A Canadian Reds great restlessness

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BOOK REVIEW

A Great Restlessness:

The Life and Politics

of Dorise Nielsen

By Faith Johnston

University of Manitoba Press, 2007

Softcover, 361 pp., $24.95

Faith Johnston’s “A Great Restlessness: the Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen” is an absorbing political biography of one of Canada’s long-forgotten Communists who fought for the rights of women and children and played a role in shaping Canada’s postwar social legislation.

Dorise Nielsen, born in 1902 in London, emigrated to Canada in 1926 and ended up working in rural Saskatchewan as a teacher. In 1929, the Great Depression descended on the capitalist world and the hunger and impoverishment that followed led many to turn to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) for answers.

Nielsen, who saw people going hungry and babies dying because parents did not have the money to pay for medical care, became a CCF activist. She became an ardent advocate of a united front with the CPC and the Social Credit Party to defeat the business-backed Conservative and Liberal parties that dominated the political system.

In the Saskatchewan election district of North Battleford, she helped form the United Unity movement with the help of Communists, and in 1940 was elected to Parliament. Even though the Saskatchewan CCF had expelled her by this time for her willingness to cooperate with the Communists, they supported her candidacy.

While Nielsen had joined the CPC by this time, Johnston says, she kept her party membership secret because the federal government had banned the party for its opposition to war with Germany and was interning CPC members. Even so, Nielsen became the party’s first voice in Parliament. Coming from the prairies, she focused on the plight of farmers and rural poverty. She also advocated a national health care program, daycare, and pay equity for women and a family allowance.

As a gifted speaker and the only woman in Parliament, Nielsen increasingly became well known across the country. Prime Minister Mackenzie King tried to co-op Nielsen, offering her a job heading the YMCA if she backed the country’s Liberal government. She turned down his offer. However, according to Johnston, King would turn against her by 1941 after realizing she was a Communist. However, to King’s disappointment, the RCMP was never able to collect enough solid information to arrest her.

According to Johnston, “Nielsen had become an important issue in the Liberal caucus” and the government tried to silence her. In Parliament, where Nielsen often found the debates dreary and futile, she worked closely with the CCF and Social Credit.

In 1943, Nielsen joined the Labor Progressive Party (LPP), founded by the Communists to allow them to operate openly.

Spurred on by the CCF and LPP’s growing electoral victories, the King government in 1944 promised a comprehensive social reform package that included health insurance, unemployment insurance and a universal pension system. Nielsen and Fred Rose, the LPP’s other Member of Parliament, helped draft this new legislation that would define Canada’s postwar welfare state.

Nielsen lost her seat in the 1945 elections to the CCF. After her defeat, Nielsen went on to work for the LPP in Toronto, leading the party’s campaigns for housing and peace. In 1958, she moved to China to support the revolution there, working as an English teacher and editor.

Once in China, Nielsen became an active participant in Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. In 1980 she passed away.

“A Great Restlessness” is not only an excellent account of Nielsen’s political career but also of her personal life and all its turmoil.

An enjoyable read, this is valuable book that helps fill in the gaps left by mainstream accounts of history that minimize or ignore the important role that Communists such as Dorise Nielsen played.

tpelzer @shaw.ca