Thinking of Ourselves as Canadians

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Tyler Wentzell

Writing shortly after Canadian troops went ashore in Sicily alongside their American and British allies, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and William Lyon Mackenzie King met in Quebec City to discuss Allied strategy, an editorialist in Toronto’s Saturday Night called on Canadians to pursue an agenda of national unity. The writer reasoned that Canada deserved a leading place in the post-war world based on its industrial and military efforts, but that it could not attain such benefits if it remained disunited. At first glance, the writer’s English name – Edward Cecil-Smith – would lead the reader to cynically anticipate the article to either tie Canadian identity to concepts of Christian “British-ness,” or perhaps “non-American-ness,” or maybe even “white-ness.” But he goes down a different and unexpected path.

Cecil-Smith noted, “There is too much ‘racial origin’ talk in Canada.” (For context, it is important to note that the term ‘race’ was used differently in those days, combining identities that today we would consider combinations of ethnicity, religion, and culture. The census, for instance, used ‘Ukrainian,’ ‘English,‘ ‘Jewish’ ‘Scotch,’ ‘Negro,’ ‘Chinese’ et cetera as categories of race.) He continued, “Even of the Ukrainian Canadians, who are among the latest arrivals, 57 per cent were born in this country. ‘New Canadians’ are not really much ‘newer’ than English Canadians, and the only really ‘old’ Canadians are the Indians.” Noting the importance of French Canada, as well, he concluded, “National unity campaigns must be based first and foremost on Canada—and all of Canada.”

Furthermore, he noted that the newspaper recently listed the names of 44 officers promoted in the Royal Canadian Navy. The officers were from every corner of the country, yet almost all had English, Scottish, and sometimes Irish names. Only two had names indicating possible French-Canadian heritage and none had names suggesting that they were ‘New Canadians.’ He concluded, “Without suggesting that these are not the best available men for promotion in the RCN, it can clearly be suggested that something is wrong when our navy – almost entirely of wartime enlistments – does not have representatives of nearly two-thirds of our population.” Cecil-Smith’s numbers were exaggerated – well over half of the Canadian population claimed British ancestry – but the point was no less valid. Today, of course, we know that the war-time RCN had an especially narrow view of what backgrounds made for the “best” naval officers.

The September 1943 editorial is thought-provoking and quaint to the contemporary reader. It was in many ways typical of its time, making the most fleeting mention of Indigenous people and no mention of persons of colour, and, of course, entirely ignores the possibility that women could ever serve as officers in the RCN; yet it was also remarkably progressive. The author’s vision of Canadian identity was very multicultural: an identity that embraced its people regardless of their language or ‘racial’ origins, did not pigeon-hole people into certain kinds of work based on their origins, and could build relationships with other countries where it made sense, not just based on heritage. Cecil-Smith thought, for example, that Canada might enjoy a positive relationship with Latin America and the Soviet Union after the war based on geography and shared interests.

Cecil-Smith had not come to these ideas about a Canadian identity quickly or easily. Born in China to British missionaries, he was raised to believe in the superiority of all things British and Christian, but also to see the potential in everyone regardless of background. A convert was a convert, whether they were ethnically Han Chinese or of the Hmong minority with whom his parents mostly worked. He attended a British boarding school (where he also learned French), briefly served in the multinational Shanghai Volunteers, and came to Toronto to settle in 1919. After a few years as a banker, mainstream journalist, and active member of the Canadian militia, he came to see the British institutions that he had held so dear as corrupted.

Cecil-Smith became a pacifist and a critic of Canada and the British Empire, joined the Communist Party of Canada, wrote a play about the imprisoned party leadership, edited a magazine about what he believed was an idyllic workers’ state in the Soviet Union, and, most famously, commanded the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion during the Spanish Civil War.

For most of the 1930s, Cecil-Smith believed deeply in the moral standing of the Soviet Union, as he saw a state that embraced all its people. We know better today; most knew better then. From the gulags to the Holodomor to Stalin’s persecution of political rivals, idolizing the Depression-era Soviet Union seems entirely absurd through modern eyes. Yet Cecil-Smith was among those who believed that such stories were “fake news,” spun by capitalist newspaper owners to discredit this grand and hopeful experiment. For this, Cecil-Smith deserves criticism, but qualified criticism: he was a man in search of an ideal, and he desperately wanted to believe the news that this ideal had been achieved in the Soviet Union and could be achieved on a global scale. Immediately before departing for Spain, he wrote an editorial proclaiming, “The future of humanity is communism, the classless, stateless society, in which man will forever cease to use force against man, when exploitation will end and the real history of human development will at last begin.”

By the opening months of the Second World War, Cecil-Smith had changed his point of view again. Although he still believed in the Soviet Union and the cause of communism, he disagreed with the spirit of Non-Aggression Pact and the doctrinaire nature of the Communist Party. He shifted his thinking: he had believed in empire in his youth, then in a stateless communist world during the Depression, and finally landed on the ideas that the world was best organized as a community of states – and that the Canadian state had endless potential if it could build an identity for all its people. Just as Cecil-Smith deserves criticism for being duped by the Soviet misinformation machine, he also deserves credit for changing his views based on evidence and experience.

Cecil-Smith went on to become a successful trade magazine editor in both Toronto and Montreal, fortunate to make the transition from mainstream to communist and back again despite Cold War sensitivities. He became a prosperous member of the growing middle class, bought a house and a car, and happily went to work every day. The state security apparatus did not forget his past, however. Cecil-Smith’s 1943 Saturday Night editorial was among the hundreds of documents diligently clipped and placed in his RCMP file. The file was kept up to date until he died from a stroke in 1963.

Cecil-Smith’s son, Bill, born in 1942, remembers only seeing the occasional clue of his father’s revolutionary communist past. His son recalls the odd visit from Mexican military officers (Mexico had provided aid to the Spanish Republic and the International Brigaders were well-regarded) and sometimes a military cadet served as his babysitter on his parents’ date night. He found the odd copy of the Canadian Tribune around the house, or more dramatic relics like an affectionate letter from Norman Bethune in China to his mother, Lilian Gouge, shortly before his death. Sometimes his father would tell the briefest of anecdotes to explain the origin of the scars his body carried from the war – having been shot twice and stabbed once – or his mom might mention performing Shakespeare to entertain strikers on the picket line in Stratford in 1933.

Bill recalls his father being enthusiastic about the trappings of culture – especially literature, music, and food – which manifested itself in a large and diverse collection of books and records, and in cooking the Chinese food he had enjoyed in his youth. And while there was little discussion of revolution or communism around the Cecil-Smith dining room table, other aspects of politics did creep into the conversation. He retained his universalist philosophy – sometimes rooted in Christianity and other times rooted in secular philosophy – and hoped that the Canadian state would progressively take on a greater role in providing for its people. His son remembers his father as a deeply proud Canadian, still seeing its future lying in its embrace of multiculturalism.

Tyler Wentzell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. His first book, Not for King or Country: Edward Cecil-Smith, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2020.

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