Irvine was born at Gletness in Shetland, Scotland, one of twelve siblings in a working-class family. He became a Christian Socialist in his youth, and worked as a Methodist lay preacher. He moved to Canada in 1907 after being recruited for ministerial work by James Woodsworth, the father of future CCF leader J.S. Woodsworth.
Irvine was a follower of the social gospel, and rejected Biblical literalism. He refused to sign the Articles of Faith when ordained as a Methodist minister, claiming that he accepted the ethical but not the supernatural aspects of Christian belief. He was nonetheless accepted into the ministry, and was stationed at Emo in Northern Ontario in 1914. Irvine was accused of heresy the following year by a more conservative church elder, and, while acquitted of the charge, chose to resign his commission. He left the Methodists, and accepted a call to lead the Unitarian Church in Calgary, Alberta in early 1916.
In addition to his work as a Unitarian minister, Irvine became politically active after moving to Alberta. He helped establish an Alberta branch of the radical agrarian Non-Partisan League (NPL) in December 1916, and was an NPL representative at the creation of the Alberta Labor Representation League (LRL) in April 1917. Irvine himself stood as an LRL candidate in the 1917 provincial election, but was defeated in Calgary. He also founded the Nutcracker newspaper in 1916, and oversaw its later transformations to the Alberta Non-Partisan and the Western Independent.
Irvine briefly moved to New Brunswick in 1920, and became a prominent supporter of that province's United Farmers movement during a federal by-election. After returning to Calgary, he helped convince the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) to enter political life. The UFA had previously been divided between members who supported direct political action, and others such as Henry Wise Wood who wanted to remain an agrarian pressure group. The former position was accepted following a series of public debates between Irvine and Wood at UFA meetings, though Wood was successful in restricting the UFA's membership to farmers. Irvine's first book, Farmers in Politics (1920), endorsed the UFA policies of economic co-operation and group government.
He was first elected to the House of Commons in the 1921 federal election as a Dominion Labour Party candidate in Calgary East. Irvine was one of two Labour parliamentarians elected in 1921, and caucused with Winnipeg North Centre MP J.S. Woodsworth, who became one of his closest friends. Defeated in 1925, he was returned for the rural Alberta riding of Wetaskiwin in 1926 as a United Farmers candidate. Despite the change in his party affiliation, he remained a leading ally of Woodsworth and of farmer-labour co-operation. His second book, Co-operative Government, was published in 1929.
|The founding meeting of a new political party, the Co-operative|
Commonwealth Federation (CCF), Calgary, Alberta, 1932.
Women are well represented inthe party that advocated nationalized
health care. Library and Archives Canada, C-029313
According to Margaret Stewart, the embryonic meeting at which several radical MPs decided to found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was held in Irvine's parliamentary office. Irvine later helped bring the UFA parliamentary caucus into the CCF for the 1935 election. He was personally defeated (as were all of the UFA's MPs in that election), losing to a Social Credit candidate. He attempted to re-enter parliament later that year through a by-election in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan but was defeated by former Saskatchewan Premier James Garfield Gardiner.
Irvine remained active in the CCF, becoming the Alberta CCF's first president, and was returned to parliament again in the 1945 election for the British Columbia riding of Cariboo. He served in the CCF caucus for four years, and was defeated in 1949 when the opposition united behind Liberal candidate George Matheson Murray. Irvine made three attempts to return to parliament in the 1950s, but was unsuccessful.
Irvine remained a key figure in the CCF throughout its existence. Toward the end of his life, he called for greater cooperation with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.
The Alberta Non-Partisan (1917-1919), edited by William Irvine, was a political newspaper and the official organ of the Non-Partisan League, an agrarian protest movement seeking a stronger voice for farmers' political interests. For more background on the Non-Partisan League, read Rise to Power, Alberta Online Encyclopedia
1. Anthony Mardiros, The Life of a Prairie Radical, (Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1979), p. 6.
2. Mardiros, pp. 9-11.
3. Mardiros, pp. 19-21, 26-27.4. Mardiros, pp. 56-60.
5. Mardiros, pp. 41, 62, 76.
6. Mardiros, pp. 45-47, 64.
7. Mardiros, p. 67.
8. Mardiros, p. 78.
9. Mardiros, p. 81.
10. Mardiros, pp. 87-90, 102.
11. Mardiros, p. 130.
12. Mardiros, p. 144. Irvine had a very low opinion of Aberhart's ideology and political ambitions.
See also William (Bill) Irvine and The Social Gospel HERE.