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Humble Word Warrior – A Book Review

January 15, 2014

Legendary Canadian labour journalist Ed Finn pens his memoirs

Ed Finn coverAfter being prodded, cajoled,  and possibly even guilted into it by people like me, Ed Finn has finally published his memoirs. Who’s Ed Finn? some of you might ask. Fair question…if you haven’t been observing Canadian left politics for the past 70 years. For that long, Finn has served as a tireless journalistic voice of the left and the labour movement.

Since he retired back in the early 1990s from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), he’s been senior editor at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The CCPA is a progressive think tank and research centre that was created back in the 1970s to counter the right-wing propaganda that was masquerading as social and economic research at the Fraser Institute.

But that’s just the latest phase of Finn’s long and highly productive life. At 87, he’s finally retired from the CCPA as well, but I’m guessing he’ll still keep hammering out more of the great left-labour journalism that we count on.

Finn has been a powerful influence since his days as a columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily, where his writing introduced me and a lot of other fledgling trade union communicators to hard-nosed research journalism. He also emboldened us with his fearless swipes at anyone who was doing damage to working people and that included labour leaders on occasion.

When he was editor of Canadian Transport, an organ of the Canadian Brotherhood of Transport and General Workers (CBRT) and one of the best union newspapers ever produced in Canada, I had the privilege of writing for him once in a while. It was an experience that was probably akin to a new journalism school graduate getting published in the New York Times or the Toronto Globe and Mail, only for me it was better because Finn was one of my heroes.

We shared a goal that most, if not all, mainstream publications don’t: we wanted to improve the world not just report on it. That’s what Finn has done throughout most of his long working life. He’s worked hard to make the world a better place.

From his start as a reporter and then editor of the Western Star in his hometown of Corner Brook, Newfoundland, he’s been on the side of the workers. When a loggers’ strike occurred in 1959, Finn ran up against the newspaper’s owners who wanted him to report only the logging company’s side of the story.

Interestingly, Finn wasn’t trying to be particularly radical. He just thought that the Star should adhere to that old journalistic principle of reporting both sides of the story. The owners disagreed and he respectfully resigned.

He went from journalism to becoming leader of the Newfoundland Democratic Party and that led to confrontations with then premier Joey Smallwood, the so-called last father of Confederation. Finn battled with him on the hustings, running for election twice provincially. He also ran twice federally.

Following his short stint in politics, he went to work for Tommy Douglas, the New Democratic Party leader who was later called the father of medicare and voted the most popular Canadian in history. In the 1970s, he supported a group called the Waffle that was challenging the NDP leadership for abandoning its earlier socialist principles. He also joined a labour offshoot of the Waffle called the Pancake. The name wasn’t Finn’s idea but it could have been for he has a great talent for humour, especially puns some of which are in the book.

Throughout his career, Finn has been an excellent political essayist and several of his best are attached to various chapters covering the many facets of his life. In fact, Finn’s career spanned such a long period and involved so many organizations, public personalities and important issues that an index would not have gone amiss.

As he had done at the Star, he also stayed true to his union principles when a group of office workers at the now defunct CBRT were locked out in 1981. Finn and his senior union management colleagues refused to cross their picket lines and they paid the price. The leadership turned  fired Finn and the others, but it didn’t take him long to find another post. CUPE quickly hired him and he stayed there until he took mandatory retirement at age 65. It was CCPA’s luck, CUPE’s loss.

It wasn’t the first time CUPE had missed an opportunity where Finn is concerned. He had applied for a job with new union back in 1963, the year it was founded. The two top leaders called him in for an interview and offered him the job. He was the sole candidate and could have been the first national public relations director of what became Canada’s largest union. But that wasn’t meant to be.

When he was interviewed by one of the national officers, he was told that if he took the job he would have to be loyal to only him. When he crossed the hall to be interviewed by the other national officer, he heard the same message. He wisely decided to turn it down.

There is much more in this honest and often humble personal remembrance of a life full of accomplishments that benefitted the labour movement and the left in Canada and much of it is presented with Finn’s infectious sense of humour. Here we read of his growing up Catholic in Newfoundland, of receiving an honourary degree from Memorial University, of being appointed to the board of the Bank of Canada, of his time as a reporter in Montreal, of his contributions to the defunct Labour Gazette, and of his family life.

Finn was the fastest two-finger typist I had ever seen and it still took him 87 years to finally render his fascinating life between book covers. I know there are many who have been touched in some way, as I have been, by his long and steadfast contribution to educating us all about unions and the important role they continue to play.

Frankly, I don’t believe we’ve seen the last of this octogenarian as he signs off…for now. I happen to know that Finn, in his few leisure moments over the years, became an expert in ancient Roman history.

I wouldn’t be surprised if spouse Dena hears the clacking of computer keys someday soon as he tackles his own history of that empire or some other empire that deserves a knowing smack from this fine example of a Canadian word warrior.

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