"He had more guts than a slaughterhouse." -- a fellow unionist describing Slim Evans. [Evans pictured at top right; Ben Swankey shown below]

A biographer of On-to-Ottawa trek leader Arthur 'Slim' Evans and Métis commander Gabriel Dumont, Ben Swankey was one of Western Canada's foremost socialist historians and lecturers. Swankey was also one of the three main co-founders of the Vancouver civic political party COPE (the Committee of Progressive Electors) along with Harry Rankin and Frank Kennedy. As a prominent Communist Party candidate in B.C. and Alberta, Swankey was interned during World War II, but then enlisted in the Allies' war effort. Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs edited and produced Swankey's autobiography in 2008. Swankey died at age 98 on November, 22, 2011.

After his parents newly emigrated from Russia, Swankey was born in Steinbach, Manitoba, as Bernhard Schwenke, on September 17, 1913, as the fifth child of Leokadia and Gustav Schwanke. His father initially worked as a railroad labourer and the family lived in Herbert, Saskatchewan. Ben rode the rails at age 14, reaching Washington State one summer, where he worked as a fruit picker. With $10, he hitchhiked from the prairies to Vancouver at age 17.

Soon after his arrival, Swankey became politically radicalized by attending an anti-war rally with his brother, a teacher, at the Cambie Street Grounds in Vancouver. When demonstrators revealed their Communist loyalties, police brutally attacked the crowd. According to Tom Hawthorn's 2012 obituary in the Globe & Mail, Swankey tore off a white picket from a fence at a gas station and struck back. Swankey kept attacking capitalism with words for seven more decades after that.

As oppression against Communist Party members and dissident labour in Canada increased, Ben Swankey became an outspoken 'coalition builder,' raising funds to support striking coal miners at Crowsnest Pass in 1932. He also co-organized and participated in a hunger march in Edmonton that year, an event often cited for the solidification of his radicalism.

Swankey married Olive Senko one day after his 20th birthday, and the couple tried homesteading north of Prince George, but they barely survived one long winter before returning to live in Alberta. Following their divorce, he would remarry to a Winnipeg pianist, Anne Wiseman, during the war years. The couple met after hearing a speech by Communist leader Tim Buck.

In 1940 Ben Swankey, as a Communist, was arrested in Calgary for allegedly pasting anti-war stickers in the streets. This police frame-up failed to win a conviction, but Swankey was re-arrested on the steps of the courthouse as soon as he was released. This time he was arrested under Section 21 or the War Measures Act, without charge or a trial. He was held for a month in a Calgary jail before being sent to Kananaskis Internment Camp south of Canmore, Alberta. There he was sequestered without recourse with other Communists and left-leaning citizens who had been apprehended by the state--and imprisoned along with Nazis.

Swankey was eventually transferred to another internment camp for intellectuals and Communists in Petawawa, Ontario. [The internment camp at Kananaskis is no longer recognizable as a barbed wire compound; it was used in the 1980s as an Environmental Science Centre for the University of Calgary.]

When the Soviet Union joined forces with the Western allies to combat Hitler's Nazi, Swankey was released and he soon enlisted in the Canadian Army. After serving briefly overseas, he became Communist Party leader in Alberta in 1945. He ran in the 1945 federal election in the Alberta riding of Jasper-Edson but received only five per cent of the vote. As the Communist Party had been outlawed, he represented the newly formed Labour-Progressive Party, a euphemism for the Communists. Again he ran federally in 1949 in Edmonton, then in 1953 in Peace River.

In 1957, Ben Swankey moved to Vancouver where he befriended lawyer Harry Rankin, also a World War II veteran. As a journalist, Swankey was editor of various trade union publications. Swankey later became a strong advocate for the Old Age Pensioners Association, fighting to preserve social programs and appearing in the media to defend and affirm seniors' rights. The City of Vancouver declared Ben Swankey Day in 2003 to mark his 90th birthday.

As reported by Tom Hawthorn, Swankey said his Moscow-published biography of the Métis military leader Gabriel Dumont, for which he could find no publisher in Canada, sold 50,000 copies in its Russian-only version. Swankey remained committed to social justice even during his final years in a Burnaby care facility where he had the newspaper read to him daily. In Hawthorn's words, he remained "engaged and outraged."

Ben Swankey's many pamphlets include Keep Canada Out of the OAS (Vancouver: Canadian-Cuban Friendship Society, 1963), Native Identity or Cultural Genocide: A Reply to Ottawa's New Indian Policy (Toronto: Progress Books, 1970), What Great Depression? (Gravenhurst Ontario: Northern Neighbours, 1971), Native Land Claims (Progress Books, 1980), The Two Faces of Vander Zalm (Centre for Socialist Education, 1986, two printings) and From Our Pockets to Theirs: An Analysis of the Federal Budget (1989).


Equally important, with Jean Shiels, the daughter of Arthur Evans, Ben Swankey compiled and wrote the most integral book about the organizer and leader of the On To Ottawa Trek of the summer of 1935, Arthur H. 'Slim' Evans.

Born on April 24, 1890 in Toronto, Slim Evans left school at age 13 to help support the family. He sold newspapers, drove a team of horses and learn the carpentry trade. Evans came west in 1911, working at various jobs on the prairies, before gravitating from Winnipeg to Minneapolis. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Kansas City for participating in an IWW free speech, having read aloud the Declaration of Independence at a rally. "All I did was read it. I was too shy and too nervous at that time to make up any speech of my own." He was released in 1912 after he led a jail strike of political prisoners. In 1913 he was present at the Ludlow Massacre and was hospitalized with leg wounds. He fraternized with such labour 'greats' as 'Big Bill' Haywood, Frank Little and Joe Hill. He was working in Kimberley, B.C. as a miner when the IWW (International Workers of the World) was formed. As an IWW organizer, he led the OBU coal miners in their strike at Drumheller, Alberta in 1919-1920 and was sentenced to three years in prison for his efforts, allegedly because he used United Mineworkers funds to fund a wildcat strike without permission. At the time he was sub-district secretary of the United Mine Workers of America. Labour historians allege he was 'framed' by the John L. Lewis union machine. As an organizer for the Communist Party in B.C., he was expelled for fighting the corrupt union leadership of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in Vancouver. In 1932 he organized the National Unemployed Workers Association and won increased rates for relief work. Having helped the coal miners of Princeton strike for higher wages, he was imprisoned for 18 months in Oakalla after police worked in collusion with the Ku Klux Klan to frame him. Authorities took punitive actions against his family in Vancouver, evicting them from the house Evans built at 17 East 42nd Avenue when he unable to pay the mortgage. Unionists protested and demanded his release.

To protest the welfare of unemployed single men in Prime Minister R.B. Bennett's 'slave camps' in the early 1930s, Evans conceived the most substantial labour protest in Canada's history, the On To Ottawa Trek. Men frustrated with earning $5 per month for their labour were rallied by the likes of Evans to ride the rails, 40 to 50 men atop a boxcar, towards Ottawa. By the time this delegation to Ottawa reached 2,000-strong, R.B. Bennett ordered them stopped in Regina. RCMP and Regina City Police were instructed to arrest the Trek leaders. Police armed with clubs, tear guns and guns broke up an open air meeting between trekkers and Regina citizens on July 1, 1935. Regina police shot into the crowd but remarkably nobody was killed. Evans was chairman of the delegation that was invited to Ottawa to discuss the situation with R.B. Bennett. When the Prime Minister called him a thief, Evans said on July 22, 1935, "Bennett, you're a liar!" He was charged under Section 98 of the Criminal Code following the 'riot'.

Two year later Evans attempted to unionize the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company in Trail, B.C. in 1937, eventually establishing Local 480 of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union in Trail. In 1937 he also led a campaign for a Medical Fund to support the Canadian MacKenzie Papineau Battalion fighting for the freedom of Spain. In the 1940s he was a shop steward of the Amalgamated Shipwrights. He died on February 13, 1944 from injuries after being struck by a car. He was buried in Ocean View Park cemetery. His widow Ethel Jean Evans, who married Evans in 1920, died in Vancouver on May 31, 1965 and was buried near her husband.


Man Along the Shore: History of the Vancouver waterfront and the Canadian Area, International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU Local 500 Pensioners, 1975) Two printings.

"Work and Wages"! A Semi-Documentary Account of the Life and Times of Arthur H. (Slim) Evans 1890-1944 Carpenter, Miner, Labor Leader (Trade Union Research Bureau, 1977), co-written with Jean Sheils.

Gabriel Dumont and the Saskatchewan Rebellion of 1885 (Moscow: Progress Books, 1980). Published in Russian only.

The Fraser Institute (Centre for Socialist Education, 1984) Two printings.

The Tory Budget (Centre for Socialist Education, 1985)

Brother Can You Spare a Billion? The Politics of Corporate Concentration in Canada. (Centre for Socialist Education, 1987)

1968-1993 COPE: Working for Vancouver (Committee of Progressive Electors, 1993). With John Church, Elaine Decker and Gary Onstad.

What's New: Memoirs of a Socialist Idealist (Trafford 2008). aka A Prairie Marxist's Memoir. Edited by Geoff Meggs.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2012]