The CCFer who defeated a former PM and ‘ushered in the golden age of Canadian socialism’

It was supposed to be a straightforward ticket-punching exercise for a former prime minister. Instead, 80 years later, it remains one of the most stunning political upsets in Canadian history.

On Feb. 9, 1942, Arthur Meighen suffered a devastating byelection loss to the relatively unknown Joseph Noseworthy of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.

“The election of Joseph Noseworthy, and the defeat of the Rt. Hon. Arthur Meighen in South York on Monday, came as a shock to the multitude,” the Newmarket-based Express Herald reported. “Only the brave would have ventured to place their money at long odds on the C.C.F. candidate’s chances of going to Ottawa.”

Meighen had been serving in the Senate for nearly a decade when he was reluctantly drafted to lead the Conservatives in late 1941. The next order of business for the two-time prime minister (1920-1921, 1926) was getting back into the House of Commons.

Rookie Conservative MP Alan Cockeram, who had held York South for less than two years, vacated his seat to give Meighen a presumably safe district in which to run.

But the former prime minister was thwarted by Noseworthy’s strong ground game, Liberal skullduggery, and the public’s growing desire for a total war effort.

Noseworthy, a Newfoundland-born teacher, was contesting York South for the second time.

In his first attempt in 1940, he came up 10,000 votes short of Cockeram, and 7,500 behind the Liberal candidate. But there was no Liberal in the 1942 contest, and Noseworthy was able to attract a much larger and more effective volunteer base.

As Mary Lowery Ross wrote in Maclean’s: “Pupils he had taught, people he had worked with in the hard depression period in South York, people who had known him through the years and people who had known people who knew him — all joined together in a volunteer organization a thousand strong.”

And it wasn’t just local acquaintances of Noseworthy who heeded the call. Party members across the area rallied to send the former Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president to Ottawa.

“York South was the first of the CCF’s classical saturation by-election campaigns,” Gerald Caplan wrote in his 1973 book The Dilemma of Canadian Socialism: The CCF in Ontario. “Never before had the party mobilized its resources more effectively. A record $4000 was raised. Nearly every member in the Toronto area participated…”

In keeping with the custom of allowing new party leaders easy entry into the House of Commons, the Liberal Party did not run a candidate in the byelection.

But, according to many contemporary observers and historians, the Liberals secretly conspired to stop Meighen by donating to Noseworthy’s campaign and directing votes his way.

The Communist Party of Canada, banned two years earlier for opposing Canada’s participation in the Second World War, also supported Noseworthy through its legal front organizations. The German invasion of the Soviet Union — in direct violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — had prompted a policy reversal that now saw the Communists in agreement with the CCF on the war.

The CCF’s vision of full conscription called for government control, not just of human resources, but of private industrial and financial resources as well.

This wholesale approach gained significant traction during the byelection, which came only two months after the Battle of Hong Kong left 290 Canadian soldiers dead and 1,685 others as prisoners of war.

As Meighen biographer John English observed, the Noseworthy campaign painted his opponent as a “narrow-minded servant of Bay Street interests” who would “conscript workers but not the wealth of their employers.”

All of these factors helped Noseworthy score a decisive victory with 16,408 votes to Meighen’s 11,952. It would be the last time the former prime minister’s name appeared on a ballot.

Once in Ottawa, Noseworthy didn’t waste time following up on his campaign pledges.

“One issue that we kept before the electors constantly was the need for mobilization of everything necessary to win the war,” he said in the House of Commons two weeks after being elected. “I am quite confident that this country is today ready for a much greater and much more far-reaching war effort than anything that this government has undertaken or even envisioned.”

Lamenting Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s “policy of appeasement with regard to wealth and industry,” he implored the government to ensure the country’s financial elites were as implicated in the war effort as those they employed.

“The working-class people of this country have already shown that they are ready to endure any sacrifice required of them in order to win this war,” Noseworthy said. “But they are sufficiently intelligent enough to know that something more is needed to win the war than the conscription of men for overseas service.”

The byelection was a watershed moment in the history of the CCF, which would later join with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party.

“The CCF’s spectacular success in York South ushered in the golden age of Canadian socialism,” Caplan wrote. “Noseworthy’s victory had the immediate effect of reinvigorating the party and reawakening its enemies.”

A year-and-a-half after the win in York South, the CCF edged out its two main rivals in a national opinion poll.

“For the first time in history, the virile, new-dealing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation has the biggest popular strength of any party in Canada,” Time magazine reported. “The figures: C.C.F., 29%; Progressive-Conservatives and Liberals, each 28%.”

Two months earlier, the Ontario CCF had gone from political obscurity to official opposition, winning 34 seats and nearly 32 per cent of the popular vote in that province’s general election.

Most shocking of all to the political establishment, the CCF won a landslide election victory in Saskatchewan in 1944. Led by Tommy Douglas, the party captured 47 out of 52 seats and more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.

With the CCF and its socialist prescriptions for a post-war Canada gaining in popularity, federal and provincial Liberal parties began adopting more progressive policies to stem the tide.

Mackenzie King introduced legislation for a permanent family allowance, the country’s first universal welfare program, in 1944.

During his successful re-election campaign the following year, the Liberal prime minister promised to “Build a New Social Order” with an ambitious platform full of public works projects and social spending that had long been advocated by the CCF.

The construction of the welfare state was well and truly underway in Canada, thanks in part to Joseph Noseworthy’s historic byelection victory.

Further reading:

Joe Noseworthy: A quick sketch of the man who beat Meighen. (Maclean’s. April 1, 1942).

Historicist: York South or Bust. (Torontoist. April 16, 2011.)

(Photo: Arthur Roy / Library and Archives Canada / PA-047666)