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Living principles: In memory of Ed Finn

December 28, 2020

4-minute read

The first time I met Ed, he intimidated me a little bit which, to anyone who even remotely knew this incredibly kind and patient man, seems hilarious now. In my defence, I was in my 20s, in a meeting at the CCPA office that I did not yet realize was a job interview. Heather-jane Robertson, Bruce Campbell, Ed Finn and I sat at a wooden table that had once belonged to Tommy Douglas, as I later learned. It was a lively conversation, but Ed spoke very little. Instead, he listened intently. 

I got the job, and it soon became clear to me that Ed occupied a role at the CCPA, and in civil society, that transcended his title as Senior Editor. He was a historian, an activist, an adviser, a colleague, a shop steward, a mentor, a pun-master, and a surrogate great-uncle to the children of his co-workers. It was my absolute privilege to know him in all these capacities.  

Although his reputation as a writer and labour strategist preceded him, Ed’s stories (many of which appear in his last book) were captivating. Like the one of him going toe-to-toe in the 50s with Joey Smallwood over the premier’s attacks on unions. Or of how he resigned as editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook after being instructed to not include the union’s perspective in coverage of the loggers’ strike. His knowledge of labour history was unparalleled, his commitment to labour’s cause unshakable. I caught glimpses of that unrelenting spirit as his co-shop steward; during one round of bargaining he neglected to tell me in advance that we should be prepared to walk away from the table (I figured it out soon enough, fortunately before the door closed behind him).

Ed was also remarkably gentle, particularly with children. When my two kids were little they were the recipients of his generosity and kindness with collectors’ editions of Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a hardcover copy of The Wind in the Willows. He was famous for his thoughtful and detailed letters from Santa, sent over the years to Bruce Campbell’s (now adult) daughter, and other children in his neighbourhood. The dogeared copy of the thesaurus he gave me shortly after I became co-editor of the former Education Monitor still holds pride of place on my bookshelf. And one of the favourite moments of my wedding ceremony is him reading–with a lingering trace of his Newfoundland accent–the poem we asked him to recite. 

He would spend hours on the phone with CCPA supporters and Monitor readers, who called expressly to discuss politics with Ed. When my parents came to Ottawa to visit me, one of the things my dad enjoyed most was the opportunity to catch up with Ed–these two men, both named Ed, both born in the 1920s, both always ready to discuss the Cuban Revolution and the perils of capitalism.

There are other memories, of course. His Kangol hat, casually hanging on the doorknob of whatever room he was in. The CCPA pin permanently affixed to his lapel. The boxes of Girl Guide cookies (his wife Dena was a Spark leader) for the office staff each year. The calendars he bought each of us every January. His inimitable and very effective way of ending a meeting when he’d decided it was over (he would simply stand up and head for the door, jingling his keys in his pocket while telling an anecdote that literally no one else could compete with). His incredibly principled stands. His generosity. His refusal to pass a picket line without making a donation to the coffee fund and providing a few words of support to the striking workers. His ability to never ever stop learning, stop growing, stop fighting for something better, more fair, more just.   

His analysis and insights remain profound and timely. His essay, “Who do we try to rescue today?”, which became the title of one of his books, proved to be especially prescient at this political moment, when we are reaping the disastrous consequences of decades of downstream thinking. 

Ed witnessed and was part of the growth and expansion of the welfare state after the economic devastation of the ‘30s; he was never prepared to capitulate to the more recent and forced lowering of public expectations of what we were collectively capable of achieving. This unshakeable commitment to a vision of social progress that leaves no one behind ensured that the priorities he continued to write about remained relevant, as even his earliest Monitor editorials demonstrate. 

And it’s perhaps because of this ongoing relevance and insightfulness that the passing of a nonagenarian has resulted in such an outpouring of shock and grief. In spite of his age, Ed was someone for whom his increasing years never suggested mortality but, rather, timelessness and permanence. 

The staff of the CCPA send our condolences, love and support to the Finn family at the passing of such a brilliant wordsmith, mentor and friend to so many. It was, and remains, an honour and privilege to learn from this remarkable man, to benefit from his wisdom, and to build on his legacy–with profound gratitude, and always in solidarity.   

Erika Shaker is Director of the National Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and on Twitter @ErikaShaker.

Born in Spaniard's Bay, Newfoundland, in 1926, Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, where he later became first a printer's apprentice, then a reporter, columnist, and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His long career as a journalist later included two years at the Montreal Gazette and 14 years at the Toronto Star.

During his four-year fling in politics in Newfoundland (1959-1962), he served as the first provincial leader of the NDP. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas and helped defend and promote his pioneering Medicare legislation in Saskatchewan. And throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, he did communications work for several labour unions, and served on the board of directors of the Bank of Canada. 

From 1994 to 2014 he was Senior Editor at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Editor of the CCPA Monitor. On November 27, 2020, Ed was appointed to the Order of Canada. 

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