In a fascinating memoir, the American award-winning and once blacklisted film writer, Walter Bernstein, warns about the dangers of looking back by reminding us of what happened to Lot’s wife: she turned into a pillar of salt. So, if perchance that happens to me, all I can ask is that you throw a little of that salt over your left shoulder.
Musing on the issue of identity, Nancy Huston, in Losing North, wrote: “The place of one’s childhood provides the seal of identity.” In my case, the place of my childhood was the historic North End of Winnipeg, where I was born and raised. Having now lived outside the North End for close to thirty years, have I “lost north”? Have I lost my seal of identity, my early sense of direction?
My father was born in 1880; my mother, in 1890. Both were born in what was then southern Russia, (now Ukraine), my father in a Mennonite community near Ekatrinoslav on the banks of the Dneiper, and my mother, barely 150 kilometres further south, in the Jewish ghetto of the port of Odessa where the Dneiper flows into the Black Sea.
My parents share certain events, which became the turning points in their radicalization. For my father, these events included the Bryansky metalworkers strike in 1902 in Ekatrinoslav, which he witnessed. And, for my mother, it was the General Strike in Odessa in 1905. Both of these strikes were brutally suppressed by the Cossacks on orders from the Tsar.
As a fifteen-year-old candy-factory worker, my mother was a participant in the 1905 general strike, and she was also a witness to the contemporaneous massacre of supporters of the mutineers on the Battleship Potemkin, vividly portrayed by Eisenstein in the film of the same name. Fleeing from these events and a concurrent pogrom against the Jews in the Odessa ghetto, she and her twin sister found their way, with the assistance of refugee organizations, to Winnipeg in early 1907.
My father, the eldest son of a large Mennonite family, began his questioning of orthodoxy when, as a very young student in a teachers’ college (he was only twelve when he began the four-year course) he came into contact with what we would now call “bourgeois democrats.” They were protesting the autocratic rule of the czar and demanding a form of parliamentary democracy. By the age of seventeen, in a land surveyors’ college (having abandoned teaching), he was in contact with underground political meetings. These young, social-democratic activists were engaged in a study of Marxism, and in their illegal leaflets were calling not for reform but rather the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy. This experience and my father’s deep sympathy for the plight of landless peasants (about whom he later wrote) led to his life-long commitment to socialism by the time he was eighteen. But fearing for his safety, his family pleaded with him to join them in their proposed migration to Winnipeg.
In 1904, though reluctant, he agreed. Within a year of arriving in Winnipeg, he was haunting the hallways of the Trades and Labour Hall on James Street, asking unionists if they knew of any socialists. He soon found several and, with them, in 1906, formed the first Winnipeg branch of the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC).
It was not long before a group within the SPC, led by my father and including John Queen and A.A. Heaps, impatient with mere theorizing and the “paralysis of analysis” of the doctrinaire socialists, as well as the so-called “impossibilists” (who claimed to be “in tune with the infinite”) split from the SPC. In 1908, this group formed the first local of the Social Democratic Party of Canada, dedicated to political and union activity, as well as to the study and promotion of Marxism.
In 1921, following the Russian Revolution and with the international support of the Communist International, some 25 members of the most radical wing of the Social Democratic Party of Canada, including my father, met secretly on a farm on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario, to form the Communist Party of Canada. My father was named as western organizer, with the enthusiastic support of my mother!
Red Emma Comes to Town
My father and mother had met partly because of the leading feminist and anarchist of the time, Emma Goldman. “Red Emma,” described by the FBI as “the most dangerous woman in the world,” came to Winnipeg in the spring of 1908 by invitation of the Winnipeg Anarchist Club. At one of her three lectures, my parents first saw one another, before taking a romantic walk in Victoria Park and beginning their courtship (as much cultural and bucolic as political). This culminated in their “marriage” in 1912.
I put “marriage” in quotation marks because, having been convinced by one of Red Emma’s lectures that the religious formality of marriage was an outdated bourgeois convention, they had married “without benefit of clergy.” Indeed, it wasn’t until 1930 that for both personal and political reasons they got legally married. As it happens, the minister who performed the service was the Reverend William Ivens, one of the leaders of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Reverend Ivens had had his ministry with the Methodists revoked in 1919 because of his radical activities and had in 1930 become the minister of the Labour Church.
Red Diaper Babies
In this way, I was born, together with my five siblings, into a deeply committed Communist household and nurtured ideologically and politically in the writings of the “Four Great Teachers”: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Yes – Stalin! This is because, for us and for all international Communists of the time, the Soviet Union was the “mother lode” of socialism and Joseph Stalin – “Uncle Joe” – was its great, good, all-knowing leader.
We were then animated by the glowing dream of a socialist world where equality and justice, freed from capitalist exploitation, would triumph. We believed with almost religious fervour that this was being built in the Soviet Union. It was not until the Khrushchev revelations of 1956 that we had any inkling of the Stalin-initiated Gulag atrocities.
Before 1956, the stories about these atrocities and the obscene “show trials” of the 1930s were part of what we called the “great conspiracy” against the Soviet Union, an organized attempt to destroy the world centre of socialism.
But never, neither then nor later did we believe – as some red diaper babies came to believe – that our parents had lied to us. Our parents were people who well and truly and deeply practiced what they preached, brushing aside the taunts and the hardship of discrimination. They struggled day and night, through thick and thin, not for themselves but for the welfare of the workers of Winnipeg and, indeed, as they thought, the “workers of the world.”
An example. In 1917, my father lost a very good job with the Rosery Florists as chief flower arranger for the social occasions and weddings of the Pitblados, Ashdowns, Alloways and others of that ilk. He was fired because he had been denounced in the Manitoba Free Press for opposing the war and opposing the government’s call for conscription. And, for the next twelve years, with five kids to feed, he eked out a bare living. Then, hired in 1929 as an accountant with the newly formed Workers’ and Farmers’ Co-op (later the Peoples’ Co-op) he at last had sufficient means to support the family.
But when, in October, 1933, he was elected to the Winnipeg City Council, he quit that thirty-dollar-a-week job with the Co-op in exchange for the alderman’s honorarium of $25 per month! “How could you?” my mother exploded. “Rose,” came his reply. “I was elected to serve the people, and I can’t do that part-time.”
To supplement the family income, tired as she was, my mother after dinner would sit at the dining room table and, with her little finger flying, wrap little sugar-sack candies, hour after hour, for a mere pittance for a pound, wrap until she could no longer keep her eyes open.
What was this red diaper baby doing in the years of the Dirty Thirties, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War? Well, for one thing, I became a Young Pioneer, complete with a red kerchief – and, proudly wearing it, I marched every year in May Day parades. Oh, those May Day parades! As many as 5,000 assembled in the Old Market Square – where now ironically stands the Public Safety Building – and marched downtown. We young pioneers marched along, waving ever so proudly, and singing:
One, Two, Three
Pioneers are we
Fighting for the working class
Against the Bourgeoisie!
If May Day fell on a weekday, we stayed home and brought a note to school the next day signed by my father: “Please excuse Roland and Ruth for not attending school. It was a worker’s holiday.” (“Lucky you,” said Miss McBeth. “I had to work.”)
And yes, regularly going door to door selling a magazine, Against War and Fascism! and another, Always Ready!
It was the Dirty Thirties, with a national unemployment rate of over 33 per cent. The worst-hit were the young, single unemployed, riding the rails, herded into labour camps, begging door to door:
I went to the door to beg for some bread,
The lady said, bum, bum, the baker is dead!
Hallelujah, I’m a bum, hallelujah, once again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again.
The On-to-Ottawa trek was to arrive in Regina from Vancouver, due to depart the following day for Winnipeg, to be joined by a thousand more from Manitoba. And our home, already a drop-in centre for the unemployed, seeking and always without fail getting my father’s help – our home was now to be one of many reception centres for the marchers, with dozens of volunteers, preparing food and preparing to billet as many trekkers as we could. But on July 1, 1935 – “Dominion Day,” as it was then called – the On-to-Ottawa Trek, was crushed in Regina in an act of violence unleashed by the Tory prime minister, R.B. “Iron Heel” Bennet, as we called him.
How vividly all of that remains in the memory!
Yes – that and the agony of the Spanish Civil War, personalized for us by the participation of many Manitoban volunteers in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the International Brigade, the celebrated 15th Brigade.
A large map of Spain – I still have it. It was pinned up on a wall in our living room, and, day by agonizing day, we followed the rise and fall of this, the first armed resistance to the fascist aggression.
We learned some of the songs of the International Brigade, including “Peat Bog Soldiers,” which became one of my father’s favourites, and “Viva La Quenza Brigade” (“Long Live the 15th Brigade”).
We revered the heroic Dr. Norman Bethune, and in July, 1937, we heard him speak at the Walker Theatre, just prior to his departure for China. And that is where he died, serving as a front-line surgeon with the Chinese Red Army.
We heard and repeated, almost as catechism, the rallying call of “La Pasionaria.” Dolores Ibbaruri, leader of the Communist Party of Spain: “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees” – and, rallying the defenders of Madrid, she exhorted them: “Non Paseran!” (“They shall not pass!”). But of course, tragically for all of us, the Franco-led fascists did capture Madrid, did crush democracy in Spain – and, with that, World War II was just a year away.
How vividly I recall time spent in the various working-class halls – beautifully called “temples,” where we went with our parents for concerts and banquets and meetings. There were no babysitters for the working poor. The Ukrainian Labour Temple on Pritchard and McGregor still stands. A few blocks further east on Pritchard, the Jewish Liberty Temple. A few blocks further west, the Polish Labour Temple.
The Liberty Temple. A Mrs. Wiseman (not Adele Wiseman’s mother) who lived down the street from the Liberty Temple, named her firstborn son “Liberty.” Six o’clock and suppertime, she stuck her head out the little front porch and yelled in a voice that reached three blocks either way: “LIBERTY!” One could almost hear the applause up and down the street!
(Liberty was certainly more fortunate than the baby girl born to Communist parents living just across the street from us on Polson Avenue East. “What’s her name?” we asked. “Ninel.” “What’s that?” Why, “Lenin” spelled backward! And of course there were the happy times on the street where, in all seasons of the year, we spent more time than inside our Communist household – where we learned to play and to tough it out in the remarkable verbal jousting of the highly politicized North End.
The streets and the schools of the multicultural North End were the places of our childhood. Ralph Brown, Luxton and, of course, that remarkable crucible of politics, culture and ambition: St. John’s Tech.
But all too soon these happy and exciting times came to an abrupt – and for us red diaper babies ignominious – end. “It’s War and We’re In It,” screamed the headline in the Free Press extras, which in early September, 1939, I as a “newsie” was called out to sell.
Only the real war against fascism was soon smothered in the political about-face of the Communist Party of Canada, which within days of vociferously supporting the war, learned of the German-Soviet “peace at any price” pact. On the instructions of the Comintern, the CPC denounced the war as a “phony war” and just as vociferously opposed it, at a cost to the Party from which, it can safely be said, it never recovered.
I was devastated. But, having grown up red, I swallowed hard and accepted the party line.
My family was even more devastated when, in June, 1940, following the proclamation of the Defense of Canada Regulations under the War Measures Act, my father was arrested in our home and subsequently interned. This was done not for any act of his contrary to law, but simply because he was a member of what was now an outlawed organization. He was interned for over two years; but, on his unconscionably delayed release in July, 1942, he was met by a welcoming crowd at the CPR station of several thousand, which included members of the Winnipeg City Council, who had voted in November, 1940, to expel him from office when he was arrested and interned. In October, 1942, he was re-elected to City Council at the head of the polls.
In the fall of 1940, some months after my father was interned, my twin sister Ruthie and I were home alone on a Saturday afternoon doing what our family always did from the time we acquired a radio, namely listening to Texaco’s Saturday at the Opera, Live! – and on this Saturday listening to our favourite, La Traviata. Interrupted by a knock on the door, I opened it – to be confronted by three very large policemen armed with a search warrant. Marching in and searching for illegal literature – fruitlessly, as it turned out – one of them marched over to the radio and abruptly turned it off. My somewhat diminutive sister, eyes blazing, ran to the radio and turned it back on, shouting, “in this house no one turns off the opera!”
I went upstairs to ensure that the policeman there, rummaging through dresser drawers, was not planting forbidden Communist literature.
“Listen kid,” said the pleasant-enough cop, “what’s a bright kid like you doing mixed up in all of this? You should join the Boy Scouts and ‘be prepared.’” Well, we were preparing, we thought – preparing for the revolution!
Incidentally, growing up as good red diaper babies, we would periodically ask my father when was the revolution coming. His inevitable answer, year after year, was, “Why, in twenty years!” (We weren’t as lucky as Jim Laxer, whose father, as he recounts in his memoir, Red Diaper Baby, told him ten years. We’re both still waiting!
At the very end of July, 1942 – the day I turned eighteen – I virtually ran down to attempt to join the air force. Taken in by the wartime glorification movies of the time, I asked to be a tailgunner. After passing all the preliminary tests, I was unceremoniously ushered into a small office to be met by Inspector Nicholson, the former head of the Winnipeg Police’s “Red Squad,” as it was known.
“Penner, sorry, but we don’t take Communists into the air force.”
It thus came to be that I was the first Canadian to be put on a “no fly” list, ironically a fact that probably saved my life!
After a fruitless exchange of correspondence with Colonel Ralston, then the minister of national defence, I joined the army. In due course, I went overseas, eventually landing in Normandy with my regiment.
I left the Communist Party over 45 years ago. About eighteen years later, I joined the NDP. More particularly, I moved out of the North End, travelling south to River Heights and “losing north.” Did I then also lose the ideology of a radical? Have I ceased to be a socialist?
Regrettably, just as the term “liberal” has become suspect in the ideological doublespeak of the neocons, so, too – at least in the English-speaking world – the label “socialist” has been made suspect.
“Socialism,” Wikipedia tells us, “refers to a broad array of doctrines or political movements that envisage a socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to social control.” Well, I can very comfortably get into that big tent!
The Regina Manifesto speaks of “the establishment of a planned socialized economic order to make possible the most efficient development of the national resources and the most equitable distribution of the national income.” I have no problem getting into that somewhat more pinkish tent.
Writing in the magazine Winnipeg some years ago, John Drabble wrote: “As a young revolutionary, Roland Penner wanted to change the system. Now he merely wants to make it better.” No. I still want to change the system – and socialism may well be the only way to make it fundamentally better.
I continue to think of myself as a socialist because of that glowing dream of which I spoke at the beginning of these remarks. The words “for they had a glowing dream” (which are etched as an epitaph on my parents’ joint tombstone) come from the chorus of a song entitled “The Commonwealth of Toil”:
But we have a glowing dream of how fair this world would seem
When each person can live his life, secure and free
When the earth is armed by labour,
There’ll be joy and peace for all
In the Commonwealth of Toil that is to be!
In a published letter written from Winnipeg by my father in 1907 to a relative in Russia, reflecting on the triple plagues of Manitoba – the weather, the mosquitoes and the trusts (as he called capitalist institutions) – he concluded, “if our institutions were built on rational foundations our life would be like a garden in which every tree would have equal space and sunshine.”
I think that’s lovely. And so – yes – I still have the glowing dream. Yes! I have moved out of Winnipeg’s historic North End – but I have not “lost north,” my sense of direction.
This article appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Sci-Fi Politics).