Howard Huggett in conversation with Ulli Diemer

Howard Huggett was a long-time socialist activist. After he retired, he wrote articles for Seven News in the 1970s and the 1980s, and was on the Seven News Board of Directors.

This interview was recorded in Toronto, May 24, 1989; the interviewer is former Seven News editor Ulli Diemer. This transcript is based on part of the interview; some portions of the recording were not audible. The transcript has been edited for publication.

HH: Would you like some reminiscences?

UD: Well, maybe you could start with a bit of chronology, when you first started getting involved?

HH: If you look back, as I’m sure many people do, on how they came to the point where they are, I think I was fortunate in that I was introduced to the problems of the labour movement and the idea of socialism when I had already reached a certain stage. I wasn’t like some people who for many years are very conformist and respectable and all the rest of it, and suddenly get – they’re born again, you might say – they suddenly get involved and their vision is too narrow. They haven’t broadened their vision and consequently it’s liable to influence their judgment and their knowledge or lack of it.

I was, I think, 16, when I decided that there wasn’t anything to the supernatural at all. And I was always a great reader and I was introduced, I think partly through my older sister, to the writings of such people as George Bernard Shaw and Henry James, who was an American critic, and the English writer H.G. Wells, people like that which gave me the viewpoint of people who were very skeptical of society and didn’t take very much for granted. They wanted to know what was going on. From that I was introduced to Darwinism and I accepted the idea of biological change which I think was a great help in enabling me to accept the idea of social change following on later. But until 1929, I didn’t pay much attention to economic things or political things.

UD: What year were you born?

HH: I was born in nineteen hundred and eight.

UD: So you were 21 in 1929...

HH: So I was. The first time I ever voted, I voted Conservative and the reason was that my father was Liberal and like a lot of young people, they don’t agree with their father. They argue with their father about all sorts of things and my father was a Liberal and a staunch supporter of the old U.F.O. and so then I voted Conservative. The first and last time that I ever voted Conservative. So I guess I’m forgiven now and I can be remanded for good behaviour.

Well then came the Depression and I first went to a political meeting in Massey Hall. It was called by Earlscourt Labour Party, which is one of the groups that were active at that time. They were active for the whole period of the 1920s, I think, and possibly before. They were a Jewish fraternal society, so it was left Zionist. There were branches, the ILP and things like that.

Well they all got active because the CCF was being formed in the West. They knew it was coming East and I think actually they were afraid of being submerged, so things like this were going on. And I went to the meeting and the speaker was Roger Baldwin; he was the son of Stanley Baldwin who was at one time Premier of the UK. That was my first contact with the Labour and Socialist movement.

From that meeting I was attracted to a convention that was held by many of these groups to discuss what they were going to do about the CCF and somewhere about that time I joined the group that was known as the Socialist Party of Ontario. As I said, they were all struggling against being swamped and many of them were, in time, but they managed to exist until the CCF came to Toronto. At that time in the original set-up, clubs were being formed, of course, but the Labour and Socialist groups that had been in existence, they came in separate, they joined the CCF at a separate section and they persisted for some time but they eventually disappeared or were thrown out.

I think they were expelled from the movement by Agnes McPhail and somebody whose name escapes me. The trouble was, I think, that they had been in existence for a long time and they discussed and argued about matters of policy and tactics in the history of the Labour movement and so on. Of course, there were members of the Communist Party in there and there were others who later, I suppose, became Trotskyites. I don’t recall if there were any around then but it was described to me by a Trotskyite later on: he said that he was at a meeting where there were supporters of the Communist Party and supporters of Trotskyites and he said they were arguing about the relative merits of the Third and Fourth international and they were talking to people who didn’t know anything about the First International. I guess they thought to themselves, “Who the hell are these guys anyway? What is the matter with them?” Because it was all new to them. People came in from all over the place and they were all trying to ... some were atheists, some were Christians, some were Jewish and some were just free thinkers and so on, and they had no common philosophy to start with, nothing basic to steer them in any way.

The social pressure made them become very active. I remember I used to be a member of the old Greenwood CCF. We met on Danforth Avenue near Greenwood, near Greenwood and Danforth. We rented a storefront there; you could get them for next to nothing in those days because a lot of them were empty anyway. And we used to let homeless people sleep in there at night, and we used the window for displays, for propaganda. We used to change it every week or so and we put something in there that people could read and they would go in the street and stop and read it. That was a period, of course, that strictly belonged to the ’30s. I can’t remember when it stopped, but gradually the CCF became a political party and not a movement and it’s continued that way, I would say, pretty much since.

UD: What were you doing for work in those days?

HH: Oh, let me see ... I worked in the railroad until about 1932, I guess. I joined the railroad. Before that I used to work at a very safe place in a life insurance company. I worked in there, two or three years but I wanted to get out and get something, get a little more money, and I picked 1929 as the time to change jobs, which wasn’t good planning! I changed in 1929 and I worked for a small Canadian branch of an American company, the Fruehauf Trailer company and I was there for a short while and then I got laid off.
Then I worked in the railroad for a couple of years, but the trouble was, railroad operators in those days, they were strictly on a matter of seniority. And what I was supposed to be doing was – I was a stenographer taking shorthand, at which I was never very good, but I was good enough to hold a job in the railroad – but people who were laid off, who had more seniority than I had, could put in an application for my job as long as they could do it, and I would be bumped – that was the phrase that was used – and I was bumped in 1934. And I was out of work for a year, I guess.

In a section missing from the recording, Howard relates that around 1935 he landed a job as a deckhand (“a lily-pond sailor”) on a lake freighter, an Imperial Oil boat. Deckhands received $40 a month plus meals. The sailors on the oil ships were better off than those on the grain boats, who got less pay and didn’t work the whole season.
The ships all passed through the Lachine Canal near Montreal. Ships had to go through very slowly through the double locks. Often there would be unemployed sailors hanging around the ships as they passed through the canal, looking for work.

HH: At odd times we would work as deck hands. Deckhands had certain hours at what they called day work, they started at a certain hour and they quit at a quarter to six and they had time off for lunch, but if we were moving at night, going through the canal, then we worked at night. And so the galley was open and there was food there, besides which there was always fellas, people on shifts: the wheelmen, the watchmen, the mates, the engineers and so on. They worked shifts, so there was always food there and we would look out just to see whether the captain or anybody was watching. The cook was never around on off hours so we would nip down to the galley and make a sandwich or something, there was cheese there and ham and things like that, and take it back and slip it to this fellow so he could get something to eat. I never forgot it because right around there, there were many grain elevators packed with grain and the ships that brought them the grain were manned by fellows like the ones who were out of work and there they were, forced to take handouts and they had done all the work and brought this grain to the great city of Montreal. That was a living demonstration of what the hell was wrong with the system and I never forgot it.

Well then I was there the following season until about July, and my brother sent me a wire saying that there was a chance for a job here in the city [Toronto]. The funny part of it is – this is an instance, I guess, of what conditions were like then – my brother probably felt he owed me a chance because when I was out of work and he was out of work at the same time, there came a call from somebody in the city hall who we knew who said they were hiring somebody. Well I was out, I wasn’t around, so my brother went down and he got the job. And he knew somebody who worked at the city hall who had a friend at the book company, Clarke Irwin, and they were looking for someone to work in their shipping room. So he sent me the wire. At that time I was going through the Welland canal and as a result of the wire, I left the ship somewhere about midnight, I guess it was, and was paid off and caught the train to Toronto and saw this fellow about a day later. I got a job in the warehouse. That’s how it worked.

UD: And you were there for a long time?

HH: Well I worked there for 35 years. It was an odd place to work, I’ll tell you. I don’t know whether any of this is of any interest to you or not. It’s pretty well removed from social questions, it’s an interesting story, but I wonder whether you really want to hear it.

UD: Sure, yeah.

HH: Well it was run by two families, Clark and Irwin, they were both staunch Christians, Protestants, they were very straight-laced, they didn’t believe in smoking, they didn’t believe in drinking. In some ways they were more like the landed gentry in that they liked deference. They wanted people to acknowledge their superiority and they cared more about that than actual performance at work. So somebody who played up to them could do very well. I wasn’t very good at that but....

[phone rings]

They were highly conscious of their mission in life. They acted as if they had a special line to God, I think. They always acted as if Jehovah was watching them. They made the children the same way. Their son came and worked in the place for a while, after he got through high school I guess, and he worked with me, and he worked in other departments and he was a trial because he was always running full out, everything he did.

I used to do the customs work besides working in the warehouse. I used to go down there maybe once a week and make out the various entries, and explain what was there and try to get them as cheap as possible, not pay any duty if you could help it. And the son came along to it and it was a pleasure in one way because you were free from the supervision of the office and the warehouse, and I would just take my time in getting back again and I probably walked because I wasn’t in that big a hurry to get back to work. But he was. We’d come out of the Customs House and if he saw a streetcar, he’d make a dash for it right away, he wouldn’t wait for the next one or anything like that. He was off and running and that’s the way his parents made him, I guess. They sent him to Oxford and I always remember, I used to work a lot of nights, and there would be no one around and I remember looking in the files and seeing this telegram that the boss had sent to the son when he was at Oxford and he had some suggestions. Apparently the son was going to have a party of some kind over there and he took the trouble to advise the son to ask so and so to the party. And I thought to myself, he’s thousands of miles away and he can’t have a social evening without the old man telling him what to do. But that’s the sort of folks they were. And I worked there for 35 years or so, give or take half a year.

UD: There was no union there?

HH: Oh God, no! At one time I used to think about the possibility of a union there and when they formed the bowling league – we bowled with people from other publishers – and it occurred to me that that it might bear some fruit some day if you ever had a third student form a union but that never happened. That’s the story of Clark-Irwin, I guess.

UD: So, just to go back to the ’30s. When the CCF was being formed, did you continue to be involved with that stuff all the way through?

HH: Yes, as I said I was thrown out of the CCF.

UD: You were thrown out?

HH: Well the whole group was thrown out. The labour group was thrown out.

UD: Oh I didn’t realize...

HH: It’s coming back to my mind as I talk to you about it. As a result of those early meetings with the CCF, I became interested in what was called the Lovestone movement. The leader, Jay Lovestone, had been in the Communist Party in the United States and he either left or was thrown out around the same time as the right opposition was thrown out in the USSR. I think the Trotskyites were thrown out in the USSR in 1926.

UD: That sounds about right.

HH: The right wing was expelled a couple of years later maybe in 1928, somewhere about there. Well I became involved with them. They were only a very small group; at best, no more than about 40, I don’t think.

UD: In Toronto or abroad?

HH: In Toronto and there was a couple in Hamilton. They had some contacts in Montreal but I think it was only a few people and what I liked particularly about them, they wanted to form a labour party. What comes to my mind is a quotation from Engels. He said, “It doesn’t matter all that much what the program is, as long as the working class is moving”. And it seemed to me that what was needed was a working class movement and that was more important than strategic or tactical excellence. We used to get into arguments with the Trotskyites who pooh-poohed the idea of a labour party. Of course, they were as radical as the CP, I guess, in a different way.

But I always remember bumping into one of them one day and we got into an argument about the necessity of the labour party. He could see no value in it. But he had under his arm a handful of CCF papers, he was peddling them around. So, what he was doing was trying to recruit. He was trying to recruit from within. But he didn’t have any theory worked out to support what he was doing. He just following a plan or instinct to go from within and try to win converts that way.

They [the Lovestone group] lasted until the war broke out in 1939. They never became anything more than a small group but they did produce some good people and I had association with a number of their best elements and they impressed me with their approach to the working class. I think they had a less fanatical and more realistic approach. I remember one of them saying to me, “Wherever you’re working, anywhere with working people, do a good job, because they will respect you for the fact that you’re a good worker” and that always impressed me because a lot of the radicals or so-called radicals immediately went into their pitch of preaching revolution. Without stopping to think what sort of effect it was have upon their listeners. They gave the same old spiel. They’re something like television evangelists today. They have a set spiel and they give it to everybody and that I think was one of the big troubles of the radical movement in those days.

But when the war broke out, we were advised by the group in New York which was, of course, quite a sizeable group with bases in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union for one thing; they were strong in there, locally anyway. We were advised to join the CCF because war was breaking out and we expected a crackdown. So some of us did join the CCF and some of us didn’t.

UD: Did you?

HH: I joined the CCF, yeah. And so that was the second time I joined it. And I was in it for a number of years until, well as a matter of fact I was in it until the Waffle was thrown out. I went out with the Waffle....

UD: So did I.

HH: Yeah. I think they made a mistake in that they should have got themselves thrown out. I don’t know if you remember or not but some of the leaders like Laxer and Mel Watkins, they pulled out, they saved the NDP the job of throwing them out. And so I haven’t been a member of the NDP since and I have no intention of joining them again. I think they’re deteriorating even from the situation that they were in a few years ago. Because they’re so much obsessed with the parliamentary process that they don’t realize the importance of day-to-day contact with the people whose support you are seeking.

I don’t know if you see Canadian Dimension or not, but there was an issue in it recently, “What’s the Matter with the NDP?” and there were three letters in there from three different people. I think they were all members of the NDP but the best one was by a fellow by the name of Fryer, he’s president, I think, of one of the big unions and he made a point there that none of the others made, nor do I ever remember hearing it from anybody in the CCF or the NDP. He was talking about the fact that large numbers of people feel helpless and weak and he said, “In many cases, they don’t even vote”. And that’s so true. And yet it seems to be a situation to which so many social democrats are blind. I can remember working in campaigns years ago and they would go around on canvasses and they’d come back with some pretty good reports of support that they got and then at election day they got disappointed because they didn’t get anywhere near as many votes as they thought they would.

And this fellow had put his finger on something that they had failed to take into account. They, unfortunately they used to say that the workers were stupid or they were cowardly or something like that instead of realizing the true situation and doing something about it. Because it seems to me that you can only instill confidence in working people by demonstrating what their strength is. You can’t tell them about it. You can find the odd person whom you can convince with theory or certain facts but the largest number of people, I think, learn by doing. As a matter of fact, I think that in most of our activities, human activities, we learn by doing.

There are some people who can look at a situation and devise a strategy that will work but trial and error, I think, is still the best way. And I think it’s far and away the best way to teach large numbers of people. A person may find out suddenly that if they all get together they can declare a rent strike or they can demonstrate for home day care or they can win a settlement from an employer. And that sort of thing is where they learn and if you teach them that and build up their confidence and their organization, you’ll get more support come Election Day. But that’s something that doesn’t seem to be impressed on the minds of social democrats.

UD: About the Lovestone Group. What did you actually do as a group?

HH: We’d hold public meetings and we would do some work. I remember going out to help the rubber workers once. I think the fellow’s name was Joe Mackenzie, he was the local organizer, trying to form a rubber worker’s union in a Goodyear plant out in Etobicoke. And four or five of us went out. This shows how weak the organization was. None of us were rubber workers, we were given contacts and we’d go to see these people and talk to them about the necessity of joining a union. And I know some of the people that went with me were Trotskyites. I think they were all dedicated people like myself. They went out there because they thought it was their duty to teach workers to organize. But they didn’t have much success. It was some time after that that the plant was organized. It seems ludicrous on the face of it to send out people that have no experience in the plant at all or that kind of work, to try and organize workers who work there.

UD: Did you publish a paper or anything about that?

HH: Yeah, we printed a little paper about four pages. I remember I advanced them the money to buy the printing press. I think it was, I don’t know, $65 or something like that. It was a hand press. We would set the type up by hand and proofread it and then ran it – the plate that came down like that (makes a gesture) – and print it.

I can’t remember how many we printed. It wouldn’t be a large number anyway because we didn’t have the means to dispose of it. But as I say it never amounted to much here. I think it got a certain amount of respect because they were good people and they worked hard but they accomplished very little. But then you could say that of the Trotskyites too. They were larger but I don’t see that they accomplished a great deal.

UD: How do you see the overall picture anyway? I mean now?

HH: Well I’m very cynical about it because I’ve seen so much happen....


Related Reading:

Memories of the Depression
By Howard Huggett

October 29th [1979] was the fiftieth anniversary of a day that will live in the memory of the western world for a long, long time Black Tuesday, October 20th, 1929, or 16 million share day, as it was called on the New York Stock Exchange. On that fateful day began the stock market crash that was the dramatic prologue to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Many of us who went through that terrible time in Canada are still around and remember it all too well. Lots of stories have come out of those days, stories that illustrate what that depression did to people. Many of those tales have been recorded in books or articles, but plenty more have never been told. They should have been, and I am sure that a number of our readers have a story they could tell.

In the depth of the depression, in 1934 and 1935, I worked for two seasons on an oil tanker belonging to Imperial Oil. Oil tankers paid the best wages on the Great Lakes, and even a lowly deck-hand, which is what I was, received the magnificent sum of 50 dollars every month. That wasn’t all we got, because there were three meals a day and a bunk to sleep in when we have the time. You see, lake freighters spend a lot of time going to canals and arriving at and leaving ports. They did this at all hours of the day and night, and whenever they did the deck-hands went on duty. Most of the rest of the crew worked in shifts, and they put in only 12 hours a day, or 84 hours a week! We averaged something over 90. There was no organization worthy of the name of union on the lakes in those days.

Our pay worked out to about 12 cents an hour for a lot of unpleasant and repetitive work, but we were glad to have a job – there were others waiting for a chance to take our place. One of the spots where they waited was known by the charming name of “The Lousy Acre.” This delightful spot was located at the eastern or lower end of the old Lachine Canal, where the freighter traffic from the Great Lakes reached the ocean port of Montreal. Because of the great volume of freight moving through the area the canal had double locks there, one for up-bound steamers and the other for down traffic. Between the locks lay “The Lousy Acre”, and here was the best place to try for a job on a ship. The locks were deep and it took a long time to “lock through”, so there was ample opportunity to make inquiries.

Up-bound ships were the best, because they were leaving port and might be short of crew member because someone had had enough of sailing or had stayed too long in a bar not mention other places. So there were often a few hopeful waiting around “The Lousy Acre,” and they sometimes slept there. They probably had no where else to go, and I can remember seeing them stretched out on the dusty ground, with only newspaper between them and the cold earth and another paper to shield them from the even colder air of a chilly late September night. Remember, this was in the middle of downtown Montreal, then the wealthiest city in Canada. Its wealth due to the large part to the great volume of freight traffic that went to and from in ships, ships in which these men had worked. This was their reward, permission to sleep in the ground. What’s more, the poor devils washed their blue denims in the Lachine Canal. If you have never seen the water of that ditch, I can tell you that it was the color of the Blue Danube: dirty brown.

But the best part of my recollection of those days was that on occasion we were able to feed some of those unfortunates from the ship’s stores. In the evening the cooks were off duty, and there was always food on the galley table for crew members on watch or deck-hands who might be on duty. If someone came around to look for a job when we were “locking through” during the evening or the night we could at least find him something to eat. While one deck-hand kept the look-out for the captain another would nip down to the galley, slap together a sandwich of cheese, meat or whatever handy, and pass it to him on the sly. We had to be careful because both the captain and the head cook were very anxious to keep down the cost of meals. As I remember, they managed to keep it down to about 22 cents a sitting per man.

When these hand-out were taking place I used to look around at the towering shapes of the grain elevators that dominated the skyline around this area. The grain in those elevators had been brought there in ships, worked by men like the ones we were feeding so stealthily. They had earned their share of the food, but we could not give it to them openly.

That’s my most basic impression of the Great Depression. What’s yours?

This article was published in Seven News, Volume 10, Number 10, November 2, 1979

For more articles by Howard Huggett and Ulli Diemer see the Index of Seven News Articles 1970 - 1985. To view the articles, click on the PDF of the issue in which it appeared.

Related Topics: Canadian SocialistsCo-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)Left-Wing PoliticsShipsToronto/Historical