Memorable Manitobans: James Shaver Woodsworth (1874-1942)
Born near Islington, Ontario on 29 July 1874, son of Reverend James Woodsworth and Esther Josephine Shaver, he was educated at Wesley College (BA 1896), University of Toronto, and Oxford University. He became active in social reform and threatened to leave the Methodist Church in 1907, being persuaded to remain by being put in charge of All People’s Mission in the North End of Winnipeg. There Woodsworth worked chiefly with new immigrants, his efforts and ideas discussed in his books Strangers within Our Gates (1909) and My Neighbour (1911).
On 7 September 1904, he married Lucy Lilian Staples. They had four sons (Charles James Woodsworth, Ralph Woodsworth, Bruce Woodsworth, and Howard Woodsworth) and two daughters (Grace Woodsworth MacInnis and Belva Woodsworth Staples).
While sympathetic to the plight of new Canadians, he feared their ability to assimilate into Canadian society and the ways in which extensive immigration from eastern Europe would change Canada. A pacifist and opponent of national-service registration during the First World War, he served at a mission on the Sechelt Peninsula in British Columbia before finally leaving the church in 1918. He worked briefly on the Vancouver docks before embarking on a lecture tour in 1919 that brought him to Winnipeg in the midst of the Winnipeg General Strike. After becoming editor of the strikers’ newspaper, he was arrested on charges of seditious libel and later released. Although his involvement in the Winnipeg General Strike was minimal, his strike work and his subsequent arrest made Woodsworth’s reputation among supporters of labour, and he was elected to Parliament from Winnipeg North Centre in 1921 as an Independent Labour candidate, serving the riding until his death, being re-elected in 1926, 1930, 1935, and 1940.
He and his fellow labourite A. A. Heaps actually held the balance of power in the 1926 House of Commons, and they forced the King government to pass old-age pension legislation. Woodsworth was involved in the creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and became House Leader of the seven CCF members elected to Ottawa in 1935. He was an ardent socialist and social reformer of the moral perfectionist variety. Because of his pacifism, he was forced to step down as leader of the CCF when war again broke out in 1939.
Although he was re-elected to Parliament in 1940, he was already quite ill and died soon after, on 21 March 1942. The Woodsworth Papers are in Library and Archives Canada, although there are some papers at the Archives of Manitoba.
Who’s Who in Western Canada: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Men and Women of Western Canada, Volume 1, edited by C. W. Parker, Vancouver: Canadian Press Association, 1911.
We thank Peter Staples, grandson of J. S. Woodsworth, for additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 21 March 2020