Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Coverage of Tim Buck’s reception from The Star on November 26, 1934.
Union Station hadn’t seen a crowd that size since the Prince of Wales had visited. A throng of more than five thousand men, women, and children crammed into every corner of the concourse on November 24, 1934. Waving red banners, they eagerly awaited of the arrival of the 9:30 p.m. train from Kingston carrying Tim Buck, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), who’d been released from the penitentiary mere hours earlier. Prison officials, hoping to avoid just such an uproarious welcome, had attempted to keep his release quiet. Buck didn’t even know he was going home until an hour before boarding the train. But at the train station, Buck eluded his escort, who’d been under orders to keep Buck in the car until right before the train’s departure, and managed a brief phone call to Toronto. His comrades alerted the press and hastily distributed leaflets among the public. As The Star reported, news of Buck’s impending arrival “swept working class districts like wildfire,” and the jubilant turnout at Union Station defied all expectations.
The roar was deafening when Buck emerged from the train. The crowd launched into a spontaneous singing of “Internationale.” Women swooned. Children broke into tears or, as The Star noticed, “stole their way beneath the legs of the mob to touch the hem of his cheap tweed suit.” A handful of men raised the freed Communist atop their shoulders and carried him—along with all the bouquets he’d accumulated—out to the street. The crowd pushed and pulled its way behind, chanting “We want Tim Buck” over and again. A dozen policemen calmly looked on but did nothing to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm. Finally, using the station wall as a dais, the diminutive machinist addressed his appreciative audience: “It was good to go to the penitentiary, if only to come home to a welcome like this.” Telegrams of support and congratulations poured in at 54 Delaney Crescent, the Buck residence. The size of the crowd, he told The Star, “completely astounded me, not because it was any tribute to me, but because it was evidence of how far revolutionary movement had spread since my imprisonment.” In those two years and nine months, Buck had become something of a folk hero.
Communist leader Tim Buck (left) and others, Communist Labour and Total War Committee meeting, Maple Leaf Gardens, October 13, 1942. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7099.
Born in England, Buck had been at the founding convention of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in 1921. But, as a Stalinist, Buck did not rise to prominence until the old leadership was purged of Trotsky and Bukharin supporters. In 1929, he became General Secretary—a position he’d hold until 1962—and inherited a party whose membership had dwindled from 4,000 in 1924 to less than 1,400 in the early 1930s. With the onset of the Great Depression, Canadians became more receptive to radical ideas. The CPC platform, which advocated a state-run employment insurance scheme, a seven-hour workday, and $25/week minimum wage, attracted a greater and greater number of followers. The party’s growing mainstream popularity made their agitation a threat to Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and the establishment.
On August 11, 1931, the Communist Party’s Toronto headquarters were raided by police. Buck, six prominent party members, and a minor party functionary, Tom Cacic, were arrested and charged with sedition under Section 98 of the Criminal Code. At their trial, Buck tried to rebut the testimony of the prosecution’s chief witness, an RCMP officer who’d infiltrated the party from 1921 until his expulsion in 1928, with passionate courtroom oratory. But he and his six political bureau colleagues were each sentenced to five years, and Cacic got sentenced to two. Buck arrived at Kingston Penitentiary on February 20, 1932.
The Canadian Labour Defence League (CLDL), acting as the now-underground party’s public relations wing, ensured that their imprisonment became a cause célèbre. The organization’s propaganda machine built a veritable cult of personality around Buck, whose British roots already made him unthreatening to the Canadian public. CLDL literature aggrandized him as a superior political theorist and writer on the front lines of the proletarian struggle while simultaneously presenting him as a humble, mild-mannered man in touch with the common worker. A semi-fictional biographical pamphlet, Tim Buck—Dauntless Leader, sought to imbue Buck, as British historian John Manley puts it, “with unblemished moral qualities and an exceptional—even superhuman—array of practical abilities.” Evidence of just how successful the CLDL’s national campaign was could be found in Blairmore, Alberta, where in 1933 the town council renamed Main Street “Tim Buck Boulevard.”
The Worker‘s coverage of the shooting at Kingston Peniteniary from Wikimedia Commons.
Meanwhile, in prison, Buck set about converting fellow prisoners to the red cause. A few months later, at the height of a prison riot in October 1932, two guards made an attempt on Buck’s life by firing five or more shots from a pistol and shotgun into his locked jail cell. Buck, according to his version of events, ducked down behind the masonry of his cell for protection as one bullet whizzed through his hair and another narrowly missed his neck. It’s still unknown whether these guards had taken their own anti-communist initiative for this apparent attempt to frighten and intimidate Buck or whether they were following orders. News of the shooting didn’t even leak out until the following spring, when the Superintendent of Prisons accused Buck of having incited the riot. But once the news broke, the CLDL used the incident to further sway public sympathy for Buck.
The CLDL’s outspoken national secretary, A.E.Smith—a former Methodist Minister who’d abandoned the church and joined the movement in the wake of the Winnipeg General Strike—publicly called for the release of the political prisoners and the repeal of Section 98. He presented R.B. Bennett with a petition containing almost a half-million signatures. The Toronto Progressive Arts Club produced Eight Men Speak, a play dramatizing the trial of the Communists and immortalizing the assault on Buck’s cell. The play, written by a committee, had very little to recommend it from an artistic point of view, according to Morris Wolfe. But. by grossly over-reacting, the authorities assured that it received far more publicity than it reasonably deserved. Its premiere performance, on December 4, 1933, was also its last because the police threatened to pull the theatre’s license if the play was performed again. Such censorship only served to provide another underdog rallying cry at Communist rallies.
When Smith promised to produce a pamphlet detailing the real story behind the “assassination” attempt, the police claimed he’d accused Bennett of personally ordering the attack and promptly charged him with sedition. Despite pressure from the bench to return a conviction at his March 1934 trial—which featured a brief, grandstanding appearance on the witness stand by Buck—the jury refused to convict the former clergyman. Public sympathy swayed and amid growing public pressure, the seven communists (the eighth had been deported) were released from jail over the following months. Buck was the last to be released, in November 1934, after having served about half of his five-year sentence.
After his rollicking welcome back to Toronto, Buck settled into his role as working class hero and champion of civil liberties. In early December, a capacity audience at Maple Leaf Gardens—another 3,000 had to be turned away at the door—listened with rapt attention as Buck recounted his prison experiences and pushed the Communist agenda. He then toured the country, giving speeches from coast to coast. And when he grew tired of this travel, he became a frequent commentator on the radio between 1936 and 1939.
In the 1937 Toronto municipal election, Buck ran for controller and, with more than 44,000 votes, he was just 254 shy of winning. The public certainly had a genuine thirst for progressive alternatives to the political status quo—as evidenced by the rise of other, more politically successful protest parties like the CCF, Social Credit, and the Union Nationale. But the municipal voter support was more a reflection of Buck’s populist appeal than an endorsement of Communism. He stood in six parliamentary elections and failed to win a seat each time.
In his political stance, Buck never deviated from the Moscow line, as dictated by the Comintern. He was a blind and unflinching adherent of Stalinism—so much so that in 1971 the USSR awarded him the Order of the Great October Revolution. Such conformity eventually made him, Wolfe argues, an almost comical character. After the war, Communism fell out of favour in Canada and membership dwindled. In stark contrast to the packed houses Buck rallied at the peak of his popularity, only fifty people attended Buck’s funeral in 1973.