Norman Penner – A life for the struggle

May 3, close to 200 people crowded into Glendon Hall in Toronto to pay tribute to the life and work of Norman Penner, who sadly passed away April 16 at the age of 88.[1] There could not have been a more appropriate month for such an event. May is after all, the month where every year we celebrate May 1, International Workers’ Day. It is also the month where the great Winnipeg General Strike began, 90 years ago, a strike that remains the defining moment of the Canadian working class movement, and a strike which was brought back to life for a new generation, in large part through the efforts of Norman Penner. For this alone, Penner’s life would be worthy of commemoration. We were reminded May 3 that there was so much more – a life genuinely lived for the struggle.

Penner’s father, Jacob Penner, had been a leading socialist in his own right, and as one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Canada, an opponent of conscription during the slaughter of World War I. When the Winnipeg General Strike erupted in 1919, Penner was one of the strike leaders.[2]

Norman – born into a family of the left – carried on the tradition from a very early age. We heard, at the memorial, of his 1930’s activism as a teenager – speaking to mass audiences, campaigning in defence of among others, his father, when the city of Winnipeg was trying to strip the now communist Jacob Penner, of his elected seat on Winnipeg’s city council.

Norman himself would become a leading member of the party. But he would not let organizational loyalty trump principles. When the supposedly “communist” Russian tanks moved in to crush the workers’ uprising in Hungary in 1956 – the same year that Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev exposed the crimes of Joseph Stalin to a stunned international left – Penner resigned the Communist Party, even though that meant leaving behind his employer in a decade of intense anti-communism.

He found a way to make a living as probably the only Marxist electric heating salesman in Canada. In the mid-1960s, he set out on a university career, acquiring his degrees, and from 1972 until his retirement 24 years later, teaching in the Political Science department at Glendon College, part of York University in Toronto.

It was at Glendon as a professor, that Penner had his biggest impact. In 1973, he edited a riveting book on the Winnipeg General Strike, bringing back to life, in the words of the strikers themselves, that defining moment in Canadian labour history. In 1977 he wrote a careful and balanced assessment of the Canadian Left, that remains indispensable reading for any who aspire to fight for social change in this country. Perhaps more important than his books, however, were his classes, where with patience and intelligence – and humour – he would genuinely engage with young people from a new generation, tell them about the lessons from the past, and most importantly, listen to the new insights that every new generation brings to the social movements.

It is this latter quality that set Penner apart from many in his generation – the capacity to listen. While many from the old left, shaped by the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression, were too often suspicious of the long-haired radicals of the 1960s and 1970s, Penner found real joy in their company. He would have loved the fact that in Toronto, the day before his memorial, young radicals of this generation, members of No One Is Illegal, had led a spirited May Day march through the streets of the city, taking over Yonge Street for a period, draping banners off the Eaton Centre, and then joining up with members of the Tamil Community, demonstrating against the terrible genocide underway in their homeland. He would have known that today – as in 1919, as in the 1930s, as in the 1960s – the future of the social movements is in the hands of the impatient youth, much more than it is in the tidy offices of this or that union or party bureaucracy.

His grandson, Dylan Penner – himself an anti-war activist in the tradition of Norman and Jacob – in one of many moving tributes given by family and friends, gave us all the proper framework in which to remember the life of this remarkable man. In the words of Industrial Worker of the World activist and songwriter Joe Hill – “don’t mourn, organize.”[3]

Books by Norman Penner, available from online booksellers

Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers’ Own History of the Winnipeg General Strike (1973)
The Canadian Left: A critical analysis (1977)
From Protest to Power: Social Democracy in Canada 1900-Present (1992)
Canadian communism: The Stalin years and beyond (1988)

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] See “Professor Emeritus Norman Penner was a Glendon mainstay,” YFILE, April 24, 2009 and “Norman Penner,” The Toronto Star, April 25, 2009
[2] There is some information about Jacob Penner on wikipedia. His story, and the story of his wife Rose Penner, has been documented on video (Cathy Gulkin, “A Glowing Dream: The Story of Jacob & Rose Penner,” Episode 33, A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada, Season III, White Pine Pictures, 1999)
[3] See “Joe Hill, (1879-1915),” AFL-CIO: America’s Union Movement; and “The Joe Hill Project,”

Louis Riel Day

The children of Manitoba are more astute than the professional politicians who rule Ontario. Those politicians, in their wisdom, decided that Ontario’s new long overdue February holiday would be called “Family Day”. By contrast, when 100 schools in Manitoba were given a choice, among the random and funny holiday names submitted (ranging from “Bison Break” to “Winnipeg Jets Day”), fully eleven schools chose “Louis Riel Day”.[1] And so today, February 18 2008, Manitobans get a day off in honour of a man, who on November 16, 1885, was executed[2] for standing up against the first expressions of Canadian imperialism.

The Canadian state – effectively a sovereign state from 1848 – officially came into being in with Confederation in 1867. Its first project was a straightforwardly imperialist one – expand into and conquer the western lands, so Europeans could settle them, with or without the consent of the people’s inhabiting those lands. An interesting history of this period dubs these lands west of Lake Superior as “Canada’s First Colony.”[3] Forget what you have read about Canada being an “oppressed” neo-colony. Canada emerges into history as a capitalist and imperialist power.

Riel’s people were the Métis, who, as Riel wrote just before he was hanged, “have as their paternal ancestors the former employees of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies; and as their maternal ancestors Indian women belonging to different tribes.”[4] Riel’s people “made up the majority of the population in the Red River settlement” in what is today Manitoba. “[T]hey were kinsmen of the Cree and Sarcee, the Saulteaux and Blackfoot.”[5] Their territory was part of the “North West” – a vast territory that was a protectorate of Britain, who had “delegated all ruling authority in the region to the Hudson’s Bay Company”[6] which “imposed a ‘seigniorial despotism’ on the colony.”[7]

In the wake of Confederation in 1867, Liberal and Tory representatives of the new Canadian state were united in coveting these North West Territories. Liberal leader of the opposition, Alexander Mackenzie, said that because central Canada no longer had “vast tracts of fertile land,” he was “prepared to do all in his power to assist in the acquisition and opening up of the North Western territory.” Macdonald’s intentions were starkly revealed in his private correspondence. In a letter to J.Y. Bown, member of parliament from Ontario, he said that “the game was to establish calm with the ‘wild people’ of Red River by unspecified yet ‘considerable management’ until enough newcomers like Bown’s brother had moved west. “’In another year,’ he wrote, ‘the present residents will be altogether swamped by the influx of strangers.’”[8]

But Macdonald failed to take into account the resistance of the Métis. In October 1869, Riel was central in the formation of the “Comité national des Métis”. By August 1870, This Métis Committee had 500 armed horsemen, and was able to block access to their territory to representatives from Ottawa.[9] On December 8, the Métis leadership published the magnificent “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North West.” “A people,” it said, “when it has no government, is free to adopt one form of government in preference to another …”[10]

The resistance of the Métis led to a major concession. The Manitoba Act, passed on May 12, 1870, established a new province giving equal rights to the French language. But secretly the Tories were at the same time, planning a use of military force to make sure that the new province was under theirs and not Riel’s control. Riel barely escaped with his life, was forced into exile, and the Métis moved west to what is today Saskatchewan.

Their reprieve was short-lived. Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan lay in the road of the great instrument of Canadian capitalism – the railroad. Stanley Ryerson, who is without peer as a historian of early Canadian history, describes the railways as “both an instrument of colonialism – extracting raw materials and semi-processed products required by the metropolis – and … engines of industrialization, stimulating the growth of local manufactures and of a home market.”[11] It was Macdonald’s life-ambition to secure Canadian sovereignty across the entire North West, that meant finishing the railway, and that meant imperialism and the use of force.

The military intervention against the Métis in 1870 had been stymied by the absence of the railway. But by 1885, rail lines had been pushed across Ontario, across Manitoba and into Saskatchewan. The coming of the rails and industrial capitalism brought with it also the military force of Canadian imperialism. So this time, when the Métis stood against the forces of Canadian expansion, 3,000 troops came down the rails to confront them – an overwhelming force against the few hundred poorly armed Métis. The rebellion was crushed, Riel was tried and hung, and – in the same month that the execution took place – the transcontinental railway was completed.

Studying this rebellion can teach us much. Resistance – even when unsuccessful in the immediate term – can spur important change. Macdonald, worried about keeping the Métis rebellion of 1885 localized, made major concessions, including “a diversionary franchise bill that included proposals for nearly universal suffrage for white men and extension of the vote to certain single women and the Six Nations of Loyalist Indians in Ontario.”[12] This in spite of the fact that, according to his biographer Joseph Pope, “Macdonald, until the last day of his life viewed universal suffrage ‘as one of the greatest evils that could befall a state … The idea that a man should vote simply because he breathed was ever repellant to Sir John Macdonald’s conception of government.”[13]

We can also learn that in Canada in 1885, the one place there was huge sympathy for this rebellion against imperialism was in Quebec. On November 22, 1885, reports one unsympathetic historian, “an enormous mass meeting of protest” was held “in the Champ de Mars, in Montreal … a total of thirty-seven speakers competed with each other in ferocious denunciations of the ‘hangman’s government’ at Ottawa.”[14]

The Quebec people identified with the Riel rebellions in part because the Métis spoke French. As one historian says, the goal of the Tories was to transform “the Quebec of the West into a new Ontario.”[15] But the people of Quebec – just like the kinsmen of “the Cree and Sarcee, the Saulteaux and Blackfoot” who rebelled in 1870 and 1885 – had also known rebellion and repression. It was just 1837 that Quebec’s own attempt at achieving sovereignty was crushed. In the aftermath, in 1838, the jails were “packed with prisoners.” Eventually, 58 prisoners were deported to Australia and 12 executed – including one 18 year old, two aged 20, and one just 23.[16]

So hats off to the school children of Manitoba – thanks to them, Louis Riel has a day in his honour (and John A. Macdonald does not). Thanks to them, Riel will be remembered, at least every February. And if we remember Riel, we just might get a clearer insight into the imperialist nature of the Canadian state – and of an absolutely inspiring history of resistance.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] “Manitoba’s new holiday: Louis Riel Day,” CBCnews, September 27, 2007
[2] Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain (Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada, 1973), pp. 438-9
[3] D.N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988), pp. 19-32
[4] Cited in Stanley Ryerson, Unequal Union: Confederation and the Roots of Conflict in the Canadas, 1815-1873 (Toronto: Progress Books, 1975), p. 379
[5] Ryerson, p. 380
[6] Sprague, p. 19
[7] Sprague, p. 4
[8] Sprague, p. 30
[9] Ryerson, pp. 384-5
[10] Cited in Ryerson, p. 386
[11] Ryerson, p. 258
[12] Sprague, p. 176
[13] Cited in Ryerson, p. 355
[14] Creighton, p. 442
[15] Sprague, p. ix
[16] Ryerson, pp. 79-81