"How God's Angry Man Became the Conscience of Canada"

by George Siamandas

James Shaver Woodsworth was elected to Parliament on Dec 6, 1921. He was a reform minded clergyman who helped initiate the social democratic movement in Canada. James Shaver Woodsworth was born in Etobicoke Ontario in July 29, 1874. He arrived in Brandon in 1885 with his family. Like his father he became a Methodist minister and was ordained in 1896. The family were United Empire Loyalists.

Woodsworth grew increasingly unhappy with his church. Woodsworth's education at Oxford and travels in England where he saw the incredible levels of poverty made him question the church's focus on spiritual issues. He saw the church as being used by the powerful and the rich for their own aims. He also saw the church behaving more and more as institution with institutional aims and ambitions. This was not the place from which to urge radical reform.

Woodsworth grew to hate capitalism and all its "brutal struggles and needless suffering." He had become an exponent of the Social Gospel and was more concerned with the real lives of people over that of their souls. He sought to establish a kingdom of god in the here and now. Woodsworth then became head of the All People's Mission in 1907. In Canada at the outbreak of WW1 he did not like the use of the pulpit to recruit men for war. By 1917 he had left the church and when he lost his job for a social research organization he went to the West Coast to work as a longshoreman.


Woodsworth who now lived in BC was asked to come to Winnipeg to speak during the 1919 strike. In Winnipeg he became a strong supporter of unions and took over the publication of the Western Labour News when the original editors were imprisoned. In turn Woodsworth was arrested for preaching sedition when all he was doing is quoting from Isaiah. With the support of labour Woodsworth was elected to Parliament in 1921 for Winnipeg North centre. His slogan was "human needs before property rights." Woodsworth was very popular winning every election till his death in 1942. In 1933 he helped give birth the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and served as its first leader.

He chose to stand alone for principle. In 1939 for example, he was the only MP to vote against Canada's entry in WW2. But effective spokesmanship in Parliament was not enough to get things done. Woodsworth the pragmatist, cut a deal to support Mackenzie's shaky federal government of the day, and was rewarded with the introduction of old age pensions in 1927. Woodsworth became an expert on Parliamentary procedures and helped bring forward much other social legislation such collective bargaining, unemployment insurance and civil liberties, all initiated by his speeches in the House of Commons.


With the massive immigration of the 1910s Winnipeggers were concerned with the impact that all these immigrants would have. Woodsworth wrote a book on this very topical issue called "Strangers within our Gates." A strong believer in assimilation he thought that the new European immigrants were having a very hard time fitting in.

He felt some were better immigrants than others. For him the best were the British, Germans, Scandinavians and Americans. The absence of democratic traditions in eastern and southern European made these immigrants less suitable he thought. And according to Woodsworth, the Orientals and blacks were even less desirable. In 1909 he argued that Blacks should not be allowed into Canada. The irony is that he cared for all of them equally in his work. Woodsworth died in Vancouver on March 21 1942, age 68 and still a member of Parliament. His daughter Grace McInnes, is one of 6 children.


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