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Human Welfare, Rights, and Social Activism: Rethinking the Legacy of J.S. Woodsworth

By Jane Pulkingham

Review By Karen Murray

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 172 Winter 2011-2012  | p. 141-45

Human Welfare, Rights, and Social Activism is one of those unique edited volumes in which the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. As suggested in the subtitle, the legacy of J.S. Woodsworth is the focus of discussion, but the book’s importance derives more from how it uses the figure of Woodsworth to cast new light on historical and contemporary understandings of Canada’s “liberal order framework” (MacKay 2000). 

Volume editor Jane Pulkingham situates the text against the backdrop of Ian MacKay’s insistence not only that the pressing issues of the day need to be understood in historical context but also that the presuppositions of the day should not be imposed upon how we understand history (5). This is a tall order and one that is far from apolitical. Who gets to tell history, how the  “truth” of history is defined, and how it is used for political purposes – these are questions that infuse Canadian political life at all levels and in every corner. Stepping up to this challenge, the book evaluates Woodsworth’s contemporary political pertinence in relation to diverse themes, including labour relations, poverty, colonial rule, racism, capitalism, globalization, resistance, and democratic governance. The contributors are drawn from cultural anthropology, indigenous studies, law, literary and cultural studies, political science, social work, and sociology. Not surprisingly, given the disciplinary positions of the authors, the text enlists an array of analytical frames, including Derridean, neo- Foucauldian, Gramscian, feminist, post-colonial, and political economic. Deftly crafted, the book ponders the historical significance of Woodsworth in a manner that unsettles history as the ineluctable progress from then to now; and it encourages readers to see past the tired old lines of the holy trinity of “otherness” (race, class, gender) to show that political hierarchies in manifold forms are enmeshed within a larger terrain of power and politics. A broad readership will be drawn to this book. It will be of interest not only to people wanting to know more about Woodsworth or the “history of the left” but also to anyone interested in making another, better, world possible through collective action. 

Allen Mills cautions against valourizing Woodsworth. His positions were often problematic, including his views “on immigration and same-sex rights and the prospects for Aboriginals.” His life, nevertheless, was “an instructive instance of the pains, the perplexities, and also the possibilities of concrete political and social action, responsibly, intelligently, all the while suffused with a deep moral sensitivity” (62). Woodsworth saw potential for transformative change through parliamentary democracy (43), but this promise rested on an acceptance of coercive techniques of power domestically, even though he rejected the use of violence internationally (56-58). Mills leaves the reader to wonder if Woodsworth’s preference for working within the system, including his uneven application of pacifism, was his weakness or his strength. 

When twenty-one-year-old Brigette DePape sauntered onto the middle of the Senate floor and stood peacefully holding her STOP HARPER sign, she reminded us that Woodsworth’s preference for the parliamentary path and the debates surrounding it are far from theoretical. DePape enacted her beliefs without compromise, but some tut-tutted her lack of “respect for Parliament” (ctv.ca 2011a and 2011b; Wherry 2011). That same Parliament, it is plain to see, has been unable and unwilling to find a way to make room not only for gender parity but also for any enduring articulation of politics that deviates too far from established political interests. And many of the chapters in this book cue us to evaluate Canada’s liberal order as well and truly an economic endeavour that, as Gary Teeple argues, is part of a “global continuum” (91) that leaves little option but to resist. Teeple’s was a prophetic observation in light of the recent uprisings in the Arab world, which DePape expressly held up as a model for change (Silver 2011). To what extent these struggles will challenge the nation-state frame is unclear, but Teeple argues that, even if the nation-state remains intact, it is still radical to demand that nation-states such as Canada live up to their express commitments to human rights (107). 

David Schneiderman points out that today political resistance takes place on terms very different from those in Woodsworth’s time because Canada has moved closer to the American model, narrowing opportunities for harnessing the state as a defender of human rights (162). For Schneiderman, this contemporary political environment requires a “reawakening” of “Canadian imaginations to the principle of elevating human rights above property rights” (174). He does not tell us from where such a new imaginary world would emerge, but Gwen Brodsky, Hugh Shewell, Eric Tucker, and Neal McLeod take up this issue in light of what “Woodsworth might have done” (or did). For both Brodsky (136) and Shewell (114), Woodsworth’s ideas shaped a vision of public policy that hinged on egalitarian sensibilities. For Brodsky, a resurrection of such ideals can be promoted by rendering government more transparent so that Canada’s human rights obligations are lived up to (137). For Shewell, social rights as human rights need to be constitutionally entrenched as a means through which liberal capitalism can be transformed (131). Tucker couches his assessment of Woodsworth in terms of what he calls a “change in starting points [that have] significant implications for the pursuit of labour rights in our time” (84). He sees promise in a renewed democratic socialism that learns from Woodsworth’s failure to link labour rights to a “broader understanding of the role of subordinate classes in creating the conditions that made resistance and reform, let alone transformation, possible” (85). 

Neal McLeod credits Woodsworth for generating “discursive space wherein Indigenous people could begin to play a larger role in shaping the political discourse of our country” (262), but the phrase “our country” raises the questions: Whose country? Whose history? Indeed, whose rights? These questions came to the fore recently when Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, went “rogue” by aligning with the federal government in his proposal to dismantle the Indian Act (Indian Country Today Media Network 2011). Perhaps there is room for discursive space for indigenous peoples’ ways of living, being, and knowing if colonial rule is viewed as something that can be left in the past. What if, however, as many indigenous peoples maintain, Canada’s liberal order is innately colonial? McLeod’s chapter invites us to muse about where discursive space for indigenous peoples in “our country” might be located. In this regard, Daniel Coleman’s chapter on “white civility” calls for analytical vigilance and reflexivity by pointing out that Woodsworth attempted to “revise and temper the discriminatory elements” in his early comments on race but nevertheless “maintain[ed] a colour line for Canadian civility.” “We can see what we ourselves are up against,” writes Coleman, “as we too in the twenty-first century inhabit and try to live critically beyond the limitations of white Canadian civility” (238). David Chariandy presents a similar argument when he draws attention to the duplicity of Western modernity, which has been capable of undermining old tools of race while adapting equally problematic new ones (273). 

There is an agony evident in many of the chapters with regard to the growing and deepening forms of extreme human suffering evident in contemporary Canada. Brodsky captures this anguish when she writes: “it has become shockingly ordinary that people … have to line up at food banks, beg, steal, sleep in doorways and on church pews, and sell their bodies to support their children” (136). Denielle Elliot focuses on this street-level angle and shows how even leftist-oriented humanitarian approaches fail to provide “room for the development of a political critique of everyday practices … that marginalize and stigmatize the urban poor” (193-94). This important insight points to the limits of pursuing progressive transformations built upon conventional policy and political lexicons. Seeking to centre a broader understanding of “labour rights” in the informal spaces that are formally outside the labour market, the chapter by Geraldine Polanco and Cecily Nicholson trains a light on the often invisible facets of power relations operating in family spaces wherein “disposable” (201) women are recruited to work in “precarious labour niches” (200). 

Empirically and theoretically this rethinking of J.S. Woodsworth’s legacy makes many significant contributions, but the book would have benefited from a conclusion that had drawn out the nuances of the debates traversing the individual chapters. A concluding synthesis might have identified the book’s overall tendency to rely on conventional binaries – state/society, economics/politics, insider/outsider, and so on – that almost invariably point to official institutions of authority as the locus of power. The chapters that disrupt such dichotomies encourage us to consider how seemingly apolitical processes might actually be key governmental elements of domination and control. Is extreme poverty, for instance, a failure to fully implement a rights agenda or has abject misery been rendered a technical feature of power through which self-actualizing individuals recognize the norms of responsible, entrepreneurial forms of citizenship? If the latter, then upon what basis can such norms be challenged? This question might lead us to ponder the role of science as a field within which poverty is being redefined. For example, more needs to be known about the political importance of the cancelling of the long-form census, which, along with other national surveys, provided the social scientific data that informed the social state. We need to grasp the governmental salience of the ascendancy of biological experts, and biological determinism, in poverty debates, particularly with respect to the science of child brain development as the intellectual underpinning of new public policies aimed at very young children. This biological orientation to governing points to the wider importance of paying attention to how we understand human and non-human relations and what political opportunities might arise from decentring humans as the exclusive bearers of rights. What political strategies might be imagined if, for example, non-human animals were treated as “companion species” (Haraway 2003) as opposed to property; or, to use McLeod’s words, if we embraced “a more explicit consideration of the earth around us, beyond mere human interest” (262)? By encouraging us to ponder what is at stake in history and the present, this book makes it possible to seriously imagine problems and possibilities that might seem strange. Woodsworth struggled with the strangeness of his times. This volume encourages us all to do the same. 



CTV.ca. 2011a. “Page with ‘Stop Harper’ Sign Fired from Senate,” 3 June,  HYPERLINK “http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/TopStories/20110603/throne-speech-protester-11…http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/TopStories/20110603/throne-speech-protester-11… accessed 26 July 2011.

—-. 2011b. “‘Stop Harper’ Page Takes Criticism – and Job Offers,” 5 June, http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/QPeriod/20110605/senate-page-protest-brigette-… accessed 26 July 2011.  

Haraway, Donna. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC.

Indian Country Today Media Network.com. 2011. “AFN’s Atleo Gone Rogue? Some Chiefs Think So,” 15 July,  HYPERLINK “http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/07/afns-atleo-gone-rogue-…http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/07/afns-atleo-gone-rogue-… accessed 26 July 2011.

MacKay, Ian. 2000. “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81, 3: 617-45.

Silver, Robert. 2011. “The Rogue Senate Page and the Absurdity of Canada’s ‘Arab Spring.’” The Globe and Mail, 5 June 2011,  HYPERLINK “http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/silver-power…http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/silver-power… accessed 26 July 2011.

Wherry, Aaron. 2011. “A Contempt of Parliament,” Macleans.ca,  HYPERLINK “http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/06/03/a-contempt-of-parliament/#more-195687http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/06/03/a-contempt-of-parliament/#more-195687 accessed 26 July 2011.

Human Welfare, Rights, and Social Activism: Rethinking the Legacy of J.S. Woodsworth Edited by Jane Pulkingham
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.  261 pp. Cloth $24.99