Ed Finn: still fighting the good fight after all these years

A tireless warrior since 1942 on the progressive left in Canada


Ottawa (5 May 2008) - If anyone qualifies as a tireless warrior on the left of Canadian politics, it is surely Ed Finn, activist, unionist, writer, author, journalist and, half a century ago, newspaper publisher and political leader.

A native of Newfoundland, where he locked horns early in life with the authoritarian government of Joey Smallwood, Finn was born in Spaniard's Bay in 1926 and grew up in Corner Brook, where his father went to work at the Bowater's paper mill in the 1930s. Still going strong, Finn will celebrate his 82nd birthday on June 4.

He is currently editor of The CCPA Monitor, the monthly journal of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a job he took after "compulsory retirement" forced him to leave the Canadian labour movement at age 65. He has been with the CCPA for the past 15 years and calls it "the best job I've ever had."

Now more than 66 years in the labour force, he spends his days analyzing, exposing, and debunking the doctrine of neo-liberalism, the relentless force that seeks to shift control of the global economy from public to private hands.

The CCPA recently published the third in a trio of Finn books, distilled from his many essays in the Monitor. The publication is entitled The Right is Wrong and the Left Is Right - Cutting through the Neoliberal Bafflegab. The first two volumes in the series were Under Corporate Rule and Who Do We Try to Rescue Today? - [Order directly from the CCPA]

The articles in Finn's new book cover a broad range of interconnected issues as the titles of various sections of the book suggest: Truth or Propaganda?, Democracy or Plutocracy?, Equality or Inequality?, Public Health or Private Wealth?, Free Trade or Fair Trade?, and Ecological Collapse or Global Renewal?

"This is an anthology that anyone concerned about the problems of the present or prospects for the future will find informative and provocative," the CCPA says. "You may not agree with all of Ed Finn's views – it would be surprising if you did – but you will almost certainly find them stimulating, clearly written, and well worth pondering."

The Newfoundland loggers' strike

Finn's long service on the left, and his lifelong dedication to social justice, can be traced back to his days as a newspaper editor during the landmark Newfoundland loggers' strike of 1958-59, a fight for better wages and working conditions.

"It was such a heated and emotionally charged labour dispute that journalistic objectivity was simply not tolerated," he recalls in one of several personal essays included in the book.

"As with George Bush post-9/11, you were either with the paper companies and the government, or you were with a gang of mainland union thugs, which was how the International Woodworkers' of America (IWA) leaders were unfairly depicted."

Smallwood was a ruthless premier. He ensured management would win by introducing legislation to strip the IWA of its legal right to bargain on behalf of the loggers and by using the police to bait loggers on the picket lines. Violence flared and the strike was crushed.

Finn, who was editor at the time of the Western Star in Corner Brook, tried to cover the dispute objectively but was ordered by the newspaper's owners to report only the company and government side. Rather than comply, he quit along with three others, Tom Cahill, Tom Buck and Alex Powell. All four were effectively blacklisted from working in journalism anywhere on the island.

For a period of about a year, Finn and two close friends, the late Malcolm (Mac) Maclaren and Harold Horwood, started their own newspaper, a tabloid called The Newfoundland Examiner. It was dedicated to exposing government corruption and corporate wrongdoing and quickly attracted a following. Labour contributed financially but the paper was shunned from the beginning by the business community and government. It folded when it could not attract enough advertising to survive.

Finn's principled stand as a journalist did not go unnoticed. He was hired by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and persuaded to lead the Newfoundland Democratic Party, a movement that sprang to life in the wake of the loggers' strike. The party became the first provincial wing of the federal New Democratic Party, which was then being formed by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the CLC. Finn's CLC staff salary was paid primarily with money left over from the loggers' national strike fund.

'First NDP leader'

Two decades later, Tommy Douglas was asked at a health care conference sponsored by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) if he could identify "the first leader of the first ever NDP party in Canada." The person asking the question was Derek Fudge, now national director of policy development and liaison for NUPGE.

"I always thought it was me," Douglas replied.

Then the memory of the former NDP leader lighted up. "I know you," he told Fudge. Douglas recalled seeing him as a 10-year-old boy riding up and down the elevator at a St. John's hotel during a Newfoundland political conference in the 1960s. Fudge's father, Baxter, then a CLC representative, had played a prominent role in recruiting Finn as a CLC staffer and provincial party leader.

Douglas laughed. "The party was the Newfoundland Democratic Party," he told Fudge, "and the leader was Ed Finn."

In 1992, Baxter Fudge, a prominent Newfoundland labour leader in his day, was inducted posthumously as a member of the Canadian Labour Hall of Fame. The person submitting his nomination was Ed Finn. Fudge managed all of Finn's political campaigns.

Finn remembers travelling the province with Douglas and being assigned the task of introducing or thanking him at various stops. "Tommy was spellbinding," he recalls. 

Ed Finn – a life on the progressive left1942-46 - Bowater's Newfoundland Pulp and Paper Mill, printing plant1946-54 - Western Star, Corner Brook1955-56 - Montreal Gazette1956-59 - Western Star, Corner Brook1959-63 - Leader of the Newfoundland Democratic Party1960-61 - Publisher and editor, The Newfoundland Examiner1963-80 - Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers (CBRT&GW), Ottawa1968-82 - Labour columnist, Toronto Star1980-91 - Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Ottawa1991-93 - Freelance writer and editor, Ottawa1993-08 - Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ottawa


After outlawing the IWA, Smallwood was miffed enough by the appearance of a new party in Newfoundland to order his labour minister, Charlie Ballam, to run against Finn in the next election, a gamble that nearly failed. When the ballots were counted in Humber West, Finn trailed by fewer than 300 votes, despite extensive gerrymandering of the riding boundaries by Smallwood in advance of the election.

In total, Finn ran in four elections, two federal and two provincial, and was secretly happy at losing them all. "The last thing I really wanted to do was become a politician," he says. "That wasn't my goal in life."

The labour movement

Finn moved to Ottawa in 1963 to begin a new career in the labour movement with Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers (CBRT&GW), a job he held until 1980 when he and three other staffers were dismissed for refusing to open the office mail during a walkout by the union's clerical staff. "We refused to become scabs," he says.

After that he joined the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and remained a member of the union's communications department until mandatory retirement in 1991.

In his spare time, Finn also wrote a weekly labour relations column for The Toronto Star for 14 years – 1968 to 1982 – upsetting labour and corporate leaders about equally along the way. A prolific writer, his articles have appeared in publications, large and small, throughout his life.

Fred Tabachnick, now retired after a long career as national communications director for CUPE, probably knows Finn better than anyone else in the labour movement. They first met in 1969 and worked together for many years, first at the CBRT&GW and later at CUPE.

"Ed is one of the most authentic people you will ever meet," Tabachnick says. "His principles are based solely on improving the human condition. He saves his venom for the written word. In the 40 years I've known him I've never heard him raise his voice in anger. He is the country's best labour journalist – and is often ahead of the curve when it comes to issues that affect working people."

The battle for Medicare

During his years as a political leader in Newfoundland, Finn spent a memorable summer in Saskatchewan in 1962 when a landmark battle to create Canada's first Medicare program was fought and won by Tommy Douglas and his successor as premier, Woodrow Lloyd.

Despite fierce opposition from the combined efforts of the Canadian Medical Association, its American counterpart and corporate allies, the besieged CCF government prevailed.

The tide turned, Finn recalls, when the doctors overplayed their hand, forecasting a turnout of 50,000 people for an anti-Medicare rally at the legislature in Regina. When only a few thousand people turned up, the weakness of the doctors' opposition was exposed and the broad public support that existed for Medicare came to the fore. 

The strike crumbled and the doctors backed down. It was a moment of political triumph with few equals in Canadian history. Finn looks back on it as one of the biggest moments in his life. A few years later Medicare was adopted nationally by Parliament and has benefitted all Canadians ever since.

Today, as much as Finn enjoys working at the CCPA, he may be ready to make one small concession to his age. He is thinking, no more than that so far, of cutting back to part-time work, not to take life easier, but to make time available for personal projects.

One of them, his friends hope, will be writing his colourful memoirs. "I'll have to think about that," he says. "Maybe some day I will." NUPGE