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Prelude to Arborg tax revolt — Farmers’ Army leaves
May 01, 2009

by Bruce Cherney (Part 1)

Premier John Bracken should have realized the delegation in his Manitoba legislature office was merely the harbinger of things to come. If he had, Bracken would have listened with greater sympathy to their demands and realized desperate people are prone to perform desperate acts. Instead, the Manitoba premier dismissed the demands of the delegation representing the “Farmers’ Army” as inspired by communist agitators.

Actually, the premier had good reason to be suspicious of Communist influence. At a mass rally in Market Square on Sunday evening, speakers urged workers and farmers to unite to form a “Soviet Canada.”

The crowd gathered outside Bracken’s office in the Manitoba Legislature on Monday was stirred up into vocal resentment of the actions of the police who had prevented another mass rally that day in Market Square, as well as the presence of local labour organizers, some of whom had ties to the Communist Party.

Who ordered the presence of police to prevent the mass meeting is not revealed, but a city bylaw prohibited such gatherings in the afternoon at the square, a throwback to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The night-time mass meeting in Market Square on Sunday, October 16, 1932, went ahead as scheduled,  but when the farmers and then workers applied for a permit to hold a mass meeting in the afternoon the following day, their request was refused. 

Although they lacked a permit, at two o’clock on Monday, October 17, local workers and the marchers from the Farmers’ Army approached the square from William Avenue and King, Albert and Princess streets. They were prevented from entering the square by police, who had cordoned off the entrances to the square.

“The marchers were deployed into streets running south and finally, under police supervision, were re-united on Donald Street,” reported the October 18, 1932, Winnipeg Free Press. “The throng marched along Portage Avenue to Edmonton Street where they were again turned south by a police cordon across Portage Avenue. Continuing down Edmonton to Broadway, the crowd turned on its own toward the Parliament buildings, where a cordon of Royal Canadian Mounted Police barred the entrance against all but the appointed delegates, 11 in number, who presented the grievances and demands to Premier Bracken — and (Winnipeg) Mayor Ralph Webb, the manager of the Marlborough Hotel,  a seven-time mayor of the city and a long-serving MLA at a time when politicians were allowed to be elected and serve in both a municipal council and the provincial government.

“Outside on the steps (of the legislature) in the chill northeast wind, a forest of banners were erected bearing slogans, denunciatory remarks against federal and provincial relief system.”

Speakers haranguing the crowd while standing atop a trunk in the parking lot, included local labour leaders Charles Watson, Joe Forkin, James Shaw, Oscar Morgan, Bill Black, Cecil Spence, O. Wade and Aubrey Brock.

“Appeals were made to the assembly to stand fast in the struggle between the workers and the ‘parasitic capitalist’ class who were referred to as being th cause of the (Great) Depression and hard times.”

The crowd of about 400 farmers and local workers greeted one speaker with prolonged cheers when he announced the platform of the Communist Party was still being actively pursued in Manitoba and across Canada.

The people gathered were said to have amused themselves by cheering the speakers, jeering the Mounties and breaking out into The International while they awaited the return of the delegates.

“You have asked to be given everything and to pay for nothing,” said the premier during the four-hour and 20 minute October 17, 1932, meeting. “Do you know of any place on earth where a fraction of your requests are in force? If you do I wish you would tell me where it is.”

Bracken promised the delegates that law and order would prevail and there would be no “give aways.”

Bracken said he would never have agreed to see the delegates if he had known they were going to attempt to make the government a party to the sort of propaganda that was being spread outside.

Outside, the shouts of speakers haranguing them to intense agitation “could plainly be heard in the premier’s office,” according to the report in the Winnipeg Free Press.

During the meeting, the premier pestered delegation head, Michael Sawiak of Winnipeg, to admit he was a communist. Bracken was of the opinion he had been tricked into seeing a delegation of farmers who turned out to be led by a Communist sympathizer.

Bracken undoubtedly knew that Sawiak, the editor of Farmers’ Life, a Ukrainian-language weekly publication, had Communist leanings. Sawiak already had a record for supporting Communist candidates and started out in politics as a Communist candidate in school board elections. During civic election meetings, Sawiak appealed to the people to vote communist because the party worked for “‘the overthrow of the capitalist system,’ and demanded employment or full maintenance by the government,” according to the Free Press.

His political views would result in Sawiak being interned during the Second World War as an undesirable enemy alien.

“You have ruined your chance of getting a hearing here again,” Bracken told Sawiak. “You knew that the government had refused to hear any more deputations accompanied by such a demonstration as you have here today.You took advantage of my agreement to receive the farmers’ deputation by doing this. I want you to realize that we won’t be used for this sort of propaganda again.”

During a mass rally of the trekkers after the meeting with the premier, Sawiak said: “We know now that we cannot expect any more from Mr. Bracken than from (Canadian Prime Minister) Mr. (R.B.) Bennett.” 

The Farmers’ Army was organized during the convention of the Farmers’ Unity League in Arborg a month earlier. The Central Manitoba committee of the league was headed by George Lycar of Gimli, John Kapesta of Arborg, who had been a Communist candidate in the previous provincial election, and J. Malek. The Free Press claimed the league, with branches in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, was formed in 1930 by “left-wing radical farmers.” The newspaper even referred to the Farmers’ Army as an “agrarian proletariat” to emphasis the belief that it was Communist instigated. But it’s doubtful that more than a handful of its leaders were avowed Communists; after all, many of the protesting farmers had come to Canada from Eastern Europe and Ukraine to flee Communist tyranny. Still, when Ukrainian immigration to Canada resumed en masse in 1925, there had to be a few Communists in their midst wanting to spread word of the workers’ revolution to the New World. Stalin had predicted the Great Depression would create revolutions in Europe and the New World. Unfortunately for his plans of a world-wide proletariat, most of the revolutions in Europe involved fascists such as Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy, rather than Communists.

The Farmers’ Unity League, similar to the Workers’ Unity League, was organized by the Communist Party. The WUL was responsible for organizing many of the strikes within Manitoba during the 1930s, including the Flin Flon miners strike of 1934. A year later, the WUL dissolved, primarily on orders from Stalin to re-organize and join groups opposed to fascism, but also the result of local labour leaders, such as Sam Herbst in the garment industry, successfully persuading business owners the only way to rid their companies of radical elements was to sign contracts with more moderate unions that guaranteed a low-cost and stable workforce. At that stage, the Communists in Winnipeg began to lose their influence, although some became leaders of less-militant union locals.

The Communist Party of Canada was founded in 1921 and was a member of the Communist International, or Comintern, an organization of Communist parties from around the world. The Comintern, which was under the control of Moscow, often was used by Stalin to further the foreign policies interest of the Soviet Union (Let Us Rise! A History of the Manitoba Labour Movement, by Doug Smith). As a result, party members in Canada were often ordered to carry out policies that had little relevance to local conditions.

Destitute farmers didn’t necessarily believe in the philosophy of the Communist Party, but poor farmers did believe that the Communists were the only people showing an interest in their fate. Among those mentioned in newspapers as supporting the marchers were the Workers’ Unity League, branches of the Canadian Labor Defence League, Unemployment Neighbourhood councils, the Working Women’s League, Workers’ International Relief, and the United Front Workers’ movement — all of which were Communist, according to the Free Press.

Farmers during the Great Depression regarded the major villains of capitalism as the banks and loan companies which foreclosed on mortgages and loans and charged fixed interest to unfixed farming conditions such as rainfall, the temperature and world wheat prices (Reginald Whitaker, A Sovereign Idea: Essays on Canada as a Democratic Community). 

During the Great Depression, people expected solutions and supported the parties which offered solutions, including the Communists, populist movements such as Social Credit and the social reform-minded Co-operative Commonwealth Federation created in 1932.  

Hard times made for strange bedfellows and the Farmers’ Army was undoubtedly thankful for the support provided by Communist-inspired Winnipeg organizers.

At a Farmers’ Unity League meeting, the decision was made for the march to start out from Arborg on October 11. Marchers would be joined en route by other farmers from Komarno, Teulon, Gimli, Winnipeg Beach, East Selkirk and Beausejour. 

The march was organized to “demand” the provincial government cancel all debts, protest farm evictions for tax arrears, seek a government-guaranteed annual income for farmers of $1,000, obtain free school books for children as well as free clothes for children to enable them to attend school in the winter, obtain free health and hospital care for farmers and their families, and  protest the arrest and deportation of members of the labour movement. 

With the May-June 1919 Winnipeg General Strike still a lingering and bitter memory for Manitoba politicians and business leaders, it’s no surprise that conservative-minded Bracken suspected the motives of the marchers. In addition, the financial establishment, mainstream newspapers and politicians were terrified of Communists and the “Red Menace.” 

Winnipeg Mayor Webb said the solution to the threat posed by Communists was to dump them all into the Red River.

Webb was privy to secret police reports about the radical element in Winnipeg and the province, as were the Premier Bracken and Attorney-General William Major. One of the police reports told of a Communist plot to take over the city using several stolen Thompson machine-guns.

At a meeting of the three mayoralty candidates, reported on November 24, 1932,  in the Free Press, Webb was heckled by members of the United Front, whose candidate was Jacob Penner who had joined the Communist Party in 1921, for allegedly allowing police to club men and women during a strike and denying the democratic right of free speech. Webb denied the charges, saying he had not permitted the police to use force. Webb told the hecklers he didn’t like mass demonstrations, but any peaceful delegation could come to city hall to have their case heard by council.

“‘But,’ he added while the United Front representatives booed and jeered, ‘there is one body that would not admit to the city hall, so far as I am concerned, and that is the United Front, or Communist Party, because they are simply out for trouble.”

Similar to the incumbent mayor, Independent Labour Party candidate John Queen was heckled by the United Front representatives after he accused them of wanting to split the labour vote, and creating a furor in order to claim in their “propaganda sheets” that he refused to answer their questions.

In Manitoba, the labour movement and communists were often at loggerheads. Actually, most in the labour movement did not regard themselves as either Communists or Bolsheviks, although this label was often indiscriminately pinned on them despite the lack of evidence. For example, in 1932 James Shaver Woodsworth, a former Independent Labour Party MP (first elected 1921), became the leader of the newly-created Co-operative Commonwealth Federation which later was reformed as the NDP — hardly the political attributes of a Communist. Even the Communists saw Woodsworth as a threat. During the 1930 federal election, they characterized Woodsworth as “the most dangerous enemy we have at the  time.”

When Queen became mayor in 1934, he was constantly attacked by Communist councillors Penner and Forkin who accused him of subordinating his social conscience for political opportunity. Actually, Queen became recognized as “a reformer with a realistic mind which he puts into action whenever he gets the opportunity,” according to the editor of the Municipal Review of Canada (December 1940).

The demands reported in newspapers before the march from Arborg were so radical that Bracken probably feared the province was on the verge of a Bolshevik revolution, the same fear that permeated the ranks of the province’s elite during the Winnipeg General Strike. The 1919 strike resulted in Ottawa passing a “Red Menace” section (Section 98) for the Criminal Code, allowing groups advocating using violence to bring about change to be rounded up and imprisoned. Anyone attending meetings of such groups was presumed guilty “in the absence of evidence to the contrary,” In 1931, seven Canadian Communists, including the party’s national secretary, Tim Buck, were each sentenced to five years in prison for being members of an illegal organization. 

Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett said he would crush Communism under “the iron heel of ruthlessness.”

Between 1929 and 1935, Canada deported 28,000 men and women for their radical ideas or for simply being immigrants applying for relief. At the time, the widespread belief was that so-called “foreigners,” besides being a burden on relief programs, were taking jobs away from Canadians and should be sent back to whence they came so that more Canadians could find jobs. Rather ironic, since they were on relief because they were equally unemployed. Essentially, the “foreigners” were being made the scapegoats of the Great Depression.

One Manitoba politician said “in our town (Winnipeg), when those foreigners  from across the tracks (city’s North End) apply for relief we just show them a blank application for voluntary deportation. Believe me, they don’t come back. It’s simple but it has saved the city a lot of money.”

Part of the myth of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike is that it was instigated by the “alien” element of the city’s population; that is, immigrants from Eastern Europe, such as Ukrainians and Jews. But the 1919 strike was led by British-born labour organizers and one Canadian born in Ontario. The major difference in 1932 was that the marchers were for the most part of Ukrainian heritage with a smattering of farmers of Polish heritage. 

“Not a single ‘new immigrant’ — enemy alien or otherwise — was actively involved on the leadership level of the 1919 Winnipeg strike, however,” wrote Manitoba historian J.M. Bumsted in an article on the strike which appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of the Beaver. “Prominent Jewish activist Moses Almazoff pointedly spent the entire strike period at Gimli over 60 miles away on Lake Winnipeg.”

In 1932, Fisher MLA Nicholas Bachysky of the United Farmers of Manitoba — the party Bracken originally led, which in 1932 was fused with the Liberals to form a coalition called Liberal-Progressives  — pronounced, “They’re Reds!” in the legislature after being asked about the motives of the Farmers’ Army.

Free Press writer Frank H. Avery reported on the progress of the Farmers’ Army from Arborg to Winnipeg. According to Avery, the farmers believed their demand that all school costs could be paid for by the provincial government  “by money got by cutting salaries of government officials and members of the legislature in the same ratio as the salaries have been cut, the balance to be paid by taxing the big business men and banks.” Such musings instilled greater fear in the business elite that a Bolshevik revolution was in the making.

When Avery interviewed Bachysky as the marchers began their trek to Winnipeg, the MLA claimed the purpose was “pure Communist propaganda,” with party leaders disguising themselves under the banner of the Farmers’ Unity League, the point of which was to increase Communist Party coffers at the expense of “poor farmers.”

As scheduled, the farmers left Arborg on Tuesday, October 11, at one o’clock in the afternoon. “They are carrying nothing,” wrote Avery, “neither bedding nor clothing.”

The Farmers’ Army would rely upon the goodwill of people in the communities they passed through for food and shelter. The Free Press reported the army received donations of potatoes, other vegetables, chickens, turkeys and beef along the route, mostly from farmers. Some food was purchased in Winnipeg and paid for by “money contributions made by sympathizers.” 

The marchers were preceeded by two young men riding bicycles, who were designated “scouts.” 

As they travelled through the countryside and the towns and villages of the Interlake, their numbers swelled to the point that it was reported that the first group of about 250 reached Winnipeg’s Main Street in the afternoon of Friday, October 14. At the head of the parade down Main Street were the two cyclists and men carrying a banner reading, “Fight for Hunger.” The headline in the Free Press over a picture of the marchers, proclaimed Farmers’ Army Reaches Winnipeg After Long Walk. Arborg is approximately 120 kilometres north of Winnipeg. In the end, it was reported that as many as 450 farmers arrived in Winnipeg with their ranks swollen by  local workers taking part in subsequent parades and rallies. 

The 200-strong contingent from Beausejour and the surrounding districts departed and arrived later than the Arborg group. These marchers made good time, because “an accompanying motor-car continually picked up stragglers and conveying them to the head of the column.”

After the parade, they were to be fed and sheltered in two different groups — one heading for the Ukrainian Labour Temple at the corner of Pritchard Avenue and McGregor Street, and the other was directed to the Workers’ Centre International at the corner of Isabel Street and Bannatyne Avenue.

On Sunday night, October 16, the first of a number of proposed mass demonstrations to “Fight Against Hunger” was held at Market Square. Relays of speakers were reported at the Sunday meeting to have told the crowd of the need for “solidarity” between workers and farmers to fight against the “bosses of the capitalism and ‘robber’ classes” in order to create a “Soviet Canada.”

That evening 350 farmers were fed at the Ukrainian Labour Temple by 15 volunteer cooks and waitresses in relays of 100 at each sitting. Their meal consisted of tomato soup and spaghetti, followed by “savory real stew, fried cabbage and mashed potatoes,” reported the Free Press. 

After the meal, the farmers were billeted in workers’ homes across the city, as well, one unnamed hotel was said to have provided 10 beds for the marchers.

On October 17, another rally was scheduled at Market Square, which was to be followed by the delegation meeting with Premier Bracken. 

In advance of the meeting, Canadian labour organizations declared Monday as National Unemployment Day, which 

local organizers adopted as a show of labour’s solidarity with the farmers.

The Free Press was able to extensively report the proceedings of the delegation’s meeting with the premier, although it was not revealed whether newspaper reporters were actually present or had later been informed of what transpired.

While Bracken was described as 

patiently listening to the delegates’ 

demands, he tested their patience by 

offering nothing and questioning the depth of the farmers’ plight. Admittedly, many of the demands were nothing more than pipe dreams as the province was coping with the financial stresses of the Great Depression and had little money in its coffers to comply with the farmers’ requests. In addition, many of the demands were outside provincial jurisdiction and the responsibility of municipalities. Still, municipalities were the creation of the province, which had the power to legislate change if the provincial government so desired.

(Next week: part 2)