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Jerry Houle 1930-1997

Socialist Action, Fall 1997

by Harry Paine

On May 25, 1997, comrades and friends travelled up the beautiful coast of British Columbia to the town of Sechelt to pay tribute to Jerry Houle and celebrate his life. Born on June 3, 1930, Jerry died on May 8 at the age of 66.

Roots of a Radical

Jerry's passion for the written word first led him to the ideas of Trotskyism in 1953 in his hometown of Toronto. He belonged then to the reformist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of Canada's labour party today, the New Democratic Party.

Even in Canada, McCarthyism flourished. Jerry had barely gotten familiar with Marxism when he was caught in a mass purge by CCF bureaucrats and expelled. Undaunted, he and other young CCFers headed directly for the Trotskyist grouping that evolved into the League for Socialist Action (LSA), kin to the U.S. Socialist Workers Party.

Talented Party Builder

In 1957, I was privileged to go with Jerry and two other comrades on what was called a Vanguard Tour. The party bought an old battered truck and outfitted it as a camper and mobile bookstore. We rode across the country visiting contacts and peddling our newspaper and Marxist books door to door.

We worked in pairs, and I was lucky enough to have Jerry as my partner. The party arranged for us to keep a portion of the money we brought in from subscriptions, since we had to foot the bills for the tour ourselves. Jerry generally outsold all of us four to one, and without the money he raised we would probably have starved.

But most important to me was learning from Jerry's patient method of discussing ideas. Unionists, ex-Stalinists, even the odd hidebound conservative if they would listen, he could translate the most complex concepts and show their reasonableness. He brought Trotsky's Transitional Program to life: He showed people how our ideology connected with their everyday reality, and he helped them to arrive at revolutionary answers to the problems they faced.

Moreover, Jerry saw the necessity for socialists to go through the experiences of the working class if they are ever to hope to win the respect of that class. He went to work building auto tires, an extremely tough job, so that he could participate in a relatively militant union. Members of the Stalinist Communist Party exerted a conservatizing influence on his union, as on many others. Jerry saw it as his mission to align himself with rank-and-file activists and win them to Trotskyism, which inherits its socialist, democratic principles directly from the 1917 Russian Revolution.

But, given Jerry's love of literature, it was not hard to convince him at one point to manage the LSA bookstore, which he did for several years. The lure of the union movement proved irresistible, however, and so he found employment with the railroad, the job he would keep for the rest of his working days.

This change led Jerry and his comrade and partner, Ruth, to settle in British Columbia in 1966. About this time, Jerry left the LSA. But he remained faithful to Trotsky's ideas and to his transitional approach for socialist involvement in unions and labour parties, and it was because of this that Jerry continued to be so effective.

One Big Union

During this period, the power of the railworkers was weakened by craft division: more than 30 different unions represented the various trades, each bargaining separately. This weakness created considerable resentment among the workers, who were even more irate that all of these labour organizations were controlled by U.S.-based international unions.

In the 1980s, Jerry initiated an organizing drive to unify the rail trades into one, large, democratic union free from U.S. domination.

The immediate campaign failed, but the goal was reached by a different road: Colleagues of Jerry credit his visionary leadership with laying the groundwork for the railworkers' decision a short time later to join the Canadian Auto Workers, an inclusive, socially progressive, militant union not under the thumb of U.S.-based bureaucrats.

Jerry also worked tirelessly for the New Democratic Party after he became a member in B.C. Despite the NDP's reformist leadership and program, he saw it as the highest expression of Canadian working class political consciousness, and he knew Marxists need to be there in order to win support for socialism.

Although he was often a thorn in the side of the leadership's complacency, he earned universal respect by his willingness to take on any task to build the party.

After many years of being outside the Trotskyist movement, Gerry decided in his last days to join the Freedom Socialist Party. This decision reflected his own undimmed faith in his class and optimism for the future.

Friends of Jerry in Toronto sent a tribute to his memorial in which they said that Jerry had expressed three final wishes: to hold his first grandchild; to celebrate the birthday of his companion, Ruth, with the whole family; and to begin helping to build a library of Canada's revolutionary history.

All of these things he accomplished. Throughout his life Jerry gave all he could to his comrades and class. We will remember him always with the deepest affection and appreciation.

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