Little Comrades

Laurie Lewis began life in the Depression as the daughter of an important member of the Communist Part of Canada. Her father quickly became General Secretary of the Party’s Alberta wing, although he was a miserable alcoholic at home, and eventually lost his position in Alberta due to his addiction. The book is full of interesting anecdotes chronicling Laurie’s life from childhood to coming of age, and her inside perspective on the socialist circles she describes throughout is deeply humane.

Beginning in the depths of the depression and ending in McCarthy’s America, censorship of socialists recurs throughout the memoir. The Communist Party was banned for a time in the Canada of Laurie’s youth, and the anecdote which best reflects the memoir’s title involves Laurie and her brother being questioned by RCMP officers about their parents while children. The issue gains thematic importance by the memoir’s end, where Laurie refuses to betray her mother to the American authorities when questioned. The left-wing personalities populating the memoir are distinctly normal, and the scrutiny they face for their political beliefs would be ridiculous were it not so destructive to their lives.

Lewis is not afraid to present the Communist Party of Canada, or other circles she passed through, as they were, however. She notes explicitly that despite its emancipatory project and rhetoric, women in the Party were still expected to remain within their traditional roles. The division of labour within the household was not up for discussion, and never occurred to the men.

In the chapter “Lumpen” Lewis describes how her father instructed her to stay away from another group of children in the neighbourhood whose family he called lumpen. In Marxist thought, the Lumpenproletariet are members of the working class unlikely to achieve class consciousness. My own introduction to this term was through Huey Newman of the Black Panthers, who used it to describe the exclusion of black Americans from the white working-class proletariat. Lewis presents the terminology without explanation, presumably how her father presented it to her. This absence of elaboration lends an authenticity to the stories and a refreshing willingness to let them stand on their own and allow the reader to draw out their own meaning.

jews

The only image of this book on the internet, evidently

Strangely, most of my previous knowledge of the Communist Party of Canada comes from Erna Paris’ book Jews: An Account of their experience in Canada. Paris’ book is peculiar because, aside from the opening third about Montreal, it focuses on dropped threads in Canada’s Jewish community, like western farming communities and involvement with left-wing politics. Many Canadian Jews were attracted the Communist Party because of the supposedly positive Soviet policy towards Jews, but were barred from most high profile positions. After Khrushchev revealed the Stalinist purges of Russian Jews in 1956, there was an exodus of Jews from the Canadian Party.

I did not expect this oddly specific knowledge to be relevant to Lewis’ memoir, but was pleasantly surprised. After moving from Alberta to British Columbia, Lewis eventually ended up in Toronto. The socialist members of the Toronto’s Jewish community described in Paris’ book make a cameo appearance in the form of many of the friends of Laurie and her mother. The presence of New York’s Jewish community is also felt in the final stretch of the book, although I know virtually nothing about that community.

While I’ve focused on the passages of Lewis’ memoir which most spoke to me, my summation does not do justice to this touching work. I aspire to have a memory so strong when I’m an octogenarian!

Little Comrades is available from The Porcupine’s Quill, a lovely independent Canadian publisher, as is Laurie Lewis’ sequel memoir Love, and all that jazz, which I look forward to reading soon.

Next time: more from Canada’s margins…

Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician

Biographers have not been kind to Canada’s first female Prime Minister. To my knowledge there are three books which take Kim Campbell as their subject, and only two can be called biographies. Frank Davey’s small volume Reading “Kim” Right is less about the woman herself than perceptions of her in the 1993 election, and sexism in Canadian society. However, that curiosity is for another day.

reading kim right

Not quite a biography

The “Acknowledgements” at the outset of Kim Campbell allude to the fact this was a rushed effort to capitalize on Campbell’s rise to attention. Fife relates the he and his editor guessed in November 1992 that Brian Mulroney would step down, and they staked their hopes on Campbell replacing him. When Fife contacted Campbell shortly thereafter to secure her involvement in the biography she called his move “presumptuous” yet agreed – until one of her advisers later cut Fife off from the candidate.The two actual biographies on Kim Campbell are Murray Dobbins’ elusive The Politics of Kim Campbell, and today’s subject: Robert Fife’s Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician. All three of these books appeared in 1993, between the brief period of so-called “Campbellmania” and the 1993 election. Although I cannot yet speak to Dobbin’s book, more likely than not it suffers from the same drawback of Fife’s work: a lack of hindsight. In all but the most skilled hands, this is the inevitable pitfall of the timely political biography.

The speed at which the biography was produced shows. Fife is straightforward about how his sources were indirect. He did not have access to Campbell or her family, and was thus reliant on interviews conducted by other journalists. Although he approaches some political colleagues and acquaintances, the biography mostly collects together information about Campbell’s life which could already be found elsewhere at the time.

Nevertheless, it might be said Fife’s rudimentary biography is better than nothing. Though inartful it does trace her life from birth, through childhood, two marriages, provincial politics as a B.C. SoCred, the federal Mulroney cabinet, and her successful campaign for the P.C. leadership.

“There’s nothing more gratifying than several women in their servile places. Nothing more appalling than one who gets out of it,” {student John Kelsey} wrote. “[A man] must beat them into submission, showing no quarter, allowing no favour. And when he has subjugated one, he must start on another.”

What Campbell faced upon becoming Frosh President at UBC

Fife explicitly attempts to maintain his neutrality, although he clearly does not think highly of Campbell’s Ayn-Rand-worshiping first-husband. In the absence of a more intimate or scholarly biography, the book suffices to introduce Kim Campbell. While it remains to be seen whether Dobbin’s book is the better biography, there is reason to believe Fife’s is the more sympathetic.

In the absence of other scholarship Fife’s book is a resource for information on Campbell, and its limited access to its subject does lead to its one merit: it follows the political events as the average Canadian would. Events like the excitement over Campbell’s photo in Barbara Woodley’s photobook, or Jean Charest’s steady gains against her in the leadership race are documented at a distance, giving the reader the standpoint of the average Canadian.

kimcampbell

“Seriously, the notion that the bare shoulders of a 43-year-old 
woman are the source of some prurient comment or titillation, 
I mean, I suppose I should be complimented.” – Campbell

Limited though it is by its aim of being topical, Fife’s Kim Campbell is worth reading in the continuing absence of any more complete biographies. A Capital Scandal, Fife’s immediate project before this, is the superior of his books, however.

Some longer serving Prime Ministers have had to wait until a half-century after their deaths to receive a substantive biography. Poor Mackenzie Bowell of Belleville remains the only Prime Minister with no biographies whatsoever to his name. Yet Canadians should hope to receive a more complete treatment of the country’s first female Prime Minister in less time than that. Kim Campbell is still kicking around too; at the very least an update is in order.Limited though it is by its aim of being topical, Fife’s Kim Campbell is worth reading in the continuing absence of any more complete biographies. A Capital Scandal, Fife’s immediate project before this, is the superior of his books, however.

Next Time: depression era communism in the Canadian West…