“The place of childhood provides the seal of identity.” This epigram opens the first chapter of Roland Penner’s memoir, Growing Up ‘Red’ in Winnipeg’s North End. It holds true even for those of us who grew up only “pink” – i.e. whose parents were CCFers rather than Communists, and who as a result never set foot in the Ukrainian Labour Temple at Pritchard and McGregor. Just how much Winnipeg’s working-class political culture sealed our identities was brought home to me last year when I sent my brother an article that touched on the strike at the Hurtig Fur Company in the early 1930s – during the course of which my father, while on the picket line, had his head split open by a scab. My brother, who was born in 1934, responded: “You know, when I was a little boy I used to get confused about whether the really bad guy’s name was Hurtig or Hitler.”
To be sure, the industrial side of Winnipeg’s history of class conflict makes very little appearance in this memoir – apart from a few sentences that recall Roland standing as a teenager “on the bald prairie with the temperature at about wind chill -50°F, handing out union leaflets” as part of an organizing drive at a plant on the outskirts of Transcona. This is hardly surprising, since the Penner family was preeminent for its involvement on the political side of the labour movement – so much so that on one memorable May Day, after some five thousand paraded along Portage Avenue and Main Street to end up at Market Square in front of the old City Hall, the three speakers who addressed them were Penner’s politically passionate and fiery mother, Rose; his eleven-year-old “child orator” brother, Norman; and, of course, his venerable father, Jacob, the famous Communist alderman for Ward Three. (Jacob Penner was “almost always dressed in a conservatively cut three-piece wool suit, a shirt with a stiff celluloid collar, a firmly knotted woolen tie, a carefully blocked and immaculately clean fedora, and sometimes, over his shoes, spats.”)
The story told here of the Penner family is a fascinating one, from its origins among downwardly mobile Mennonite ancestors who once owned an estate on the west bank of the Dniepr River to Jacob’s “form of marriage without clergy” to a Jewish orphan from Odessa, Rose Shapak. One of the most revealing aspects of north Winnipeg’s ethnic culture is uncovered here, as Jacob the Red, before his election as alderman in 1934 at the age of 54, moves from job to job for some two decades, including as a candy salesman with the help of Rose’s connection to the well-off Galpern family. Just as class conflict tore the Jewish community apart in a strike like the one at Hurtig’s, so did family ties often transcend the sharpest of differences in the class politics of Winnipeg’s North End.
The family anecdotes in this book are so profuse that many of the best are found in the footnotes. One of Rose’s nephews goes to the U.S.S.R. in 1933 and gets swept away five years later in Stalin’s murder machine. One of Jake’s brothers-in-law returns home after a visit to Germany in 1936, and becomes a supporter of the Winnipeg Nazi Party. Shortly after Jake is sent off to an internment camp as a Communist in 1940, sixteen-year-old Roland and his twin sister Ruthie are home alone listening to “Saturday Afternoon at the Met” (while Rose is in Ottawa heading up a delegation of wives petitioning for improvements in the camp’s conditions), and the RCMP come barging in waving a search warrant. As one Mountie moves to turn off the radio, Ruthie screams at him: “In this house no one turns off the opera!”
Indeed, so plentiful are Penner’s family anecdotes that one terrific example, which he told when Norman was honoured at a banquet at the University of Manitoba some two decades ago, is left out of this book. As I recall it (and have often retold it), when Norman marched into the principal’s office of his grade school to complain that the phys-ed instructor was picking on him because he was a Communist, the principal sternly and accusingly said (so everyone in the outer office could hear): “You’re a Communist?!” And then, after closing the door, he whispered, “So am I.”
Penner’s admiration for his parents’ Communist politics is palpable, and he explicitly contrasts this with the way other “red diaper babies” like Jim Laxer and Stan Gray have written disparagingly of their parents’ politics. Quoting Laxer to the effect that truth was “a very slippery commodity” in his home, Roland proudly writes: “That was not our experience…. We asked many questions and Dad and our mother told us what they sincerely believed to be true.” His father remains his “primary inspiration” – a man who “fought for the rights of others at great cost to himself” – and this is why his parents commitment to the “Glowing Dream” forms the title of his memoir. Yet, one might have wished that Roland had offered a more sober reflection on his father’s generation of Canadian Communists, not only with regard to what they knew or didn’t know about Stalin’s crimes in the U.S.S.R. or to the limitations of “democratic centralist” life inside the party, but also to the reformist strategy it pursued in the public arena.
Thus, we learn that Jacob Penner left the Socialist Party of Canada in 1911 because he felt it was too oriented toward raising class consciousness through Marxist education alone. He devoted himself to a life of “unceasing struggle for [the] daily needs and pressing problems” of working people in the belief that this practical activity would raise their consciousness as “the essential feature in the development of a socialist revolution.” Yet, when he died in 1965, aged 85 (having only retired as alderman three years earlier), the Winnipeg Free Press made a point of saying that he was a “political curiosity” who drew much of his support from people “who cared nothing for politics but who admired his efficiency and ability and who believed that he worked for the underdog.” Penner quotes this approvingly, without raising the question of how far this achievement nevertheless stood from the development of the class consciousness needed for supporting socialist revolution, which had been Jake’s original purpose. Would more attention to creative Marxist education have produced a better result? This memoir doesn’t go there, perhaps because Roland, from the time of his own engagement in student politics at the University of Manitoba in the late 1940s, adopted a stance “quite in keeping with my father’s approach to political activity on an issue-by-issue basis.” This approach did not mean that he often lost his bearings on the Left of the political spectrum – far from it. But as the main part of the memoir turns to cover Roland’s own adult political life, this “issue-by-issue” approach is visible all along the way: from his slow drift away from the CP (rather than exiting in flames as his brother did in 1957); to his joining Joe Zuken’s law firm; to his foundational role in the establishment of legal aid in Manitoba; to his almost happenstance decision to join the NDP; to what he calls his “life in government” as attorney general of Manitoba.
The limits of this approach came to a head with his role in the Meech Lake Accord, which he still sees as “a reasonable compromise” on the grounds that, while he agrees with those critics who said that “the separatists would always ask for more,” if the Accord had passed it would have ensured that “their call to break up the country [would have] fallen on less fertile ground.” This is pretty conventional stuff. He reserves his real ire, moreover, for the left critics of the Accord, especially those “many women … influenced by flamboyant statements … by Judy Rebick and the National Action Committee,” who saw the deal as concocted by “men in suits” with the aim of using Quebec’s recognition as a distinct society to override the Charter’s equality provisions (“This is, in my view, nonsense.”) and undermine federal social programs (the likelihood of which he sees as “essentially nil”).
Penner’s decision to side with the pragmatic men in suits against the socialist feminists during the Meech Lake controversy in 1987 was presaged by the controversy over the stand he took in 1983 over the newly opened Morgentaler abortion clinic in Winnipeg. In justifying why as attorney general he could not “authorize a blanket stay of proceedings” with respect to criminal charges against Morgentaler, Penner clearly sees himself as properly following the advice Justice Samuel Freedman gave him when he invited Penner to lunch after his appointment: the Attorney General “must not be political.” But if Penner now admits that his Morgentaler moment “still comes back to haunt me from time to time,” this may be because he knows very well (as he puts it in the memoir in relation to his discussion of the task force on legal aid in the 1970s) that “the legal system itself is so much the product of the establishment it serves that it cannot be turned into the front line for law reform and even more obviously for social transformation.” It most certainly can’t if attorneys general act as if their roles are non-political.
It is impossible to do full justice to Penner’s memoir without going even further over the word limit CD’s editors have allotted me. Suffice to say that this review touches upon only a few aspects of the rich and varied life recounted in this book. I especially enjoyed making the connection between Penner’s many entrepreneurial activities during his Communist boyhood in the 1930s with his “life as an impressario,” when he ran the Co-op Bookstore in the late 1950s and was responsible for bringing Pete Seeger and Odetta, among many others, to sing before Winnipeg audiences.
For me, at least, this enjoyable read was enhanced by being able to catch Penner out on such errors as telling us that Lenin “famously said that communism equals socialism plus electric power” (he actually said “soviets and electric power”). Or the misnumbering of the Chapter Two endnotes, so that the citation for the homage Penner pays to the great Fritz Hansen, the American running back who led the Blue Bombers to their first Grey Cup in 1935, amusingly offers sources to the On to Ottawa Trek of that year. The only unfortunate result of this misnumbering is that we never learn who actually coined that wise phrase: “The place of childhood provides the seal of identity.”
Leo Panitch (1945 – 2020) was Professor Emeritus of Politics at York University in Toronto. He was co-editor of the Socialist Register and author of several books, most recently Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, co-authored with Colin Leys and published by Verso.
This article appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension (Indian Country (in the city)).