March 8, 2017

Communist Women in Canada: Revolutionary Bios

1927: left to right: F Custance, E Lawrence, B Buhay & A Buller
Marianne Breton Fontaine & Drew Garvie

In 1917, International Women’s Day in Russia helped to launch the Russian Revolution, which ended up inspiring working people around the world, including many working women in Canada.

The Communist Party of Canada (CPC) was founded in 1921 in Canada, in a barn in Guelph, Ontario under conditions of illegality. The Young Communist League of Canada was founded soon after in 1923. In this article Rebel Youth takes a look at some of the women that led the major struggles of their day and continue to inspire the struggle for full gender equality and for socialism.

Florence Custance

A former school teacher from England, Custance was one of the founders of the CPC. She has been described as “one of the original driving forces which helped to coordinate and bring about the communist movement in its earliest days”. When the CPC emerged from illegality in 1922 as the Workers Party, Custance was elected Secretary of its Women’s Bureau, a post she held for seven years. She also played key roles in the Canadian Friends of Soviet Russia, an organization dedicated to solidarity with the world’s first socialist country, and the Canadian Labour Defense League, which helped to organize against state repression of labour and Communist activists. She was a delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 and was the founder and leader of the Women’s Labour League. Custance died in 1929 at the age of 48.

Annie Buller

Annie Buller was a leading member of the CPC throughout the 1930s. She lead a major strike for better pay and working conditions for dressmakers in Toronto’s garment trade, which was a largely a feminized sweatshop industry.

Buller wrote about the strike years later: “The dressmakers could not persuade the officials of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (then looked upon by the workers as a company union) to organize them and help abolish these frightful conditions. The so-called leaders' reply was ‘you cannot organize women.’ This is eloquent proof of how little these reformist leaders understood the working class. In fact they were much closer to the bosses.”

Buller visited the famous Estevan Coal Miners’ strike in 1931. After addressing strikers at a rally, the following day the RCMP opened fire on a march of strikers killing three workers. The RCMP targeted Buller as a ‘red’ scapegoat and she was arrested on charges of inciting a ‘riot’. She defended herself at her trial with forcefulness and dignity. Before her conviction she famously said: “It is not ‘Annie Buller’ who is on trial here. It is the great class of producers that stands in the prisoners’ dock”. She spent a year in North Battleford Prison. When the CPC was made illegal in the early part of WWII, Buller was again arrested and jailed in Portage la Prairie from 1940-1942.

Buller ran for office several times. In 1932, she ran for a Toronto City Council position as a “Workers United Front” candidate. She ran as a Labour Progressive Party (the name for the CPC at that time) candidate in 1952 and 1957 in Toronto. After WWII Annie Buller continued to be involved in CPC activities such as the campaigns to roll back prices organized by the National Women’s Commission and the Housewives Association. She traveled to the USSR in 1955 and remained active in the CPC until her retirement from Communist publication responsibilities in the late 1950s.

Becky Buhay

Buhay was also a member since the founding of the CPC. In the 1920s and 1930s she toured and lectured, teaching at Party schools in Western and Central Canada. In the early 1920s in Alberta, she helped organize striking coal miners' wives in the Women's Labour Leagues. With her friend Annie Buller, she was active in the “free speech” fights in Toronto in 1929-31 against Toronto police repression of Communists, and she succeeded Florence Custance as Secretary of the Canadian Labour Defence League in 1929. She wrote and spoke about women's role in the struggle for socialism and headed a Canadian women's delegation to the USSR in 1930, where six women toured the new socialist country for three months. When the delegation returned, they were greeted by more than one thousand workers enthusiastic to hear about their report on witnessing socialist construction.

In the 30s and 40s, the CPC moved in and out of legality and its leaders faced imprisonment on two occasions. According to Buhay, Communist women “led dramatic delegations and processions to Ottawa demanding release of imprisoned and interned leaders. During the thirties, their work was so effective that they played no small part in bringing about the downfall of the Bennett government”. She is remembered as an excellent teacher of radical ideas, a powerful orator, and for her loyalty to the Communist movement.

Dorise Nielsen

Dorise Nielsen was a feminist teacher and CPC member. She was the first member of the Communist Party of Canada to be elected to the Canadian House of Commons as well as the third woman elected to Canadian Parliament. Nielsen was the first woman MP to be raising young children while holding political office. She won her seat in the 1940 Federal election representing the Saskatchewan riding of North Battleford on the "United Progressives" label, beating the Liberal candidate in a two-way race.

After the war, Dorise fought to keep the child care system established during WWII so women could work while the men went to war. In a speech in the House of Commons she said : “the need for day nurseries was felt long before the war started and will continue to grow … Among the low-income groups, mothers have for a good many years been forced to work, and the need they have for care of their children has always been great.” Working people in Canada are still struggling for a universal public child care system!

In 1957, she left to revolutionary China to work at Foreign Languages Press where she lived until her death in 1980.

Part II coming soon!

Special thanks to Jenna Amirault for help with research

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