- The Prairie Populist: George Hara Williams and the Untold Story of the CCF by John F. Conway
Much has been written about the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (ccf) in Canada. Surprisingly, however, little of the academic work has focused directly on where the ccf was most successful. Why did a socialist party emerge in Saskatchewan, and how did it become so deeply entrenched in an overwhelmingly agricultural province? Why did Saskatchewan become Canada's ccf province? Such questions have not been satisfactorily answered. In 1950 the political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, in his classic work Agrarian Socialism (Berkeley: University of California Press), began to examine this case of Saskatchewan exceptionalism. And now John Conway, another political sociologist, has contributed greatly to what Lipset began so long ago. In this important book, Conway argues, as Lipset had earlier, that the ccf in Saskatchewan at its heart was a rural phenomenon. Its radicalism was rural; it was the farmers who turned to democratic socialism. And, John Conway shows that George Hara Williams was at the centre of what occurred.
George Williams was not a pioneer settler in Saskatchewan and was not a product of the wheat boom era of the early 1900s. Williams was a First World War veteran who acquired a half section of land in 1921 in the Semans district as a part of the soldier settlement program. The 1920s was a turning point in the history of the province: gone forever was the false optimism and boosterism of Clifford Sifton when it was said that wheat was king and that Saskatchewan held the key to Canada's future. During the 1920s the farm movement was radicalized, the wheat pool was organized, and various forms of independent political action were considered as farmers attempted to make a living under increasingly difficult circumstances. George Williams became involved in all aspects of this struggle and in 1929 was elected president of the United Farmers of Canada (Saskatchewan Section). The Great Depression followed; an already vulnerable wheat economy collapsed, devastating what was then an overwhelmingly rural province.
In 1932 George Williams played a major role in the creation of the Farmer-Labour Party, the forerunner of the [End Page 267] Saskatchewan ccf. Williams was elected to the Saskatchewan Legislature in the 1934 provincial election, the riding that he would represent for the rest of his life. In 1935 he became the provincial leader of the ccf and, during the next five years, was the central figure in successfully establishing and building the party throughout the province. In 1940 Williams enlisted in the Canadian army and was posted overseas. He was in England until 1944 and, although he remained a member of the Saskatchewan Legislature, was not a part of the ccf's final march to power. He returned to Saskatchewan shortly before the 1944 provincial election, was re-elected in his constituency, and appointed Minister of Agriculture in the first Douglas government. A short time later Williams suffered a stroke and died in September 1945 at age fifty. As John Conway reminds the reader throughout his book, George Williams was the most important figure in founding the Saskatchewan ccf but, unfairly and even tragically, has not received the credit he deserves. Williams never became a part of the folklore of the party as Tommy Douglas and M.J. Coldwell did.
In a number of ways, Conway's book adds to our knowledge of the history of the Saskatchewan ccf and corrects some previously held versions of the story. In most accounts Williams has been depicted as a dedicated but rather inflexible socialist who played an important role in establishing the ccf but was unable to lead it to power. Thus, in the 1938 provincial election under Williams' leadership, the ccf won only ten seats. Disappointment set in, and the momentum was lost. By 1939 the ccf was divided and appeared to be in state of decline. Then the party was rescued and united by the political genius and oratorical skills of Tommy Douglas. Williams was shoved aside...