Editing Modernism in Canada


January 25, 2011

Eight Men Silenced

In his preface to the original publication of  Eight Men Speak, Ed Cecil-Smith asked “why are the Canadian authorities afraid of this play?” The answer then was obvious: it was a visible incarnation of an invisible and banned party, played at a public rally where the hero, Tim Buck, could only be present in the body of an actor-avatar. (It was, if I may digress, a bit of an embarrassment for the party officials that the actor chosen to incarnate  Buck spoke with a pronounced Yiddish accent). The Communist Party had recently been hijacked by the Stalinist faction led by Buck (and prominent in his cadre of young radical supporters was his publicist and biographer Oscar Ryan, initiator and co-author of Eight Men Speak.) In 1934, only 17 years after the revolution in the USSR, communism promised hope in the misery of the Great Depression. R.B. Bennett was so paranoid about Tim Buck’s affable cult of personality that he would personally phone the managers of venues where Buck was scheduled to speak to express his prime ministerial displeasure.

But that was in another century. Why, we might ask, are Canadian authorities still afraid of this play? While researching  its archival traces this summer I felt, for the first time in my scholarly life, the chill of government suppression. It really is a chill. It’s that wash of adrenalin in the back of the neck that you get when you narrowly avoid a car accident.

There are very  few documentary records of Eight Men Speak other than memories, the text itself and newspaper coverage, most of which was generated by the controversy over the banning of performances in Toronto and Winnipeg. We know from press sources that the Toronto Police Board of Commissioners asked the province to ban the play in January 1934, and sent a detective to take notes at the performance. These notes formed the basis of a report sent to Ottawa. No trace of that report can be found in government records. Nor can we find the detective’s notes. We could however examine the Police Commission minutes. After all, these are public documents. Aren’t they? Most of those minutes are available in the Toronto Archives — except, mysteriously, those that cover 1933-34. Those are still held by the Toronto Police. It took four months and threats of Freedom of Information filing for the police to grant access to the minutes, which prove that the police had decided to have the play banned well in advance of its production. (Why then did they not prevent that production? The logical answer is that they needed to see it once to know how subversive it might be. And maybe to see who turns out to watch it…)

The archival document that concerns me most however is one held by Library and Archives Canada. It is a fond of correspondence between the Post Office and the Soliciter General, determining whether the play could be banned from the post (as it was).  The fond had been restricted in 1934, and as no-one had asked to see it since, I had to request an access review. As they are required to do, LAC sent it to the Ministry of Justice for review. Some months later I received a document of 12 pages. Every word, except for letterhead, dates and signatures, had been redacted. As in, erased. We’re now waiting to hear the results of an appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner. I’ve been told not to hold my breath.

I know this isn’t about Eight Men Speak at all; according to a friend who works as a lawyer in the federal government, the  refusal and redaction of documents is the government-directed default response to any document request. If they can withhold it, they will.

Government censorhip of archival documents, battalions of armed police on the streets, arbitrary arrest of protesters: the world we live and work in today is one that the creators of Eight Men Speak fought to prevent. Why are the Canadian authorities afraid of this play? Maybe because it won’t go away.

2 Responses to “Eight Men Silenced”

  1. Cdoody says:

    And people think academic research is boring!

    Fascinating read. Thanks for sharing, and good luck with the good fight.

  2. kwright says:

    I second that comment: what a fascinating post! The silence speaks for itself in this case.

    As someone who researched some of the Police archives for this project, I can attest to the painful bureaucratic process. When I was finally granted access to the 1933-34 Commissioners Minutes, I was not only watched by a librarian but also specifically told that I could not look at reports itemized under “communism activity.”

    In trying to find Detective Nursey’s notes on the actual performance of Eight Men Speak, my only hope was to befriend the librarians–I had them on speed dial–who then explained how the process worked: they quite consciously shuffled researchers between the two archive buildings (the Toronto Police Museum and the Ontario Archives). Many of the archives also consisted of boxes of unsorted papers that seemed to be randomly sorted by either date, police officer, or type of offense.

    The librarians, however, proved to be quite generous with their time in the end–I was, after all, talking to them on a daily basis–and one librarian even helped to speed up the Freedom of Information’s grant of access (to photocopy the Commissioner’s Reports). For any future researchers, I would recommend this strategy of “relentlessness”: once it is more work for them not to help you, they might just be more willing to find what you’re looking for.

    Another issue with researching the Police records is the change in titles and terms over the years: so, an electronic search would not only need to know the different key terms appropriate to time the reports were made (e.g. “commissioner” versus “chief”), but also the terms that were popular at the time the information was filed. Moreover, I was told that detective’s notebooks are being destroyed every year due to limited library space.

    In short, thanks to the first “blogger” for this update on the Eight Men Speak project! It seems that the research in itself has become a type of drama.

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