J. S. Woodsworth

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J.S. Woodsworth
J.S. Woodsworth

James Shaver Woodsworth (July 29, 1874March 21, 1942) was a pioneer in the Canadian social democratic movement. Following more than two decades ministering to the poor and the working class, J. S. Woodsworth left the church to lay the foundation for, and become the first leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a social democratic party which later became the New Democratic Party (NDP).



The oldest of six children, Woodsworth was born in Applewood Farm, near Toronto, Ontario, to James and Esther Woodsworth. His father was a Methodist minister, and his strong faith had a powerful factor in shaping his later life. His grandfather, Richard Woodsworth, had opposed William Lyon Mackenzie in the 1837 Rebellions. As a result, Woodsworth had an appreciation of the value of both social responsibility and tradition.

Early ministry

The Woodsworth family moved to Brandon in 1885, where his father became a Superintendent of Methodist Missions. Following in his father's footsteps, J.S. was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1896 and spent two years as a circuit preacher in Manitoba before going to study at Victoria College in Toronto and at Oxford University in England. While studying at Oxford University in 1899, he became interested in social welfare work. During his stay, the Boer War broke out, and Woodsworth was immersed in discussions about the moral values of imperialism. In 1902, following his return to Canada, he took a position as pastor at Grace Church in Winnipeg, and in 1903, married Lucy Staples.

In this role, he worked with immigrant slum dwellers in Winnipeg and preached a social gospel which called for the Kingdom of God "here and now". It was not long, however, before Woodsworth became restive as a minister. He had difficulty accepting Methodist dogma, and questioned the wisdom of the Church's emphasis on individual salvation without considering the social context in which an individual lived. In a statement of explanation presented to the Manitoba Methodist Church Conference on 1907, he cited concerns with matters such as baptism, tests for those entering the Church, and fasting as a religious exercise. He tendered his resignation, but it was refused and he was offered the opportunity to assume the Superintendency of All People's Mission in Winnipeg's North End. For six years he worked with the poor and immigrant families, and during this time, he wrote and campaigned for compulsory education, juvenile courts, the construction of playgrounds, and other causes which supported social welfare.

Early social activism

As a Mission worker, Woodsworth had the opportunity to see firsthand the appalling circumstances in which many of his fellow citizens lived, and began writing the first of several books decrying the failure to provide workers with a living wage and arguing for the need to create a more egalitarian and compassionate state. In 1908, his Strangers Within Our Gates was published, followed in 1911 by My Neighbour. Both of these books remain basic reading in the history of social practice and reform in Canada. Woodsworth established The People's Forum in 1910, a twice-each-Sunday series of lectures, concerts, and discussions presented by various of Winnipeg's ethnic groups. This series ran for seven years.

Woodsworth left All People's in 1913 to accept an appointment as Secretary of the Canadian Welfare League. During this time he travelled extensively throughout the three Canadian prairie provinces, investigating social conditions, and writing and presenting lectures on his findings. By 1914, he had become a socialist and an admirer of the British Labour Party.

In 1916, during World War I, he was asked to support the National Services Registration, better known as "conscription". As church ministers were being asked to preach about the duty of men to serve in the military, Woodsworth decided to publish his objections. As a pacifist, he was morally opposed to the Church being used as a vehicle of recruitment, and was instantly shut down by the Bureau of Social Research, where he was working at the time. In 1917, he received his final pastoral posting to Gibson's Landing, BC. Woodsworth resigned from the Church in 1918 because of its support of the war. "I thought that as a Christian minister, I was a messenger of the Prince of Peace," he is quoted as saying. His resignation was accepted.

Political involvement

Woodsworth and his family moved to British Columbia, where, despite his slight stature, he took work as a stevedore. He joined the union, helped organize the Federated Labour Party of British Columbia, and wrote for the labor newspaper.

In 1919, he set out on a tour of Western Canada, and arrived back in Winnipeg just as the Winnipeg General Strike was underway. He immediately began presenting addresses at strike meetings. When the Royal North West Mounted Police charged into a crowd of strikers demonstrating in the centre of Winnipeg, killing one person and injuring 30, Woodsworth led the campaign of protest, and soon became involved in organising the Manitoba Independent Labour Party.

Woodsworth briefly returned to British Columbia in 1920, to campaign as a Federated Labour Party candidate in Vancouver. He received 7444 votes, but was not elected to the provincial legislature.

He became editor of the Western Labour News. A week after the editor of the strike bulletin was arrested and charged with seditious libel, Woodsworth found himself in the same position, but was released on bail after five days' imprisonment, and the charges were never brought to trial. These events were instrumental in establishing Woodsworth's credentials with the labour movement and in propelling him to a twenty-year tenure in public office. They also confirmed in his mind the importance of social activism, and he became a confirmed socialist.

In December 1921, Woodsworth was elected the Independent Labour Party Member of Parliament for the riding of Winnipeg North, a constituency he served until his death. His first resolution concerned unemployment insurance, and even though he was informed by the Clerk of the House of Commons that bills that involved federal spending had to be presented by the government, he nonetheless continued to press his case for constitutional reform, until some 14 years later, the government agreed to strike a committee to discuss constitutional difficulties. During this time, Woodsworth was an unflagging advocate for the worker, the farmer, and the immigrant.

Rejecting violent revolution and any association with the new Communist Party of Canada, Woodsworth became a master of parliamentary procedure and used the House of Commons as a public platform. He sat with the Progressive Party of Canada and was a leader of its radical faction, the Ginger Group.

When the Canadian Liberal Party nearly lost the 1925 election, Woodsworth was able to bargain his vote in the House for a promise from the Liberal government to enact an old age pension plan. Introduced in 1927, the plan is the cornerstone of Canada's social security system. In 1932, Woodsworth toured Europe as a member of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva.

Missing image
J.S. and Lucy Woodsworth in the late 1930s

Formation of the CCF

When the Great Depression struck, Woodsworth and the ILP joined with various other labour and socialist groups in 1932 to found a new socialist party, 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."

In 1933, the CCF became the official opposition in British Columbia, and in 1934 it took over the same duties in Saskatchewan. In the 1935 election, seven CCF Members of Parliament were returned and the party captured 8.9 percent of the popular vote. But the CCF was never able to break through Canada's two party system. In particular, the enormous prestige of the long-time Liberal Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, prevented the CCF displacing the Liberals as the main party of the left, as happened in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

In 1939, the majority of CCF members refused to support Woodsworth's opposition to Canada's entry into World War II. During the debate on the declaration of war, Mackenzie King said: "There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lay on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament."

Nevertheless Woodsworth was almost alone in his opposition to the war, and his days as a party leader were over. He was re-elected to the House but in September 1940, he suffered a stroke, and over the next 18 months, his health deteriorated. He died in Vancouver, British Columbia in early 1942, and his ashes were scattered in the Strait of Georgia.

Woodsworth's daughter, Grace MacInnis, followed in his footsteps as a CCF politician.

Woodsworth's legacy

J.S. Woodsworth is regarded as a seminal influence on Canadian social policy, and many of the social concepts he pioneered are represented in contemporary programs such as social assistance and medicare, which are held as fundamentally important across the Canadian political spectrum today. While the party he was central in founding, today called the New Democratic Party, has largely abandoned Woodsworth's idealistic vision of a socialist Canada, Woodsworth's memory is still held in great respect in the party, and in Canada.

Woodsworth College of the University of Toronto, and a high school in Ottawa, Ontario, are named after him.

First Leader

CCF leaders

Succeeded by:
Major Coldwell

Suggested reading

  • Strangers Within Our Gates JS Woodsworth (1909) Doreen Stephen Books, Toronto, Ontario
  • My Neighbour JS Woodsworth (1911) University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario
  • A Man to Remember Grace McInness/JS Woodsworth, Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, Ontario

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