David Lewis: founder of the CCF party
David Lewis, influenced by his upbringing in a Russian shtetl and his father’s involvement with an anti-communist socialist movement, helped shape Canada’s political landscape as we know it today.
Lewis, born Losz in 1909, grew up in what is now Belarus. Lewis’ father, Moishe, was involved with the Jewish Labour Bund, a socialist party that called for equality for all, and national rights for Jews.
His father’s vocal opposition to the Bolsheviks landed him in jail and prompted the family to move to Montreal in 1921.
After Lewis graduated from a Montreal high school, he enrolled at Mcgill University, studying arts and law. When he won a Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford in 1932, he lead the Young People’s Socialist League and gave lectures sponsored by the anti-communist socialist club.
Throughout his scholarship at Oxford, he established contacts with socialists in the British Labour Party and by the time he graduated in 1935, he was offered a candidacy in a safe seat in the British House of Commons, and was even groomed by a Labour Party official to be prime minister.
Lewis ultimately opted to return to Mon- treal to help build the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a predecessor to the New Democratic Party. In 1935, he became the CCF’S national secretary.
Lewis first ran for the CCF in the 1940 federal election in York West and lost, but the party asked him to run in a 1943 byelection. Lewis suffered another hard-fought loss, and it took him many years to recover.
In 1950, Lewis resigned as the CCF’S national secretary – although he remained on the national executive until 1954 – and he moved to Toronto to practice law. He became the chief legal adviser to the United Steelworkers(usw).hisinvolvementwith the USW led to the creation of the Canadian Labour Congress in 1956.
He was elected to become CCF’S national chairman in 1954, and was instrumental in the drafting and passing of the Winnipeg Declaration in 1956, which meant CCF’S economic policies would include capitalism, under strict government regulation.
In 1958, Lewis was elected party president at a Montreal convention, and by 1961, the CCF became the NDP, with Tommy Douglas taking the reins as leader.
But just two days after the NDP’S founding convention, Douglas insisted that Lewis run in the following election, and he did.
One of the biggest challenges Lewis would have to overcome to win the election was to obtain the Jewish vote.
Lewis, a secular Jew who opposed the founding of the State of Israel, was seen by many in the community as an outsider. In spite of this, he managed to secure the Jewish vote and in 1962, Lewis was elected in York South, and finally became an MP.
In 1963, after the defeat of Diefenbaker’s minority government, Lewis lost his seat, but was re-elected in 1968 and became NDP leader after Douglas lost his seat.
Lewis, who led the NDP through the 1972 federal election, is perhaps best remembered for referring to Canadian corporations as “corporate welfare bums.”
In the 1974 election, Lewis lost his seat, and he resigned as party leader in 1975.
Lewis went on to become a Carleton University professor, and even a travel correspondent for the Toronto Star.
He was appointed to the highest level of the Order of Canada for his contributions to social reform in Canada and has a public school in Scarborough named after him.
Following a years-long battle with cancer, Lewis died in 1981, leaving his legacy to his children and grandchildren.
His son Stephen Lewis, is a former Ontario NDP leader who served as the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. His other son, Michael Lewis, was a former Ontario NDP secretary, and his daughter, Janet Solberg, was president of the Ontario NDP in the 1980s. His other twin daughter is Nina Libeskind, the wife and business partner of architect Daniel Libeskind. His grandson Avi Lewis, is a broadcaster.