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Ben Swankey in uniform, 1943.
Ben Swankey in uniform, 1943.

Ben Swankey, 98 labour activist

How the billy clubs radicalized a Depression-era Prairie boy Add to ...

At the age of 17, Ben Swankey joined his brother, a teacher on relief, at an anti-war rally at the old Cambie Street Grounds in downtown Vancouver. When demonstrators hauled out red flags secreted beneath their shirts and began to march without a permit, waiting policemen cracked heads with billy clubs, leaving many battered and bloodied.

Angered by the brutality, Swankey tore a white picket from a fence at a gas station, throwing it at the back of a mounted policeman.

The violence of that afternoon led the young man to the Carnegie Library, where he read Marx and Engels, soon after deciding to become a communist.

For 60 years, Swankey, who died on Nov. 22 at the age of 98, served the Communist Party as a standard-bearer in elections and as a prolific pamphleteer. He was interned during the early years of the Second World War, his loyalty suspect by the government; on his release, the Soviet Union having since been invaded by Germany, he enlisted in the Canadian Army, serving briefly overseas.

He returned to Canada to become party leader in Alberta during the Cold War, a time of hysteria and loyalty oaths, as well as the exposing of Communist spy conspiracies. After the execution of the Rosenbergs in the United States, Swankey’s daughter, June, feared her father faced a similar fate.

He remained obedient to the Moscow-aligned party through the decades, a loyalty not broken by the non-aggression pact with the hated Nazis (1939), or by the revelation of Stalin’s terrible crimes after the dictator’s death (1953), or by the invasion of Hungary (1956) or Czechoslovakia (1968), or by the imposition of martial law in Poland (1981). Only after Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms did Swankey come to fully realize his overseas utopia had been a dystopia. When efforts to reform the Communist Party of Canada were blocked, he at long last quit.

“Thanks to Gorbachev,” he wrote in a 2008 memoir, “the mask had been torn off the ugly face of Stalinism and its legacy in the Soviet Union. The revelations were nothing less than horrendous. So many deaths, so much torture, so many lies, so many harmful policies and actions.”

Swankey’s great age made him a valuable resource for those seeking witness accounts of the struggles of the Great Depression. He could speak with authority about the On-to-Ottawa trek of 1935, as he had helped organize support for the striking relief camp workers led by Arthur (Slim) Evans, whose biography he later wrote with Evans’ daughter.

Swankey worked as a bartender, road builder, roofing inspector, and insurance salesman. As a labour journalist and organizer he met American singer Paul Robeson and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. He also made the acquaintance of Norman Bethune, the Ontario-born doctor revered by the Chinese.

Bernhard Schwenke was born on Sept. 17, 1913, at Steinbach, Man., a few months after his parents immigrated to Canada from Russia. (Later, after he became politically active, he added a middle name, Rudolf, as he did not care for the initials B.S.) He was the fifth child born to Leokadia (née Krieger) and Gustav Schwanke. Four more children were born to his mother in Canada, two of those sons dying in infancy.

His family soon after settled in Herbert, Sask., where his father found work as a railroad labourer. Young Ben hunted gophers with a homemade bow and arrow, eager to collect a two-cent bounty for each tail. At 14, he rode the rails through the Rocky Mountains and then south to Washington state, where he picked apples, apricots and cherries, before returning home to continue his schooling.

Three years later, he hitchhiked to Vancouver with a $10 stake. Soon after arriving in the port city, he was accosted by a young man selling Communist Party newspapers on the street.

“What we need is a Soviet Russia,” the man said.

“Go to hell,” Swankey replied angrily. He had grown up in a Lutheran and Mennonite community on the Prairies. But his antipathy to Communism changed a few weeks later after he witnessed the police riot.

The tumultuous events of 1931 – police shot and killed three striking miners at Estevan, Sask., and the Toronto headquarters of the Communist Party were raided and the leadership arrested – convinced him the party was the most likely to challenge capitalism.

One of his first assignments was to raise money, food and clothing for striking coal miners at Crowsnest Pass in 1932. He was arrested for the first time later that year for helping to organize a hunger march in Edmonton.

He married Olive Senko the day after his 20th birthday, and the young couple tried homesteading northwest of Prince George, B.C. Swankey built a log cabin, enduring mosquitoes and horseflies in summer, surviving on rabbits he shot in winter. The harsh life was soon abandoned as the couple returned to Alberta, where he became a full-time activist.

While Canada’s Communists had been fierce critics of fascists throughout the 1930s, they altered their position soon after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, leading to the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon after Canada declared war, the Communist Party was outlawed and party leaders were rounded up under the War Measures Act. Swankey, the Alberta secretary of the Young Communist League, spent more than two years in internment camps at Kananaskis, Alta., Petawawa, Ont., and Hull, Que.

He was released in September, 1942, immediately enlisting in the Canadian Army, going from an internment camp to an army training camp. During his internment, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union and the party’s opposition to the war was replaced by all-out support.

His marriage ended in divorce. During the war, he married again to Anne Wiseman, known as Hantzi, a pianist from Winnipeg whom he had met after a speech by Communist leader Tim Buck.

In 1945, while still in the service, Swankey ran for Parliament in Jasper-Edson in Alberta, finishing last of five candidates with just under 5 per cent of the vote. He campaigned for the Labour-Progressive Party, the banner under which the banned Communists had reorganized. Swankey also contested a seat for the House of Commons in 1949 in Edmonton East and in 1953 in Peace River, a seat held by federal Social Credit leader Solon Law.

Swankey became the party’s provincial leader in December, 1945. To be a Communist in Alberta during the Cold War was not a happy situation. The party could not afford to cover his $45 weekly salary, which fell $700 in arrears. He lasted until 1957 before moving his family to British Columbia, where he sold radios, insurance and roofing supplies. He also began writing for pro-Communist labour newspapers, as well as producing pamphlets, one of which, on the Métis rebel Gabriel Dumont, was said to have moved 50,000 copies in its Russian-language edition.

Swankey began working with Harry Rankin, a dynamic and acerbic criminal lawyer who ran for municipal office for 11 years before getting elected to Vancouver city council in 1966. Two years later, Swankey helped found the Committee (now Coalition) of Progressive Electors, which has been active on the civic scene ever since.

He wrote several book-length works, including Man Along the Shore!, a history of the Vancouver waterfront and the longshoremen’s union. He also wrote a critique of the Fraser Institute, a think tank advocating laissez-faire economics, and the first federal budget presented by the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney. An examination of corporate concentration was titled, Brother, Can You Spare a Billion?

At 94, he published a personal history, What’s New: Memoirs of a Socialist Idealist, prepared with the assistance of the labour journalist Geoff Meggs, who is now a Vancouver city councillor.

Swankey became a well-known advocate for pensioners, as well as a defender of medicare, often working with the Council of Canadians, which presented him with the Ken Wardroper Founder’s Award in 1998 as an “unsung hero” in the fight for social justice.

His 90th birthday was declared Ben Swankey Day by Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, now a Liberal senator.

As his eyesight failed, he had a selection of newspaper articles read to him daily at the care home in which he lived in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.

He leaves his daughter, a son, six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Hantzi, who died in 1988.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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