Key architect of Canada’s social democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and its successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP), David Lewis (1907–1981) left an indelible mark on Canadian politics.
Lewis’ political involvement can be traced to his father, Moishe Lewis , who led the local Bund (Jewish socialist party) in the shtetl of Svisloch (in present-day Belarus). After immigrating to Montreal in 1921, Lewis worked in his uncle’s clothing factory, teaching himself English during school and work breaks.
At McGill University, Lewis was sought after as a skilled debater and writer and was one of the first Jewish students awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. Completing his postsecondary studies at Oxford University, he became inspired by Britain’s Labour Party, returning home to implement a Canadian version of social democracy. Lewis’ bold visions were evident at a scholarship assessment interview with Sir Edward Beatty, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). When asked what his first action would be if elected Prime Minister, Lewis promptly replied, “I’d nationalize the CPR.”
In 1935, Lewis turned down an offer to work in the British Parliament, instead obtaining a law degree in Ottawa where he became national secretary of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) (1936–1950). His political career attracted attention in 1943 when he lost to his communist competitor, Fred Rose of the Labour Progressive Party, for Montreal’s Cartier riding.
Lewis’ work in furthering Canada’s social democratic cause led to correspondence with political leaders and union heads involved in Montreal’s labour struggles. A fierce critic of communism, Lewis relied on his brief experience as a labour lawyer to encourage union members to transfer their support to social democracy. His Make This Your Canada: A Review of C.C.F. History and Policy (1943) was a surprisingly popular history of his party’s policy statements advocating for state control of the economy.
Considered more “controversial” than his predecessor, Tommy Douglas, Lewis finally won a seat in Parliament in 1962–1963 and again in 1965–1974 in Toronto's York South, despite difficulty in convincing the well-off Jews of the district that an atheist who was not a Zionist and had socialist inclinations would represent them well in Parliament. His commitment to the CCF’s socialist mandate facilitated the emergence of its successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961, with Lewis at its head a decade later. The only Jew to lead a national party in Canada, Lewis campaigned against “corporate welfare bums” and paved the way for parliamentary acceptance of acts including affordable housing. After losing the 1974 election, David Lewis became a travel correspondent and professor in Ottawa, where he died in 1981.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky
Avakumovič, Ivan. Socialism in Canada: a Study of the CCF-NDP in Federal and Provincial Politics. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978.
Scholarships Douglas-Coldwell Foundation.
King, Joe, and Johanne Schumann. From the Ghetto to the Main: the Story of the Jews of Montreal. Montréal: Montreal Jewish Publication Society, 2000.
King, Joe. Fabled City: the Jews of Montreal . Montreal: Price-Patterson, 2009.
Lewis, David, and F. R. Scott. Make This Your Canada; a Review of C.C.F. "History and Policy,". Toronto: [Central Canada Pub.], 1943.
Lewis, David. The Good Fight: Political Memoirs 1909-1958 . Toronto, Canada: Macmillan of Canada, 1981.
Smith, Cameron. Unfinished Journey: the Lewis Family . Toronto: Summerhill, 1989.
Tulchinsky, Gerald. Branching Out: the Transformation of the Canadian Jewish Community. Toronto, Canada: Stoddart, 1998.
*Images courtesy of Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives.