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J.S. Woodsworth, “the conscience of parliament”

It was shocking — but not surprising — to see Prime Minister Harper indulge in such a malicious distortion of history with his attack on the wartime leader of the CCF party, James Shaver Woodsworth.

Harper, followed by Foreign Affairs minister John Baird, used Woodsworth’s reluctance to enter World War II as an excuse to avoid answering the NDP on whether Canada may stay in Afghanistan  after our scheduled 2014 departure date.

“Unlike the NDP, we are not going to ideologically have a position regardless of circumstances,” Harper told the Commons. ” The leader of the NDP, in 1939, did not even want to support war against Hitler.”

Of course, Woodsworth wasn’t the leader of the NDP. It didn’t even come into existence until 1962, as opposition MPs loudly reminded the Prime Minister across the floor of the Commons. “Okay, it was the CCF, same difference,” he replied. “Parties do change their names from time to time.”

I don’t recall any single comment by Mr. Harper ever setting off such a flurry of condemnation. NDP MPs, to their credit, reacted shrewdly. They suggested it would be fair game to raise Reform party policies. I’d go back further. What about the time Conservative leader John Diefenbaker voted against Canada’s adoption of the Maple Leaf flag?

Perhaps Mr. Harper would benefit from a history lesson.J.S. Woodsworth is universally recognized as one of the great figures of Canadian public life, a man revered for his commitment to improving the lives of Canadians during the difficult 1920s and 1930, when social welfare measures such as employment insurance and pensions were virtually non existent. Mr. Harper would be well advised to read Kenneth McNaught’s biography of Mr. Woodsworth, A Prophet in Politics (University of Toronto Press).

Mr. Woodsworth was a Methodist minister, a Christian pacificist, whose moral code prevented him from supporting armed conflict. He told the CCF National Council that he could not support going to war, and offered to resign. His offer was refused, but every CCF MP but he voted to accept the government’s Throne Speech, an act tantamount to agreeing to going to war. Woodsworth’s successor, M. J. Coldwell, made it clear that the anti-war stance had been a personal view of Mr. Woodsworth, and did not reflect the position of the party. (There was no actual vote on a declaration of war.) The CCF pushed for all-out prosecution of the war effort, and supported conscription.

In his speech on the war, Mr. Woodsworth made clear his respect for democratic rights.

“I rejoice that it is possible to say these things in a Canadian parliament under British institutions. It would not be possible in Germany.”

At the time, Mr. Woodsworth was seriously ill. He had suffered a stroke and his wife had to write out his remarks for him on cards, which he could barely read. He managed to hold his seat in the 1940 election, but died in 1942.

Here is what Prime Minister Mackenzie King said of Mr. Woodsworth, when some Liberal MPs heckled the CCF leader during his speech opposing Canada’s entry into the war:

There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to Parliament.

This week’s Tory attacks set off a uproar on the web. The Globe and Mail’s story drew some 4,000 comments — the vast majority highly critical of Mr. Harper. I can’t recall a single case of so much public outrage. A Twitter site, #Harperhistory, quickly sprang to life.

Is it these kinds of unprincipled attacks that are at the root of Mr. Harper’s decline in the polls? Or are they a reaction to his evident loss of public support? (Latest polls show his trustworthiness rating down from 32 to 20 per cent, and put the Tories and the NDP in a statistical tie in voter support, both in the 32-34 per cent range.)

Mr. Harper’s cheap attempt to manipulate history as a means of avoiding a straight-up answer to a matter of current public concern, is yet another example of the kind of extremist politics that has no place in  a respectful democratic dialogue. It is to be hoped Canadian voters will someday send him that message.

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