A Short History of the Communist Party of Canada



A Party of a New Type

From the earliest years of our country’s history, Canadians have fought for independence, democracy and social advance. We honour those who led many of these struggles — Louis-Joseph Papineau in Quebec, William Lyon MacKenzie in Ontario, and Louis Riel on the Prairies.

With the development of capitalism in Canada, a new exploited class was brought into existence — the working class. Since then the struggle between capital and labour has constituted the main driving force of our history.

Well back in the nineteenth century, some Canadians began to study the great revolutionary ideas of the founders of Scientific Socialism — Karl Marx and Frederick Engels — who saw philosophy not just as a means of interpreting the world, but of changing it.

In 1904, the Socialist Party was founded. Later, the Socialist Party of North America emerged, stressing the importance of merging Marxist theory with the day-to-day struggles of the working class and the people.

It was from these roots in the soil of Canada that the Communist Party was born and grew.

The First World War — a war fought by imperialist powers for the re-division of the wealth they had plundered from the world’s peoples — inflicted death and untold misery upon humankind. In Canada it brought instant fortunes to greedy profiteers, while sending 60,000 young Canadians to their death. Inscription, imposed by the ruling class, trampled on the national rights of Quebec and the democratic rights of all Canadians.

Then, a great event shook the world; the working class of Russia, under the leadership of Lenin and the Communists, overthrew their Czar and their capitalists, grasped state power and took their country out of the imperialist war, and began to build the first socialist society in human history.

The Great October Socialist Revolution, and the actions of 19 imperialist states — including Canada — to intervene in Russia to smash it, had a galvanizing impact on organized Canadian workers. Combined with growing post-war unemployment and misery, working class struggles from Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia erupted, reflected most notably in the famous Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

At this critical juncture, many radicalized workers began to see the necessity of combining economic struggle with political and ideological struggle. As Tim Buck noted in Canada and the Russian Revolution: In these circumstances, it was inevitable that discussions would spring up among the workers around the question “What is next, where do we go from here?”

The answer came in a growing call to form a party of a new type, based on scientific socialism and working class internationalism, a party which fights for reforms, but rejects reformism as a substitute for socialist revolution.

In late May of 1921, such a party was founded at a convention held under conditions of illegality in a barn on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario. The Communist Party of Canada, and its legal sister party, the Workers’ Party of Canada, adopted a revolutionary program and party constitution, launched the Party press, and immediately set about organizing workers.

The “Hungry Thirties” and the Fightback

The onset of the Great Depression inflicted tremendous suffering and hardship on working people. Factories closed, mass unemployment swept the country, farmers were evicted, and poverty conditions affected the lives of all toilers – in the cities and countryside alike. There was no unemployment insurance, and “relief” was doled out as charity under the most humiliating conditions.

The Communist Party took the lead in fighting back. One of the most important early initiatives was the founding of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) and later, the Worker’s Unity League (WUL) to lead the struggles for industrial unionism across Canada, and to organize the unorganized.

When the right-wing trade union leaders gave up all pretence of fighting for their members, the Party and the Worker’s Unity League took the initiative, leading 90 per cent of the strikes during the “Hungry Thirties.” Communists played a leading role in organizing most of the industrial unions across the country during these years – in the steel mills, auto plants, rubber and chemical factories, and in Canada’s forests and fisheries.

Hoping to stem the growing militancy, the Canadian state resorted to repression, starting with the bloody RCMP attack on striking miners in Estevan, Saskatchewan in 1931 which left three workers dead, and 13 others wounded.

This wave of repression was met with the formation of the Canadian Labour Defense League (CLDL), which played a vital role in organizing legal defense for jailed strikers and support for their families. Not least, the CLDL mobilized mass public opposition to the arrest and imprisonment of leaders and militants of the Communist Party itself, including Tim Buck and seven other leaders of the CPC incarcerated in 1931, under the notoriously anti-democratic Section 98 of the Criminal Code.

The CPC also helped organize the unemployed to fight for “work and wages,” and it began a country-wide movement for the establishment of unemployment insurance. The organization of the Relief Camp Workers Union in B.C., and the undertaking of the historic “On-to-Ottawa” Trek in 1935, swung public opinion in support of the plight of the unemployed, helped to defeat the Conservative government of “Iron Heel” Bennett, and laid the foundation for the achievement of our present Unemployment Insurance Program years later.

At the same time the class struggle was intensifying in Canada, the menace of fascism was growing in Europe, Asia, and in North America itself. Starting with the Japanese imperialist invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Canadian Communists were among the first to alert fellow Canadians of the growing danger.

The first major battle against the fascist threat in Europe itself arose in Spain, when Franco’s troops, with the direct aid of Mussolini and Hitler, turned on the democratically-elected government and launched the Spanish Civil War. Internationalist assistance to the beleaguered democratic forces in Spain came from around the world, including Canada.

With the assistance of the CPC, 1,200 young Canadians made their way to Spain to form the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion of the International Brigades. Many perished on its blood-soaked battlefields, the first to fall in the struggle against fascism, and for the cause of democracy and freedom. These “pre-mature anti-fascists” – as they were wrongly dubbed by the Canadian establishment – were true selfless heroes whose sacrifices and contribution to Canadian history must never be forgotten.

Dr. Norman Bethune, noted Canadian surgeon, early advocate of medicare, and member of the CPC, was among those who went to Spain. Dr. Bethune organized the first blood-transfusion unit ever established in battlefield conditions.

Later, Dr. Bethune’s devotion to the cause of human liberty took him to China to help organize medical services in the Communist-led units fighting the Japanese aggressors. There he died of an infection while operating on wounded soldiers.

The early period of the Second World War – the so-called “phoney war” – was a difficult period for the Party. The CPC believed that Britain, Canada and the other imperialist powers were not mounting a serious resistance to the Nazi onslaught, and were intent rather on turning Hitler’s forces against the Soviet Union. The Party therefore opposed Canadian participation, and when the federal government introduced the War Measures Act, hundreds of Party members were rounded up and interned for opposing the war effort. Even after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, when the CPC changed its position and threw its wholehearted support behind the anti-fascist struggle, many Communists remained in detention, while others gave their lives on the battlefields of Europe.

Despite the tense political situation, Communists scored many important electoral gains during this period. Dorise Nielsen was elected in 1940 as the first Communist MP from North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and Fred Rose was later elected MP from Montreal. Many other Communists, running under the new Labour Progressive Party banner, gained provincial and municipal seats both during and immediately following the war.

The Post-war Years

No sooner had the Second World War ended, did the notorious “Cold War” begin, inflicting dire pressures and sacrifices on individual Communists and the Party as a whole. Anti-Communism and McCarthyite “witch hunts” were used to isolate and drive out Communists and other left-wing and progressive activists from the organized labour and democratic movements of the people. The CPC suffered incredible setbacks throughout the many years during which anti-communist hysteria and repression held sway.

Despite these tremendous pressures, and despite divisions which arose inside the Party during this period, the Party continued its activities on many fronts, under the capable leadership of Tim Buck (general secretary from 1929-64), Leslie Morris (1964-66), and William Kashtan (1966-88).

One of the most critical tasks to which the CPC devoted its attention was the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament. From the earliest days of the “nuclear age”, and the campaign to prevent the placement of nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, through the campaign against the Cruise missile and against Reagan’s “Star Wars”, the CPC has stood — sometimes almost alone — for an independent Canadian foreign policy based on peace and disarmament, including Canada’s withdrawal from NATO and NORAD.

The Party has also consistently fought in defense of Canadian sovereignty, against the economic, political and military subordination of Canada to the whims of U.S. imperialism. It has opposed the sell-out of Canadian natural resources to U.S. and other transnational corporations, and has actively campaigned against continentalist policies, including the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and, most recently, the NAFTA sell-out.

The Communist Party has also championed the national rights of the people of Quebec. Very early in its development, the CPC came to understand that Quebec constitutes a nation within Canada and, as such, must enjoy the fundamental right of self- determination, up to and including separation, if the people of Quebec so decide.

Our Party was also the first political party to Canada to actively oppose the centuries-long oppression of Canada’s First Nations, and has campaigned to a just resolution of all outstanding land claims, and the granting of self-government to the First Nations.

For many years, our Party has fought for the realization of a new, democratic constitution for Canada which recognizes the fundamental national rights of Quebec and the inherent rights of the First Nations. We continue to call for a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly to construct a new constitutional framework, based on an equal, democratic and voluntary partnership of all of Canada’s founding nations.

The CPC has also been a party of unwavering internationalism. Basing itself on the famous watchwords of the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of our lands, unite!”, the Communist Party has been in the forefront of countless anti-imperialist campaigns.

The Future of the Communist Party of Canada

The crisis of socialism in the former Soviet Union and other socialist states in Eastern Europe (1989-91) constituted a world- historic reversal for the cause of socialism world-wide. Not only did the events lead to the dismemberment of the socialist community and tilt the world balance of forces sharply in favour of imperialism. They also had a staggering ideological impact, leading many Communists and other socialist-minded people around the world to question the possibility of winning people’s power and constructing socialism in the new conditions.

In Canada, these international developments – combined with internal party weaknesses – sparked a profound crisis inside the ranks of the Communist Party. A majority of the leadership at the time, led by former general secretary George Hewison (1988-92), began to abandon Marxism-Leninism as the basis of the Party’s revolutionary perspective and moved to liquidate the Party itself, seeking to replace it with a rather nebulous left, social-democratic variant.

The protracted ideological and political crisis created much confusion and disorientation within the ranks of the Party, and paralysed both its independent and united front work for over two years. The vast majority of the membership, however, actively resisted this rightward, revisionist and ultimately liquidationist policy, and the membership ultimately prevailed in saving the CPC.

The 30th CPC Convention (December 1992) marked an historic turning point in the struggle to save the Party from liquidation. It reaffirmed the revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist orientation of the CPC, launched a new party press, the People’s Voice, and elected a new leadership to rebuild the Party in the aftermath of the crisis. Despite this severe setback, the CPC has now re- established its presence in most parts of the country, and both Party and press are now growing again across Canada.

Our 75th anniversary comes at a critical time for working people, both in Canada and around the world. Imperialism, led by U.S. imperialism, is ever more brazen in dictating its will to the rest of the world, especially now that the camp of socialism is much smaller and weaker. Canada itself is in the grip of a deep economic, political and structural crisis. Pro-corporate, neo-conservative policies by governments at every level threaten to destroy many if not all of the economic, social and political gains achieved by the working class and its democratic allies over the last half century. The unity of the country itself is in question.

And yet, at the same time we see hopeful signs that the pendulum is again in motion, back to the left and progressive forces. Virtually everywhere around the world, the working class and mass democratic movements are increasing their actions.

Among the peoples of the former socialist countries, the left forces are growing rapidly. Cuba and other socialist countries are continuing to defend and build socialism despite increased pressures from imperialism. And the left forces are gaining ground in India, Italy, an many other countries as well.

In Canada too, the class struggle is intensifying in response to big business and government attacks on our jobs, living standards, social services, and democratic rights.

In celebrating this important anniversary, we rededicate ourselves to the principles and aspirations which bind us – to struggle to construct a new society free of exploitation, racism, sexism and oppression…. for a Socialist Canada!


This history was prepared and published on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the CPC in 1996.