Stanley Knowles, True Working-Class Hero

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.

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About Stimpson

A curious chap, indeed.
This entry was posted in Commentary, labor unions, Politics, Religion, Social Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Stanley Knowles, True Working-Class Hero

  1. scaredstiff says:

    Mike, this was well worth the wait of the day. Excellent as it shows a man way ahead of his time. Thanks Man.

    • Stimpson says:

      Thank you, Tim. There’s a lot more I wanted to say about Knowles, who was truly a remarkable and admirable human being, but (as I said in the opening) I wanted to be brief.

  2. osori says:

    Mike,
    A truly great man – we could sure as hell use him today! Thank you Mike, I’m glad to know of him.

  3. Norman says:

    Mr. Stimpson, thank you for the enlightenment this Easter Sunday here by the bay. As I sit here thinking about all that the labor movement has done for the general population down through the years, it just boggles my mind to read about everyone of those dolts out there who has benefited from the sacrifices of those that came before, who want to eliminate those benefits because of some misguided B.S. of the plutocracy in this country. It’s bad enough that our first & probably last is going along with them. I’m referring to the “O”. Thanks again, good to know others think like this.

    • Stimpson says:

      I’m glad you liked the post, Norman. I too am trouble by what I see in places like Wisconsin and Ohio, where unions have been assaulted by right-wingers who want to break them. No one should be supporting that, and it’s shameful of Obama to have done (as far as I can tell) nothing in response.

  4. Krell says:

    Here I’m just getting ready to go to bed when I check the blog and get surprised by this excellent post by Mike. The “Labor History” posts are really a gem! I have learned so much with this last one especially. I had not even heard of a “Stanley Knowles” much less his heroic struggle for the betterment of labor and mankind.

    As Oso comments, how we could use Stanley today. A real hero that you had the fortune to meet, Mike.

    Great read… Thank you!

  5. B. Evans says:

    What Krell said, Mike. Thanks.

  6. “The law of contagion is a folk belief described axiom found in magical thinking which suggests that once two people and/or objects have been in contact, that a magical link persists between unless or until a formal exorcism or other act of banishing breaks the non-material bond. The first description of the law of contagion appeared in The Golden Bough by James George Frazer” *this is more or anthropology than of booga booga, but then again Mike, you know me*
    I like your STanley Knowles. You ain’t such small shakes yourself, Stimpson. And like Sir James said, once touched … always touched.
    and I hesitate to wonder at what that means for me as a gal who shook Obama’s hand… still, I know the reality of it. We INFLUENCE one another…. don’t we?
    Great post Mike.

  7. Such a great tribute to a wonderful human being..and for you, a fellow Canadian Mike! I was very happy to learn of this man from you.

    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. Um, to get into heaven you are supposed to care about, and take care of, your fellow human beings..not just yourself. Only the fake Christians are shallow enough to ignore human suffering.

  8. jackjodell53 says:

    Stimpson,
    Think you so much for this story. It was MORE than worthy: it was SUPERB! Knowles was indeed a true Christian, much more so than that @*&% Harper! I hope, if he wins, he will be held powerless and ineffective by the opposition. The last thing your great country needs is a refried George W. Bush!

    You don’t know how much I wish we had adopted your health care system! Keep up the good work up there, my good man!

  9. LisaB says:

    Stanley Knowles was my great uncle. He was a kind man, I remember him as soft spoken, and we kids always enjoyed receiving his Christmas cards (with House of Commons return address, he didn’t have to pay postage ha!). I would always look for him when he was made an honorary table officer of the House of Commons, and therefore had a seat in the HoC for life, by Prime Minister Trudeau.

    A great post for a great man, thank you.

  10. Love Canada says:

    Lovely, informative post — thanks! I liked the contrast that you pointed out regarding our current “Christians” in power compared to Stanley Knowles’ Christian values, and actions.

    PS. I went to BUNS in 1981 🙂

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