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Norman Penner – A life for the struggle

May 3, close to 200 people crowded into Glendon Hall in Toronto to pay tribute to the life and work of Norman Penner, who sadly passed away April 16 at the age of 88.[1] There could not have been a more appropriate month for such an event. May is after all, the month where every year we celebrate May 1, International Workers’ Day. It is also the month where the great Winnipeg General Strike began, 90 years ago, a strike that remains the defining moment of the Canadian working class movement, and a strike which was brought back to life for a new generation, in large part through the efforts of Norman Penner. For this alone, Penner’s life would be worthy of commemoration. We were reminded May 3 that there was so much more – a life genuinely lived for the struggle.

Penner’s father, Jacob Penner, had been a leading socialist in his own right, and as one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Canada, an opponent of conscription during the slaughter of World War I. When the Winnipeg General Strike erupted in 1919, Penner was one of the strike leaders.[2]

Norman – born into a family of the left – carried on the tradition from a very early age. We heard, at the memorial, of his 1930’s activism as a teenager – speaking to mass audiences, campaigning in defence of among others, his father, when the city of Winnipeg was trying to strip the now communist Jacob Penner, of his elected seat on Winnipeg’s city council.

Norman himself would become a leading member of the party. But he would not let organizational loyalty trump principles. When the supposedly “communist” Russian tanks moved in to crush the workers’ uprising in Hungary in 1956 – the same year that Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev exposed the crimes of Joseph Stalin to a stunned international left – Penner resigned the Communist Party, even though that meant leaving behind his employer in a decade of intense anti-communism.

He found a way to make a living as probably the only Marxist electric heating salesman in Canada. In the mid-1960s, he set out on a university career, acquiring his degrees, and from 1972 until his retirement 24 years later, teaching in the Political Science department at Glendon College, part of York University in Toronto.

It was at Glendon as a professor, that Penner had his biggest impact. In 1973, he edited a riveting book on the Winnipeg General Strike, bringing back to life, in the words of the strikers themselves, that defining moment in Canadian labour history. In 1977 he wrote a careful and balanced assessment of the Canadian Left, that remains indispensable reading for any who aspire to fight for social change in this country. Perhaps more important than his books, however, were his classes, where with patience and intelligence – and humour – he would genuinely engage with young people from a new generation, tell them about the lessons from the past, and most importantly, listen to the new insights that every new generation brings to the social movements.

It is this latter quality that set Penner apart from many in his generation – the capacity to listen. While many from the old left, shaped by the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression, were too often suspicious of the long-haired radicals of the 1960s and 1970s, Penner found real joy in their company. He would have loved the fact that in Toronto, the day before his memorial, young radicals of this generation, members of No One Is Illegal, had led a spirited May Day march through the streets of the city, taking over Yonge Street for a period, draping banners off the Eaton Centre, and then joining up with members of the Tamil Community, demonstrating against the terrible genocide underway in their homeland. He would have known that today – as in 1919, as in the 1930s, as in the 1960s – the future of the social movements is in the hands of the impatient youth, much more than it is in the tidy offices of this or that union or party bureaucracy.

His grandson, Dylan Penner – himself an anti-war activist in the tradition of Norman and Jacob – in one of many moving tributes given by family and friends, gave us all the proper framework in which to remember the life of this remarkable man. In the words of Industrial Worker of the World activist and songwriter Joe Hill – “don’t mourn, organize.”[3]

Books by Norman Penner, available from online booksellers

Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers’ Own History of the Winnipeg General Strike (1973)
The Canadian Left: A critical analysis (1977)
From Protest to Power: Social Democracy in Canada 1900-Present (1992)
Canadian communism: The Stalin years and beyond (1988)

© 2009 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] See “Professor Emeritus Norman Penner was a Glendon mainstay,” YFILE, April 24, 2009 and “Norman Penner,” The Toronto Star, April 25, 2009
[2] There is some information about Jacob Penner on wikipedia. His story, and the story of his wife Rose Penner, has been documented on video (Cathy Gulkin, “A Glowing Dream: The Story of Jacob & Rose Penner,” Episode 33, A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada, Season III, White Pine Pictures, 1999)
[3] See “Joe Hill, (1879-1915),” AFL-CIO: America’s Union Movement; and “The Joe Hill Project,”

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