Memorable Manitobans: Joseph “Joe” Zuken (1912-1986)
Born in Ukraine on 12 December 1912, brother of William C. Ross, he came to Canada with his family in 1914 and grew up in the North End, attending Strathcona School, Isaac Newton School, and St. John’s Technical High School. He attended the I. L. Peretz School where he became imbued with Jewish culture and the Yiddish language, being a member of the first graduating class in 1925. He graduated as a lawyer in 1936 from the University of Manitoba, but was unable to gain employment because of his Communist affiliations. He taught Yiddish for six years and eventually opened his own law office, and was very active in the Progressive Arts Club and New Theatre in the 1930s.
During the Second World War he defended dozens of people who were stripped of their civil liberties and interned without trial under the War Measures Act. He performed large amount of free and low-cost legal work for low income people. He lobbied on behalf of welfare rights and supported citizens advocacy organizations. The legal profession honoured Zuken by naming him a Queen’s Counsel in 1970. As well, he was elected as a bencher of the Law Society of Manitoba.
A long-time Communist, Zuken served on the Winnipeg School Board from 1942 to 1962, and was a Winnipeg city councillor from 1962 to his retirement in 1983. He also ran unsuccessfully in the 1945, 1949, and 1953 federal elections, in the 1945 provincial election, and in the 1979 mayoral election. Called both a “gadfly” and the conscience of city council, Zuken was noted for his concern for the underdog, and never voted for a city budget because he claimed they did not help the poor and unemployed. He was a supporter of low rental housing and a champion of Seven Oaks Hospital. For much of his political career he was attacked for his radical ideas, but by the time he retired from public office, many of his proposals, such as free textbooks for school children, kindergarten, increased public housing, and urban development, had come to be accepted.
In later years Zuken was honoured with many awards, including a City of Winnipeg Community Service Award (1967), a Manitoba Centennial Medal from the Manitoba Historical Society (1970), a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977), induction as an Officer of the Buffalo Hunt by the Province of Manitoba (1983), an honorary doctorate from the University of Winnipeg (1974), and Distinguished Service Award from the University of Manitoba (1983). Joseph Zuken Heritage Park, located in Point Douglas adjacent to Ross House Museum, serves as a public memorial to him.
He often spoke of the debt he owed to this generation of immigrants, saying that he benefitted from both their drive to have their children properly educated and their commitment to social equality. From that period and that milieu he formed his social principles. In an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press many years later, he commented that when he was uncertain as to what action to take, he would ask himself “... if it will help or hurt the people of the working class.” He also credited the North End for acting as a “crucible of creativity” for him as well as many of its prominent citizens.
He died at Winnipeg on 25 March 1986. There are extensive papers at the Archives of Manitoba.
“Joe Zuken remembered as quiet, principled loner,” Winnipeg Free Press, 26 March 1986, page 1.
Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 26 March 1986, page 51.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
Joseph Zuken Memorial Committee.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 18 November 2022