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Blairmore Communist Council
Today, the idea that a town council could be voted in that was completely communist seems almost absurd. For one, communism became something that was vilified during the Cold War and something that would fade in power and scope throughout the late 20th century in North America.
That all being said, there was a very brief time when a small community in Alberta would dabble in communism through the election of a completely communist town council. This move would only last a few years, but it would have some very interesting impacts on the community, and some very interesting stories to tell as a result.
Blairmore is a community in the Rocky Mountains that has always had a rather unique history. Incorporated as a town in 1911, the community became the regional economic centre after the decline of Frank following its destructive mountain disaster. By the 1930s, with The Great Depression impacting many people in the area, many were looking for a change. That change would come on Feb. 14, 1933 when the community elected Canada’s first communist town council and school board. Known as the Red Administration, the new members of council were elected to the three vacant council chairs, and the mayor’s chair, pushing out the previous pro-business council. Bill Knight would be the new mayor of the community. He was a British-born veteran of the First World War and greatly respected in the area.
Voter turnout was extremely high for the election, pushing 90 per cent. Many felt it was new immigrants who helped to get the council elected.
So, how did it happen?
The most logical explanation was that with The Great Depression, the economy of the area was down heavily. In addition, the 1932 Mine Workers Union of Canada Strike, which struck across the Crowsnest Pass area, lasted for eight months and severely hurt the economy of the area even more. Prior to the strike, the mines were only operating at 50 per cent capacity, and those looking for relief would often only receive $4.24 per month for a diet of prunes, rice, porridge, flour, sugar, beans and lard.
During the strike, Communist children play groups were organized.
Knight would have his finger on the pulse of the community because he was employed by West Canadian Collieries, but also owned the local pool hall. This allowed him to connect with the population fo the community on multiple levels, including a vast portion of the voting population. When Knight spoke to voters, he called himself not a politician, but an ordinary man trying to make a bad situation better. In the election, 788 votes were cast, with 54 spoiled ballots and only 29 votes separating the most and least popular choices for council.
Once elected, the council began working on making some very interesting changes. First, council instituted several tax reforms. These reforms included collecting unpaid taxes from prominent citizens, restoring relief payments for the unemployed and hiring a new district nurse. As well, council removed various town administrators and the chief of police on charges of corruption and problems with finances found during an audit. The police chief was eventually charged with extortion, while the secretary-treasurer of the town was charged with fraud. The town fire chief and electrician would also be fired from their duties by council.
A new bylaw was also created that required workers to pay five per cent of their wages into an unemployment fund.
Council then decided that Remembrance Day was an Imperialist holiday and that November 11 would honour the Russian Revolution instead. Main Street was renamed Tim Buck Boulevard, to honour the imprisoned leader of the Communist Party of Canada.
Other changes included dropping the cost of a peddler’s licence, and imposing a five per cent business tax. In 1933, town council endorsed a petition calling for the abolishment of the RCMP, and in 1935 they declared the day that Tim Buck visited the community as a public holiday. The school board, which as we know was also communist, declared Nov. 7 as a holiday for schools in the community to celebrate the Russian Revolution, but refused to give time off for students when a British prince married.
Taxes were levied heavily on the wealthier people in the community and their businesses to provide relief to the poor residents. One such tax was put on purebred dogs since it was believed that only rich people could afford a purebred dog during The Great Depression. According to Ben Swanky, a Communist Party of Canada organizer, “they couldn’t figure out how to get at the mine owners, so the question came up what kind of dogs are there in town. They found out that it was the mine owners who had the pedigree dogs, and the miners had the mongrels, so they put a tax on the pedigree dogs.”
All of those changes and the Communist council gave the community the name of Little Moscow throughout the rest of Canada.
While the council had been voted in by many people, that didn’t stop others from trying to get it removed. The Citizen’s League and anti-communist voters tried to dislodge the council and asked the Department of Municipal Affairs to replace it with a provincially-appointed administrator, which the government refused to do. Nonetheless, most on council were re-elected by acclimation in 1935.
In 1936, the Communist council was voted out due to a financial scandal after Knight exceeded his traveling expenses when he attended the Congress Against War and Facism in Toronto. He had told his colleagues to use money from the town treasury to cover the costs. They refused and turned against him. Following Knight’s withdrawal from the next election, Enoch Williams took over as mayor in the next election and the council was made up of progressives and independents. Enoch would go on to serve six terms as mayor of the community. Following the end of the Communist council, many of their changes were reversed.
Today, the experiment of the Communist council seems to be largely pushed to the side for Blairmore’s history. A history book on the community from the 1960s does not even mention the council. Many photos of the council were changed or reprinted to hide the fact it was Communist. One such example of this was a picture of council seated behind a pro-Communist poster. Later versions of the picture had the poster replaced with a placard that said “Town Council 1933”. In 1985, it was brought up by council to rename 20th Avenue back to Tim Buck Boulevard in a move to use names for streets to celebrate people from the past. This was met with a great deal of controversy and many in the community were highly against it and anything that brought up the communist history of the community.
Information comes from Crowsnest Pass Heritage, MacLeans Magazine, Little Moscow in Southern Alberta, Painting The Town Red and Town Life.
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