Clarence Gillis

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Clarence Gillis
Clarence Gillis MP photo.jpg
Cape Breton South MP, in 1940. Source: Library and Archives Canada
Member of Parliament
In office
Preceded byDavid James Hartigan (Liberal)
Succeeded byDonald MacInnis (Conservative)
ConstituencyCape Breton South
Personal details
Born(1895-10-03)October 3, 1895
Londonderry, Nova Scotia, Canada
DiedDecember 17, 1960(1960-12-17) (aged 65)
Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada
Political partyCo-operative Commonwealth Federation
Spouse(s)1. Mamie Gillis 2. Theresa Sargeant
ResidenceSydney, Nova Scotia, Canada
ProfessionCoal Miner/Trade unionist

Clarence (Clarie) Gillis, MP (October 3, 1895 – December 17, 1960) was a Canadian social democratic politician and trade unionist from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. He was born on Nova Scotia's mainland, but grew up in Cape Breton. He worked in the island's underground coal mines operated by the British Empire Steel and Coal Company (BESCO). He also served as a member of the infantry in the Canadian Corps in Flanders during the First World War. After the war he returned to the coal mines and became an official with the mine's United Mine Workers of America (UMW) union. In 1938, he helped bring UMW Local 26 into the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), becoming the first labour local to affiliate with the party.[1] In 1940, he became the first CCF member elected to the House of Commons of Canada, east of Manitoba.[Note 1] While serving in the House, he was known as its leading voice championing labour issues. He was also a main voice for social rights during his 17-years in Parliament. His most notable achievement was securing the funding that allowed the building of a fixed-link between Nova Scotia's mainland and Cape Breton Island at the Strait of Canso: the Canso Causeway. After winning four-straight elections, he was defeated in 1957 and died three-years later in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.

Early life and World War I service[edit]

He was born on the Nova Scotia mainland, in the town of Londonderry, in 1895. His father, J.H. Gillis, moved the family to the Industrial Cape Breton area in 1904.[2] J.H. Gillis worked in the coal mines and was an associate of union leader J.B. McLachlan.[2] Clarie, as Clarence Gillis was known, started working in the region's coal mines in 1913.[3] The next year, he joined the Canadian Corps and rose from private to acting lieutenant.[4] He suffered a head wound from shrapnel in Flanders.[4] He would recover enough to go back to the mines after the war.[3]

Trade Unionist and Federal MP[edit]

The period between 1920-1940 was the time that Gillis rose through the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) Local 26.He represented the federal riding of Cape Breton South, which mostly included the city of Sydney, from 1940 until his defeat in the 1957 election.

Gillis was known as a defender of the working-man, and is credited with popularizing the Mouseland political parable. In 1943, The Ottawa Citizen had an editorial that attacked Cape Breton miners for asking for more butter during wartime rationing.[5] As Gillis pointed out in the House of Commons, Cape Breton miners had amongst the highest enlistment rates in Canada, and their families were needy, not just for butter, but just about every kind of basic food-stuff.[5] His constant support for workers did eventually bring about changes in the latter part of World War II.

When labour unions were being attacked in Parliament, Gillis was usually the one called upon to defend them. In 1942, during the speech from the throne debate, H. A. Bruce, the Conservative Party member from Toronto's Parkdale electoral district, was a typical critic of the Canadian Congress of Labor (CCL).[6] Parliamentarians started attacking the American Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which the CCL was affiliated with, and claiming that its union members were hurting the war-effort.[6] Gillis stood up in Parliament and actively defended the unions, reminding the Commons, that he had been a unionist for over 25-years.[6] Scenes like this were common for Gillis during this period.

He was one of the few MPs that attacked the Canadian government's racist policies towards Japanese Canadians in the period between 1942-45. In the House of Commons of Canada, he stated the following:

While we know that the war with Japan is a serious matter and that many atrocities have been committed by the people of that country, there is no reason why we should try to duplicate the performances of that country.[7]

Federal Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (C.C.F.) Party delegation attending the September 1944 Conference of Commonwealth Labour Parties in London, England. Pictured from Left to right: Clarie Gillis, MP for Cape Breton South; David Lewis, National Secretary; M.J. Coldwell, National Leader, MP for Rosetown—Biggar; Percy E. Wright, MP for Melfort; and Frank Scott, National Chairman.

His defence of Japanese-Canadians arose out of the July 1944 debate on whether to allow them to vote.[8] After questioning from prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Gillis pointed out that the CCF's official position is that all Canadians, especially those born in Canada, should have the full rights of that citizenship and have the franchise to vote.[8] In the end, Liberal government ignored the CCF's pleas, and passed a law to racially restrict voting for Japanese-Canadians.

One of his most notable achievements while in Parliament, was getting federal government funding to build the Canso Causeway to bridge mainland-Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island.[9] The causeway was opened on August 13, 1955, and Gillis was part of the opening ceremonies, though his part was downplayed in the media at the time, as recently deceased former Nova Scotia premier Angus L. MacDonald was given most of the credit.[10][11][12]

Personal life and death[edit]

He failed to get re-elected in the general election of 1957. He ran for parliament for the last time in 1958, the year of the Diefenbaker-Sweep, and lost the election. He retired from politics after this defeat. His first wife, Maime Gillis, née Stewart, died in 1953.[13] He married his second wife, Theresa Sargeant in 1958.[14] He died of pleurisy, in the Glace Bay Hospital, on December 17, 1960, in Cape Breton.[14]

Election results[edit]

Canadian federal election, 1940
Party Candidate Votes
Co-operative Commonwealth GILLIS, Clarence 11,582
Liberal HARTIGAN, David James 11,364
National Government NUNN, Joseph Clyde 9,719
Canadian federal election, 1945
Party Candidate Votes
Co-operative Commonwealth GILLIS, Clarence 16,575
Liberal HARTIGAN, David James 10,529
Progressive Conservative BUCKLEY, Donald Joseph 7,343
Labor–Progressive MADDEN, James 917
Canadian federal election, 1949
Party Candidate Votes
Co-operative Commonwealth GILLIS, Clarence 15,057
Liberal SLAVEN, George Benjamin 12,608
Progressive Conservative CADEGAN, Perry Lewis 5,618
Canadian federal election, 1953
Party Candidate Votes
Co-operative Commonwealth GILLIS, Clarence 14,971
Liberal MCINTYRE, Leo 10,151
Progressive Conservative FERGUSSON, Layton 4,726
Labor–Progressive MACEACHERN, Ronald George 794
Canadian federal election, 1957
Party Candidate Votes
Progressive Conservative MACINNIS, Donald 14,894
Liberal MCINTYRE, Leo 11,539
Co-operative Commonwealth GILLIS, Clarence 10,447
Canadian federal election, 1958
Party Candidate Votes
Progressive Conservative MACINNIS, Donald 17,636
Co-operative Commonwealth GILLIS, Clarence 13,044
Liberal DUBINSKY, J. Louis 7,754



  1. ^ Agnes Macphail, though a supporter of the CCF, was elected to the House of Commons as a member of the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO)-Labour party, not the CCF. Although, she did sit with the CCF caucus during her final years in parliament.


  1. ^ Smith, pp. 79–80
  2. ^ a b Harrop, p. 17
  3. ^ a b Harrop, p. 18
  4. ^ a b Harrop, p.15-16
  5. ^ a b Citizen Staff (1943-03-12). "Editorial in Citizen irks Gillis of the C.C.F." The Evening Citizen. Ottawa. p. 22. Retrieved 2011-09-03.
  6. ^ a b c The Canadian Press (1942-02-20). "Speaks in defence of C.I.O." Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. p. 7. Retrieved 2011-09-03.
  7. ^ "The Second World War and its aftermath". Explore a History of the Vote in Canada. 2010-07-30. Archived from the original on 2011-01-16. Retrieved 2011-01-15.
  8. ^ a b "House debates votes for Japs". The Leader-Post. Regina, Saskatchewan. 1944-07-14. p. 4. Retrieved 2011-09-03.
  9. ^ Harrop, pp. 42–49
  10. ^ The Canadian Press (1954-06-05). "Gillis, Chevrier will stride over causeway wearing kilt". The Windsor Star. Windsor, Ontario. p. 21. Retrieved 2011-09-03.
  11. ^ Harrop, p. 49
  12. ^ Hardy, Reginald (1955-08-15). "MacDonald ghost at Canso opening". The Calgary Herald. Calgary, Alberta. p. 1. Retrieved 2011-09-04.
  13. ^ Harrop, p.59
  14. ^ a b Harrop, p.61


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