The Western Socialist
Vol. 26 - No. 211
No. 7, 1959
(We are pleased to be able to reproduce the address delivered by Roy Devore on August 27 over a CBC network of Western Canadian radio stations. Some minor errors occurred inadvertently in the original text. These have been corrected here with the approval of the author.)
Surviving political observers of fifty or more years ago might tell you of an unusual group of men. They were the more prominent adherents of a third Canadian party, the Socialist Party. Most of them are now dead.
Compared with politicians of today these pioneer Socialist organizers were more than unorthodox; they were almost a race apart. Dyed in the wool internationalists, they never waved the flag, never used what they considered to be nebulosities: the "people," "justice," "liberty," etc. They served without pay, relying upon literature sales and passing the hat. And since their appeal was directed almost entirely to wage-workers and pioneer farmers we may well conclude they amassed little wealth. For transportation, they were driven from one meeting-place to another by "democrat" or "cutters." On long hops and in moments of financial stress they might utilize a "blind baggage," or an empty box-car. Some travelled on foot in visiting the mining, lumbering, and railway construction camps of British Columbia.
Perhaps even more noteworthy than their perseverance was their indifference to personal advancement. When it came time to name candidates in provincial elections it was difficult to persuade the more capable ones to stand, even though the chance of being elected was often favorable. Some of them insisted they were moving away from the working-class instead of with it. However, several Party members were elected.
Some years ago I took occasion to ask the then Clerk of the Executive Council for Alberta if he remembered Chas. M. O'Brien, M.L.A.
"Do I?" was the prompt reply. "Who doesn't? He was the most singular person to sit in the House."
O'Brien was just that — singular. An Ontario Irishman, squat, balding, heavy of build and with a protruding chin he was the type of person one turned to look at a second time. And he was truly a "stump" speaker. As a log-sawyer in B.C. "Charley" had utilized many a noon hour standing upon a stump of a tree they had felled, and using his partner as audience.
When he entered Alberta's Legislature Chamber that memorable day in 1909 and saw his seat ranged with those of His Majesty's opposition, the O'Brien chin stuck out farther than usual: "Mr. Speaker, up until now I have always picked my own company. Since I am to be the only opposition here, I would like please, to have my seat placed at an equal distance between these groups."
The wish was granted. The only Socialist member of an Alberta legislature was seated near to the Speaker's left hand, and where it was difficult for anyone addressing "Mr. Speaker" not to address O'Brien in the same gesture.
O'Brien's repartee was lightning-like. Once, when addressing a frontier picnic audience and referring to pre-election railway surveys then current, he was interrupted by a back-country homesteader: "Where's that road goin', O'Brien?" The latter's smile and reply were flashed in the same instant: "It's hard for me to say; I don't know where you live."
Another Socialist crusader, Charles Lestor, was equally active in Western Canada. Indeed it might be said Lestor spoke to more open-air audiences than anyone. There is a busy intersection in down-town Vancouver still referred to as "Lestor's Corner"; and it is doubtful if there was a city or sizable town here or in Alaska whose central square had not echoed Lestor's voice. Born in London, England, and a blacksmith by trade, he was a rugged man with a great sonorous voice and a mop of steel-gray hair. Lestor never sought public office, but he assisted both directly and indirectly a number who did. One of these latter lacked only a few votes of being one of the earliest local legislators for the Territory of Alaska.
Only a few years ago a friend of mine visiting London, was leaving Hyde Park after listening to some soap-box speaker when he was stopped by a friendly police constable: "Don't go yet. See that old chap over there with his arms folded? He's almost certain to get onto the box next, and he's really got something to say." My friend waited; the old gentleman did mount the stand — he was Charles Lestor.
It was after reading the "Appeal to Reason," (a well-known periodical of the time) then listening to Lestor, that prompted Alfred Budden to burn the unsalable wheat on his Saskatchewan farm and take to the road in behalf of, as he put it, "a saner system of society." Budden family were Barr Colonists, and originally from the south of England. "Alf" had completely shed his English accent and was a polished platform personality, becoming one of North America's leading exponents of Marxian socialism. He stayed with the road until almost alone; later becoming full time lecturer at a large clinic.
Far different from Budden in technique was Wilfred Gribble. Wilfred, an ex-sailor from Queen Victoria's Navy, was a short, stocky man with a pointed beard, and bold challenging look. He was said to draw poorly as an indoor speaker, but could be relied upon to attract a crowd on most any street corner in the West, and there were very few corners that he did not test out. Although he had sailed the seven seas and traversed much of the earth's surface Gribble never lost his cockney accent. He was a forceful, determined figure, the type of Englishman that seems to be disappearing and the kind our children love to read about. Once, in Central Saskatchewan, he travelled 100 miles in 40 below weather to address a meeting in a country schoolhouse. On arriving, and when bent over the hot stove, a lady asked him: "Mr. Gribble, when do you expect this new social order you talk about?" Looking up while removing an icicle from his moustache, Gribble answered: "Madam, we're working on it now."
Admired by his enemies and adored by his friends, Wilfred Gribble wrote poetry in his "spare time."
D. G. MacKenzie was the very antithesis of Gribble; a tall, thin, stoopped, shy and delicate man. He was born in India of a military family. He never ventured on a public platform either indoors or out-of-doors. But as editor of the "Western Clarion" he was a tower of strength to his Party. His unique style and ability to manipulate words, together with his vast store-house of knowledge, fitted him perfectly for the task. His writings were prolific, one of his productions, "Stupidus and Sapiens," being reprinted many times.
MacKenzie was the only paid official of the Socialist Party — his "salary" was $50 per month. At a Party convention in 1911 certain delegates emphatically urged that this meager sum be increased to $100. Then "Mac" made one of his few public speeches by stating simply that he would be fully satisfied if he only got the $50 he was supposed to be getting — at the time he was averaging about $30. MacKenzie received several offers from wealthy journals to join their staffs but rejected them all, continuing in the service of the cause he loved.
A far different type of editor was E. T. Kingsley, founder of the "Clarion." Due to a railway accident in his young days Kingsley was minus both feet. But he was a big man, a 250 pounder and his rugged physique coupled with an indomitable will kept him going. He was a masterly lecturer and deadly debater. His bald head made him look bigger, all the more formidable. Once a debate was arranged for him with a popular politician in Nelson, B. C. They were complete strangers. Kingsley was late in arriving and the local man had begun his speech when the former hoisted his huge bulk onto the platform beside him. Some reason, possibly a dread of things to come, made the local man rudely refer to Kingsley's shining scalp. When the latter's turn came he began: "My hairless head appears to cause my friend some concern. It doesn't worry me. Furthermore, one might better be bald outside than inside as would seem to be the case with this gentleman."
No review of those old Socialist stalwarts could be complete without H. M. Fitzgerald. He was the orator par excellence, a platform general with possibly no equal in all Canada. When he spoke in Vancouver's Empress Theatre, with a seating capacity of 1800, there was never a vacant seat and many stood along the aisles. On one occasion he spoke in Calgary and the "Calgary Herald" account ran: "We thought our own R. B. Bennett could orate, but we take it all back. This red-headed Irishman from Vancouver puts R. B. in the position of a speaker's helper."
Fitzgerald was a slight, wiry man with wavy auburn hair and weak eyes covered by heavy spectacles, but with a voice that rang like a church-bell. He was eager to take on all comers, "anywhere at any hour" in upholding verbally the Socialist position; and it was said those few who accepted his challenge, unlike Ray Robinson, never asked for a return bout. All who heard Fitzgerald attested to his unforgettable platform figure, swaying in rhythmic motion to the rich resonant voice, to his picturesque idiom and his scathing denunciations.
Almost all the pioneer Socialists of Western Canada were British born. They had none of the fanatic's zeal to sustain them, only faith in a humanity they hoped was moving toward a new and better plane of life. They were an exceptional company.