Richard Allen explored role of faith in Canadian left history

Federal CCF Caucus, 1942. M.J. Coldwell is the new leader after Woodsworth's death. Left to right, Tommy Douglas, George Castleden, Angus MacInnis, Coldwell, Clarie Gillis , Joe Noseworthy, Sandy Nicholoson, and Percy Wright. Photo: C.C.F. / Library and Archives Canada / C-000314 via Wikimedia Commons

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of former Ontario MPP Richard Allen. It was only in mid-February when I last talked to him about his latest book, Beyond the Noise of Your Solemn Assemblies: The Protestant Ethic and the Quest for Social Justice in Canada, a collection of his essays that further explore the life of the "social gospel" in Canada.

I say further because Allen first did this in his 1971 book, The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada 1914-1928, which became a landmark in Canadian social and political history.

In a subsequent exchange of emails that fell silent with his passing we were discussing the chapter in his new book that dealt extensively with the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order (FCSO) in the 1930s. These days a group with such a name might be assumed to have a right-wing political orientation, but not then. In fact the FCSO membership overlapped with many in the trade union movement, the co-operative movement, and the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR), which produced Social Planning for Canada in 1936. A further overlap occurred between the FCSO, the LSR, and the CCF. Three out of the seven-member CCF caucus -- Woodsworth, Coldwell, and Douglas -- were members of the FCSO, as was King Gordon who had had a hand in writing the Regina Manifesto, and who many years later was the eulogist at Tommy Douglas's funeral.

Allen told the stories of these times in a way that helped many people of faith to see a place for themselves in the struggle for an alternative to capitalism, both because others had gone before and because the battle had not yet been won. He wrote a biography of Salem Bland, a theology professor at Wesley College, now the University of Winnipeg. Bland was a major influence on J.S. Woodsworth.

Allen was the NDP MPP for Hamilton West in the Ontario legislature from 1982 to 1995, and a cabinet minister in the Rae government. When I talked to him recently he said he had one more story to tell. He was going to write a reflective memoir about that time. That we may now never see such a memoir is a great tragedy, as I am confident it would have helped to shed light on this controversial era of left-wing politics in Canada. That he could talk enthusiastically about such a project, just days after his 90th birthday, is testimony to the strength of his intellect and his dedication to helping all of us sort out important aspects of our political history.

It seems fitting to end this column with the biblical passage, from the prophet Amos, that so many on the Christian left in Canada have been inspired by over the years, and which Allen himself highlighted at the beginning of his last book.

"I hate, I despise your feasts,

And I take no pride in your solemn assemblies

Take away from me the noise of your songs

To the melody of your harp I will not listen

But let justice roll down like a river,

And righteousness like an ever flowing stream."

Bill Blaikie, former MP and MLA, writes on Canadian politics, political parties, and Parliament.

Photo: C.C.F. / Library and Archives Canada / C-000314 via Wikimedia Commons

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