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A Man of Vision: James Shaver Woodsworth, Leader of the CCF

For the week of Monday August 1, 2005

On August 1, 1932, J.S. Woodsworth was chosen as a party leader at the founding convention of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Calgary, Alberta. In their Regina Manifesto adopted at the 1933 meeting in Regina, Saskatchewan, the CCF proclaimed their aims of eliminating capitalism to make way for socialism in Canada.

J.S. Woodsworth about the time of his marriage – 1904
© Library and Archives Canada / C-055449
Before the founding of the CCF, Woodsworth was a Methodist minister who became involved in politics because of his social gospel beliefs. He soon set the stage for social reform. His greatest achievement in parliament was bargaining with Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1926 for the Old-Age Pension Plan. In the 1920s and 1930s Woodsworth met with many groups that represented farmers and labourers. These groups developed into the CCF and advocated Fabian socialism – gradual rather than revolutionary means for spreading socialist principles. Woodsworth served as the conscience of parliament, defender of civil liberties, and campaigned for the unemployed during the 1930s. By that time the CCF spread into several provincial legislatures and by 1940 eight Members of Parliament were elected.

As the Second World War developed, the CCF was split between those who supported Canada’s entry in the war and Woodsworth’s belief in neutrality. He narrowly won his last election in 1940, and died on March 21, 1942. Woodsworth was always a pacifist and opposed any violent means to power. This explains his opposition to the Communist Party and their theory of revolution, despite their common aim of socialism over capitalism. 

First National Convention of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (C.C.F.) Party
© Library and Archives Canada / C-029298

The ideals held by Woodsworth are reflected in the aims of the Regina Manifesto:

The C.C.F. is a federation of organizations whose purpose is the establishment in Canada, of a Co-operative Commonwealth in which the principle regulating production, distribution and exchange will be the supplying of human needs and not the making of profits.

…Nor shall we interfere with cultural rights of racial or religious minorities. What we seek is a proper collective organization of our economic resources such as will make possible a much greater degree of leisure and a much richer individual life for every citizen.

With time, their influence spread to other provinces and federally, as the CCF merged with other groups to form the New Democratic Party. As the first leader of the CCF, James Shaver Woodsworth was designated a National Historic Person in 1972, and commemorated with a plaque in 1974 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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