.
    #3. Posted by Madeline Bruce, RPN in Nanaimo, B. C. on January 28th 2010 at 7:32pm 

  • I enjoyed reading this article and found it very thoughtful. I grew up in the North End in the 1950s and 60s, spending all my time hanging around at the Sals and Sportsman’s. I am old enough to remember the unpaved back lanes that flooded every spring. Two formative events in the North End not mentioned in the article were the 1919 Strike and, less often noted, the tearing out of the street care tracks along Main Street. In the 1980s when I was Deputy Minister of Community Services in the Pawley government we ‘blew up’ the Winnipeg Children’s Aid Society and established five decentralized ‘Child and Family Service Agencies’ across the city, including one in the North End - with its HQ in the old Bank of Montreal building on Main and Bannerman (I think that was the cross street). Over 3000 people turned out for the election of the first Board. I think the agency could have made areal difference in the North End, as it included strong representation from within the Aboriginal community and took on a significant preventive mandate, but the Filmon government took over and got rid of all the agencies after a little more than a year, so we will never know what might have been. We did however fund the community effort to set up Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre which remains to this day. So perhaps it was not all for naught. 
    #4. Posted by Michael Mendelson in Toronto on February 8th 2010 at 6:17pm 

  • Michael Mendelson speaks of the New Democratic Party Manitoba government led by Howard Pawley and just a few of its important initiatives of which there were many—- probably the most honest government in the history of the North American continent. He then goes on to mention how the thoroughly reactionary government of Gary Filmon destroyed several of the Pawley government’s programs of which there were so many destroyed by the Filmon government which leads me to wonder why no one has yet written a comparison of these two governments.

    It seems to me now would be the time to write such a comparison.

    I was living in Manitoba for about ten years at the time the Filmon government was coming into power. Filmon privatized the Manitoba Telephone Service and Manitobans are still suffering the consequences.

    But, Filmon also did, what I consider to be one of the most callous and anti-human things imaginable in putting an end to the dental program in the elementary schools. 

    If every government in the world was just one iota as honest and caring about the needs of working people as was the Pawley NDP government, people could be living pretty decent lives.
    There is a story that needs to be told here—- a tale of two governments; one for the people, the Pawley NDP government—- the other, the Filmon Government of Progressive Conservatives for the greedy wealthy few and the corporations.

    (Now there—- Progressive Conservative—- is a real oxymoron if ever there was one.)
    A webb site or blog would be the perfect place to tell this story of a tale of two governments. Working people across North America need to know and understand this story which is the history of the clash and struggle between classes.

    This is an especially important story to tell at a time when working people are beginning to think there is no hope for change while taking such beatings and are being battered by Bay Street and Wall Street.

    Working people across North America need to experience the all-inclusive government like that of Howard Pawley’s government which welcomed a full and complete expression of just about every political view from liberal to socialist to communist represented in the various people’s movements… proving people working together accomplish great things.

    When people tell me about “hope” and “change” here in the United States, I always tell them: You don’t know what “hope” and “change” is all about unless you understand the people’s movements that brought governments like that of Howard Pawley, Tommy Douglas, Floyd Olson and Elmer Benson to power.

    Unlike the Tommy Douglas story or the history of the socialist Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, the story of the Howard Pawley NDP government is still fresh enough to become an important factor in the struggles of today. Tell the story.

    #5. Posted by Alan L. Maki in Warroad, Minnesota, USA on February 25th 2010 at 9:44am 

    Note: Howard Pawley has now written an excellent book, "Keep True, a life in politics." I would encourage everyone read and study this book.

North Winnipeg’s Seal of Identity

Culture, Socialism

North Winnipeg’s Seal of Identity

A Glowing Dream: A Memoir

by Roland Penner

J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, 2007
“The place of childhood provides the seal of identity.” This epigram opens the first chapter of Roland Penner’s memoir, Growing Up ‘Red’ in Winnipeg’s North End. It holds true even for those of us who grew up only “pink” — i.e. whose parents were CCFers rather than Communists, and who as a result never set foot in the Ukrainian Labour Temple at Pritchard and McGregor. Just how much Winnipeg’s working-class political culture sealed our identities was brought home to me last year when I sent my brother an article that touched on the strike at the Hurtig Fur Company in the early 1930s — during the course of which my father, while on the picket line, had his head split open by a scab. My brother, who was born in 1934, responded: “You know, when I was a little boy I used to get confused about whether the really bad guy’s name was Hurtig or Hitler.”

To be sure, the industrial side of Winnipeg’s history of class conflict makes very little appearance in this memoir — apart from a few sentences that recall Roland standing as a teenager “on the bald prairie with the temperature at about wind chill -50°F, handing out union leaflets” as part of an organizing drive at a plant on the outskirts of Transcona. This is hardly surprising, since the Penner family was preeminent for its involvement on the political side of the labour movement — so much so that on one memorable May Day, after some five thousand paraded along Portage Avenue and Main Street to end up at Market Square in front of the old City Hall, the three speakers who addressed them were Penner’s politically passionate and fiery mother, Rose; his eleven-year-old “child orator” brother, Norman; and, of course, his venerable father, Jacob, the famous Communist alderman for Ward Three. (Jacob Penner was “almost always dressed in a conservatively cut three-piece wool suit, a shirt with a stiff celluloid collar, a firmly knotted woolen tie, a carefully blocked and immaculately clean fedora, and sometimes, over his shoes, spats.”)

The story told here of the Penner family is a fascinating one, from its origins among downwardly mobile Mennonite ancestors who once owned an estate on the west bank of the Dniepr River to Jacob’s “form of marriage without clergy” to a Jewish orphan from Odessa, Rose Shapak. One of the most revealing aspects of north Winnipeg’s ethnic culture is uncovered here, as Jacob the Red, before his election as alderman in 1934 at the age of 54, moves from job to job for some two decades, including as a candy salesman with the help of Rose’s connection to the well-off Galpern family. Just as class conflict tore the Jewish community apart in a strike like the one at Hurtig’s, so did family ties often transcend the sharpest of differences in the class politics of Winnipeg’s North End.

The family anecdotes in this book are so profuse that many of the best are found in the footnotes. One of Rose’s nephews goes to the U.S.S.R. in 1933 and gets swept away five years later in Stalin’s murder machine. One of Jake’s brothers-in-law returns home after a visit to Germany in 1936, and becomes a supporter of the Winnipeg Nazi Party. Shortly after Jake is sent off to an internment camp as a Communist in 1940, sixteen-year-old Roland and his twin sister Ruthie are home alone listening to “Saturday Afternoon at the Met” (while Rose is in Ottawa heading up a delegation of wives petitioning for improvements in the camp’s conditions), and the RCMP come barging in waving a search warrant. As one Mountie moves to turn off the radio, Ruthie screams at him: “In this house no one turns off the opera!”

Indeed, so plentiful are Penner’s family anecdotes that one terrific example, which he told when Norman was honoured at a banquet at the University of Manitoba some two decades ago, is left out of this book. As I recall it (and have often retold it), when Norman marched into the principal’s office of his grade school to complain that the phys-ed instructor was picking on him because he was a Communist, the principal sternly and accusingly said (so everyone in the outer office could hear): “You’re a Communist?!” And then, after closing the door, he whispered, “So am I.”

Penner’s admiration for his parents’ Communist politics is palpable, and he explicitly contrasts this with the way other “red diaper babies” like Jim Laxer and Stan Gray have written disparagingly of their parents’ politics. Quoting Laxer to the effect that truth was “a very slippery commodity” in his home, Roland proudly writes: “That was not our experience…. We asked many questions and Dad and our mother told us what they sincerely believed to be true.” His father remains his “primary inspiration” — a man who “fought for the rights of others at great cost to himself” — and this is why his parents commitment to the “Glowing Dream” forms the title of his memoir. Yet, one might have wished that Roland had offered a more sober reflection on his father’s generation of Canadian Communists, not only with regard to what they knew or didn’t know about Stalin’s crimes in the U.S.S.R. or to the limitations of “democratic centralist” life inside the party, but also to the reformist strategy it pursued in the public arena.

Thus, we learn that Jacob Penner left the Socialist Party of Canada in 1911 because he felt it was too oriented toward raising class consciousness through Marxist education alone. He devoted himself to a life of “unceasing struggle for [the] daily needs and pressing problems” of working people in the belief that this practical activity would raise their consciousness as “the essential feature in the development of a socialist revolution.” Yet, when he died in 1965, aged 85 (having only retired as alderman three years earlier), the Winnipeg Free Press made a point of saying that he was a “political curiosity” who drew much of his support from people “who cared nothing for politics but who admired his efficiency and ability and who believed that he worked for the underdog.” Penner quotes this approvingly, without raising the question of how far this achievement nevertheless stood from the development of the class consciousness needed for supporting socialist revolution, which had been Jake’s original purpose. Would more attention to creative Marxist education have produced a better result? This memoir doesn’t go there, perhaps because Roland, from the time of his own engagement in student politics at the University of Manitoba in the late 1940s, adopted a stance “quite in keeping with my father’s approach to political activity on an issue-by-issue basis.” This approach did not mean that he often lost his bearings on the Left of the political spectrum — far from it. But as the main part of the memoir turns to cover Roland’s own adult political life, this “issue-by-issue” approach is visible all along the way: from his slow drift away from the CP (rather than exiting in flames as his brother did in 1957); to his joining Joe Zuken’s law firm; to his foundational role in the establishment of legal aid in Manitoba; to his almost happenstance decision to join the NDP; to what he calls his “life in government” as attorney general of Manitoba.

The limits of this approach came to a head with his role in the Meech Lake Accord, which he still sees as “a reasonable compromise” on the grounds that, while he agrees with those critics who said that “the separatists would always ask for more,” if the Accord had passed it would have ensured that “their call to break up the country [would have] fallen on less fertile ground.” This is pretty conventional stuff. He reserves his real ire, moreover, for the left critics of the Accord, especially those “many women … influenced by flamboyant statements … by Judy Rebick and the National Action Committee,” who saw the deal as concocted by “men in suits” with the aim of using Quebec’s recognition as a distinct society to override the Charter’s equality provisions (“This is, in my view, nonsense.”) and undermine federal social programs (the likelihood of which he sees as “essentially nil”).

Penner’s decision to side with the pragmatic men in suits against the socialist feminists during the Meech Lake controversy in 1987 was presaged by the controversy over the stand he took in 1983 over the newly opened Morgentaler abortion clinic in Winnipeg. In justifying why as attorney general he could not “authorize a blanket stay of proceedings” with respect to criminal charges against Morgentaler, Penner clearly sees himself as properly following the advice Justice Samuel Freedman gave him when he invited Penner to lunch after his appointment: the Attorney General “must not be political.” But if Penner now admits that his Morgentaler moment “still comes back to haunt me from time to time,” this may be because he knows very well (as he puts it in the memoir in relation to his discussion of the task force on legal aid in the 1970s) that “the legal system itself is so much the product of the establishment it serves that it cannot be turned into the front line for law reform and even more obviously for social transformation.” It most certainly can’t if attorneys general act as if their roles are non-political.

It is impossible to do full justice to Penner’s memoir without going even further over the word limit CD’s editors have allotted me. Suffice to say that this review touches upon only a few aspects of the rich and varied life recounted in this book. I especially enjoyed making the connection between Penner’s many entrepreneurial activities during his Communist boyhood in the 1930s with his “life as an impressario,” when he ran the Co-op Bookstore in the late 1950s and was responsible for bringing Pete Seeger and Odetta, among many others, to sing before Winnipeg audiences.

For me, at least, this enjoyable read was enhanced by being able to catch Penner out on such errors as telling us that Lenin “famously said that communism equals socialism plus electric power” (he actually said “soviets and electric power”). Or the misnumbering of the Chapter Two endnotes, so that the citation for the homage Penner pays to the great Fritz Hansen, the American running back who led the Blue Bombers to their first Grey Cup in 1935, amusingly offers sources to the On to Ottawa Trek of that year. The only unfortunate result of this misnumbering is that we never learn who actually coined that wise phrase: “The place of childhood provides the seal of identity.”

Canadian Dimension January/February 2009 This article appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW to get a refreshing and provocative alternative delivered to your door 6 times a year for up to 50% off the newsstand price.


  • Leo Panitch’s review of “A Glowing Dream: A Memoir” itself is food for thought, dialogue, discussion and debate as much as is Roland Penner’s excellent book, which I would strongly recommend to every worker to read and study.

    Panitch finds problems with Jacob Penner’s approach towards politics and assumes that Marxist education was not simultaneously taking place with the excellent work Jacob Penner did in serving working people on the Winnipeg City Council.

    Having personally known many of those in Jacob Penner’s Communist Party circle, I know that this contention simply is not accurate.

    And I believe that where Panitch is inaccurate here is the very crux of what is missing in working class struggles in Canada and the United States today, which is holding back the struggle of the working class for real power: social, political and economic; the struggle for socialism—the only alternative to this failed capitalist system.

    What Panitch fails to understand is the way the Communist Party works in a collective way… while Panitch’s contention that Jacob Penner paid too little attention to Marxist education of the working class—a very dubious contention at best seeing as how Jacob Penner was the longest serving Communist elected public official in Canada, and perhaps the world—it is hard to believe that Panitch’s assessment is accurate that there was a lack of socialist/Marxist education taking place. How a Communist repeatedly gets elected and re-elected when there is a powerful corrupt web of capitalism spun all around him creating such a hostile environment would then have to be explained… an explanation Leo Panitch never broaches… not everything he hasn’t broached can be explained away as not being provided more space by Canadian Dimension since Panitch has had ample opportunity to do this elsewhere; and he has not.

    Panitch forgets, or intentionally omits, the role of the Communist Party Club. Jacob Penner always “had his back covered” by a very powerful Communist movement consisting of very important Communist Party clubs in Manitoba which were more than a little responsible for his repeated re-election campaigns because of the “collective” way these Communist Party clubs operate as the “think-tanks” and “action centers” of the working class and people’s movements constantly stressing that all the various movements for democracy, peace, social and economic justice and for socialism need to work together in unity.

    I have noticed that failure to understand the all-important role of Communist parties by Panitch in many of his other writings, too; which boils down to not understanding the very important and significant role these Communist Party Clubs play in winning the day to day struggles working people are constantly embroiled in as a matter to survive the obstacles and problems created by a capitalist social, economic and political system.

    Like in this current book review, Panitch even writes about the Communist Manifest but fails to understand that Marx and Engels in writing this brief pamphlet did so with the intent of encouraging workers to build Communist Parties to advance their demands for reforms AND winning social, economic and political power.

    There is all kinds of ample evidence that Jacob Penner and his comrades and friends understood very well “What needs to be done?” And they did what needed to be done—on all fronts, from education to activism.

    The real questions Leo Panitch might want to ponder is why Jacob Penner and the Communist Party in Winnipeg did so well while in most other places in North America the working class movement did not fare as well?

    A big part of the answer to this question lies in attacks on the Communist Party by the government (which Jacob Penner and the Winnipeg Communists and their friends and allies so successfully fought back) and the attacks on the Communist Party from the right and ultra-left in the working class movement (again, attacks which Jacob Penner and the Winnipeg communists struggled against so successfully).

    And Joe Zuken’s campaigns successfully built on all of this.

    How and why this powerful Communist movement in Winnipeg lost momentum and suffered losses should be the topic of a forum with the proceedings published in another book… it would be very interesting to see if Leo Panitch’s ideas as to his “critique” (or not so thinly veiled attack on the role and objectives of Communist Parties) hold any water when placed side-by-side with the Communist perspective in all of this.

    I really think we need to be asking what has held back the working class movements from achieving what Jacob Penner and his comrades and friends achieved not finding excuses to write them off because in these troubled times, there is not only a Canadian dimension to what these working class Communist Party activists achieved, there is something for all working class activists from throughout North America and the rest of the world to learn from… I find it rather ironic that many people who adhere and cling to Leo Panitch’s perspective regarding the Soviet Union and other socialist countries who found their own way to power and to hold on to that power which they so despise, now like to take cheap pot shots at the very man and the Communist Party he was a member of which climbed towards working class power so successfully in the electoral arena.

    Which, also, begs the question: If Canada and the U.S.A. were the bastions of democracy capitalist politicians claim them to be; why then has the policy towards allowing Communists to freely participate in the political lives of these two countries been so restricted—and, I think I am being very charitable in using the term “restricted” when political suppression and repression are more appropriate.

    If Leo Panitch would like to participate in an organized dialogue on this question concerning the legacy of the role of the Communist Party clubs I would be happy to participate, too.

    Jacob Penner and Winnipeg Communists are not the only example of the success of Communist Party Clubs and how they combined electoral work with other facets of class struggle work—merely the best; an example which many working class activists today have a right to know about… just as working class activists today have a right to know about how Communists like Lyle Dotzert led the struggle to organize Ford in Windsor and his comrades like Phil Raymond, Nadia Barkan, Bob Travis, Bud Simons and Wyndham Mortimer across the river—south of the border—led the struggles to organize the Big Three and then elected the legendary working class activist and leader Coleman Young to public office… in order to know and understand this aspect of the working class struggle and history might make the difference as to whether the working class wins or loses the looming class conflict ahead.

    The working class made numerous advances with Communist Parties in the lead… an historic fact that no amount of twisting and misinformation can erase—obscure, yes—but not erase because history as what it is.

    Communists have made plenty of mistakes just like anyone else; but, the so-called errors attributed to us here simply are not correct.

    There is this “movement” on the part of a section of the North American left which seeks to want to put everything from 20th Century Communism and socialism behind us as if it was all misguided and bad when nothing could be further from the truth.

    Roland Penner’s excellent book provides us with aspects of working class history some people would rather just forget… just like they would like to forget Jacob Penner, Lyle Dotzert, Phil Raymond, Nadia Barkan (in Nadia’s case, the “historians” even give her the wrong name!)... but, forgetting primary aspects of history is not the same as these struggles and their leaders—with the Communist Parties at the forefront—being forgotten… or intentionally maligned as Leo Panitch does, and continues doing.

    Recently Howard Zinn engaged in similar distortion on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” when he stated:

    “No, I was really gratified when Obama called for “Let’s tax the rich more, and let’s tax the poor and middle class less.” And they said, “That’s socialism.” And I thought, “Whoa! I’m happy to hear that. Finally, socialism is getting a good name.” You know, socialism has been given bad names, you know, Stalin and all those socialists, so-called socialists. They weren’t really socialist, but, you know, they called themselves socialist. But they weren’t really, you see. And so, socialism got a bad name. It used to have a really good name. Here in the United States, the beginning of the twentieth century, before there was a Soviet Union to spoil it, you see, socialism had a good name. Millions of people in the United States read socialist newspapers. They elected socialist members of Congress and socialist members of state legislatures. You know, there were like fourteen socialist chapters in Oklahoma. Really. I mean, you know, socialism—who stood for socialism? Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, Clarence Darrow, Jack London, Upton Sinclair. Yeah, socialism had a good name. It needs to be restored.”

    Well Zinn—the great historian—apparently never heard of Jacob Penner, Willian Z. Foster, Paul Robeson Lyle Dotzert, Wyndham Mortimer, Phil Raymond or Nadia Barkan.

    And Sam Webb, the revisionist “leader” of the CPUSA goes even further than Panitch or Zinn in saying he wants nothing at all to do with 20th Century socialism.

    I find it very strange that all these attacks of a similar nature come at a time when the working class needs stronger Communist Parties than ever before… and slanting history to suit one’s own biased perspectives will not aid in building a winning working class fight-back as this rotten capitalist system collapses by the day from the time the bell rings on Wall Street until another plant is shut down, both throwing workers out into the streets as if they are merely disposable items like baby diapers.

    Alan L. Maki
    Minnesota/Dakotas District, CPUSA
    #1. Posted by Alan L. Maki on January 13th 2009 at 10:30pm