by George Siamandas
John Queen was born February 11, 1882 in Dumferline, Scotland. He grew up under his father’s oppressive hand. Queen remembered his father as being interested only in religion and money, definitely not a socialist. At age 12, John Queen he was apprenticed to a coopermaker.
On a train travelling west, he arrived in Winnipeg on a hot day in 1906, stepped off the train to see the sights and decided to stay. He was 24 years old and not yet a socialist. He immediately found work as a cooper for the Prairie City Oil Co. and he became involved in the Independent Labour Party and Winnipeg’s socialist circles. But Queen was different type of socialist. Queen liked John Stuart Mill’s ideas on liberty. Unlike most Brits of the time, he thought of everyone as his equal, and got along equally well with Jewish socialist and communists like Jacob Penner.
Over his life he drove a bread truck, sold insurance for Metropolitan Life and advertising for the Western Labour News. And he always lived in the heart of Winnipeg’s working class at 1452 Ross Ave. In the fall of 1915 he was elected as the to city council and in the next year, 1916, 6 socialist councillors were elected to city council.
He pursued bread and butter issues like better wages for civic employees and paychecks every two weeks instead of at the end of every month. He voted to acknowledge the creation of the Winnipeg police Union in Oct 1918. He came to the defense of the Bolsheviks. Later he said he had probably gotten carried away by his own rhetoric. During the 1919 strike, Queen was identified as one of the strike leaders, and while Queen’s wife and kids were at their Gimli cottage, Queen was arrested along with A A Heaps. He was tried, found guilty of sedition and sentenced to a year in jail. Near the end of his trial, Queen had to defend himself as his lawyer withdrew after calling the presiding judge, Judge Metcalf unjust.
Queen was a member of both the Manitoba legislature and city council for many years and was elected to the legislature while in jail. While he worked to represent the interests of the working man,he was often at odds with his more doctrinaire socialist friends. Queen fought his colleague Fred Dixon on the issue of allowing Sunday trains to take the working man to the lake on Sunday. Queen was for it.
Queen found John Bracken, the stand pat, do nothing but control the deficit premier, a big disappointment. Labour had already lost five seats in the 1922 election. One of them was Fred Dixon and now Queen became party leader. He fought for better housing, restoration of wages after pay cuts, more and better schools, and aid to municipalities. He saw investment in education as the way to pull people up from the slums.
There were other incidents where he was found wavering from his socialist principles. He found himself in trouble because he owned shares in the private hydro company that wanted to open at Seven Sisters, while at the same time arguing for public ownership. Socialists saw this as a moral offence.
He had already run and lost in 1927. In the 1932 election Queen had to do battle with his old communist friend Jacob Penner and lost due to splitting the leftist vote. In 1934 Queen battled 8 term mayor Col Webb whose heart sounded like it was made of stone. Webb warned Winnipeggers not to allow themselves to be run by socialists. In 1934 Queen became the first socialist mayor in Winnipeg’s history winning by 224 votes. The next day the Free Press wondered whether Queen was a big bad wolf or a fine fellow.
His deeds would show him to be a fine fellow for the working man. During the depression about half of Winnipeg’s families were estimated to have been on relief at one time or another. Queen’s first act upon being elected was to increase relief payments by 10%.
Queen was described as able to charm the birds out of trees with his rich Scottish voice and his magnetic personality. Queen’s pragmatism was always under attack by the left who called him a capitalist lackey. He had to work hard to earn a living and while an MLA, he switched from selling insurance to selling cars for Breen Motors. Each evening when he would come home from the legislature, he made a bowl of porridge which he shared with his Scottish terrier Heather before going to bed.
Queen lost the 1942 mayoralty election. There were no big jobs, no directorships awaiting him. To continue to earn a living, he took on a job as a modest a union agent. He died in 1946 at age 64 of a heart attack. He died alone leaving an estate of $10,000.