James Shaver Woodsworth

The Canadian humanitarian, reformer, and political leader James Shaver Woodsworth (1874-1942) contributed significant observations on the life of immigrants to Canada and fought vigorously for social reforms in Parliament.

Born near Toronto, Ontario, on July 29, 1874, J. S. Woodsworth as a boy moved to Manitoba, where his father was for many years superintendent of Methodist missions for the North West Territory. He was educated at Wesley College, Winnipeg, and subsequently studied theology at Victoria University, Toronto. He spent a year in England, attending lectures at Oxford and observing social work in the slums of London. On returning to Canada he was ordained to the Methodist ministry in 1900 and served a brief time in rural pastorates until his appointment as assistant pastor of the prosperous downtown Grace Methodist Church in Winnipeg. In 1904 he married a college classmate from Ontario, Lucy Staples.

As the center of the great wheat boom, Winnipeg was the gateway to the west for thousands of British and European immigrants. A growing interest in the "Social Gospel" fed Woodsworth's feeling that his current work in the church was socially irrelevant, and in 1907 he accepted appointment as superintendent of All Peoples' Mission in the north end of Winnipeg. His observations on the problems of immigrants there became the subject of two books, Strangers within Our Gates (1908) and My Neighbour (1910).

Woodsworth's increasing involvement in secular approaches to social reforms and the confirmation of his pacifist views during World War I deepened his longstanding doubts about the doctrines of Methodism, and he resigned from the ministry in 1918. After a brief period as a long-shoreman in British Columbia, he became involved, while on a visit, in the Winnipeg general strike of 1919 and was arrested for sedition, although the charge was not pressed. In 1921 he was elected to Parliament on a Labour ticket in Winnipeg North Centre, a seat he held continuously until his death.

In Parliament, Woodsworth initially cooperated with the agrarian Progressive party, and in that party's decline after 1924 he became the leader of the "Ginger group," composed of members speaking for labor and the more radical agrarian interests. He fought vigorously for various social reforms, and in 1926, when Mackenzie King's minority government was in a precarious position, Woodsworth pushed through a measure establishing old-age pensions. In 1932, when the impact of the Depression brought together representatives of labor, farm, socialist, and intellectual groups across the country to form a broad Socialist party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), Woodsworth automatically became its leader.

Woodsworth was the key figure in securing the cooperation of urban and agrarian reformers within the new party. More radical than many of the farmers but less so than many labor leaders, he represented moderation in the advance toward a democratic socialist society. Woodsworth was neither a great orator nor an outstanding party politician, but his integrity and passionate sincerity made him a powerful figure, and even his opponents sometimes paid him tribute as "a saint in politics." The CCF won seven seats in the federal election of 1935 and eight in 1940. Woodsworth ceased to lead his party when his pacifist convictions made him the sole opponent in Parliament of Canadian participation in World War II, but he remained in the House of Commons until his death in Vancouver on March 21, 1942.

Further Reading on James Shaver Woodsworth

The most important study of Woodsworth is the biography by Kenneth McNaught, A Prophet in Politics (1959). Also valuable is the memoir by Woodsworth's daughter, Grace MacInnis, J. S. Woodsworth: A Man to Remember (1953). The best study of the CCF and Woodsworth's role in it is Walter D. Young, The Anatomy of a Party: The National CCF, 1932-1961 (1969).

Additional Biography Sources

Mills, Allen George, Fool for Christ: the political thought of J.S. Woodsworth, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1991.