Canada’s First Major Socialist Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, led by James Shaver Woodsworth, was founded at a conference in Calgary, Alberta. The formation of the CCF, Canada’s first democratic socialist movement, transformed the Canadian political scene and represented a serious challenge to political orthodoxy in the climate of the Great Depression.

Summary of Event

On August 1, 1932, a conference at Calgary, Alberta, launched a new force in Canadian politics: the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Socialist ideas as well as the interests of labor and farmers were represented at the conference, and the CCF combined previously distinct movements into a single party. A follow-up conference in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1933 produced the Regina Manifesto, Regina Manifesto a sweeping document calling for overthrow of capitalism. [kw]Canada’s First Major Socialist Movement (Aug. 1, 1932)[Canadas First Major Socialist Movement (Aug. 1, 1932)] [kw]First Major Socialist Movement, Canada’s (Aug. 1, 1932) [kw]Socialist Movement, Canada’s First Major (Aug. 1, 1932) Cooperative Commonwealth Federation New Democratic Party (Canada) Political parties;Cooperative Commonwealth Federation [g]Canada;Aug. 1, 1932: Canada’s First Major Socialist Movement[08110] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 1, 1932: Canada’s First Major Socialist Movement[08110] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 1, 1932: Canada’s First Major Socialist Movement[08110] Woodsworth, James Shaver Irvine, William Scott, Francis Reginald Underhill, Frank Coldwell, James Macphail, Agnes Douglas, Tommy

The formation of the CCF owed much to the climate of the Great Depression. The 1929 stock market crash dried up investment, and high tariffs led to shrinking world markets. Since a third of Canada’s income came from exports, many Canadians lost their jobs, and 30 percent of the labor force was unemployed by 1933. On Canada’s prairies, the situation was especially dire. Wheat prices declined sharply, from $1.60 per bushel in the middle of 1929 to $0.50 by the end of 1930. More serious difficulties followed as Canada’s Prairie Provinces—parts of Manitoba, Alberta, and especially Saskatchewan—faced the scourge of grasshopper plagues, hail, and drought. With successive years of inadequate rainfall, the prairies became a dustbowl, and valuable topsoil blew away. Two-thirds of Saskatchewan’s population was dependent on government relief, and the prevailing capitalist system was not equal to the challenge. The solutions proposed by orthodox political parties were clearly inadequate; Richard Bedford Bennett, Bennett, Richard Bedford Canada’s Conservative prime minister from 1930 to 1935, clung to the belief that tariffs would help Canada “blast a way” into world markets. Disillusioned people became more willing to entertain unconventional economic and political theories, and ideas such as communism and social credit—a complicated scheme of deficit spending through the distribution of dividends—received a more sympathetic hearing than they might have in better times. American populist ideas, which promoted antagonism toward “power elites,” and British socialism were among the ideological currents to which the CCF owed some of its inspiration.

Chief among the CCF’s first organizers was James Shaver Woodsworth, a former Methodist minister with roots in the Social Gospel movement. Social Gospel movement Woodsworth had worked among the poor, participated in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and had been a Labour and independent member of Parliament for Winnipeg North Centre since 1921. True to his Social Gospel principles, Woodsworth focused his efforts on the salvation of society as a whole through political action. Sometimes called “the conscience of Canada,” Woodsworth moved a resolution in each session of Parliament calling for the replacement of capitalism’s competitive profit motive with public and cooperative ownership of the means of production and distribution. This idea became the core of the CCF.

The CCF, however, encompassed more than socialist ideals. Farmers’ organizations had been active since early in the century, and a tradition of political activism grew out of Grain Growers Associations and cooperatives formed to market grain through collectively owned pools. A perception that Canada’s National Policy tariffs served the interests of manufacturers at the expense of farmers also fueled political action. Provincial parties devoted to farmers’ interests, such as the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) and United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), had made rapid gains, and in the 1921 election the farmer-supported Progressive Party gained the second largest number of seats in Canada’s federal parliament. These farmers’ parties, however, did not function as truly disciplined political parties in the traditional sense; instead, they perceived themselves as interest groups that condemned the whole party system as inherently corrupt.

In 1924, a splinter group of more radical Progressives called the Ginger Group Ginger Group (to commemorate labor leader Ginger Goodwin, who had been killed by police) broke away to join with two Labour members of Parliament, James Shaver Woodsworth and William Irvine. Irvine, another devotee of the Social Gospel ideal, was a member of Parliament from Alberta and the author of The Farmers in Politics (1920). The Ginger Group would ultimately form the nucleus of the CCF.

Another key to the party’s formation was the establishment in 1931 of the League for Social Reconstruction League for Social Reconstruction (LSR). The LSR consisted largely of left-wing intellectuals drawn from Canadian universities who were admirers of Woodsworth’s ideals and who expressed skepticism about the future of the capitalist system. The most prominent members of the LSR were Frank Underhill, a historian from the University of Toronto, and Francis Reginald Scott, a poet and law professor from McGill University in Montreal. Underhill and Scott would be the authors of the CCF’s 1933 Regina Manifesto. The Canadian Forum, a political periodical founded in Toronto in 1920, became a means of disseminating the league’s ideas.

In May of 1932, Woodsworth met in Ottawa with a dozen or so others devoted to forming a “commonwealth party” that would unify labor, socialists, and farmers in a federation. William Irvine was among the group, as was Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female member of Parliament, who was elected under the Progressive banner in 1921. Other key organizers were Angus MacInnis, Woodsworth’s son-in-law and a Vancouver Labour member of Parliament, and James Coldwell, a Saskatchewan teacher who would ultimately succeed Woodsworth as party leader. The leaders of this new political movement worked to bring together key radical groups. Several of these groups were holding their own conferences throughout the summer of 1932: the Western Conference of Labour Political Parties, the United Farmers of Canada, and the United Farmers of Alberta, who had formed the government in that province since 1921.

These groups, along with other labor and farmers’ parties, answered the call from the Ottawa organizers to come together at the Calgary conference on August 1, 1932. The delegates considered adopting such names as the Socialist Party of Canada or the United Workers Commonwealth, but at last they settled on the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Woodsworth was elected president of the new group. No definitive policy declaration was accepted at the Calgary conference, but ideas presented there ultimately found their way into the Regina Manifesto, which was produced in 1933 and represented a fundamental rejection of free market capitalism. There was broad agreement on a program drafted by James Coldwell, which included the need for socialization of production, distribution, and exchange. The federation favored public ownership of banking, credit, utilities, and natural resources, and social legislation was to be pursued, especially with respect to health and employment insurance. Socialization would not extend to landownership, however, and the land tenure of farmers was to remain secure. In this respect, the early CCF revealed a fundamentally conservative stripe that differed from communist ideology. The deep religious convictions held by many CCF adherents was another key point of distinction. Nevertheless, defenders of the status quo in the Canadian press raised the specter of Soviet-style forced collectivization and warned that the adoption of CCF principles would lead to the burning of churches.


The 1932 formation of the CCF at the Calgary conference was followed the next year by a conference at Regina, Saskatchewan, that set out the party’s manifesto. The Regina Manifesto boldly called for the replacement of the capitalist system “with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated.” But it rejected Communist-style violent revolution in favor of democracy. Under Woodsworth’s leadership, the CCF functioned as a disciplined political party, an essential strategy to gain influence within the existing parliamentary system.

While the CCF alarmed the political right, it was also criticized by Communists, who called for more sweeping change. Woodsworth displayed his disavowal of such ideas by dissolving the Communist-dominated Ontario branch of the CCF in 1934. The CCF gained 8.9 percent of the popular vote in the 1935 federal election, winning seven seats. The presence of a viable socialist alternative arguably pushed mainstream parties into more progressive legislation. Under Tommy Douglas, the CCF formed the provincial government in Saskatchewan in 1944. The party would continue to be a force in Canadian federal and provincial politics, evolving into the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961. Cooperative Commonwealth Federation New Democratic Party (Canada) Political parties;Cooperative Commonwealth Federation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brennan, William J., ed. Building the Co-operative Commonwealth: Essays on the Democratic Socialist Tradition in Canada. Regina, Sask.: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1984. Essays by prominent scholars of Canadian socialist history consider such topics as the role of women in the CCF and the Saskatchewan CCF government of Tommy Douglas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNaught, Kenneth. A Prophet in Politics: A Biography of J. S. Woodsworth. 1959. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. A frequently reprinted narrative of Woodsworth’s life that reveals his centrality to the formation of the CCF and puts the events into the context of a life devoted to social reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitehorn, Alan. Canadian Socialism: Essays on the CCF-NDP. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992. Written from a political-science perspective, these essays offer detailed analysis of the party’s early history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Walter D. The Anatomy of a Party: The National CCF, 1932-61. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969. A reliable and detailed account of the formation of the CCF. Young rejects the “party” label as applicable to capitalist organizations and prefers to consider the CCF a “movement.”

Canadian Women Gain the Vote

Winnipeg General Strike

Meighen Era in Canada

King Era in Canada

Great Depression

Bennett Era in Canada

Canada Enacts Depression-Era Relief Legislation

Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations

St. Lawrence Seaway Treaty

Ottawa Agreements

King Returns to Power in Canada

Categories: History