Lessons from history: How did Canada respond to homegrown radicals in the 1940s? And what can the experience teach us?

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 1 Spring 2015

Islamism or radical Islam or jihadism, as a violent international ideology at odds with Canadian society and its values, is not the first challenge of its kind, nor is it unique in attracting Canadian adherents.

The radicals of the Second World War

During World War II Canada faced the dilemma of how to handle homegrown Canadian radicals. The Communist Party of Canada included fervent members with connections to the worldwide Marxist-Leninist movement and the Soviet Union. Canadian Communists accepted and worked to advance the philosophy of inevitable violent revolution that would resolve the class contradictions of bourgeois capitalism and usher in a worldwide socialist utopia.

Between 1939 and 1941, 135 members or adherents of the Communist Party of Canada were interned under provisions of the Defence of Canada Regulations. They were not deprived of their civil liberties for their revolutionary philosophical commitments and published Marxist pronouncements, but for publishing and organizing activities to subvert Canada’s war effort, which were criminal acts.

Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The subsequent alliance between the Soviet Union and Great Britain resulted in an about-face by Canadian Communists. They became enthusiastic supporters of Canada’s efforts to defeat Nazi Germany.

A three-person Advisory Committee, headed by Judge Roland Millar, was struck to hear and make recommendations on objections from 69 internees to their continued detention. One of the members of the Advisory Committee was Charles Norris Cochrane (1889-1945), a University of Toronto classics professor. In 1943 Cochrane wrote a 135-page Memorandum on the Communist Party of Canada. Addressed to the Minister of Justice, it explained the party’s history in Canada and made recommendations on how these dissenters should be treated.

Lessons from 1943

From the Memorandum come several lessons that may be instructive as Canada deals with contemporary extremists, sometimes referred to as homegrown radicals.
Lesson #1: To understand a movement, you must seriously examine its intellectual roots, even if you deem the proponents of the movement delusional, comically naïve, or ineffectual.

The question of releasing the detainees from jail could not, in the opinion of the committee, be divorced from “the larger questions of Communism as a factor in Canadian public life.… For an adequate understanding of the Canadian problem, it must be examined in the light of the international proletarian movement of which it forms a part” (Cochrane, p. 2).

Lesson #2: The degree of scrutiny of Canadian citizens should be directly proportional to the danger posed to the state and its citizens, with primary consideration given to respecting individual civil rights.

The terms of reference for the three-person committee were narrow: “whether … the release of the interned Communists would in any way prejudice the public safety or the safety of the state. If there existed no reasonable doubt on this point it followed that they should not longer be denied their personal liberty and civil rights” (p. 2).

In the Memorandum Cochrane explored the potential for revolutionary violence by Canadian Communists and, after analyzing statements by Canadian Communists and past behaviour, concluded that it was low. He determined that:

Fomenting revolutionary Marxist violence in Canada would first require a breakdown in the Soviet alliance with the United States and Great Britain.

The combination of a ripe revolutionary moment with the appropriate proletarian consciousness—the two requirements of Marxist orthodoxy for successful revolution—was unlikely in Canada.

Canadian Communists had disavowed violent actions. Tim Buck, head of the Canadian Communist Party in Canada and one of the detainees appealing his detention, “earnestly and vehemently denied” before the Advisory Committee that the Party contemplated recourse to violence. Buck also told the Committee that if violence did break out in Canada, it would be more likely to come from the right rather than the left, as it had in Italy, Germany, and Spain.

The Canadian Communist Party had neither the international alliances, nor the internal coherence and suitable leadership to engage in revolutionary violence.

Lesson #3: Cochrane advocated adopting an attitude of humility with respect to our own failings as democracies and becoming well informed before judging the Soviet Union.

It would, for instance, be nothing less than fatal if the democracies fell victim to self-complacency in their attitude to the Soviets. Indeed, there could be hardly anything more offensive to decency and common-sense than for them to assume, by virtue of any claim to embody the values of Christian civilization, that they were qualified to sit in judgment on Russian achievement or Russian purposes. For the democracies, therefore, the beginning of wisdom is a fitting himility [sic] which seeks to understand before it presumes to criticise. (p. 127)

Lesson #4: No matter how absurd or abhorrent we believe another’s views to be, we should strive not to give the holder of such views further reasons to condemn democratic institutions by practising excessive repression.

In the Memorandum’s conclusion, Cochrane urged Canadians not to give the Communists grounds for complaint 1) in the treatment of Communists by the justice system; and, more generally, 2) in Canada’s treatment of its citizens.

Communists claimed that “bourgeois justice is justice only for the bourgeois” (p. 133). Cochrane urged that the Canadian justice system deal fairly with the Communists and never err on the side of “purely repressive measures as such” (p. 133). The Communist movement “thrives by exploiting grievances which are none the less keenly felt because they are in many cases imaginary” (p. 133). Their grievances should be given as little ground in reality as possible.

Taking a further step, the Advisory Committee suggested that the government “consider whether or not it is still advisable to maintain the parliamentary ban on the Canadian party” (p. 134). The clear implication is that Canadian Communists should be allowed to exercise their political rights to participate directly in the democratic process.

Lesson #5: The faults and injustice in our society should be addressed to remove these causes of complaint.

Cochrane urged the Minister of Justice to “remember also that unsatisfied material desires are likely to bear their characteristic fruit in a materialist philosophy” (pp. 133-134). I believe that Cochrane was pointing to issues highlighted in the great depression of the 1930s, such as poverty, low wages, and unfair working conditions—the stuff of Communist complaints against the capitalist system on behalf of workers—which could breed potential support for Communist ideals and revolutionary action. For Cochrane, democracy “should concede to Communism as little as is reasonably possible to feed upon” (p. 134).

Applying history

What, if anything, can we learn from this historical confrontation between the Canadian state and Communists in the early 1940s?

Today’s circumstances are not those of 1943. While Canadian Communists during the early years of the Second World War disavowed violence, today’s jihadists are committed to it. Revolutionary thought and praxis are in alignment. Terrorist actions against civilians and state institutions are clear and present dangers abroad and at home.

On the other hand, I am not the first to point out that pursuit of the realization of Communist ideals in the twentieth century was a far greater existential threat to western democracies than radical or violent Islamism is today. And the Second World War was a real war and actual threat to the homeland of Canada, not a regional skirmish with relatively weak, small bands of radicals far away. Domestic Communist sympathizers, ready for violence or not, potentially posed a greater threat in the 1940s than the one we are facing today.

That being said, I am less interested in identifying exact historical parallels than in applying the attitude shown by Cochrane and the Advisory Committee and their practical responses to the dangers of homegrown radicalization.

Application #1: We need to do some serious work to understand what groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram are saying and doing. We need to understand the history and how they interpret their application of ideas. How do very different interpretations of Islam emerge? Why do these interpretations sometimes yield such intense commitments to extreme actions? Clearly ISIS wants to provoke certain types of response from the West. If we do not understand their primary principles and their goals in taking certain actions, we risk responding in ways that are ineffective and possibly make matters worse.

Application #2: We need to discriminate between those who act on violent principles or advocate violence, and those who do not. This is not only a challenge to police and intelligence agencies, but to all citizens. We should respect and tolerate differences of view that pose no real threat. Clearly our struggle is not with Islam per se, as most will agree. Nonetheless, some violent factions do claim to base their actions on the teachings of Islam.

Application #3: Western secular, capitalist democracies must acknowledge their incomplete knowledge of what is happening in places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. While it might seem a tad late to call for research and reflective suspension of suspicion, having unloosed the dogs of war more than a decade ago, it’s never too late to start. Then we need to apply the lessons learned. This is particularly good advice considering that Canada, in cooperation with international coalitions of military forces, has had very limited military success in addressing the violent conflicts in these counties over the past decade. Lasting peace has not been secured in any of them. Trying to achieve our own vested economic (i.e., oil) and other interests through international military incursions may be part of the problem and not the solution. We need the humility to consider these possibilities and to determine if we need to change our behaviour to effectively respond to radical Islamism.

Application #4: Overreacting on the domestic front and increasing suppression only feed the paranoid complaints of those who recruit Canadian youth to join the jihadist fight in Syria or Iraq, or to carry out violent acts here. Our democratic society and institutions, governed by the rule of law, are strong enough to deal fairly with such radicals, as they have with past challenges. Increasing suppression for its own sake is counterproductive. In responding to any challenge to our democracy, we must acknowledge the primacy of individual civil rights.

Application #5: Addressing real economic and social grievances and justifiable criticism of our society is part of a long-term strategy to drain the swamps that provide fertile breeding grounds for domestic radicalization. Our international ventures, including expeditionary military missions, must be focused on protecting vulnerable civilians and supporting political resolution of conflicts through peacebuilding measures. Building fairer, more participatory, and more just societies at home and abroad are, in my view, self-evidently good. They also form a part of the general inoculation strategy our society requires to keep at bay the pestilence of domestic radicalization by any ideology.



Cochrane, Charles Norris. 1943. Memorandum on the Communist Party of Canada.

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