On a wintry March morning in 1920, William Pritchard stood in a packed Winnipeg courtroom, far from his home in spring-like Vancouver, to defend himself against six charges of seditious conspiracy. “I owe a duty to my wife and children in this matter,” he began. “I also owe a duty to my fellow workers, and I do not propose to shirk those duties in any particular.”
And indeed, he did not. For two full days and into the evenings, the socialist union leader gave a riveting discourse on why workers are driven to resist those who oppress them, why the charges against him represented a fundamental breach of the right to freedom of speech, and why the working class yearns for a better world, where production is for use, not for profit.
At the end, close to collapse from the strain of his long oration, he told the spellbound courtroom: “Standing on the threshold of the parting of the ways, one path leading to concrete and iron-bound walls of the penitentiary, and the other to freedom, I say I have done nothing for which I feel I need apologize. What I have done, I have done in good faith with sincerity and the purest of motives.” As the 32-year old Pritchard concluded his remarks, the courts normally restive onlookers were moved to silence.
The next day the Winnipeg Evening Tribune praised the West Coast labour leader on its front page. “Speaking with gripping intensity, Pritchard seemed to hold the entire court through the sheer force of his personality and the power of his logic,” the paper’s reporter wrote. “His closing words showed him a man apparently earnest in his convictions, unafraid to stake his future on the sincerity of the motives behind the actions which had brought him before the bar of Justice, charged with seditious conspiracy.”
Well might Pritchard defend his alleged criminal actions, since they had nothing to do with those of his six fellow defendants, all local trade unionists charged for their roles in actually leading the previous year’s six-week Winnipeg General Strike. The mass walkout by more than 30,000 workers had terrified government and business leaders, who believed a Bolshevik-like uprising was at hand. But Pritchard had spent only a week or two in Winnipeg near the end to make some speeches and offer support. He had had nothing to do with the strike.
He was nevertheless nabbed in Calgary on his way back to Vancouver, charged with the same seditious conspiracy as those directly involved. His arrest showcased authorities’ determination to pin blame for the working class revolt on the industrial unionism of the radical One Big Union, of which Pritchard and most Winnipeg strike leaders were major proponents. No matter that the OBU was only in the planning stage when the strike began. Winnipeg workers could not have had legitimate wage demands or been so willing to fight for union recognition on their own, reasoned the powers-that-be. They must have been provoked by revolutionaries intent on overthrowing capitalism, and this incipient revolution had to be nipped in the bud.
As a result, leaders of the general strike and any other prominent advocates authorities felt were spreading the socialist gospel of the OBU were rounded up, including Pritchard and the future founder of the CCF, J.S. Woodsworth. Like Pritchard, he had only stopped off in the city to lend support to the strike, through speeches and, at the very end, co-editing a stopgap strike newspaper after the Western Labour News was banned. “One cannot escape the conviction that the real prisoner in the dock was the OBU,” said Woodsworth. However, charges of seditious libel against the ordained minister, who had also worked on the Vancouver docks for a time, were dropped after, among other things, prosecutors realized that some of his “seditious” material came from the biblical prophet Isaiah.
But the Crown went after Pritchard with a vengeance. Son of a British miner, he had come to Vancouver in 1911. An early member of the Socialist Party, he edited the party’s Western Clarion, from 1914 to 1917, then found work in a sawmill and on the waterfront. He was in Cumberland the day after labour martyr Ginger Goodwin was shot dead. At the funeral parlour, after examining the angle of the bullet holes in Goodwin’s body, he pronounced his certainty that Goodwin had been murdered by the special constable who fired the fatal shots. Years later, Pritchard reiterated his conclusion: “He was taken unaware by a minion of the government, given no chance to surrender, as he evidently was unaware of what was taking place, shot from an elevated position at close range.” Pritchard paid the final tribute to his fellow Socialist over Goodwin’s grave in the Cumberland cemetery.
A true class warrior, Pritchard played a leading role in the Socialist Party, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, the B.C. Federation of Labour and the OBU. He had a purity of belief that, later, caused him to spurn both the Communist Party and the CCF. Eventually, he settled in Burnaby, where he was elected Reeve during the 1930’s. As a fascinating aside, he was the grandfather of former NDP cabinet minister and left-wing guru to some, Bob Williams.
Yet in 1920, Bill Pritchard was in that Winnipeg courtroom, asserting his innocence and laying his socialist beliefs on the line. “Did you ever consider, gentlemen of the jury, that you cannot kill ideas with a club?” he postulated. “You cannot drive theories into oblivion by machine guns. If an idea be healthy, sunshine will help it grow. If it is not healthy, sunshine will help to kill it.”
He denounced the newly-introduced income tax as yet another burden imposed on the people, designed to “fatten a whole host of parasites on the public wealth”. As for the stream of anti-union vitriol in the newspapers, “some of these scarred, black-faced toilers from the depths of the mines could write better editorials with their picks, than the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press with his pen,” Pritchard told the court. Towards the end, he proclaimed his Utopian vision for the future. In the face of “the sins of their blind or corrupt masters”, said Pritchard, “the proletarians shall remain erect; they will unite to form one universal proletariat and we shall see fulfilled the great Socialist prophecy. The union of the workers will be the peace of the world.”
His ringing words had no effect. A day later, the jury found William Pritchard and four other defendants guilty of seditious conspiracy. All five were sentenced to a year in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. One got six months on a common nuisance charge, while strike leader A.A. Heaps was acquitted. Before they were taken away, the men were given a few minutes in the cleared courtroom to bid an emotional goodbye to their wives and other distraught family members. A reporter for the Winnipeg Evening Tribune called it “the most moving spectacle ever enacted in a Winnipeg courtroom….Women crying. Men doing their best to comfort them.”
As Pritchard’s wife, her eyes wet, sat talking to her husband, he tried to calm her spirits. From one of his pockets he produced a blue streetcar ticket. According to the reporter, he smiled and handed it to his wife, explaining: “You’ll have more use of it than I will, for some time to come.” At this point, wrote the reporter, “Mrs. Pritchard almost broke down. She stood for several minutes crying, as she gazed at the car ticket in her hand.”
On Pritchard’s release from prison, his health weakened by the ordeal, an estimated 10,000 people turned out to greet his returning train to Vancouver, more, it was said, than showed up for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1919.