Interview Excerpts from Elsie Dean

The following is an excerpt from the interview I did with Elsie Dean, a community and peace movement activist (and sometime Communist Party loyalist) in Vancouver, British Columbia, in which she talks a bit about her activities in the 1940s and 1950s:

SN: Tell me little bit about some of the peace movement things you were doing in the ’40s and ’50s.

ED: We worked really hard day in and day out on issues of peace and against the Cold War because of all the propaganda against the Soviet Union and against Communism. The interesting part of it is, how it took over the general population, who believed it, who got caught up in this. We did find that there was a great support for banning the nuclear weapons, even then, even under those conditions, where the general population was very hostile towards Communism, very hostile. I remember working in a rate payers organization in [Vancouver’s] north shore, where we lived, and being kicked out because they said we were Communists although we were not at the time. That’s the kind of hostility that existed in the community. At the same time, there was a desire to do away with nuclear weapons. There was a fear of that. In our petitions, we didn’t do too badly. Out on the street, you could persuade people to sign it, in spite of that.

SN: So, a lot of your peace [activism] focused around nuclear weapons?

ED: At that time, yes. Also, later we had what was called the Canada-Soviet friendship committee with the idea of breaking down this suspicion and this fear of the Soviet Union. That was quite interesting because we used to sponsor groups of Soviet people here and we used to take groups to the Soviet Union. I remember when the artists started. We started bringing artists. We brought over the Bolshoi Theatre one time. Our group did, our organization. Dr. Alan Engels, at that time, was very active. We put on the theatre and we had a reception at the Hotel Vancouver. It was very well attended. The Cold War, the very destructive aspect of it, were beginning to subside and people were beginning to —

SN: When abouts was this?

ED: That would be after the late ’50s. I remember the propaganda. Who was it? Pickeral, Pickings? He was the big art director here, sort of, an impresario who brought in groups. He was so hostile to these people. The papers were–I remember the write up about the Bolshoi theatre, saying that these people stole buns off [the tables]–you know, they couldn’t say anything nice about them. They’re dancers, you know. They can’t eat before they dance, so when they get a chance to take a bun or something, they do it! It was beginning to subside and there was no problem in selling the tickets and getting a full house. Another interesting part of the Cold War, it was the–you know the story of Paul Robeson, the singer?

SN: I’ve heard the name.

ED: They did a wonderful program a while ago on his life. He was a Black singer and actor, extremely accepted all over the world, had worked in England. He was very progressive. I don’t know that he ever joined the Communist Party. I don’t think he did. They wouldn’t allow him a passport out of the States. So the Mine Mill Organization here had invited him to come to sing at one of their annual meetings. But, Paul Robeson could not leave the United States. He was a prisoner within his own country. The Mine Mill put on a concert at Peace Arch, at the border. There’s a piece of land between the US and Canada we call the Peace Arch, and it’s no man’s land in a sense. Paul Robeson, this great singer and actor, sang off the back of a truck. At the time, we had 10,000 people at the border, sitting in an outside concert listening because they would not allow him to come in.

SN: Did the authorities do anything about that concert there?

ED: No, they didn’t do anything about it, no. Then, the other great entertainer in the States, Pete Seeger, he was also a prisoner in his own country and didn’t have a passport. He used to come anyway. I remember, my husband and I had a little house and we had a concert with Pete Seeger in our house. I think about two hundred people came. They didn’t know whether the house would stand up to it. They would not rent a hall to him anywhere in the United States to have a public concert. He was essentially isolated from his art in the community. I don’t know when that was. Years later, I had the television on and there was Pete Seeger and Cecil B. Demille, one on each side of President Kennedy. They were being given some top award in the US for being artistic, contributing art to the country [laughter]. So, you know, all these contradictions — at one time he’s a prisoner in his country and the next time he’s being given one of the highest awards for contribution to his country.

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