By Jonathan Krehm
My father passed away peacefully at home on Friday, April 19, at 11 pm, in his 106th year. He had an amazing full life. We were blessed that he enjoyed relatively good health until the end.
His generation is now gone. His passing marks the end of an era. Not just for us here gathered, but also for those who remember the struggles of the past. He was the last living North American who went to Spain to support the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War.
He was a fine amateur musician. He played the violin from age 9 to 95. For 50 years he hosted chamber music on Sunday evenings several times a month. Some of Toronto’s finest string players were regulars at these evenings. He reviewed music in the 1950s and early 1960s in a variety of places including The Globe and Mail. Ezra Schabas, a former principal of the Royal Conservatory, once told me he thought Bill had been the best music critic in Toronto.
With no business background he entered real estate development in the mid 1950s. He became a house builder, land developer, and real-estate investor. The prosperity my family enjoys today emanates from his efforts.
From his early childhood he was a voracious reader. In 2009 he wrote: “I wrote my junior senior matriculation examination without attending high school in those final two years, and also found the energy and possibly misplaced dedication to go through the three volumes of Marx’s Capital. Unfortunately, as a teenager with my head on fire – these were the opening years of the Depression – I could not avoid polemicizing against Winston Churchill on my exam paper on history. Obviously this and the diverted time did not help my chances for a scholarship, which in fact I didn’t get. So I spent two years in a mathematics and physics courses without money to buy books. It did nothing for my chances of be-coming a physicist or a mathematician. But it worked wonders for my learning enough about mathematics and their powerful legitimate uses to keep me in trouble ever since.”He was a self-taught polyglot. His Spanish, French, German were excellent. He also read in Russian, Italian, Latin, Hebrew and Ancient Greek. Even in his last year, suffering from dementia, his Spanish and German were still there.
But throughout his life he was always a rebel. He and my late Uncle Aubrey first organized a protest against an anti-Semitic teacher in Grade 9 at Parkdale Collegiate. While in New York at the age of 16 he joined the American Trotskyist Movement. His political activities continued in Ontario and Montreal throughout the 1930s. In the movement he met my mother. It was sort of a family affair.
My mother Gladys and her two sisters, Rae and Dorothy, were members of the LRWP as were my two uncles, Aubrey Joel and Moie Bohnen. Their small but dynamic group became the largest Trotskyist group in Canada by 1935. In 1936 Bill was sent to Europe and when the Spanish Civil war broke out he became involved in the international effort to aid the Spanish Republic. He ended up in Barcelona writing for the International Newsletter of the POUM, the anti-Stalinist party that George Orwell fought for. As described in Orwell’s book Homage to Catalonia, Bill was caught up in the dreadful events known as the May days and was imprisoned when the Communist Party moved to crush its Left Wing allies in the fight against Franco. Bill, after a two-week hunger strike, got moved from a jail run by Russian secret police to a less ominous one run by Spaniards. He spent the summer of 1937 in jail. Until his old age he was reluctant to talk of these events. They left scars.
In 1939 he travelled to Mexico with two objectives in mind. He had an appointment to meet Leon Trotsky and he planned to write an article on the fate of Spanish Republican refugees in Mexico. He never did get to meet Trotsky but was one of those who stood guard at the funeral home the night after Trotsky was assassinated to make sure his body was not desecrated. The article was more successful. He sent it to Time magazine. Henry Luce liked it and hired him as a Time correspondent. Bill had lever-aged his political activities into a journalistic career. Gladys joined Bill in Mexico in 1941 where they were married. They lived in Mexico City, then Guatemala and finally in Lima, Peru, where my brother, Adam, was born in 1947.
By the end of the 1940s with the Cold War changing the political climate. Bill’s left-wing past was becoming a liability. He was also very critical of American Foreign policy in Latin America. He was let go from Time and he and Gladys returned home to Toronto. I came along in 1951.
His journalistic career in Toronto led to being a music critic on air in the early days of CBC television. Then a visit from RCMP to question him about his radical past and his CBC job disappeared. Bill had been let go twice in five years because of his political past. It was time for change. He decided he did not want to work for someone else and became a house builder and a land developer. His business prospered and then expanded in 1963 when a partnership was formed with Ben Cowan, one of Gladys’ brothers. The partnership was called the O’Shanter Development Co. Ltd. and has continued through to this day.
But the rebel in Bill did not go away. By the mid 1960s he started writing about economics. He was very critical of macroeconomic theory and what he felt were the resultant central-bank policies. Although not an academically trained economist, he did get papers published in journals in France and Holland as well as at home. In the mid 1970s he started writing books on economics. His last book was written in 2002 at the age 88. He and Professor John Hotson from Waterloo met in 1971 and started to collaborate, founding COMER, the Committee on Monetary and Economic Reform, in 1986.
In 2008 at the age of 94, Bill sued the Bank of Canada in order to make the Bank live up to its own mandate. In 2017 the case was finally lost when the Supreme court denied leave to appeal. From the age of 13 to 103, 90 years of Fighting the Good Fight!
When the COMER suit was launched, the government immediately put forward a “motion to strike” – that is, to declare that the matter was not one able to be settled in court.
While the government succeeded in curbing the progress of COMER’s legal challenge, regarding the failure of both government and the Bank of Canada to fulfil their responsibilities, under the constitu-tion and the Bank of Canada Act, the suit raised the level of awareness – nationally and globally – on critical monetary issues, and opened the way for others to proceed.