Prairie Populist, The

22 June 2018

The Prairie Populist: George Hara Williams and the Untold Story of the CCF: An Essay on Radical Leadership in a Time of Crisis and the Victory of Socialist Agrarian Populism, 1921-1944
by J.F. Conway
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$34.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-545-9

The Prairie Populist: George Hara Williams and the Untold Story of the CCF is a scholarly study of a virtually unknown leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, practically forgotten even though George Williams might have become premier of Saskatchewan.

Author John F. Conway bases his biography on a Master’s thesis by Friedrich Steininger and an unpublished manuscript by Muriel Wiens, Williams’ daughter. Conway combines Steininger’s academic approach and Wiens’ personal story with his own massive research, uncovering the hidden history of factions within the party and friction among its leaders, to tell the untold story of the CCF.

In 1917, Williams enlisted in Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment and a year later was wounded in the last cavalry charge of World War I. His fighting spirit continued as a farm and political organizer. As a full-blown socialist, he argued that the only way to defeat the traditional political parties was to commit totally to socialism.

Williams fought hard to stave off organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and Social Credit from encroaching on Saskatchewan. With his keen analytical mind, Conway explains why Social Credit, so popular in Alberta, didn’t take hold in Saskatchewan.

In 1933 Williams organized the first national convention of the CCF in Regina. This convention led to the Regina Manifesto with its controversial line, “No CCF government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism.” No one claimed authorship of this line, but one might speculate that Williams had a hand in it.

Conway points out that Williams willingly bequeathed the leadership of the Saskatchewan socialist movement, which was his for the asking, to M.J. Coldwell. When Williams lost faith in Coldwell’s ability to win elections, he orchestrated his overthrow. Relations between Williams and Tommy Douglas were tense, but as Conway describes it, the rivalry between Williams and Coldwell became nothing short of vicious.

Conway notes that, as leader of Saskatchewan’s official opposition, Williams could see both the big picture and the smallest details, often terrorizing cabinet ministers who knew less about their own departments than Williams did. A radical socialist, Williams wasn’t afraid to go against the grain or take controversial stands, and this alienated many of his contemporaries, especially party leaders, who seethed with vengeance.

Williams was a passionate writer and rousing orator. A reader can almost hear his resounding words ringing off the page when Conway quotes him. Williams had a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue, spewing such biting sarcasm that even his wife once threw a pound of butter at him.

The Prairie Populist: George Hara Williams and the Untold Story of the CCF has an index, bibliography, notes, chronology, and eight black and white photos or illustrations. The endnotes provide thumbnail biographical sketches of Williams’ political contemporaries.

A superb organizer and master strategist, Williams became the architect of socialism in Saskatchewan, bringing farmers en masse into the socialist fold. He may be largely unknown and unremembered, but thanks to Conway’s Prairie Populist, his legacy will never be erased.


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