Like many people, I’ve taken to going for long walks during the lockdown. Today I buy a Fanta at the gas station near our Calgary condo, and when I step outside again, a painfully thin man astride a BMX bike asks if I have a cigarette (I don’t). I cross busy Fourteenth Street, with its loud traffic having stubbornly returned, and after just a few steps on the other side I am swallowed by the green quiet of Mount Royal. The change is dramatic. I put one earbud in to listen to a podcast, leave the other out to hear the birdsong. This old, affluent neighbourhood was originally known as American Hill, but around 1910 it rechristened itself after the Montreal mountain, out of loyalty to the Dominion. After about an hour, my route past silent mansions, under enormous poplar trees, through wide avenues and park after park after park takes me to a lookout over downtown, dominated by the cross-hatched, obsidian gleam of the Bow Tower. I linger for a few minutes, with dog walkers and resting cyclists nearby and a group of teenagers whiling away the afternoon cross-legged in the grass.
That cityscape comes to mind again when I read “Queen City,” a 1936 poem by Dorothy Livesay. The multi-part text sketches a panorama of Toronto during the Great Depression. “When I look at the Royal York, / Shooting above hunger,” Livesay writes of the luxurious railway hotel, which was the tallest building in the British Empire when it opened in 1929: “Its elevator heart pumping life / Pumping gold from cellar to summit.” Livesay can’t help but compare the magnificent structure with the suffering humanity she sees elsewhere in the city: “I look at man again / A thing scarce noticed by the sun, or mentioned in / The social columns.” The man strikes a heroic pose often seen in the social realist works of the era: “I see / His legs, his overcoat, his hatless head / His hands held steady and his clearlit eyes —.” Then, in an ecstatic moment, Livesay connects the man to the building, with herself as the link: “I am tall as the Royal York / For I built it!”
As a Marxist, Livesay understood it was the working class who deserved credit for the twenty-eight-storey hotel. Workers such as the hatless man were as tall as the building itself, the product of their labour, and Livesay, taking their side, grows in stature along with them.
Livesay went on to enjoy a long, celebrated career. A two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award and an officer of the Order of Canada, she also became the namesake of British Columbia’s poetry award. She often addressed social issues in her writing, but only her early work directly addresses the problems of the working class —“a thing scarce noticed.” The political ferment of the Depression led her to embrace Communism, and often, in a kind of romantic identification, it allowed her to see the world through the eyes of workers, realizing that she was really one of them. It’s this period of her writing, from the 1930s to the mid-’40s, that feels particularly vibrant to me now.
Born in 1909, Dorothy Livesay was a daughter of the professional middle class. Both her father and her mother were authors and journalists, having met at the Winnipeg Telegram. When Dorothy was eleven, her father, James, moved the family to Toronto, where he became the head of the Canadian Press. In Right Hand Left Hand, a memoir of her early life, Dorothy called him a self-described “radical and agnostic,” who took her to lectures on literary and political topics at the Masonic Temple just north of Bloor Street. Dorothy attended private school, scored top grades, and went on to study French and Italian at Trinity College, University of Toronto. She wrote for the student newspaper, the Varsity, and in 1928, at the precocious age of nineteen, published her first book of poetry, Green Pitcher, inspired by imagist writers.
In her fourth year of university, Livesay fell in with a circle of students led by the Marxist economics professor Otto Van der Sprenkel, and she soon had accepted, as she put it, “the theories of dialectical materialism.” After a stint at the Sorbonne, where she completed her thesis, she came home to Toronto in 1932, in the middle of the Depression. “My political convictions became the dominating obsession of my life,” she wrote. “There was no job in sight; and . . . I was by now deeply concerned with the plight of the unemployed and the political scene in Canada.” That’s when she joined the Communist Party of Canada.
What did Communism mean to Canadians in the 1930s? The economic and political establishments were terrified of it. After all, a revolution had occurred in Russia a little more than a decade before. In 1931, the controversial section 98 of the Criminal Code, which equated political dissidence with sedition, was used at R. B. Bennett’s behest to imprison the head of the Communist Party of Canada, Tim Buck, and several party associates. Buck’s case stirred considerable civil protest, including public statements by Livesay herself. In 1934, after prison guards fired shots into Buck’s Kingston prison cell in an apparent murder attempt, his conviction was overturned. After the repeal of section 98 by Mackenzie King, in 1936, the premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis, passed his own Padlock Act, which allowed officials to close any building used for “propagating communism or bolshevism.” The 1937 law, which did not define Communism, targeted individuals and organizations, Communist or not, who simply displeased the authorities, including several Protestant missionaries at a lumber camp in 1938.
“No one else except the communists seemed to be concerned about the plight of our people,” Livesay later wrote, “nor to be aware of the threat of Hitler and war.” Unemployment reached 30 percent in 1933; millions had no jobs, and countless others watched their pay and working conditions steadily erode. Farms in the drought-stricken West were abandoned, and thousands of homeless men wandered from city to city in search of work or relief. The Communist Party did more than speak to the desperation of many Canadians by demanding jobs programs and unemployment benefits; it also empowered workers, putting them at the centre of a world view that deemed them a revolutionary class and the protagonists of history.
The Communists evangelized through a vibrant network of unions, community groups, and associations, including the Young Communist League, the Canadian Labor Defense League, the National Unemployed Workers Association, the Workers’ Unity League, and the Farmers’ Unity League. In 1932, Livesay and her literary comrades co-founded one such organization, the Progressive Arts Clubs. Their biggest success was the stage play Eight Men Speak, about the attempted murder of Buck, which was shut down by the Toronto police after its first performance, despite Livesay’s protest.
In 1934, Livesay took a degree in social work, at that time an emerging profession, from the University of Toronto. It complemented her desire for social justice and gave her intimate access to the lives of the struggling and unemployed. “It was not only a physical shock to see poverty face to face, it was a psychic shock,” she observed years later. “This situation made me all the more committed to doing away with the capitalist system.” Livesay followed the job market, moving between Toronto; Montreal; Englewood, New Jersey; and Vancouver. And wherever she went, the Communist activist produced stories, poems, leaflets, and agitprop. For Masses, a publication founded by her Progressive Arts Club in 1932, she filed first-hand reportage on the fascist movement in Montreal, on a miners’ strike in Corbin, British Columbia, and on the working conditions of beet farmers in Raymond, Alberta.
Livesay’s poetry addressed major news events with sympathy for the working people in the headlines. Of the 1931 Black Tuesday Riot in Saskatchewan: “Because three miners in Estevan, striking, were murdered in cold blood / By the yellow dogs, their bosses.” Of the 1933 death of Nick Zynchuk, a Polish immigrant killed by the police during an eviction scuffle: “There was a roar and pistol crack. / Nothing had happened in the street — / Only a worker was shot in the back.” In response to the 1935 Dominion Day riot in Regina, where two protesters were killed by the police and hundreds injured: “Give us no uniforms — / warm walls instead; / pierce with no bayonets / we ask for bread!”
Her verse referenced major events of international anti-fascism, too, such as the Spanish Civil War and the death of Federico Garcia Lorca, the Republican poet murdered by General Franco’s forces. These were topics on the lips of leftists worldwide, and by rehearsing them herself, Livesay joined an international community — what the literary historian Cary Nelson has called a “revolutionary chorus.”
Communists such as Livesay were only the most vocal and radical of a cohort of writers who were pulled leftward by the Depression. As the literary scholar Candida Rifkind has pointed out, a generation of Canadian writers “produced a 1930s culture of political excitement and aesthetic controversy in defiant resistance to the miseries, violence, and contradictions of the Depression.” This group included the Communist Vancouver poet A. M. Stephen, the labour troubadour Joe Wallace, the legal scholar and Co-operative Commonwealth Federation architect F. R. Scott, the Montreal poet and CCFer A. M. Klein, the modernist writer and critic Leo Kennedy, the popular Edmonton playwrights Elsie Park Gowan and Gwen Pharis Ringwood, the award-winning poet Anne Marriott, and the Vancouver novelist Irene Baird. Even Morley Callaghan, the rare bird who could publish in prestigious American venues such as The New Yorker, wrote about the economic conditions of the Great Depression — although Livesay gave his 1935 book, They Shall Inherit the Earth, a mixed review in Masses because the way the protagonist resolved his problems was only “an individual solution.”
With the anemic Canadian publishing industry weakened even further by the economy, this leftist literary culture relied on little magazines for publication, including Masses (which became New Frontier in 1935), as well as the Communist newspaper the Worker, which later became the Daily Clarion. Perhaps the premier literary venue at this time was The Canadian Forum, a magazine affiliated with the CCF through its socialist think tank, the League for Social Reconstruction, and whose literary editor was the Trotskyist poet and future winner of the Governor General’s Award Earle Birney.
Livesay’s writings were informed by social realism, a much-debated aesthetic. For most artists, “social realism” referred to art with documentary qualities that highlighted vulnerable people and revealed the social and political causes of their oppression. Social realist art itself was meant to be accessible to those whose problems it depicted, whose own lived realities might be illuminated by the work. (This was rather different than the socialist realism endorsed by the Soviet Writers’ Conference, which required a much more polemical approach that explicitly promoted socialism.)
In a 1936 address delivered on the CBC, deliciously titled “Decadence in Modern Bourgeois Poetry,” Livesay implicitly contrasted social realism with modern poetry, which “appeal[s] to a very small group of people who happen to have had the same prolonged education.” While the scientific Marxists were wrong about the decadence of the bourgeoisie — it was destined to survive, as it turns out — Livesay made some good points about the inaccessibility of high modernist works, by T. S. Eliot and others, which promoted conservative politics. Even well after her Communist period, social realism continued to impact Livesay’s aesthetic thinking. In her influential 1971 essay, “The Documentary Poem: A Canadian Genre,” for example, she asserted the importance of realism, or “objective fact,” which in rather Marxian language forms a “dialectic” with “the subjective feeling of the poet.”
Like most writers, Livesay was not working class in the popular sense of the term, but instead middle class by education and profession. Yet the poor labour market of the Depression revealed that these two supposedly different classes had much in common. In The Crisis of the Middle Class, from 1935, the American social theorist Lewis Corey described the professional middle class as “brain workers,” a new type of proletariat in the early twentieth century. Whereas professionals in law, accounting, medicine, and communications in the nineteenth century were likely petit bourgeois, independently selling their services, they increasingly found themselves working within large organizations in the twentieth century, a time of expanding corporations and government bureaucracy. While these professionals, especially in managerial positions, might have enjoyed more independence and prestige than manual labourers, the brain workers were ultimately employees, subject to forms of discipline, dependent on a wage, and vulnerable to dismissal. As a social worker, Livesay was herself one of these new professionals: throwing in her lot with the working class was not just a sympathetic or romantic choice but in her own class interest.
It is a bitter irony of history that after years of timid government spending, the public investment generated by the Second World War ended the Depression in 1939. This sudden transformation of Canada’s economy and culture also changed the political scene, and Livesay was drawn away from Communism.
The Communist Party of Canada initially opposed the war, then pulled an about-face in 1941 when the Soviet Union entered it alongside the Allied powers. These contortions cost the party some prestige and credibility. Meanwhile the CCF, which intended to pursue socialism by parliamentary means, was gaining ground, making startling gains in provincial elections in British Columbia, in 1941, and Ontario, in 1943, as well as taking on leadership roles in organized labour. In 1934, Livesay published a poem making fun of the CCF and its leader, J. S. Woodsworth (“Take a look at Woodsworth — / See his nice goatee. / Who’s to save the country? / No one else but he!”), but influenced by the politics of her husband, Duncan Macnair, she increasingly found herself drawn to the democratic socialists. Much later, Livesay wrote about her changing expectations in Journey with My Selves: “When war broke out in 1939 we had to give up, or at least lay aside for the future, the idea that our generation could change the world. All community efforts narrowed down to that of the home.”
We can see Livesay’s changing views and the nation’s altered realities at play in Day and Night, her remarkable collection published in 1944. The titular poem shifts its perspective among workers in a steel mill and is full of evocative rhythms, representing the punishing routines of manual labour. It articulates the men’s anger at “the bosses profit” and demonstrates the difficulties endured by the workers — whose “bodies are hammered through the night” and are subjected to “the steel’s whip crack.” Yet the speaker counsels against worker revolt: “Add your hunger, / Brawn and bones, / Take your earnings: / Bread, not stones!” In wartime, proletarian revolution was off the table.
Maybe the best poem from the collection is its finale, “West Coast: 1943.” Instead of adopting the point of view of workers, it puts us in the position of a detached, even leisurely observer. “We, who lay in roses and green shade under the cherry tree,” enjoy a rest while on a hike along a seaside trail. “High on our hill” we witness the wartime shipbuilding on the “shorelines ripped and boxes set in tidy rows.” From this distance, the workers appear as “a herd of thundering hard heels” and an “anthill swarm.” This salubrious landscape itself — rather than contract negotiations — has improved working conditions. Whereas formerly these people toiled in dangerous coal mines and drought-ridden fields, in the “sea-coast air” they “breathe now,” they “find voice / and sing with the throat bare.” Here, the working class has found its place in the nation.
The same year Day and Night was published, Mackenzie King authorized Order-in-Council 1003, a piece of landmark labour legislation that enshrined rights to collective bargaining and required employers to recognize unions. Along with unemployment insurance, passed in 1940, and family allowances, made law in 1945, the move helped the Liberals defeat the surging CCF in the first postwar election. Livesay’s book advances the belief that workers were finding their place in the nation, that a reasonable compromise between capital and labour was being managed by the government. While it lasted, the welfare state brought material gains to the working class, allowing many of them, with their increased spending power, to think of themselves as middle class. To left-wing critics, however, the welfare state rarely involved democratic ownership and management of the economy, meaning these gains were vulnerable.
Winning the Governor General’s Award for Day and Night, Livesay solidified her stature in the Canadian literary establishment. Her reputation was further burnished with the publication of Poems for People, in 1947, which also won the Governor General’s Award. In that book and after, Livesay’s attention turned away from the working class, with her interests growing in other social justice issues, such as the internment of Japanese Canadians and the history of Indigenous peoples. Somewhat ironically, only when she settled to raise her family did her memoirs mention worrying about money, as the family struggled on her husband’s modest salary as an accountant and, at times, relied on financial help from her own well-to-do father. Livesay finally achieved financial stability after her husband’s sudden death in 1959: Making good use of her education and her prestige, she found a position with UNESCO, which took her to Paris and Zambia. Upon her return, she used her earnings to buy a house in Vancouver.
During the Cold War, Livesay distanced herself from her Communist past, but in the radical atmosphere of the late 1960s and ’70s, she could write and publish a memoir of her Communist years, Right Hand Left Hand. When she died in 1996, at the age of eighty-seven, Canada had already seen the rolling back of many of the achievements of the welfare state, whose birth she had witnessed from “the green shade under the cherry tree.”
I read “West Coast: 1943” sitting on a folding chair on our narrow third-floor balcony. Throughout the pandemic, I have been reading outside, surprised by how many people come through our alley in a given hour. Some poke through the garbage and recycling bins. Others lead their Labradoodles and Shih Tzus on leashes. They glance up at me, move on. I have begun to see the same faces, although we don’t wave or say hello: “The harbour a great world of moving men / Geared to their own salvation.”
Livesay’s poem is filled with wonder at the country’s vast resources, and optimism that they will be used well. It’s hard to muster that type of hope and awe now. If the betrayal of the working class began decades ago, much of the so‑called middle class now shares its fate, as workers are increasingly subject to the whims of labour markets and the abuses of profit seeking. We never were above it. Can a renewed working class create solidarity, organize for the public good, build better institutions? The path ahead seems dark, and no one should travel alone. “The graveyard shift still hammering its way / Towards an unknown world, straddling new day.”
Ryerson Press, 1944
Press Porcépic, 1977
Douglas & McIntyre, 1991