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Ed Finn.

Ben Welland

Except for a historic venture into the politics of Newfoundland, Ed Finn was not one to generate headlines. He was a behind-the-scenes guy. Over a career that spanned nearly 70 years, Mr. Finn used his skills as a communicator and strategist to advance unions and progressive causes ranging from the bitter Newfoundland loggers’ strike in 1959 to the fierce fight for medicare in Saskatchewan to the anti-free trade movement to myriad union battles across the country.

He also brought the views of labour into the mainstream media with a long-running weekly column in the Toronto Star. The column developed a strong following because it went beyond union rhetoric. Mr. Finn steered his own course, often irritating labour leaders by taking positions that strayed from their official line.

His principles were evident early on. In 1959, just 10 years removed from its long history as a British colony, Mr. Finn’s native Newfoundland was in the grip of powerful corporate interests and an iron-fisted premier, Joey Smallwood, who brooked little opposition. It was a tough place for an independent newspaperman such as Mr. Finn to ply his trade as editor of Corner Brook’s daily paper, The Western Star. During a strike that year by poorly paid loggers against the Anglo Development Land Company, Mr. Finn was ordered by the paper’s publisher to stop carrying the union side of the hard-fought dispute. Rather than betray his journalistic principles, Mr. Finn quit, taking three staffers with him.

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The incident drove Mr. Finn toward unions and left-wing politics. But in 1981, while working for a union, he did it again. When the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers locked out its own office staff, Mr. Finn, the CBRT’s communications director, refused a union directive to handle the mail. He considered that “scabbing” on the locked-out workers. He and four other staff reps who also rejected the demand were fired, a day Mr. Finn termed “one of the blackest in the history of the Canadian labour movement.”

Along the way, Mr. Finn, who died Dec. 27 of pneumonia, served three frustrating years as labour’s representative on the board of the Bank of Canada, fending off efforts by other directors to fire him for publicly criticizing the bank’s policies. A prolific writer, Mr. Finn edited and authored numerous books on public issues, including one with a clear-cut title that seemed to sum up his views, The Right is Wrong and the Left is Right.

Edward Horace Finn, the oldest of five surviving children, was born June 4, 1926, in Spaniard’s Bay, a Newfoundland outport 94 kilometres west of St. John’s. His parents, Ed Finn and the former Sarah Prince, had met while working as telegraph operators. His mother was one of the first to receive and relay SOS signals from the Titanic.

Mr. Finn quit school in Grade 11 to help support his family. He went to work in Corner Brook as a linotype operator, running one of those large, wondrous, clanking machines that set type before their replacement by computers. He managed to survive a typo, caused by a stuck “g” key, informing readers that members of the local Ladies’ Auxiliary greatly enjoyed an evening of “love-making.” It should have said “glove-making.”

Mr. Finn graduated to reporting in 1946. He moved to the Montreal Gazette in 1955, but returned to The Western Star two years later as editor. The loggers’ strike and the ensuing clash with the publisher changed his life. “It was my first eye-opening encounter with the exercise of unbridled corporate power,” Mr. Finn wrote in his memoir, A Journalist’s Life on the Left. “It planted the seed of a life-long aversion to Big Business bullies.”

Within a few months, much to his surprise, Mr. Finn found himself, at 33, the youngest political leader in Canada. With talks already continuing between the Canadian Labour Congress and the CCF to form a new federal labour-backed party (which became the New Democratic Party), the CLC decided to launch a precursor in Newfoundland to take on the anti-union policies of Mr. Smallwood. Mr. Finn offered to help. Party organizers persuaded him to take on the leadership of the new Newfoundland Democratic Party (NDP), purposely branded to use the same initials as the future, federal NDP. Newspaper reporter Bruce Phillips, later a well-known parliamentary correspondent, was among those impressed by Mr. Finn on the hustings. “A fiery new figure [has] arisen as a contender for future political prominence,” Mr. Phillips wrote, lauding Mr. Finn’s colourful way with words. As an example, he pointed to his labelling of Mr. Smallwood as “a bow-tie dictator” who, along with a few dominant corporations, was setting “the province’s resources before them to slice up like a big pie.”

By 1962, however, after four provincial and federal election defeats, Mr. Finn had had enough. But he remains the answer to a tricky trivia question: Who was the first NDP leader? When a Newfoundland trade unionist asked Tommy Douglas the question in 1982, Mr. Douglas paused, then answered, correctly: “The first leader of the first-ever NDP was Ed Finn.”

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Before turning full time to the labour movement, Mr. Finn was parachuted into Saskatchewan in the summer of 1962 to help its beleaguered NDP government combat an all-out strike by the province’s doctors, who opposed Canada’s first medicare plan. Mr. Finn started up a weekly tabloid paper, The Public Voice, to counter the anti-medicare drumbeat in much of the media. Distributed across the province, it proved effective in helping turn the tide of public opinion against the doctors.

Mr. Finn spent his next 28 years as a high-profile union communications officer – 18 years with the CBRT before his dismissal and 10 years with the national office of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He was much more than a flack, attested to by his Toronto Star labour column, which often distanced itself from CLC positions, in particular his strong support for Canadian union autonomy when most union members belonged to organizations with headquarters in the United States.

Shy when it came to women, Ed Finn had long resigned himself to bachelorhood. But at 44, he was taken aback when Geraldine (Dena) Pelletier, 20 years his junior and someone he had known since she was 10, confessed over dinner to having deep feelings toward him. He proposed to her on the spot. The couple had two children and last year celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

During his time with CUPE, Mr. Finn became an effective union troubleshooter, dispatched to assist small locals embroiled in strikes or lockouts. He also edited a monthly publication called The Facts, so jam-packed with information and clear analysis that its subscription list was larger outside CUPE than within the union. In labour’s vigorous fight against free trade in 1988, Mr. Finn’s special edition of The Facts, including articles by Margaret Atwood, Eric Kierans and Stephen Clarkson, was so well done that James Lorimer & Company published it as a book.

When mandatory retirement forced Mr. Finn to leave CUPE in 1991, he became a senior editor of the monthly journal of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a prominent left-wing think tank. He maintained the job until retiring for good in 2014 at the age of 87.

In 1994, the Grade 11 dropout was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws degree by Memorial University of Newfoundland. Dr. William Pryse-Phillips paid tribute to Mr. Finn for “carrying the torch for liberty when the province’s labour movement was attacked [and] daring to stand by his principles, regardless of consequence.”

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In his response, Mr. Finn was his typical blunt self. “It’s survival of the fittest time again,” he warned the university’s graduating students. “The cunning, the ruthless, the affluent prosper; the rest fall by the wayside.”

In October, 2020, he was named to the Order of Canada for his lifelong contributions to Canada’s political discourse as a trade unionist, journalist, writer and politician.

Mr. Finn leaves his wife, Dena; children, Kevin and Kerri-Anne; grandchildren, Garret and Heather; and brother, Thomas Michael.

“I’m not sure we would have had a progressive community in Newfoundland if not for Ed Finn,” said Derek Fudge, whose father, Baxter, worked closely with Mr. Finn. ”And, in terms of the country as a whole, he was one of the best voices for progressive politics in Canada.”

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