William Ross: A Gentle Revolutionary

August 19, 2022

 The life of William Ross (Cecil Zuken) embodied the North End’s tradition of radical politics.

Escaping persecution, destitution, and periodic waves of murderous pogroms more than 80 percent of the Jewish immigrants who settled in Winnipeg between 1882 and 1914 were born in the Pale of Settlement of Tsarist Russia. They had come of age – their average age on arrival was 31 – in an era of intense debates about Jewish emancipation. In the Pale, many of them had been members of organizations such as the Bund, Poale Zion or the Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party, organizations that agreed that Jews were oppressed by both the Tsarist government and their employers but offered different paths to achieving their emancipation.

Immigration to Canada freed them from Tsarist oppression but although the majority of Jews (68 percent) who found work in Winnipeg as wage earners or earned an income by providing services had escaped a life of grinding poverty, their annual incomes (an average of $778 a year) were inadequate and insecure. Since families needed at least $968 a year to afford the necessities of life and employers, supported by government and the courts, opposed forming unions to bargain for higher wages, the most common solution was to encourage children to leave school to earn additional income.

 Drawing on their pre-emigration experiences, by 1919 Jewish radicals in Winnipeg’s North End had established organizations that in effect replicated most of the of the ideological tendencies of the politics of Jewish emancipation in the Pale of Settlement. They included Revolutionary Marxists (Bundists), Socialist Territorialists – Poale Zionists (Labour Zionists), the Jewish Branch of the Social Democratic Party of Canada (socialist) and a small “association” of Anarchists. In 1915, on the eve of the annual May Day parade, the Israelite Press commented that it was a “workers’ demonstration opposing the existence of the capitalist system.”

 In the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the 1919 Winnipeg general strike, many Jewish radicals gravitated to one of two political organizations, the Independent Labour Party, the forerunner of the CCF-NDP and the Communist Party of Canada. The politics of advancing the interests of workers through gradual reform or alternatively challenging the legitimacy of governments that favoured business interests at the expense of workers, as well as criticism or support of the Soviet Union defined most of the debates among Jewish radicals in the 1920’s. When the October 1929 stock market crash precipitated what appeared to be the collapse of capitalism, Jewish socialists were presented with a stark choice: supporting the politics of gradual reform or fighting for a socialist Canada.

 Growing up, Cecil Zuken frequently heard political discussions at the dinner table. His father, Lazar Zuken, had been a factory worker in Gorodnitsa, Ukraine. A supporter of the Bund, he had been blacklisted because of his participation in a strike and forced to emigrate. His brother-in-law, Alec Kretchmar who lived with the Zuken family and shared Lazar’s affinity for the Independent Labour Party, worked as a presser in a garment factory. Attending the I. L Peretz school where teachers emphasized social justice and compassion for the disadvantaged reinforced the values and beliefs Cecil Zuken absorbed at home.

 However, in 1929 at the age of 18, Cecil Zuken decided to join the Communist Party, a commitment that was to define his entire life. As the stuck market crash led to mass unemployment, he plunged into political work in support of the party’s program of demands to replace relief vouchers with cash, unemployment insurance, a national system of health insurance, education and training opportunities for youth and the right to form unions and collective bargaining. Although the federal government banned the party in 1931 on the pretext that it advocated violence, party members continued to support workers’ rights through the Workers Unity League and the Canadian Labour Defence League.

 In 1934 he went to Flin Flon where the Workers Unity League was supporting miners in a bitter strike for higher wages. Convicted of unlawful assembly, a provision of the Criminal Code that was routinely used in the 1930’s to suppress public demonstrations, he served six months in jail, using his incarceration as an opportunity to introduce his fellow inmates to socialist thought. Returning to Winnipeg, he was elected leader of the Young Communist League. As a prominent young activist, he became a spokesperson for a generation denied both employment and educational opportunities. Changing his name to William Ross to protect his parents from police scrutiny, at the age of twenty-five he was elected a School Board Trustee representing Ward 3. As a trustee he advocated restoration of grade twelve, free textbooks and increases to teachers’ salaries.

 Re-elected in 1938, his term was cut short when in 1940 the leaders of the Communist Party criticized the war effort, declaring that the failure of Britain and France to uphold their commitment to assist Poland in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded signaled support for a German invasion of the Soviet Union. Citing the party’s opposition to the war, the government invoked the Defence of Canada Regulations of the War Measures Act, which authorized the arrest and internment without trial of party leaders. Evading arrest for twenty-eight months, William Ross emerged from hiding in September 1942 and promptly joined the army to “fight fascism,” serving in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.

 Returning to Canada in 1945, he became leader of the Manitoba Communist Party, a position he held until his retirement in 1981. He continued to be resolutely committed to his goal of a socialist Canada but the Cold War, post-war prosperity and the success of the welfare state blunted the party’s message. In the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, the party’s candidates, notably Joseph Zuken, continued to win elections to City Council, the Winnipeg School Board, and the Provincial Legislature. However, gradually the party’s membership declined and Joe Zuken’s retirement in 1983 ended the North End’s fifty-seven-year tradition of electing communists.

A rare individual, one who despite the many challenges and sacrifices remained unshakable in his commitment to what he believed and espoused, William Ross was a gentle revolutionary who never lost sight of his vision of a socialist Canada.