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Mon Mar 18 09:24:53 MST 2002
Toronto Globe and Mail, March 18, 2002
Life's work was 'labour of love'
A commitment to social justice helped win 20% of vote in Toronto mayoral race
By BILL GLADSTONE Special to The Globe and Mail Monday, March 18, 2002
TORONTO -- As a Trotskyite and leader of the Revolutionary Workers Party,
Ross Dowson might have been expected to tarry on the fringes of Canadian
political life forever, so it came as a considerable shock to many
Torontonians when he drew 20 per cent of the vote in a mayoral race in the
Mr. Dowson, who died Feb. 17 at the age of 84, never again approached that
respectable showing in several subsequent municipal and federal elections.
Still, he managed to make a significant mark on the Canadian political
scene from the sidelines, in part by being a thorn in establishment's side.
Regarded by associates as a keen political strategist, he devised a popular
protest slogan -- "End Canada's Complicity in the War in Vietnam" - that
helped shape the national antiwar movement of the sixties. Yearning to
bring his socialist ideals to the masses, he forged a rough alliance
between his leftist League for Socialist Action and the NDP's youth wing,
In the 1970s, he initiated a high-profile court battle against the RCMP for
labelling him a "subversive," which he lost despite a string of appeals
that persisted for seven years. But his evidence before two federal
commissions into RCMP wrongdoings was later instrumental in the eventual
replacement of the RCMP's security service with a civilian agency.
Although he was a lifelong devotee of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, he was a
"homespun revolutionary," said his "comrade," Harry Kopyto, a legal agent.
"If you want to know the secret of Ross Dowson, you won't find it in
Russia, you'll find it in Southern Ontario. Ross was totally Canadian.
There was nothing foreign about him."
He was born in 1917 -- "a rather prophetic year," observed his sister, Lois
Toronto suburb of Weston. His father was a printer -- from whom Ross
acquired useful rotogravure skills -- an anarchist sympathizer and atheist
who encouraged his children to think and act independently. An older
brother, Murray, took Ross to CCF and Trotskyist meetings during the
Depression. Young Ross formed a political club named after Spartacus, the
leader of a slave rebellion in the Roman Empire, and distributed pamphlets,
joined May Day marches and spoke at meetings.
"He got his politics from the hungry thirties, seeing working-class people
share what they had while the upper class kept what they had to
themselves," Mr. Kopyto said. "He believed in the social ownership and
democratic control of the wealth of society."
When Earle Birney resigned as leader of the Canadian Trotskyist faction in
1939 to concentrate on being a poet, Mr. Dowson stepped into the gap. A
high-school graduate who read voraciously, he was thrown suddenly into a
sophisticated and chaotic milieu of politics, culture and ideas originating
from a diverse range of people of Jewish, Ukrainian and other immigrant,
Although disgusted by the "capitalist war machine," Mr. Dowson served in
the Armed Forces, though never overseas; for a time he was a combat
training officer at Camp Borden, Ont. At war's end in 1945, he was again
disgusted at seeing Canadian troops being put to work on the docks and
railways and in brickyards, foundries and packing plants. The government
was attempting to get the peacetime economy rolling again, but Mr. Dowson
saw it as scab labour and an abuse comparable with those of Hitler's
Germany. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he urged mass resistance, but
he alone resisted. He was arrested and paraded back to camp under armed guard.
Mr. Dowson had a talent for reducing complex ideas to their essence, Mr.
Kopyto said. In his first mayoralty campaign, he printed a pamphlet with a
drawing of "a muscular man, sleeves rolled up, using a broom to sweep out
the corridors of city hall -- sweeping away bankers in their black suits
with dollar signs on their clothes." The pamphlet was distributed to tens
of thousands of homes in Toronto, with the result that "one in five
Torontonians voted for Ross," Mr. Kopyto said.
A publisher of many radical pamphlets as well as The Workers Vanguard and
other leftist newspapers, Mr. Dowson ran bookstores on Queen Street West
and elsewhere that were each the focal point of a lively intellectual
circle. "We talked about art, revolution, science, we'd show movies --
there was even a drama group," Mr. Kopyto said. "It was a large and vibrant
Among those interested, apparently, were RCMP operatives who spied on it
for years, and eventually accrued a 2,000-page file on Mr. Dowson. They
allegedly infiltrated the Socialist League and spread damaging secrets
about Mr. Dowson and his associates; he blamed them for sowing the discord
thatled to its breakup in the mid-1970s.
To Trotskyists, Mr. Dowson's greatest accomplishment may have been his
successful 1963 initiative to repair a historic rift in the worldwide
Trotskyist movement, known as the Fourth International. Yet despite his
reputation as a revolutionary, he was very much a "creature of habit," Mr.
Kopyto said. "He'd always close the bookstore at 6 o'clock, go to the
restaurant next door at 6:05, and eat a hot hamburger with mashed potatoes.
He'd always go to bed at the same time. He was a man of total discipline."
>From the late 1960s through the late 1980s, he occupied a tiny apartment on
Toronto's Homewood Avenue. As he was entirely devoted to the revolution, he
never married, but remained the centre of a coterie of comrades who
considered him a brilliant mentor.
"He was asked once why he was prepared to make such a great personal
sacrifice, and he said it wasn't a sacrifice, it was a labour of love,"
said his friend, Gordon Doctorow, a teacher. "He did it because he took
pleasure in writing and organizing and promoting the socialist ideals. He
didn't think it was a sacrifice, he thought it was an amazing opportunity."
A stroke put him in the hospital in 1988, and he remained hospitalized,
semi-paralyzed and hardly able to talk, for the rest of his life. He leaves
sisters Lois Bedard and Margaret Joyce Rosenthal.
Ross Jewitt Dowson, revolutionary, born Toronto, Sept. 4, 1917; died
Toronto, Feb. 17, 2002
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