The Prairie Populist

George Hara Williams and the Untold Story of the CCF

Reviewed by Brooke Campbell

Posted May 8, 2019

With a federal election on the horizon, politics are at the forefront of many conversations. Adding to the discussion are two recent books that focus on the history of social democracy in Canada.

In The Prairie Populist, University of Regina professor J.F. Conway provides a glimpse of a man who has disappeared from the historical narrative. Conway’s book chronicles the life of George Hara Williams, a radical leader who guided thousands of farmers towards a socialist platform under the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which is now known as the New Democratic Party (NDP).

Conway details how Williams navigated tensions within the party to bring the CCF to the cusp of power in Saskatchewan. The book weaves archival material with personal stories from Williams’ daughter, providing insight and heart to the story of this long-ignored politician.

A complement to the biography of Williams is Party of Conscience, co-edited by historians Roberta Lexier, Stephanie Bangarth, and Jonathan Weier. This collection of essays looks at the broader impact of the CCF and the NDP on Canadian politics, a topic that has been overlooked by historians in favour of studying key players or leaders. The editors explain that they believe it is necessary “to remedy this imbalance and critically examine the place of social democracy in Canadian history and politics.”

Party of Conscience is especially notable for the variety of contributors. Writers include academics as well as people involved in political life, unions, and non-governmental organizations who consider topics such as feminism, war and security, labour relations, and the media.

Together, these two books fill a gap in our understanding of Canada’s social democratic parties. They are important additions to the national conversation about the past, present, and future of Canada’s left.

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This article originally appeared in the June-July 2019 issue of Canada’s History.

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