The un-Canadians: true stories of the blacklist era

Len Scher, Lester, 1992

By John Marshall (reviewer)

In the late forties and the fifties, not only was Peace a dirty word (remember the famous Giles cartoon?) but peace activists were hounded by the RCMP, blacklisted by employers, denied government jobs, refused admittance to the U.S.A., even deported, a few jailed. Similarily with trade unionists, broadcasters, film workers, teachers, academics, musicians, actors, dancers, journalists, ministers and church workers, civil rights activists, immigrants, and ethnic leaders-the list is long and varied.

What did this formidable cross-section of Canadians have in common? The fact or merely the suspicion that they were or had once been on the "left" side of the political spectrum, perhaps even "communist"-an elastic term used indiscriminately to label the intended victim. It was enough to have known someone on the left, to have questionable friends or acquaintances, to live in the "wrong" neighborhood. But it was especially incriminating to be a labor activist, a leader or a member of any of the so-called Communist Unions, or known for pursuing "leftist" issues in the more respectable unions. Orchestrating all this were the ubiquitous, omniscient RCMP and their civilian informers.

There was also considerable co-odination with U.S. agencies, F.B.I., C.I.A., customs and immigration. And of course the whole mad scene was integral to the Cold War and the Red Scare mentality that prevailed in this period. Canada's special contribution was the infamous Gouzenko affair, which had dubious success in unearthing spies, but caught a number of innocent Canadians in its toils-one of whom tells her story in this collection.

Len Scher's oral history tells the stories (in their own words) of eighty and more victims of the blacklist era. Organized into appropriate sections, the book, for the most part avoiding a "bitty" effect, has cumulative impact. What the book succeeds in conveying vividly is the human toll of these experiences: troubled marriages, disrupted families, forced moves, broken careers and the rest. Yes there is bitterness-though surprisingly little. But there is also amazing resilience, the ability to bounce back, to reflect philosophically on their lives' detours, of these hardworking, socially motivated Canadians, surely among the brightest and best of their generation. The net loss to Canada, to our struggle for a better life, is incalculable.

This is a shocking and little known story of a made-in-Canada scandal. It was made more sinister by the secrecy with which it was largely conducted. Perhaps this also made it more effective than the highly public, grandstanding performances of the McCarthys, the UnAmerican Activities Committees, in the U.S.-more effective, and often harder to fight. Two further features of the Canadian experience are worth emphasizing. One is the extensive effort to control thought, to muzzle the media and the arts, especially the National Film Board and the CBC's radio and TV networks. The other feature is the underlying motive-not ideological but practical-for the most widespread and vicious actions, the attempts (too many successful) to weaken union leadership and destroy "left" unions. "There was concern largely because businesses felt threatened by the ability of Communists to get better wages for their workers," says one of Scher's informants. And this is echoed by Reg Whittaken in his brief, excellent piece "A Closed and Smug Society: Analysis." Says Whittaker: "Most of the people didn't give a shit about the Soviets, they just wanted a good union. The government talked a lot about sabotage but nobody ever came up with a single instance."

Scher's book is a credible effort towards the filling-in of a significant aspect and an important period of our social history. A welcome beginning indeed.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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