A few weeks back, in response to one of Minnesota Jack’s American Labor posts, I said maybe I would share a little about someone I consider a great figure in Canadian labor history. Well, here goes. I’ll try to be brief.
Stanley Howard Knowles, born 18 June 1908 in California to Canadian parents (his dad was journeyman machinist), was a printer, clergyman, member of Canadian Parliament for many years (1942-1958, 1962-1984), decades-long member of the International Typographical Union, Canadian Labour Congress vice-president for a few years, and passionate advocate for labor and social justice.
A social democrat in the House of Commons, he was best known as a watchdog for public pensions and master of parliamentary procedure. But there are two other things about Knowles that I wish to focus on, because of their pertinence to great issues and events of our times: health care and “Christian compassion.”
About health care, there’s this: When Knowles was a 10-year-old attending Los Angeles’ Budlong Avenue Public School (where, incidentally, he began learning the secrets of the printing trade), his mother became ill with tuberculosis. The family doctor told Mr. and Mrs. Knowles they could improve her odds against TB by moving to Arizona. As Knowles biographer Susan Mann Trofimenkoff states:
What working man in 1919 could take his family to Arizona? They could as easily go to the moon. But why should Mother die because Father could not afford to take her to Arizona? And why should Mother have had so few good years? Surely something was wrong with the way of the world.
It took the young Stanley Knowles many years to work through the hurt, to seek religious answers and then political answers to questions barely acknowledged that early morning in June 1919 [when his mother died].
As a clergyman, MP and labor leader, Knowles was a tireless advocate of universal health care. He got to see it come about in Canada, where the family moved after Mrs. Knowles’s death, but we still don’t see it in his country of birth. That’s a shame.
Now, about Christian compassion: As a young minister at Central United Church in Winnipeg, Knowles sermonized for social reform and the dignity of the working class. This didn’t sit well with conservative members of the church’s board. One board member asked “how many souls” were saved by the pastor’s social activism.
“How many souls.” It seems that some things never change, for we still have many Christians who care far more about the intangible “spiritual” component of the working person than they care about the worker’s material well-being.
My fellow Canadians are about to cast a plurality of votes for a party led by a Christian who deplores Canada’s “welfare state” and sneers at “government-controlled” health care when the rich could buy better care. He and other Christian conservatives in his party care more about getting into Heaven than they care about the Hell that some fellow humans live in. We all know of similar Christians in the U.S. Stanley Knowles, in contrast, interpreted from his reading of the New Testament that he had a duty to help the poor on issues of the here and now, in the real world.
I met Stanley Knowles once about 30 years ago, in a receiving line at the Brandon United Nations High School Seminar. It’s long been my regret that, rather than taking the proper time to talk to him, I sped along to shake hands with the next person in line. I blew an opportunity to converse with someone I would soon appreciate as a great advocate for social justice.
I saw him once more, in 1990, as he was struggling to walk against a strong wind near the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. He looked old and frail then, because he was old and frail, but I saw dignity in his effort. A smile came to my face.
He died seven years later, nine days shy of his 89th birtday. I clipped out a newspaper article headlined “Champion of underdog dead at 88,” and still keep it in my copy of the book Stanley Knowles: The Man from Winnipeg North Centre. Alexa McDonough, then leader of the New Democratic Party, is quoted in the article as praising him for “his dignity and his determination in fighting for public pensions, fighting for medicare, for women’s rights and for social justice in the broadest sense of the word.”
Well, there you have it, Jack – my humble supplement to your American Labor series. I hope it’s worthy.