Author Tags: Biography, Labour, Politics

"He had more guts than a slaughterhouse." -- a fellow unionist describing Slim Evans. [Evans pictured at top right; Ben Swankey shown below]

A biographer of On-to-Ottawa trek leader Arthur 'Slim' Evans and Métis commander Gabriel Dumont, Ben Swankey was one of Western Canada's foremost socialist historians and lecturers. Swankey was also one of the three main co-founders of the Vancouver civic political party COPE (the Committee of Progressive Electors) along with Harry Rankin and Frank Kennedy. As a prominent Communist Party candidate in B.C. and Alberta, Swankey was interned during World War II, but then enlisted in the Allies' war effort. Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs edited and produced Swankey's autobiography in 2008. Swankey died at age 98 on November, 22, 2011.

After his parents newly emigrated from Russia, Swankey was born in Steinbach, Manitoba, as Bernhard Schwenke, on September 17, 1913, as the fifth child of Leokadia and Gustav Schwanke. His father initially worked as a railroad labourer and the family lived in Herbert, Saskatchewan. Ben rode the rails at age 14, reaching Washington State one summer, where he worked as a fruit picker. With $10, he hitchhiked from the prairies to Vancouver at age 17.

Soon after his arrival, Swankey became politically radicalized by attending an anti-war rally with his brother, a teacher, at the Cambie Street Grounds in Vancouver. When demonstrators revealed their Communist loyalties, police brutally attacked the crowd. According to Tom Hawthorn's 2012 obituary in the Globe & Mail, Swankey tore off a white picket from a fence at a gas station and struck back. Swankey kept attacking capitalism with words for seven more decades after that.

As oppression against Communist Party members and dissident labour in Canada increased, Ben Swankey became an outspoken 'coalition builder,' raising funds to support striking coal miners at Crowsnest Pass in 1932. He also co-organized and participated in a hunger march in Edmonton that year, an event often cited for the solidification of his radicalism.

Swankey married Olive Senko one day after his 20th birthday, and the couple tried homesteading north of Prince George, but they barely survived one long winter before returning to live in Alberta. Following their divorce, he would remarry to a Winnipeg pianist, Anne Wiseman, during the war years. The couple met after hearing a speech by Communist leader Tim Buck.

In 1940 Ben Swankey, as a Communist, was arrested in Calgary for allegedly pasting anti-war stickers in the streets. This police frame-up failed to win a conviction, but Swankey was re-arrested on the steps of the courthouse as soon as he was released. This time he was arrested under Section 21 or the War Measures Act, without charge or a trial. He was held for a month in a Calgary jail before being sent to Kananaskis Internment Camp south of Canmore, Alberta. There he was sequestered without recourse with other Communists and left-leaning citizens who had been apprehended by the state--and imprisoned along with Nazis.

Swankey was eventually transferred to another internment camp for intellectuals and Communists in Petawawa, Ontario. [The internment camp at Kananaskis is no longer recognizable as a barbed wire compound; it was used in the 1980s as an Environmental Science Centre for the University of Calgary.]

When the Soviet Union joined forces with the Western allies to combat Hitler's Nazi, Swankey was released and he soon enlisted in the Canadian Army. After serving briefly overseas, he became Communist Party leader in Alberta in 1945. He ran in the 1945 federal election in the Alberta riding of Jasper-Edson but received only five per cent of the vote. As the Communist Party had been outlawed, he represented the newly formed Labour-Progressive Party, a euphemism for the Communists. Again he ran federally in 1949 in Edmonton, then in 1953 in Peace River.

In 1957, Ben Swankey moved to Vancouver where he befriended lawyer Harry Rankin, also a World War II veteran. As a journalist, Swankey was editor of various trade union publications. Swankey later became a strong advocate for the Old Age Pensioners Association, fighting to preserve social programs and appearing in the media to defend and affirm seniors' rights. The City of Vancouver declared Ben Swankey Day in 2003 to mark his 90th birthday.

As reported by Tom Hawthorn, Swankey said his Moscow-published biography of the Métis military leader Gabriel Dumont, for which he could find no publisher in Canada, sold 50,000 copies in its Russian-only version. Swankey remained committed to social justice even during his final years in a Burnaby care facility where he had the newspaper read to him daily. In Hawthorn's words, he remained "engaged and outraged."

Ben Swankey's many pamphlets include Keep Canada Out of the OAS (Vancouver: Canadian-Cuban Friendship Society, 1963), Native Identity or Cultural Genocide: A Reply to Ottawa's New Indian Policy (Toronto: Progress Books, 1970), What Great Depression? (Gravenhurst Ontario: Northern Neighbours, 1971), Native Land Claims (Progress Books, 1980), The Two Faces of Vander Zalm (Centre for Socialist Education, 1986, two printings) and From Our Pockets to Theirs: An Analysis of the Federal Budget (1989).


Equally important, with Jean Shiels, the daughter of Arthur Evans, Ben Swankey compiled and wrote the most integral book about the organizer and leader of the On To Ottawa Trek of the summer of 1935, Arthur H. 'Slim' Evans.

Born on April 24, 1890 in Toronto, Slim Evans left school at age 13 to help support the family. He sold newspapers, drove a team of horses and learn the carpentry trade. Evans came west in 1911, working at various jobs on the prairies, before gravitating from Winnipeg to Minneapolis. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Kansas City for participating in an IWW free speech, having read aloud the Declaration of Independence at a rally. "All I did was read it. I was too shy and too nervous at that time to make up any speech of my own." He was released in 1912 after he led a jail strike of political prisoners. In 1913 he was present at the Ludlow Massacre and was hospitalized with leg wounds. He fraternized with such labour 'greats' as 'Big Bill' Haywood, Frank Little and Joe Hill. He was working in Kimberley, B.C. as a miner when the IWW (International Workers of the World) was formed. As an IWW organizer, he led the OBU coal miners in their strike at Drumheller, Alberta in 1919-1920 and was sentenced to three years in prison for his efforts, allegedly because he used United Mineworkers funds to fund a wildcat strike without permission. At the time he was sub-district secretary of the United Mine Workers of America. Labour historians allege he was 'framed' by the John L. Lewis union machine. As an organizer for the Communist Party in B.C., he was expelled for fighting the corrupt union leadership of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in Vancouver. In 1932 he organized the National Unemployed Workers Association and won increased rates for relief work. Having helped the coal miners of Princeton strike for higher wages, he was imprisoned for 18 months in Oakalla after police worked in collusion with the Ku Klux Klan to frame him. Authorities took punitive actions against his family in Vancouver, evicting them from the house Evans built at 17 East 42nd Avenue when he unable to pay the mortgage. Unionists protested and demanded his release.

To protest the welfare of unemployed single men in Prime Minister R.B. Bennett's 'slave camps' in the early 1930s, Evans conceived the most substantial labour protest in Canada's history, the On To Ottawa Trek. Men frustrated with earning $5 per month for their labour were rallied by the likes of Evans to ride the rails, 40 to 50 men atop a boxcar, towards Ottawa. By the time this delegation to Ottawa reached 2,000-strong, R.B. Bennett ordered them stopped in Regina. RCMP and Regina City Police were instructed to arrest the Trek leaders. Police armed with clubs, tear guns and guns broke up an open air meeting between trekkers and Regina citizens on July 1, 1935. Regina police shot into the crowd but remarkably nobody was killed. Evans was chairman of the delegation that was invited to Ottawa to discuss the situation with R.B. Bennett. When the Prime Minister called him a thief, Evans said on July 22, 1935, "Bennett, you're a liar!" He was charged under Section 98 of the Criminal Code following the 'riot'.

Two year later Evans attempted to unionize the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company in Trail, B.C. in 1937, eventually establishing Local 480 of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union in Trail. In 1937 he also led a campaign for a Medical Fund to support the Canadian MacKenzie Papineau Battalion fighting for the freedom of Spain. In the 1940s he was a shop steward of the Amalgamated Shipwrights. He died on February 13, 1944 from injuries after being struck by a car. He was buried in Ocean View Park cemetery. His widow Ethel Jean Evans, who married Evans in 1920, died in Vancouver on May 31, 1965 and was buried near her husband.


Man Along the Shore: History of the Vancouver waterfront and the Canadian Area, International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU Local 500 Pensioners, 1975) Two printings.

"Work and Wages"! A Semi-Documentary Account of the Life and Times of Arthur H. (Slim) Evans 1890-1944 Carpenter, Miner, Labor Leader (Trade Union Research Bureau, 1977), co-written with Jean Sheils.

Gabriel Dumont and the Saskatchewan Rebellion of 1885 (Moscow: Progress Books, 1980). Published in Russian only.

The Fraser Institute (Centre for Socialist Education, 1984) Two printings.

The Tory Budget (Centre for Socialist Education, 1985)

Brother Can You Spare a Billion? The Politics of Corporate Concentration in Canada. (Centre for Socialist Education, 1987)

1968-1993 COPE: Working for Vancouver (Committee of Progressive Electors, 1993). With John Church, Elaine Decker and Gary Onstad.

What's New: Memoirs of a Socialist Idealist (Trafford 2008). aka A Prairie Marxist's Memoir. Edited by Geoff Meggs.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2012]

What's New: Memoirs of a Socialist Idealist
Publisher's Promo (2012)

In this unique and extraordinary memoir, Ben Swankey sums up a lifetime of labour and socialist activism. He begins with a remarkable evocation of his Saskatchewan childhood in the farming community of Herbert. While still a teenager, Swankey hitchhiked and rode the rails to Vancouver, where he came in contact with the unemployed movement and made a lifelong commitment to socialism. This decision brought him into the Young Communist League and the Communist Party as an organizer in the massive protests that shook Alberta during the Depression, particularly the Edmonton Hunger March in 1932. He mobilized support for the On to Ottawa Trek, worked with Crow’s Nest miners and ultimately was interned during the Second World War for his political beliefs. What’s New gives unique first person accounts of these remarkable periods in Canadian history. After service in the Canadian artillery following his release from internment, Swankey became leader of the Labour-Progressive Party in Alberta before moving to Burnaby, BC with his family, in 1957. Here he began an entirely new career as a labour writer and policy analyst. His long, close friendship with Harry Rankin, BC’s crusading labour lawyer and long-time city councillor, gave him an unparalleled perspective on the labour and political life of the province. Swankey remained active into his 80s, working with the Council of Canadians and BC seniors’ organizations to defend and expand our Medicare system. This is the life story of a unique Canadian.


In an email to the Georgia Straight, Geoff Meggs recalled:

"I met Ben in the 1980s when I was editor of The Fisherman, the newspaper of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union. I helped him edit a booklet on the Fraser Institute that summarized that organization's roots and policies just as Bill Bennett's Social Credit government sought to implement them in a legislative blitzkrieg after the 1983 election. The resulting political confrontation spawned Operation Solidarity and brought the province to the brink of a general strike. Ben planned a first run of about 1,000 copies of the little book, but demand was immediate and insatiable. It was reprinted again and again. I believe the final sales exceeded 5,000, evidence of Ben's remarkable sense of timing and his unmatched ability to popularize complex topics in a way average readers welcomed.

"Ben watched the civic election results Saturday night with his grandson, Ben Williams. Vancouver civic politics had been his passion for more than 40 years. Although he never sought the limelight, he was crucial strategist and organizer in the early days of COPE, serving as Harry Rankin's right-hand man in his long campaign to become COPE's first elected councillor. A gifted researcher, author and teacher, Swankey was the author of most of Rankin's weekly columns on politics and the economy, which had a wide circulation in the labour press. Ben was a lifelong socialist who never allowed himself to become intellectually complacent or ideologically hidebound. His autobiography, published in 2004, was called 'what's new' because he always challenged his audiences to ask 'what's new' in the world around them. He continued teaching and lecturing right into his eighties, most often to labour and working class audiences, encouraging debate, inviting action and instilling hope."


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.

©2008 The Globe and Mail Inc. All Rights Reserved.