Recovery and Repression

  • Larry Hannant (Editor) and Bert Whyte (Author)
    Champagne and Meatballs: Adventures of a Canadian Communist. Athabasca University Press
  • Daniel Francis (Author)
    Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror. Arsenal Pulp Press
Reviewed by Bart Vautour

Published under a Creative Commons License, Champagne and Meatballs is part of a larger project aimed at recovering alternate histories in Canada in a series called “Working Canadians: Books from the Canadian Committee on Labour History.” Whyte’s memoir spans six decades of active involvement in political climates in Canada and abroad. The scope of these conditions is usefully introduced and contextualized by Larry Hannant, who has once again provided historians of the left with some fresh material. The book is not a series of historical documents presented in indexical fashion. No, the book traces one man’s romp through a politicized life. Indeed, some rather uncomfortable reading comes in the chapter on his early years, wherein Whyte uncritically reflects on his emergent sexuality and relations with women. Aside from these disclosures, the book provides much important information to add to a growing scholarly reconstruction of Canada’s leftist history. Because the book narrates historical events and often deviates from chronological order, a simple timeline mixing events in Whyte’s life with historical events would have been a useful resource, making discontinuous reading easier while also facilitating a return to the book for its rich primary historical material.

One of the many useful resources for piecing together the milieu around leftist activism in the early-twentieth century is the chapter on the 193s, wherein he gives personal and historical accounts of some other organizers and friends: Jimmy Black, who died in Spain during the Civil War; Sam Scarlett, who transitioned from the International Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) to the Communist Party of Canada (CPC); Harvey Murphy, the communist trade union leader; and Dewar Ferguson, who helped form the Canadian Seamen’s Union (CSU). This chapter is particularly adept at presenting a productive mixture of historical account, personal anecdote, and organizational experience. In writing about Ferguson, Whyte pauses to reflect on his own purpose:

I am not writing a history, or even a sketch, of the birth of the CSU. Nor am I trying to present a shorthand version of Fergie’s life. My aim is more modest; to pay tribute to a friend of more that thirty-five years. I have known many trade unionists who were better public speakers than Fergie, many who were better strategists, better negotiators. None more honest, though.

It occurs to me that this is the purpose of the memoir. Whyte neither aims at hagiography, an exhaustive history of the communist movement in Canada nor, really, at a simple telling of his own life. The point of the book—and what makes it useful and interesting—is to present an amalgam of personal, social, historical, and organizational possibilities that are available to the political left and that look outside strict party lines or programmatic politics. Whyte’s memoir—like all good memoirs— isn’t just about him.

The point of Whyte’s book is clear. Less clear are the intentions of Daniel Francis’ Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror. When I began reading Francis’s book, I immediately puzzled at the evocation of a “war on terror” as a guiding metaphor for an exploration of this important moment in Canadian history. My puzzlement continued: the use of the terror of the book’s title is not contextualized until the final chapter. Questionable and imprecise use of language in this book is not confined to the title. Francis rightly states that the so-called “red scare” of 1918-19 was a massive public relations campaign and “a conspiracy by the government of Canada against its own people.” Francis’ language, though, often re-inscribes the very hyperbolic language of that campaign, which may be sarcastic (a possibility, I suppose), but the reader approaching this topic for the first time may be left confused. And I think that is Francis’ intended audience: readers new to this moment in Canadian history who do not want to be burdened with extensive parenthetical, scholarly contextualization—readers who want the bigger picture. Indeed, Francis provides a big picture. Presented with a swath of diverse materials, readers are sometimes forced to connect some fairly disparate dots. For example, I remain unconvinced that the six-page, chapter-ending overview of European Dadaism will help readers better understand the particular crisis that arose in Canada in 1918-19. Nevertheless, the wide view of Francis’s book is ambitious, informative, and sufficiently evocative to incite further reading into any number of different aspects surrounding this particular moment in Canadian history.

This review “Recovery and Repression” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 155-57.

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