March 16-31, 2011
Red Travellers: Jeanne Corbin and Her Comrades. This important book by Andrée Lévesque adds to the rich historical study of women who made a profound contribution to the early revolutionary movement, such as Annie Buller, Becky Buhay and Florence Custance, and Canada's first Communist MP, Dorise Nielsen.
Born in 1906 in Cellettes, France, Jeanne Corbin immigrated with her family to Alberta in 1911. There are few biographical details about Corbin's early years, but most of the European immigrants who were lured to "settle" the prairie lands taken from the Indians and Métis faced terrible obstacles in their struggles to overcome poverty.
Seeking to improve her chances in life, Corbin's parents sent her to school in Edmonton at the age of 15. According to Levesque's research, "Beginning in 1922 she had been in contact with certain Communists who were lodging in the same boarding house as she, the Astor House on 103rd Avenue. She became a member of the Young Communist League and, when she turned eighteen, joined the Communist Party. During her last year at Victoria High she was actively involved in organizing the Young Pioneers..." In 1927 and 1928, she took classes at the Party's summer camp in Sylvan Lake, under the direction of Beckie Buhay.
By the time Corbin received her teaching credentials, she was already on an RCMP blacklist. Instead, she became a full-time revolutionary. As Robert Lanning wrote in a 2008 review for People's Voice, before her untimely death, "Corbin had become a model of the working class organizer of the 1920s and 30s: writing, speaking, raising money, demonstrating, teaching, knocking on doors and spending time in jail."
As the Dirty Thirties began, Jeanne Corbin quickly became one of the most committed and talented young activists in the communist movement. Her assignments included raising funds for the party's newspaper, The Worker, and campaigning for the Canadian Labor Defence League, the organization led by Rev. A.E. Smith which defended radicals facing legal charges. Corbin herself was first jailed in 1929, ironically for leading a rally during a Free Speech Conference in Toronto, where police arrested 15 people to enforce a bylaw which prohibited outdoor meetings of Communists.
Corbin toured northern Ontario and western Canada for The Worker, and then began a period in Montreal where she organized the Québecois working class through the Workers' Unity League. Her work took her to mining and lumber towns across northern Ontario and Québec, such as Timmins and Rouyn-Noranda. Fluently bilingual, she founded and edited the party's L'Ouvrier canadien (Canadian Worker) newspaper in Montreal, at the age of 24. Short of funds, and facing repression by the police and the Catholic Church, L'Ouvrier canadien did not survive long. But eventually a new paper was published, La Vie ouvrière, and the Communists continued to organize among French-speaking workers. As in the rest of Canada, these were years of intense working class struggles to block evictions, organize "hunger marches", and defend arrested comrades.
During the lumber workers' strike of 1933 in Abitibi, Corbin was accused of inciting riot and of illegal assembly, a common charge against WUL organizers during the Depression era. After serving three months in jail, she returned to Timmins to work in the Workers' Co‑operative Store.
As Lanning writes, "Corbin was living what she loved, not because working among the unemployed and exploited was something like a religious vocation, but because her vision was so evidently oriented to a socialist future out of a miserable capitalist present."
Lévesque and other authors have devoted much attention to the role of Communist women during this period. Looking back through the very different prism of later decades, some have argued that issues of women's inequality were downplayed in a party largely composed of male industrial workers. But from another perspective, Corbin and her sister comrades were pioneers in a broader cultural shift which challenged prevailing gender norms and stereotypes.
Tragically, Corbin's life and contributions were cut short by tuberculosis. Unfortunately, she had been reluctant to seek consistent medical care during her years of constant political activity. As Norman Bethune stressed, tuberculosis was largely an "environmental" disease, curable for the wealthy and deadly for the poor. The death rate from TB during this period was more than four times higher in Quebec than Ontario.
To make matters worse, Corbin's doctor in Timmins missed the early warnings of her disease. By 1942, her faltering health was unmistakable, and she was admitted to the Queen Alexandra Sanatorium in London, Ontario. There she kept on top of events through left-wing publications and letters from comrades, and helped organize a patients' association. But the advances in TB treatment came too late, and she succumbed to the disease in May 1944.
A.E. Smith, Tim Buck and Annie Buller spoke at Jeanne Corbin's funeral, and she was buried in Park Lawn cemetery in Toronto, where her grave is simply marked with a small stone numbered "4427". But as Becky Buhay wrote in her obituary, "Thousands will remember Jeanne, a devoted worker and a fighter for the people and for the workers."
(The above article is from the March 16-31, 2011, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.