Buller, Annie (1896–1973)
Buller, Annie (1896–1973)
Prominent speaker and organizer for the Communist Party in Canada who endured imprisonment and political repression to better the lives of Canadian workers. Pronunciation: BULL-er. Born in December 1896 in Russia or Canada; died on January 19, 1973, in Toronto, Ontario; daughter of Jewish parents (her father was a carpenter); attended public school until age 13; attended the Rand School of Social Science in New York City in 1919; married Harry Guralnick, mid-1920s; children: one son, Jimmy.
Began work in a tobacco factory (1910); joined the socialist youth movement (1917); left Montreal to attend the Rand School in New York (1919); arrested following the Estevan strike (1931); jailed for one year (1933); jailed for two years (1940); traveled to the Soviet Union (1955).
In defense of her part in organizing the Estevan strike of 1931, for which she was arrested along with 26 others, Annie Buller argued that it was not she who was on trial, but all of the working class, a position that reveals a great deal about how she viewed her life. Buller was a committed Marxist, who had already worked tirelessly for the building of unions, the production of working-class publications, and the raising of the consciousness of workers of Canada in the hope of bringing her country closer to socialism. As a dedicated organizer and mediator for the Communist Party, her efforts were to continue for 50 years. At the time of her trial, Buller probably realized that her conviction, and the imprisonment that would separate her from her husband and child, were inevitable, but saw the events as part of the overall march of workers towards socialism and a better life.
It is not clear whether Annie Buller was born in Russia or in Canada. Whatever the case, from an early age, she grew up in Montreal, Quebec, the daughter of Jewish parents of Russian ancestry. In a move typical of working-class children in early 20th-century Canada, she went to work at the age of 13, employed in a tobacco factory 12 hours a day for 6 days a week, a financial necessity for the family that ended her early formal education. She continued to study at home, and the reading of literary classics as well as political tracts became a lifelong habit.
After three years, Buller left the tobacco factory to work as a clerk in a five-and-dime store. Factory work, apart from being tedious, dirty, and unhealthy, held little status, and the move was a step up, if not necessarily in wages. By age 17, she had made a genuine advance in "respectability" for a young woman of the lower middle class when she became a clerk at Almy's department store. Her ascent continued when she was appointed the head buyer for the china and glassware department, making her the first woman to hold such a position in Canada.
The exposure she received in a store catering to the middle and upperclass undoubtedly helped Buller to recognize the great discrepancy between rich and poor, and during these same years she first became involved in the youth branch of the socialist movement. Interest in socialism was expanding and attracting activists like Buller, especially after the 1917 Russian Revolution held out the possibility that a workers' society could be accomplished. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada was then engaged in World War I, and socialists were theoretically opposed to war, viewing it as a battle between capitalists for markets and profit. Many socialists actually supported the war, but Buller maintained a pacifist stance and worked actively throughout 1918, collecting petitions against the war and conscription. After it ended, in 1918, her commitment to socialism had grown to the point that she decided to go to New York City to attend the Rand School of Social Science.
The Rand School was an adult education facility directed towards the study of Marxism, although it also held classes in the natural sciences and the humanities. Discussions there were characterized by vigorous debate as participants argued about how to interpret Marx and what constituted the best approach for socialism. Now in her early 20s, Buller was an assertive and outspoken woman, who began to develop the talent for oratory that would make her one of the most prominent representatives of the Canadian communist movement and a popular figure among Canadian workers. At the Rand School, Buller's commitment to communism also solidified. Many socialists stressed a social-democratic approach, believing that the lot of workers could best be improved through trade unions and pressure for factory legislation. While Buller accepted the need for these methods as the means to deal with immediate problems, she came to believe that a better life for workers could only be achieved through revolution, by which the workers would seize control of the state.
During this time, Buller met the two women who were to become her closest friends: Bella Gould (at the Rand School) and Becky Buhay (through the socialist youth movement). Despite frequent separations due to their commitments to communism, Buller and Buhay were to remain lifelong friends, writing to each other throughout their lives. Buhay once described Buller as the person who gave her courage and strength. "I was starved for love and appreciation [and] she made me believe in myself."
Back in Montreal after a year, Buller and her two friends decided to set up a college like the Rand school. In the spring of 1920, they purchased a house on Jeanne Mance Street in Montreal and began to hold classes. The education of workers was held to be one of the most important preconditions to revolution, and the college offered classes, hosted prominent guest speakers, and accommodated union meetings in its rooms until the mid-1920s. After it closed, much of Buller's activity remained educational. She was a regular contributor to communist publications and acted repeatedly as business manager for the party press throughout the 1920–30s, and undertook several speaking tours throughout the country during her lifetime.
Annie [Buller] is a part of the living history of Canada…. She will occupy a place of honor among Canada's fighters for peace, progress and socialism, among all those who strive for a better life.
Apart from her concern for their education, Buller believed that workers needed their own political party as well as effective unions. In February 1922, she became one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC). As business manager of the party newspaper, she tried to publicize the plight of Canadian workers and to encourage them in joining their respective unions. In 1929, her union involvement became more direct when she was sent to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to support workers in the needle trades.
By the late 1920s, the needle trades were infamous for poor working conditions and low wages. A union for the workers did exist but was organized on a "craft" basis and thus omitted all workers not considered skilled. Effectively, this denied membership to the dressmakers, who constituted the majority of workers in the business and were also predominantly female. The CPC, through its union division, the Workers' Unity League (WUL), wanted to organize all workers in the field, regardless of skill level, pay rate, or working location. In August 1928, the Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers (IUNTW) was formed, and a year later Buller was sent to Winnipeg to help in its fight against wage cuts that were by then plaguing the industry as the country sank into depression.
The union undertook numerous strikes and work stoppages but generally failed to halt the wage cuts. In the economic climate of the early 1930s, most unions, communist or not, were unsuccessful in protecting wages; most were content to achieve recognition as the official bargaining unit from employers determined to obstruct their union activities. The IUNTW was successful in organizing the needle workers, many of whom had never been in a union before, but it is impossible to gauge how much more successful it would have been in protecting wages in the second half of the 1930s, when the economy improved. The CPC, like most other communist groups in the Western world, took its inspiration and its orders from the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. During 1935–36, the Canadian party was ordered by Moscow to disband unions under the WUL and join with non-Communist led unions in a "United Front."
There is no indication of whether Buller ever questioned the wisdom of this move by the Soviet leadership, which meant dismantling the institutions that had taken party workers a decade of hard effort to create. Throughout her life, communism in Canada would suffer many traumas as a result of orders from Moscow and actions of the Soviet Union in the international sphere. But communists were expected to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the "cause," and Buller appears to have remained dedicated to the principles of Marxism and the leadership of the Soviet Union, accepting all other matters, including family life, as secondary.
While in Montreal in the early 1920s, Buller had met and married Harry Guralnick, also a communist, who promoted the party cause through writing, translating, and organizing, and was also cultural director of the United Jewish People's Order and secretary of the Central Jewish Party Bureau. During the 1930s, both Buller and her husband, who had a son Jimmy, were to endure a great deal of hardship for the sake of their political concerns after the Canadian government initiated a variety of laws in order to crack down on the CPC and other groups they considered a threat to public order.
For Buller, the difficulties began with the famous Estevan strike of 1931. The Souris coalfields, near Estevan, Saskatchewan, had been mined since the 1890s. Like many coal mining enterprises, they involved dangerous conditions, hard work, and low pay, aggravated by the fact that the company owned the workers' town, charging high rates for substandard housing and the only goods available for buying through the company store. By the summer of 1931, the workers decided to join the Mine Workers' Union of Canada, a WUL affiliate. On September 7, after the employers refused to negotiate with the union, the workers went on strike. It was common practice to host speakers and other activities to maintain the unity of strikers. Buller, a well-known and popular speaker by then, was invited to appear before the miners on September 27. A parade was scheduled for the 29th, when the strikers were to march to the community of Estevan and hold a public meeting to try to elicit public support.
Met at the outskirts by a contingent of local police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the procession never made it into the town. A skirmish ensued, which ended with shots being fired at the unarmed miners, leaving three miners dead and 50 injured. As often happened, the state, represented through its police force, was on the side of the employers. The three men were buried in a common grave, and a monument was eventually erected bearing the inscription, "Murdered in Estevan September 29, 1931 by the RCMP." Local authorities later removed the reference to the Mounties.
Though Buller had helped with the parade preparations, she was not a participant. Organizers of the event realized that the government would respond with arrests, however, and arranged to have her smuggled to Winnipeg with the help of unionized railway workers. After the other organizers were arrested in Estevan, Buller continued to give speeches in Winnipeg and Toronto to raise funds in support of the Estevan strikers. Eventually, she was picked up in Toronto and charged with "inciting to riot."
Public outcry against the events in Estevan led the Federal government to step in and appoint a Conciliation Board to arbitrate between the workers and management, as well as a royal commission to investigate the conditions surrounding the incident. An agreement was reached between the miners and operators in which the miners won some concessions and agreed to return to work in October. In the spring of 1932, the report of the royal commission upheld the conditions of the agreement and recommended further concessions such as adequate medical care and the repair of the workers' houses. Meanwhile, the trials of the strike leaders continued, resulting in sentences of between three months and two years for most who were involved.
Buller's first trial ended in conviction but was appealed. The CPC had a legal division, but its lawyers were busy due to a rash of government arrests of suspected communists. For her second trial, beginning March 10, 1933, Buller decided to defend herself by proving: 1) that the speech she gave on the 27th had not been inflammatory, citing as evidence the fact that there were police spies present at the time of her speech with the power to arrest her if they had cause; 2) that the prosecution could not prove she was present at the riot; and 3) that there was no proof that she had incited a riot in any way.
Buller continued her argument by declaring that the string of events leading to the conflict had not been caused by the labor organizers, but by mine operators and the government, who had forced the workers into a position of strike through their failure to provide adequate working conditions as required by law. She ended by stating:
When I face you here, I face you with my head erect. I face you as a worker with ideals and convictions. Those ideals and convictions are linked with the tide of human progress. You cannot stop that tide of progress any more than you can stop the tide of the sea with a pitchfork.
Nevertheless, Buller was convicted and sentenced to one year in jail, which she served at the women's prison in North Battleford, in solitary confinement. Undoubtedly, the condition of solitary confinement was the most difficult aspect of that year. After her release, she took a brief period of rest with her family before returning to her writing and organizing work for the party.
In the summer of 1935, Buller was one of the organizers for the "On-to-Ottawa" trek, a communist-organized march planned to draw attention to conditions in work camps established by the federal government to provide "relief" for young, unemployed men. The trek ended much as the Estevan strike had, with a riot between police and marchers in the town of Regina, but it did help to push the government to reassess the way its relief program was being administered. Also during this time, Buller worked on the campaign to raise funds in support of the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War.
In November 1939, the federal government banned the CPC, and by 1940, Buller and her husband once again faced the prospect of separation. As a British commonwealth nation, Canada was once more at war with Germany, while the Soviet Union, then allied with Germany under a "non-aggression pact," had become an enemy. Canadian communists, in line with orders from Moscow, openly opposed Canada's role in the war as an act of aggression. Not long after, Harry became one of more than 100 prominent communists interned in camps by the federal government. Buller was arrested on charges related to an article she had written for the party newspaper, which had been banned and was publishing illegally. Sentenced to two years in the Women's Jail at Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, she was at least not placed in solitary confinement this time, and had the company of fellow inmates and visitors. Because she got along well with prison authorities, she was given some privileges, such as extended visits with friends, and she spent her time otherwise filling scrapbooks with newspaper and magazine clippings, cards and letters, and pictures. One scrapbook clipping that has survived includes the name of her son Jimmy in a list of graduates from a printing school, providing a vivid reminder that Buller was frequently forced to miss significant parts of her child's life.
In June 1941, due to the invasion of Russia by Hitler, the Communist Party line was switched in support of the war. With Russia as an ally, the Canadian government decided to release the interned communists in the summer of 1942. In December of that year, Buller completed her sentence and was reunited with Harry. She immediately resumed working for the party press in Toronto, as business manager of the Tribune, and also worked for a period as manager of National Affairs Monthly, another party publication.
In 1943, due to the continuing ban against the CPC, Canadian communists decided to establish a "new" party called the Labour Progressive Party (LPP), which renounced violence as a means of effecting change, and thereby hoped to avoid being banned. The LPP began running candidates in provincial and federal elections and did reasonably well until the Cold War began in 1948. Twice, Buller ran as a candidate. In 1932, she ran for the position of alderman in the city of Toronto. Later, in 1956, she was the party's candidate in Spadina Riding (Toronto) for federal election. In both cases, she did not win, which is understandable given the political climate of the time.
In 1955, Buller and her husband went to the Soviet Union, a trip that was undoubtedly one of the highlights of her life. Despite the problems communism was facing by the 1950s, Buller remained a dedicated believer and viewed the Soviet Union as a true socialist state. During her stay, she wrote articles for The Tribune, detailing the people she met and the places she saw. During a tour of a factory, she was greatly impressed by the organization and working conditions she witnessed.
On January 19, 1973, Annie Buller died at the age of 76, only a short time after the death of her husband Harry. Both were remembered by the party in warm tributes for their many years of service to the cause. Canadian society had changed greatly during their lives, and although no revolution had occurred, the standard of living and working conditions of most working people had improved remarkably, and Annie Buller had contributed to bringing about this change. As William Kashtan, general secretary of the CPC said at the funeral:
If today the trade union movement has the strength it has, if the workers today are able to stand up with dignity and do not have to bend their knees to the corporations, no small cause for it lies in the self-sacrificing struggle of Annie and other Communists.
Although many of her activities were unsuccessful in achieving their immediate goals, Annie Buller undoubtedly affected the lives of many working Canadians, helping to educate them and encouraging them to act. For this reason, Annie Buller was known and respected by workers across Canada.
Sangster, Joan. Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left, 1920–1950. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989.
Watson, Louise. She Never Was Afraid: The Biography of Annie Buller. Toronto: Progress Books, 1976.
Public Archives of Ontario, Multicultural History Society of Ontario, Annie Buller Papers.
Public Archives of Ontario, Communist Party of Canada Collection.
Catherine Briggs , Ph.D. Candidate, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada