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Cuban palm trees under Vancouver’s Lions Gate

September 15, 2014

A memoir of the 1960s Fair Play for Cuba Committees in Western Canada by Felipe Stuart Courneyeur.

Cuba FlagThe attached article portrays a historic encounter between a layer of socialist activists in the Western Canadian labour movement and the Cuban revolution – a creative collaboration that took shape in the Fair Play for Cuba Committees of that region.

The story is told by Felipe Stuart Courneyeur, a central figure in the events that he describes and still, as a militant in Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement, an active partisan of revolutionary Cuba. Felipe provides a unique portrait of the scores of working class activists who identified with Cuba and became its tireless champions in the Canadian and Québécois socialist and labour movement.

Below is the table of contents and a portion of the first chapter. The complete text, fully formatted, is available in the this PDF:

Cuban Palm Trees under Vancouver’s Lions Gate’

Contents

  1. The Vancouver-West Coast FPCC — page 2
  2. The Fair Players on the Prairies — page 7
  3. From the October 1962 missile crisis to the Kennedy assassination — page 10
  4. The Olsons and the FPCCs’ central leadership — page 14
  5. Cuba solidarity work: then and now — page 19
  6. Notes — page 21

Chapter One: The Vancouver-West Coast FPCC

IN THE 1960s the Canadian left mounted a strong defense of the Cuban Revolution through the launching and construction of Fair Play for Cuba Committees (FPCC) in major Canadian cities. The Toronto FPCC was the first to launch, in February 1961, and became the “national” organizing centre for the pan-Canadian initiative. The two principal leaders of the Canadian FPCC were Vernel (or Verne as we knew him) and Anne Olson.1

Vancouver was not far behind. In March 1961 Cuba solidarity enthusiasts formed a Vancouver-Lower Mainland and West Coast FPCC Chapter. It brought together prominent Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)/New Democratic Party (NDP) left wing leaders and MPs and MLAs, CCF and Communist Party (CPC) trade unionists, and left wing members of the CCF-NDP youth (Young CCF-NDY), including the author of this memoir.2 Bob Horne and Ruth Bullock, both leading members of the Socialist Information Centre-League for Socialist Action,3 were the two key get-up-and-goers in locating and recruiting potential collaborators. In the fall of 1961 Cedric Cox, one of CCF-NDP MLAs, representing the double seat of Burnaby riding, took on the volunteer job of chairing the FPCC.

Felipe Stuart Courneyeur

Felipe Stuart Courneyeur

The same meeting that ratified Cox as Chair elected me as Secretary,4 replacing Ken Orchard who was no longer able to continue on our executive because he had to take a job out of town. Vice-Chair Hugh Clifford, a well-known left anarcho-socialist West Vancouver artist and local CCF provincial candidate, served as Vice Chair. Other executive members included Ruth Bullock, a leader of the League for Socialist Action, and Dorothy Steeves, the legendary “feminist-before-her-time” CCF MLA in the forties and early fifties and biographer of BC CCF founder Ernest Winch.6

Ruth had played an indispensable role not just as the midwife of the local FPCC’s birth, but also in enabling it to survive a potentially injurious split when the Communist Party withdrew its members from the FPCC and formed the Vancouver Canada-Cuba Friendship Association – CCFA).7 Ruth and her life partner Reg Bullock, a prominent North Shore dry docks unionist and CCF Provincial Organizer during the Second World War, were mainly responsible for winning Angus MacPhee and Orville Braaten, two key leaders of the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite, and Paper Mill Workers union;8 Jerry LeBourdais, a leader of the BC Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union; and Nancy LeBourdais, Jerry’s wife and a CCF activist to the FPCC.

All those mentioned in this paragraph were active members of the Prince Rupert (MacPhee) or the North Vancouver CCF-NDP, and both MacPhee and Braaten had run as CCF-NDP candidates in provincial elections in Prince Rupert and North Vancouver. The three union leaders travelled to Cuba in July 1961 as part of a controversial union delegation mandated by the annual convention of the BC Federation of Labour.9

The Canadian left in the late 1950s-early 1960s

Cuban Palm Trees-title page onlyThe Canadian left in the late 1950s-early 1960s had been deeply troubled and weakened by three powerful interrelated political phenomena. The first was the rise of McCarthyism and state sponsored repression against the left, the labour movement, and the Black movement against racial segregation in the USA. The launching of the Cold War against the Soviet block and its global anti-Communist crusade undercut the appeal of the left in North America.

The second was the postwar economic boom, the longest period of sustained growth and expansion in the history of capitalism. Most socialists, especially we Marxists, had predicted the opposite course for the postwar period – economic crises on the scale of the 1930s depression.

The third development was the deep-going crisis in the Communist Party of Canada brought about by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s criminal terror regime at the 20th Congress of the Soviet CP in 1956, and the subsequent suppression by Moscow of the Hungarian workers’ uprising that same year. The Canadian CP suffered a deep split both in its ranks and central leadership, including most of its Jewish supporters, who reeled under the revelations of the systematic persecution of their brothers and sisters in the Stalinized USSR.

The combined impact of these three developments was to push the left into a period of ideological disruption and confusion, political retreat, and lack of confidence in our future prospects.

First rains after a long drought

The Cuban Revolution’s victory in 1959 came like the first rains after a long drought. Its message of hope and courage reached Canada and the left, especially the CCF left wing. Many Marxist-oriented workers and intellectuals who had been disillusioned and embittered by the disaster of Stalinism, as revealed at the 20th CPSU Congress, found new hope in Cuba. Young anti-imperialist rebels led that revolution. They carried no Stalinist baggage from their past; no skeletons crowded their attics and closets.

And what cool, smooth, superb communicators! Fidel Castro’s April 1961 declaration of the socialist character and aims of Cuba’s revolution sparked even greater interest and motivated many to commit time and money to the FPCC’s solidarity work. Books like Listen Yankee by the U.S. left sociologist C. Wright Mills10 and Sartre on Cuba by the leading French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre11 became best sellers not just through the FPCCs, but in many bookstores and university outlets across the country.

The BC FPCC membership was always well above 200. I did not have to pummel people to keep their dues paid up. Our BC membership included prominent CCF-NDP MPs like Colin Cameron (Nanaimo), Bert Herridge (Kootenay-West MP), Skeena MP Frank Howard, Nanaimo MLA Dave Stupich, and Cranbrook MLA Leo Nimsick.12

Prominent trade unionists helped to found the BC Committee, and quite a number continued their support despite the phased defection of pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing CPC adherents, and their subsequent launching of two rival “Canada-Cuba Friendship” associations or societies.

Our main union support came from the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers, led by Prince Rupert-based socialist, Angus MacPhee. The IBPSPMW newspaper, co-edited by Orville Braaten and the well-known CCF left-winger Margaret Erickson, also a FPCC activist, became the FPCC’s voice in the labour movement. Our at-large members in Powell River, Ocean Falls, Port Alberni, and Prince Rupert were mostly IBPSPMW local members or local CCF activists, usually both.

Our informal Abbotsford-Chilliwack group was brought together by a farmer-academic and University of BC (UBC) Professor of Slavonic Studies, Michael V. Kournosoff (MVK). This compañero (comrade) was an exquisitely refined intellectual whose ancestors were White Russian aristocrats who had fled the 1917 Russian October revolution via China and British-occupied Hong Kong. They ended up in Vancouver, Canada, and bought a farm in the fertile Fraser Valley just east of Abbotsford. MVK was very helpful in lending his academic credentials to the FPCC when we moved to set up a campus group at UBC. MVK also helped FPCC supporters on the Prairies to get appropriate Canadian agricultural aid and technology into Cuba.13

MVK, the intellectual doctor of Slavonic Studies, despised Stalinism. But he knew deep down that Russia’s two revolutions in February and October 1917 (Orthodox calendar) had been necessary and unavoidable. The Russian Revolution was not the same thing as its bureaucratic and parasitic nemesis (the Terror in the 1930s) any more than a youth’s body is identical to its cancerous degeneration two decades later in life. Part of MVK’s keen interest in Cuba’s Fidelista rebellion was to explore and assess that revolution’s non-Stalinist roots and outlook. Any revolution that could produce a declaration such as “Man and Socialism in Cuba”14 – the electrifying letter from Major Ernesto Che Guevara to Carlos Quijano, editor of the Montevideo weekly magazine Marcha (the FPCC circulated it in English, French and Spanish editions) – was bound to attract people of the intellectual integrity and thorough going humanism that MVK brought to us.15

The West Coast FPCC attracted a lot of footloose artists, poets, novelists, and heretics. One eccentric who stands out in my memory as our most successful literature distributor and saleswoman is Dorothy Cameron. She was married to the Nanaimo and the Islands CCF-NDP MP and left wing leader Colin Cameron. Dorothy’s day job was with the mobile van division of the Nanaimo and North Island Public Library System. Covering the whole North Island including Port Alberni, she stuffed the van with FPCC pamphlets and a selection of lending items about Cuba. No one could top her record as the top pamphlet seller for the BC FPCC….

For the complete text and notes, see

Cuban Palm Trees under Vancouver’s Lions Gate

From → Canada, Cuba, History

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