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Manitoba History: An Interview with Grace MacInnis

by Allen Mills
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The name of James Shaver Woodsworth (1874-1942) is synonymous with Winnipeg radicalism. Like his father, he was a minister in the Methodist Church. In 1905 J. S. Woodsworth’s first child was born and named after his church in Winnipeg. Grace MacInnis grew up in Winnipeg. One of her earliest recollections was helping her parents in All Peoples’ Mission in the city’s North End. Later, after her father was elected to the House of Commons, she worked for him and the CCF caucus in Ottawa. There she met her future husband, Angus MacInnis, a trade unionist and CCF M.P. Later on, Grace MacInnis pursued a political career of her own. Elected to the British Columbia Legislature in 1953, she later was elected Member of Parliament for Vancouver Kingsway until her retirement in 1974. Today she lives in Vancouver. Although racked by arthritis she remains amazingly active, and her mind continues to be alive and acute. This interview occurred on 22 October 1983 in the unlikely location of a dining room being prepared for a banquet.

Grace MacInnis

Q. I’d like to ask you first what you recall of your grandfather.

Grandfather Woodsworth? I recall quite a bit. I was nearly twelve when he died, so I remember very well the family atmosphere. He was a very sincere, quiet, dignified person, but he had a very good sense of humor and enjoyed family, friends and festivities. I always remember when we had the Christmas gatherings at my grandparents’ home there on Maryland Street, grandfather could hardly get ahead with carving the turkey for telling various anecdotes. He was always full of anecdotes; often they were about fellow ministers, stories that he had heard or tales about his travels. He would be chuckling all the time and my grandmother would have to interrupt him to ask him to get ahead with serving the dinner.

Q. Was your father like him in personality?

Well, they shared this quality of very palpable sincerity. It just shone through them both. They had very high standards, living up to their consciences, but grandfather was, in a way, more relaxed. He wasn’t pioneering in his ideas or his beliefs. He was pioneering in the physical sense because he was one of the Ontario ministers, with a small circuit, who heard the call from out West to go there to work among the settlers and also the Indian bands. He was seemingly a more easy-going personality, although he suffered very much from asthma in his later years and I know that that is a disease of stress. But he also had a great quality of tolerance. You see, his ideas on so many subjects were quite different from my father’s, his eldest son, and yet there was no attempt to be censorious. He might not agree with them but he respected him.

Q. Was there any friction between your grandfather and your father about, for example, your father’s growing skepticism regarding traditional Methodist doctrine? You bring out in your own biography of your father that there was this constant questioning of established religious doctrine.

None that I know of. As a matter of fact I think when my father was married, he was serving as assistant pastor in Grace Church, which was a fashionable downtown church in Winnipeg at that time (that’s where I got my name) and my father soon began to realize ... that his time in England had shown him about what happens to people in industrialized societies. He knew the well-to-do people in Winnipeg didn’t need him in anything like the sense that the people in the North End. I don’t think grandfather ever attempted to hold him back or to interfere with what he wanted to do.

Q. Your grandfather died on the eve of the General Strike. Is that right?

No, he died earlier. He died, I think it was either a week before or a week after all the kafuffle when father had opposed the National Registration in the letter to the Free Press at the end of 1916, in December Father realized that this was the precursor of conscription. Grand father died in January, the 20th. He never saw the Winnipeg Strike or the developments leading up to that.

Q. From what you are saying he would have been supportive, sympathetic toward your father’s growing social gospel views?

I don’t think he would have beer in disagreement enough that he would want to be out doing any thing in public about it. I know my grandmother was quite grieved when father got mixed up in the Strike. Grandmother was still living, but any idea of doing other than welcoming him there to stay with them was out. I mean, he still was their son and all through the piece there was a sense of respect that he was doing what his conscience told him to and that’s what they felt people should do.

Q. You always felt very proud of you father. You didn’t feel, as often children do a certain embarrassment about a father who was unusual?

No. Except I remember when he came down to Ottawa, we were then teenagers, and father was in the debates in the House of Commons and, of course, at this early time there were the fights over the Winnipeg Strike. He’d stand up to Meighen. Meighen was there and there were one or two West Coast M.P.’s, for example Harry Stevens that would go after him on this kind of thing. We’d go to the gallery, at least I went every time we could get the chance (I loved it and of course I was very enthusiastic. It was all I could do to keep from applauding. By that time I knew what was what because I read widely and I was plenty old enough to be involved emotionally and mentally too. But my sister never liked quarrelsomeness or fighting or disputing all of her life. She was really fearful for father when all this fight got up. As to me, I’d have liked to be down there fighting too. You see different children took it in different ways. Mother would have seen to it that we knew what father was. Father, when he was tired and irritable, was sometimes pretty short with the children and some times he would do things that considered unjust in the line of being severe with one or another. And mother would always turn to me when I was complaining about father doing this or that, and would say, (she was Irish you see), “Yes, suppose you’d rather your father were a drunkard in the ditch,” and didn’t know exactly what to say then. But it didn’t take me very long before I got to telling her, letting her know there were other things that he could be besides a drunkard in the ditch. In other words, she was very, very supportive of him, always.

Q. When I looked at your father’s papers in the Public Archives, I was struck by how few papers there were, given that he kept very thorough records. I heard a story the at a later stage of his life he was disillusioned and that he had burnt a lot of his papers. Is this true?

The burning is correct but not the disillusion. I went down and helped them, he and mother, after his first stroke. They knew that they would have to give up the Maryland Street house, grandfather’s house, and they were coming to the coast to stay, for a while anyway. So, I went down to help them move. It was a terrific job. The Woodsworth family had been in there for thirty years or so. I was going through father’s papers. Father could get around alright but he wasn’t very strong and he limped. He had had a stroke and so he wanted to destroy all these. There were old sermons, old letters, lots of things that had been there for years and I wanted to save a number of them. I though maybe it would be good for archival purposes. No sir, he wanted to destroy all these and he would personally come down to the basement with me to the furnace. He did not trust me to put them in. I asked for two or three things; a little old diary that he had that knew I’d be using in this book – well, I had used it in the book I guess.* That’s right. But I knew it would be useful to other people. I asked for that and a few old letters, and after a bit of quibbling about it he let me save those, but there wasn’t anything I could do, and besides that I don’t think they were all so valuable anyhow.

* Grace MacInnis is referring to her biography of her father which was entitled J. S. Woodsworth: A Man to Remember (1953).

Q. Did he not have a sense of himself as a historic figure to subsequent generations?

No. My father’s work was all important to him. He wasn’t important to himself at all. He regarded himself as an instrument for whatever good purpose. He began with the Lord; it was sort of a life of purpose. Whatever there was working, he hoped that he would be worked through as an instrument and he was the least self-promoting of persons. He never believed in self-advertising and he didn’t believe in doing tricks or outrageous things to get into the news because he did not consider himself important at all.

Q. You mentioned earlier that Woodsworth wasn’t a good organizer. Could you elaborate on that?

I just don’t think he had any particular genius for organization except the real supreme genius which is to know how to get other people to do it. And he had a great ability to attract the kind of people who would be extensions of himself in the various phases of his work of which organization was an important part.

Q. You mentioned that he could sometimes be short with the children when he came home tired. Do you think he had any other weaknesses? What would you see that might be criticized?

Well, of course, some people would say perhaps that he was a very single-track sort of person. I nearly called the book One Increasing Purpose because everything was coordinated to what he was doing when he was younger he played football. I think that was when he was at college: I don’t think he did anything athletic after that. When he was younger he had a great interest in art books and works and he and mother went all over Europe seeing museums. That was partly mother’s interest, too, you see. He used to like mother playing hymns and singing on Sundays, but I don’t think he had any particular desire for music. As he got older and the work became heavier and his resources, physical and nervous were diminishing, his range of interests also became narrowed. So, you might consider it a fault in his character that he didn’t have the ordinary person’s interest in music or the arts.

Q. We were talking earlier about you father’s attitude toward the immigrant groups and you disagreed with my characterization of some of the contradictory aspects of his thinking on a number of issues. I said that there was a strain of nativism that continued within your father. Would you comment on that?

I think it’s a funny, ambivalent kind of thing. He was very proud of being a U.E. [United Empire Loyalist] descendent. And in a kind of way I think he knew it was ironic. He was very proud of his grandfather’s sword which had been given to him by the City of Toronto when they were defending it against the invasion by William Lyon Mackenzie. Yet he knew that as a pacifist it was ironic that he should be proud and he knew that as a person with a world outlook that it was ironic. Here’s where you are right about paradoxes. He knew it was ironic that he should be seemingly interested in people that left rather than fight for what they thought were their rights in the United States and came up to Canada. And yet he was on the pioneer side and he was tremendously proud.

Q. In regards to his attitude towards the immigrant groups, I have argued that his thinking was unresolved regarding the question of whether he wanted a general identity for all Canadians, which would presuppose assimilation, or whether he wanted to allow the continuation of very traditional ethnic identities. It seems to me you could find evidence in his speeches and writings for both points of view.

Yes, I think he probably didn’t try to think too far ahead. He wanted to save the light and colour and expertise and all the cultural things that they had. He was interested in those and he valued those very highly from an artistic point of view and also sentimentally. I don’t think he looked too far ahead as to the consequences but he certainly didn’t want to get rid of them. I think he had a vague idea that in the fullness of time they would become Canadians like the rest of us, and I don’t think he got around to worrying very much as to when they would be using those traditions. I guess having kept up some kinds of traditions himself that he figured they’d be keeping up some kinds of traditions too.

Q. What about his attitude towards the various immigrants in the mission in the North End after he became the head of it in 1907?

He felt when they came in there that his job was really to try to make them feel at home in this country. The mission was much more than a missionary business Tommy Douglas speaks about it. Tommy Douglas was one of the small boys from Scotland who at that time went to the mission. We had a swimming pool there and these kids didn’t have baths or proper facilities. Winnipeg had a lot of unpaved, muddy streets. Some of these immigrants had to have their chickens and pigs sharing the house with them in many cases, or in the yard anyway, so father used the mission and the house as a means of helping these people feel at home in Canada. He had classes for the men, where he would have them learn the ordinary English words. He’d make them go through an exercise like, “I get up in the morning. I put on my shirt. I put on my pants.” Mother tried to help out the women. She was not able to do too many classes with the children. But mother was a sort of trouble shooter in the mission, too. I remember a man coming and his son had lost his cap, his toque, and mother trying to get at the color, pointing at spots on the wallpaper, to this color and that color and finally getting around to the right color. And then the Sunday night Forum was an attempt to do two things. On the one hand, it was an attempt to get the new Canadians, these immigrants, to understand our ways and our ideas. He got good cooperation from university lecturers and other people in different professions to come and give instructive talks. I remember there was one on botany and on different subjects, not political. He wasn’t interested in politics at that time. The other thing was to give these people a chance to participate because he valued their traditions. They would sing with their proper national ways of doing things. So that his idea was to mesh them into the Canadian fabric, that was what he was doing.

He did not get very much support from the south part. The southern part of Winnipeg was good old grey Canadian, meat and potatoes, regular habits and colourless. They were horrified with all of these new people, these Ukrainians, weddings that last for a week at a stretch until all the food was gone and the drink, too. And the noisy colorful places. They were afraid of there being a lowering of morals in Canada. Then, of course, a few years later at music festivals they would point with great pride to some Ukrainian youngster that had won a competition in violin playing or something like that as being Canadian and a citizen of Winnipeg. There was perhaps a passive kind of resistance to their coming in. Then, when the terrible epidemic struck the babies, the children, with dirty milk and dirty stores and dirty everything else and when my brother, the doctor, was given up by the doctors, the people in Winnipeg didn’t realize this [the kind of conditions that existed] until then. Father surely rubbed it in to them about .the dangers of letting these immigrants live in unpaved streets, with inadequate sanitation and this and that. He became very civically minded and he used that as a means of pressing for changes and improvements in the sanitation and housing conditions of immigrants.

Q. People say that as one gets older one’s recollection of one’s childhood becomes more vivid. Is that true? Do you feel as though your childhood in Winnipeg is more vivid now than perhaps even when you wrote your book?

I don’t know, but mind you, I have had to keep in touch with what I remember ever since I wrote the book. I’ve had lots of students and speaking, and so on. My childhood is pretty vivid to me in many respects. I remember those Sunday afternoons when my father would invite people into the mission house for a cup of tea. Mother had to beseech him not to get two groups together—there were the Balkans then—and one leader of one outfit was perhaps prepared to slaughter another one and mother would be afraid that the house wouldn’t be left standing if he [father] had the wrong two leaders in together. You see there was great friction in some of the European backgrounds but they got over that in this country.

Q. Did you continue going to Mulvey?

No, I didn’t begin there. I began at Aberdeen School which was just opposite the mission but they took me out of there very shortly because the youngsters were learning English and precious little else. I had learned to read before I went to school so I guess I must have been a pain in the neck because I didn’t have anything to do, you see. So they took me to the Model School. I remember walking on the over head bridge [Salter Street Bridge with all the steam swirling up in the below zero weather. Then went to Mulvey after that when we moved up to Chestnut Street.

Q. You didn’t move to Maryland Street until 1920-21?

I’m not quite sure, 1926 I guess My grandmother and my aunt Mary, his [father’s] sister, had taken a little house on Chestnut Street; we had the house on Maryland then. It was my grandfather’s house but they did not need this big a place. That was after father was elected, of course. I guess they must have established the Winnipeg house probably very shortly after his election. I don’t know because we stayed in Vancouver until 1922 and then we went directly to Ottawa. We didn’t have any interregnum in Winnipeg.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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