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William Matheson

Stanley Knowles, The Man From Winnipeg North Centre, by Susan Trofimenkoff, Saskatoon, Western Producers Prairie Books, 1982, 226 p.

This book offers a ray of hope to those who fear that the Canadian House of Commons is becoming redundant. The Hon. Stanley Knowles has been a member of Parliament since 1942, except for a gap from 19581962. He has always been in opposition, a constant and feared critic of whatever government has been in power yet he has been successful in affecting policy and legislation. He has played a major role in bringing about significant change in Canada and he has worked vigorously to ensure that the House conducts itself properly. This "biographical memoir" describes these achievements and helps to explain those forces which have influenced Knowles' behaviour and led to his passion for social justice. Professor Trofimenkoff has based her book in the main on a series of interviews with Mr. Knowles, augmented, by research in Hansard and in Mr. Knowles personal files.

Stanley Knowles was born in Los Angeles in 1908; the elder son of working class Maritimers who had settled in the United States. The Knowles family was devoutly Methodist and the Church, as has been the case with so many social democrats in Canada, was an important part of the family's environment. Knowles' mother died early and his father, a thoughtful and active worker in the Church, encouraged his son's religious and intellectual development. Mr. Knowles Sr. was a Social gospeller and no doubt his views which emphasized action as well as belief had a profound effect on his son who early in life realized that changing the world inevitably meant public action.

Mr. Knowles Sr., however, was a man who was ill-treated by the economic system. In the midst of the depression. at age 58 and after twenty years of loyal service to his employer he was fired without a pension. without severance pay, unemployment insurance or other benefits. While he did subsequently find menial work, he died at age 60 and his son is convinced that the trauma of his having been fired hastened his father's death. 11 is small wonder that the son concluded that the country's social conscience needed to be pricked so that economic and social change would be brought about.

Stanley Knowles initially selected the Church as the institution through which he would work to effect change, After graduating from Brandon College and United College, he was ordained a minister of the United Church of Canada in 1933. He served as pastor of several United Churches in Winnipeg and at the same time took an active role in the C.C.F. party. Not surprisingly, his political activities and his stress in the pulpit on the social rather than the personal gospel upset many members of his congregations; even though services were well attended. In 1940 he became provincial secretary and organizer of the Manitoba C.C.F. and his days as a parish minister came to an end. He had come to the conclusion that the Church was not the institution which would be instrumental in bringing about the kinds of change he thought desirable and he turned to other means. It is to Knowles' credit and to the credit of the United Church that he and the Church never formally separated and thus from time to time Rev. Staniey Knowles officiates at weddings, funerals and baptisms.

In 1942, after several unsuccessful attempts at both the provincial and federal levels, Mr. Knowies was elected to Parliament as the successor to J. S. Woodsworth in the constituency of Winnipeg North Centre, bringing with him the zeal of his days as a crusading minister and the memory of a much loved parent who had been a victim of the system. In his maiden speech he managed to mention pensions, defend the rights of workers under war time conditions and to suggest that Humphrey Mitchell, the then Minister of Labour, resign. He was soon put down by the Speaker for a minor breach of the rules and thus learned his first parliamentary lesson know the rules. Out of his interest in and knowledge of the rules there developed a keen interest in the institution of Parliament itself and in how to make it work well in spite of its obsolete rules and the even more obsolete attitudes of many of its members. This interest led to his being offered the position of Speaker by both Mr. Diefenbaker and Mr. Pearson; offers he wisely declined. While not adverse to using the rules of the House to advance his own interests or those of his party, Knowles' interest in the rules led to a concern for the survival of Parliament as an institution, a concern which has led him to put Parliament above party which no doubt has not made him popular at times among his colleagues. His concern for Parliament is manifested in his insistence that the House of Commons must be made to work through compromise and common sense ratherthan through the confrontation which is almost inevitable, given its adversarial nature.

The same intensity which characterized Knowles' devotion to the House of Commons marks his attitudes towards the pension rights of working class Canadians and his tireless efforts to improve pension benefits. His list of achievements here is remarkable and Professor Trofimenkoff meticulously outlines how his devotion to the cause, his knowledge of the rules and his single mindedness have brought about important victories for all Canadians. What Knowles could not do through the Church he did through Parliament and he has played a major role in seeing to it that most working class Canadians will not share the same unfortunate fate as his father.

Another major theme of the book is the description of Knowles' role as one of the founders of the New Democratic Party. The voters of Winnipeg North Centre may have done the Canadian left a great favor when they elected someone other than Knowles to represent them in 1958. Although personally disappointing, the defeat made it possible for Knowles to take an executive position with the Canadian Labour Congress which enabled him to take a leading role (indeed it was part of his assignment) in the formation of a new party in Canada and fittingly, he presided over the founding convention in 1961.

This is an important book to anyone interested in Canadian politics in general or in such areas as parliamentary procedure or pension reform. In spite of a long personal association the author has kept her distance from her subject and therein lies the book's weakness. The reader learns a great deal about Knowles the politician, the reformer and the parliamentarian but little of Knowles the man. Surely he becomes angry, makes mistakes and annoys people but there is no evidence that this is so. While neither John Diefenbaker nor Hazen Argue emerge as heros, there are no villains in this book and one wonders Knowles' personal relations with other politicians, especially those in his own caucus, have always been smooth and easy. The reader finds out a great deal about Knowles' interest in a few areas of concern (admittedly important ones) but one wonders what he has had to say, if anything, about such crucial issues as the relationship of Quebec to the rest of Canada or federalprovincial fiscal relations.

These are minor criticisms however. Trofirrienkoff has succeeded in providing not only the story of a truly unique Canadian politician – a successful failure – she has also illuminated the circumstances which have led to his success.

William A. Matheson, Department of Politics, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 6 no 1
1983






Last Updated: 2020-03-03