On June 15, 1944 the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), led by the dynamic Tommy Douglas, won Saskatchewan to form North America's first socialist government. The party that had begun as a social welfare movement changed the tone of Canadian government.

The story of the CCF began during the Great Depression. The stock market crash of 1929 and a lengthy drought devastated the economy. Neither Prime Minister Mackenzie King and his Liberals nor R.B. Bennett and the Conservative Opposition were inclined to do anything, believing that the economic crisis required no extraordinary measures. Both parties suggested changing the Canadian market through tariffs, leaving the provinces to handle the social problems caused by the economic collapse.

In the 1930 election, Bennett's Conservatives emerged as the surprising victor. Bennett maintained the "self-made man's attitude to social distress: self-help was better than public assistance.” He soon became the target of intense dislike by Canadians who needed tangible help, not sermons, to cope with their hardship.

As Bennett's government failed to restore the nation's prosperity and the Depression ground on, unrest grew across the country. One effect of the disintegrating Conservative government was "the emergence of new, unorthodox political movements.” One of these was the CCF, founded in Calgary in 1932 by a coalition of farmers, academics and Ottawa MPs associated with farmer and trade-union organizations. They produced the "Regina Manifesto” in 1933, calling for the creation of a political vehicle that would rescue Canada from the Depression.

The Manifesto promised unemployment and health insurance, public housing, agricultural price supports, laws to protect farmers from creditors and public ownership of major industries and financial institutions. Its first leader was J.S. Woodsworth, a sensitive man and devout Christian who held strong opinions on helping the less fortunate.

Woodsworth challenged the division between rich and poor and questioned Canada's immigration policy and those who tolerated treating immigrants like commodities, "as cheap labour.” His intense interest in social problems led him to speak out about individual cases. In 1909 he wrote a letter to the Manitoba Free Press about a "little foreign girl” he had seen living in filth in a North Winnipeg tenement, asking if anyone could help her. The little girl lived in deplorable conditions, her family sharing one bed, which doubled as table and chairs, and in which she languished with horrible open sores on her body. Woodsworth blamed conditions in the slums on the businessmen and politicians who created North Winnipeg and the "society people, our church people” who "obtain in some cases, double the legitimate rentals” for the tenements.

Tommy Douglas standing under a CCF billboard shortly after his election, with C.M. Fines and Clarence Gillis (courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board).

The CCF quickly became established in Canadian politics, electing its members to provincial legislatures and Parliament. WWII hastened the party's shift from social welfare to political action. At the beginning of the war, the CCF was split between supporters of Woodsworth, who believed that war solved nothing and only distracted people from important social problems, and those who supported Canada's entry into the war.

M.J. Coldwell, favouring Canada's participation in the conflict, succeeded Woodsworth as leader. Under his guidance the party flourished. In 1942 the CCF won the York South by-election and in 1943 held enough seats to form the Opposition in Ontario. The following year the party in Saskatchewan formed North America's first socialist government.

King and his party responded to the CCF's success by adopting some of the party's most popular policies, cutting off "the threat on the left” and initiating the federal government's involvement in social and economic affairs. The Liberals hoped to prevent a post-war Depression and in the process laid the foundation for Canada's welfare state. To the Old Age Pension plan, they added an unemployment-insurance scheme (1940) and a system of family allowances (1944). They also promoted policies to support home building, find work for demobilized war vets and increase federal assistance to health care.

After the war, the CCF declined in popularity, accused of being associated with communism. Cold War tension made it a ruinous comparison. In 1956 the party replaced the Regina Manifesto with the more moderate Winnipeg Declaration, to no avail. The CCF suffered a devastating defeat in 1958.

Although the CCF never held national power, the adoption of many of its policies propelled Canada's evolution into a social democracy with universal social programs, strong union movement and a state committed to creating jobs and eliminating regional disparities. The CCF became the NDP in 1961.