TimeLinks: J. S. Woodsworth

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James Shaver Woodsworth was born in Ontario in 1874. His early life was strongly influenced by the activities of his father, a Methodist minister and Superintendent of Methodist Missions for all of Western Canada. It was not surprising, therefore, that he elected to follow the same course as his father and become a minister. During his theological training, Woodsworth did missionary work in the slums of Winnipeg and Toronto, an experience that heightened his awareness of the injustice and inequality in Canadian society.

Although he worked as a minister for several years, Woodsworth, never readily accepted the institutional church, and in 1907 he resigned his comission to pursue a more radical version of the Social Gospel. In the end he was persuaded to remain with the church, but returned to work with the poor as superintendent of the All Peoples Mission on Stella Avenue in Winnipeg's North End.

At the Mission, Woodsworth was confronted by some of the worst injustices of Winnipeg's emerging industrial society. He became aware of the desperate poverty faced by many working class immigrants, and he expressed this with passion in several books including Strangers Within Our Gates (1909) and My Neighbour (1911). These works displayed a keen sense of the suffering created by the failure to provide workers with a living wage and the need to create a more compassionate and egalitarian society. At the same time, his writings offered a solution that was assimilationist, a tone that has invited accusations of nativism in recent years.

Woodsworth's writings attracted the attention of social reformers across the country, and in 1913 he left Winnipeg to become Secretary of the Canadian Welfare League for all of the western provinces. This appointment came to an end in 1917, when the federal government abolished the League, largely to silence Woodsworth's outspoken opposition to Canada's involvement in the First World War, and in particular his opposition to the very sensitive issue of conscription.

After several years working in Vancouver as a longshoreman, Woodsworth changed careers again. Frustrated by what he perceived to be the inadequacy of the Methodist church's position on social issues, he left it altogether in 1918 and began to tour as a speaker and advocate for working people. He was on one such lecture tour in the summer 1919 when, at the invitation of William Ivens, he became involved in the Winnipeg General Strike. When Ivens, editor of the Strike Bulletin of the Western Labour News, was arrested, Woodsworth stepped-in as editor. Woodsworth too was arrested, but in the end, the charges were never prosecuted.

The events of 1919 firmly established Woodsworth as a powerful advocate for working people, and in the years that followed, he became increasingly committed to creating a fairer society, and became a confirmed socialist. In 1921, he was elected as a Labour Member of Parliament for Winnipeg North Centre, a seat which he held until his death in 1942. As a member of parliament, he was a tireless advocate for farmers, labourers and immigrants, pressing for a more co-operative and more humane society. In 1932, this commitment found expression in the creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a political party that was the precursor to the modern NDP.

Page revised: 27 August 2009