Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Engaged and outraged at 94

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 23, 2008


Ben Swankey’s eyebrows are bushy like tumbleweeds. Even at rest, wispy white hair flows from his head as though he were facing a stiff prairie wind.

His big hands and thick fingers are the legacy of his farming and labouring ancestors. In his own 94 summers, he has worked as a road builder, a bartender, a roofing inspector, an insurance salesman and as a labour journalist. Mostly, though, he was a writer and researcher. To the delight of his comrades and under the scrutiny of the police, he was a political organizer.

“I have been arrested three times for my left-wing political activities,” he writes, “but was never found guilty in any court.”

Mr. Swankey recently self-published a memoir. He started it 35 years ago, but neglected to stop agitating for his causes — old-age pensions then, environmentalism now — and the project kept getting shelved.

Now, he is hard of hearing and legally blind. The left side of his body has been limited by a stroke. He tackles physiotherapy as he once took on the bosses and vows to be out of his wheelchair by his 95th birthday in September. No one is betting against him.

As it turns out, a recollection written for family includes cameos by the likes of the great American singer Paul Robeson and the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. He even met Norman Bethune, the Ontario-born doctor revered by Chinese Communists. Dr. Bethune has been dead for nearly seven decades.

Like Mr. Swankey, all were Communists, a cause to which he devoted himself at age 18. A membership retained through the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact (1939), the revelations of Stalin’s crimes and the invasion of Hungary (1956), the crushing of Prague Spring (1968), the imposition of martial law against Poland’s Solidarity (1981) was finally ended by resignation in 1991.

“Thanks to Gorbachev,” he writes, “the mask had been torn off the ugly face of Stalinism and its legacy in the Soviet Union. The revelations were nothing less than horrendous. So many deaths, so much torture, so many lies, so many harmful policies and actions.”

He came of age during the tumult of the Depression. It was the witnessing of a police attack on demonstrators that set his life’s course.

He was born at Steinbach, Man., just months after his mother emigrated from Tsarist Russia. Two of his parent’s eight children died in infancy. The boy was aged three when the family moved to Herbert, Sask., where his father eventually found work as a labourer on a railroad crew. Most of their neighbours were Mennonites, who spoke Low German, understandable though difficult to master for the Schwanke (later Swankey) family, who spoke a more modern German at home.

Inspired by adventure novels, especially tales about Tarzan, he formed a boy’s club called T.H.W.C., which stood for To Hell With Civilization. Later, after a political awakening, he would say the acronym should have stood for To Hell With Capitalism.

His father was a strict man, a nationalist and admirer of Bismarck, not shy about using violence to enforce his will around the house. When Ben was 14, his mother fled with a daughter to begin a new life in Edmonton.

At 14, the boy decided to ride the rails. He hopped a westbound freight, hanging out with hobos at a camp at Lethbridge, Alta. His first night in this province was spent asleep in a boxcar stationed at Yahk. At Wenatchee, Wash., he found work picking apples before returning to Saskatchewan to finish high school. By graduation, the Depression made unlikely any prospect of finding work.

He and a friend decided to hitchhike around the world. They painted HERBERT, SASK. in block letters on their Boy Scout hats and hit the road. He learned about the mythical lake creature Ogopogo but was more impressed by the bounty of fruit to be found in the Okanagan.

In Vancouver, he stayed with an older brother who tried to feed a wife and two children, one of them a newborn, on relief. The brother blamed Prime Minister R.B. Bennett for the economic calamity. Ben disagreed. He held the anti-Communist sentiments learned in his hometown.

The brother took him to an anti-war demonstration near Victory Square, which was attacked by police after those in attendance began to parade without a permit. Men, women and even children fell under police clubs.

“I was appalled and angry at the brutality of the police, as was Rudolf,” Mr. Swankey writes. “There was a service station next to the square with a wooden picket fence around it. Rudolf and I each tore off a picket and went after the police. I got one of the mounted police across the back and neck when I threw my picket at him.”

The riot changed his life. He studied books in the library, became influenced by radicals. He moved to Edmonton soon after his 18th birthday after his mother sent him train fare. After joining the Young Communist League, he became an organizer, working with striking coal miners at Crow’s Nest Pass.

He homesteaded near Prince George, B.C., where he became a member of the Communist Party. He eventually found work wielding a sledgehammer on the building of a highway between Banff and Jasper. The job paid 45 cents an hour and nearly cost him his life when a dynamite blast sent a rock hurtling in his direction.

In Calgary, he helped organize support for the On-to-Ottawa trekkers, the striking relief camp workers led by Arthur (Slim) Evans.

As a Communist, Mr. Swankey followed the party line — likely to cause whiplash in the terrible fall days of 1939. He favoured the British and Canadian war against Nazi Germany, then opposed the war when the party changed its stance on instruction from Moscow, which had joined the Germans in sacking Poland.

In 1940, Canadian Communist leaders were rounded up and interned in prison camps for opposing the war. Mr. Swankey found himself sharing a hut with a dozen fascists at Kananaskis, Alta. He later was imprisoned at a camp at Petawawa, Ont.

Soon after his release, Mr. Swankey enlisted in the Canadian Army.

He ran for Parliament in the Alberta constituency of Jasper-Edson in the 1945 federal election, finishing last of five candidates behind the Social Credit incumbent. The next year he became the provincial leader of the Labour-Progressive Party, as the Communists had renamed themselves. To be a Communist in Alberta during the Cold War was as unwelcoming as it sounds. Mr. Swankey’s family lived in near-poverty. The Gouzenko revelations and the spy trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in the United States also gave rise to the terrible possibility of punishment greater than imprisonment in an internment camp.

Mr. Swankey’s daughter, now 63, remembers those days.

“I was six or seven years old when the Rosenbergs were executed,” said June Williams, Mr. Swankey’s daughter. “I felt it deeply. I felt a fear. A somewhat justified fear.”

A fear of what?

“That it could happen to my parents.”

As a girl, she had even written President Dwight Eisenhower asking him to spare the Rosenbergs for their sons.

Her letter is one of several photographs and documents reprinted in “What’s New: Memoirs of a Socialist Idealist.” The book can be ordered from Trafford Publishing of Victoria.

It is not Mr. Swankey’s first title. He wrote a biography of Slim Evans and is known as a prolific and popular pamphleteer. A biography of the Metis leader Gabriel Dumont, for which he could find no publisher in Canada, was published in 1980 in Moscow, in Russian. He says it sold 50,000 copies.

Mr. Swankey, who lives at a care home in Burnaby, has the newspaper read to him everyday. He remains engaged and outraged.

Five years ago, the city of Vancouver declared his 90th birthday to be Ben Swankey day. The city might want to start making plans for his 100th.

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