One hundred years ago: Trotsky leaves Canada for the revolution

One hundred years ago, Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary and leader of the October Revolution in 1917, left the Amherst concentration camp in Nova Scotia where he had been detained for almost a month. The story of the time that Trotsky spent in Canada, while not that well known, is a very interesting episode in Trotsky's road to revolutionary Russia, where he would aid the Russian working class in taking power later that year.

“Dangerous socialist”

Trotsky was in New York when he heard the news that the 300-year-old Tsarist regime was overthrown by the Petrograd proletariat in February 1917 (March in the Gregorian calendar). While the revolution had overthrown the Tsar, the provisional government that took its place was a capitalist government. After Lenin arrived in Russia, he explained that the only reason that the working class had not taken power was because it wasn't conscious or organized enough and that what was needed was to immediately begin the patient work of arguing in favour of the seizure of power by the soviets. Trotsky, who was in New York, drew similar conclusions, independently of Lenin. In his autobiography My Life, he reported the following discussion that he had with American comrades after hearing news of the revolution in Russia:

“A cablegram has arrived saying that Petrograd has appointed a Guchkov-Miliukoff ministry. What does it mean?”

“That to-morrow there will be a ministry of Miliukoff and Kerensky.”

“Is that so? And what next?”

“Next? We shall be the next.”

Together with other Russian emigrants, Trotsky immediately began the process of returning to Russia. On March 27th, after securing the necessary documents, Trotsky, his wife Natalia Sedova, and their nine- and 11-year-old sons embarked on the SS Christianiafjord across the Atlantic. For once in his life, Trotsky was traveling legally!

On March 30th, the boat docked in Halifax. While the other passengers underwent regular inspection, Trotsky and his Russian comrades were victims of long interrogations and even questions about their political allegiances. Trotsky refused to engage in this discussion.

On April 3rd, British officers boarded the Christianiafjord and headed towards Trotsky and his comrades. Trotsky tells the story of this situation in his autobiography:

We declared that the order was illegal and refused to obey, whereupon armed bluejackets pounced on us, and amid shouts of “shame” from a large part of the passengers, carried us bodily to a naval cutter, which delivered us in Halifax under the convoy of a cruiser. While a group of sailors were holding me fast, my older boy ran to help me and struck an officer with his little fist.

“Shall I hit him again, papa?” he shouted.

He was eleven then, and it was his first lesson in British democracy.

Trotsky was taken to the concentration camp in Amherst, while his wife and two kids were taken to a local police officer in Halifax. Eleven days later they were transferred to a hotel; they had to report to the police every day. They forbade Trotsky and Natalia to see each other unless Trotsky would promise not to take the opportunity to try and communicate with the outside world. Indignant, Trotsky refused to meet his wife under this condition.

Upon arriving in Amherst, Trotsky and his comrades still did not know what they were being held for. They were told that the Russian consul would be present where they were being taken; this was not the case. It was only on the morning of the following day that Colonel Morris, the commander of the camp, communicated the reason for their arrest to the Russian prisoners: “You are dangerous to the present Russian government.”

In response they said that the documents were delivered to them by representatives of the Russian government in New York and that everything was in order. The response to this was:

“You are dangerous to the Allies in general.”

“A German Agent”

The British authorities were fully aware of the danger that Trotsky posed. On March 22nd 1917, in a telegram from New York to London, an MI5 agent stated that:

“An important movement has been started here among Socialists, with a view to getting back Revolutionary Socialists into Russia ... with [the] object of establishing a Republic and initiating Peace movement; also of promoting Socialistic Revolutions in other countries, including the United States.”

The telegram stated that the “principal leader” was Trotsky. A few days later, a new telegram was sent from New York to London stating that Trotsky was traveling “with $10,000 provided by socialists and Germans.” The message was transmitted to the authorities in Halifax on April 1st and it was decided on April 3rd that Trotsky, his family, and his Russian comrades would be imprisoned “pending further instructions.”

When news about the imprisonment of Russian revolutionaries in Canada reached Russia, the British ambassador in Russia released official press releases stating that the Russians imprisoned in Amherst were traveling “under a subsidy from the German embassy, to overthrow the Provisional Russian government”. This accusation was thrown around and became the main rallying point for anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia in 1917: Trotsky was a German agent.

Lenin was particularly indignant about the accusations against Trotsky. On April 16th, he wrote in Pravda:

“Can one even for a moment believe the trustworthiness of the statement that Trotsky, the chairman of the Soviet of Workers’ Delegates in St. Petersburg in 1905—a revolutionary who has sacrificed years to a disinterested service of revolution—that this man had anything to do with a scheme subsidized by the German government? This is a patent, unheard-of, and malicious slander of a revolutionary. From whom did you get your information, Mr. Buchanan? Why don’t you disclose that? Six men dragged Comrade Trotsky away by his legs and arms, all in the name of friendship for the Provisional Russian government!”

As we know, the accusation would be extended to the entire Bolshevik party in the coming months, particularly after the failure of the July Days. Trotsky, with regards to these monstrous accusations, stated in his autobiography that: “Never before did people lie as much as they did during the ‘great war for liberty.’ If lies could explode, our planet would have been blown to dust long before the treaty of Versailles.”

The accusation against Trotsky and the Bolsheviks that they were for the defeat of Russia at the hands of Germany and that they were working towards this goal was a gigantic slander. The position of “revolutionary defeatism” has often been mis-characterized by enemies of the revolution and even by certain Marxists. But what was the position of Trotsky and his comrades? Twenty years later, recalling his arrest in Canada, Trotsky explained that:

I was arrested by the British authorities in Canada and detained in a concentration camp as an agent of Germany. Liebknecht and all his friends were accused of being agents of the czar. But we answered: We are for the defeat of the czar through the revolutionary action of the toiling masses. As the Germans are for the defeat of the Hohenzollerns they will not take any part in the war. A military defeat is not important for us, we are for the revolutionary victory. A revolutionary victory, in Russia as in Germany, will change the defeat into a victory for the toiling people.

This was the position of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, that which Trotsky explained in numerous speeches to his fellow prisoners at Amherst. This gained him almost immediate sympathy from the workers and sailors.

“In a concentration camp”

This is the title of the chapter in Trotsky's autobiography on his short stay in Canada. These words were not poorly chosen.

The War Measures Act was invoked by the Canadian government at the beginning of the war in 1914 and it was only lifted in 1920. During this period, more than 8,000 people were arrested and detained in improvised concentration camps across the country.

The largest of these camps was the camp in Amherst in Nova Scotia. This former Canadian Car and Foundry Co. building was converted to be able to hold up to 852 prisoners. It opened its doors on December 30th, 1914.

It was on April 17th, 1915 that the first prisoners were brought to the camp: 640 Germans captured on the vessel, Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosser. The living conditions in the camp were very difficult. On June 25th, 1915, a group of prisoners refused to enter the enclosure in spite of the exhortations of the guards. A riot ensued, during which one guard was killed, one prisoner was shot and four others were wounded.

Trotsky describes in My Life the difficult conditions in which the prisoners tried to pass the time:

The Amherst concentration camp was located in an old and very dilapidated iron-foundry that had been confiscated from its German owner. The sleeping bunks were arranged in three tiers, two deep, on each side of the hall. About eight hundred of us lived in these conditions. The air in this improvised dormitory at night can be imagined. Men hopelessly dogged the passages, elbowed their way through, lay down or got up, played cards or chess. Many of them practised crafts, some with extraordinary skill.

In the heart of the camp, imprisoned officers were housed apart from workers and sailors. Trotsky spoke of relations that were “hostile” between the masses and the officers. This class division inside the camp was reinforced by the presence of Trotsky. According to the Chronicle Herald, he even organized a strike of prisoners against the conditions inside the camp!

“A soviet-type experience”

Trotsky, who was in prison for the third time in his life, quickly became known to the workers and sailors, as well as the imprisoned officers and the authorities of the concentration camp. His “fiery Marxist speeches” made him a star among the prisoners and an enemy among the officers and the authorities. The Chronicle Herald spoke of this period as “a soviet-type experience.” Trotsky's recollection of this period paint the same picture:

The whole month I was there was like one continuous mass-meeting. I told the prisoners about the Russian revolution, about Liebknecht, about Lenin, and about the causes of the collapse of the old International, and the intervention of the United States in the war. Besides these speeches, we had constant group discussions. Our friendship grew warmer every day.

In the end, the German officers made complaints to the head of the camp, Colonel Morris, that Trotsky was decreasing the discipline in the camp with his “anti-patriotic propaganda.” Trotsky ironically remarked that: “The British colonel instantly sided with the Hohenzollern patriots and forbade me to make any more public speeches.” When it comes to silencing socialists, the bourgeoisie and their representatives have no country!

As tempers flared, Trotsky almost didn't leave the camp alive. During a very lively meeting, one of the commanders of the camp yelled at Trotsky, accusing him of fomenting a riot and disrespecting authority. As the tension increased, Captain Wightman had to put himself between Trotsky and a guard who was ready to attack Trotsky with his bayonet. Following this, Trotsky was subjected to a form of solitary confinement.

That was all it took to make the workers and sailors angry. Trotsky explained a letter titled “In British Captivity” how this incident contributed in cementing his close relationship with the German workers and sailors. No less than 530 of them submitted a petition to the authorities demanding that Trotsky be released immediately! “A plebiscite like this, carried out in the very face of Sergeant Olsen’s heavy-handed supervision, was more than ample compensation for all the hardships of the Amherst imprisonment,” we read in My Life.

The impact of Trotsky on his imprisoned comrades was immense. After the death of Trotsky in 1940, the captain F.C. Wightman, number two in charge of the camp at the time recounted that Trotsky “gave us a lot of trouble at the camp, and if he had stayed there any longer he would have made Communists of all the German prisoners.” This was an anticipation of the impact Trotsky was going to have when he reached Russian soil, becoming one of the most prominent speakers of the Bolshevik party, guiding the working class towards the seizure of power.

Liberated by the revolution

The incident at Amherst quickly took on international proportions. As soon as he was imprisoned, Trotsky attempted to send a telegram to the Russian government in protest but his telegrams ended up not being transmitted. However, one of Trotsky's comrades succeeded in sending this information to Novy Mir, the paper that Trotsky had been working for in New York, which published the news on April 10th.

It seems as though the news of the detention of Russian political refugees had reached Russia before this. Buchanan, the British ambassador to Russia at the time of the revolution, reports in his memoirs that:

The attacks made against us in the (Russian) Press on account of our detention of Russian political refugees had taken such a serious turn that they were even endangering the lives of some of the British factory owners (in Russia) whose position was already anything but secure owing to the uncertain attitude of the workmen. I had, therefore, to speak seriously to Milyukov and request him to take steps to put an end to this Press campaign.

According to Buchanan, on April 8th, Milyukov, then foreign Minister of the Russian Provisional government, asked Buchanan to release the Russian prisoners, only to beg him to cancel the request two days later. The executive of the Petrograd soviet protested against the imprisonment of their comrades: “Freedom fighters,” “Intolerable interference,” “Insult to the Russian revolution.” Big protest rallies were organized throughout Russia. Under pressure from the soviet and the masses, Milyukov was forced to give in and authorized the release of Trotsky and his comrades.

As we see, it was the pressure of the Russian masses that was a big factor in liberating Trotsky and his comrades from the Canadian concentration camp. As with every stage of the Russian revolution of 1917, it was the masses that allowed for decisive advances, leaving their mark on events.

On April 29th, Trotsky and his comrades were told to pack their bags without being told where they were being taken. Confronted with the Russian revolutionists’ refusal to move unless they were given information about where they were being taken, they were eventually forcibly taken away. Violently imprisoned at Amherst without reason, the same violent methods were used for their release. But Colonel Morris eventually gave in and explained to the prisoners that they were boarding a Danish ship bound for Russia.

Trotsky and Natalia Sedova were furious at the treatment that they had received at the hands of Canadian and British “democracy.” A few months later, a Halifax paper reported Sedova's words: “If ever I get back to my own country, I will talk, I will write, I will let my country people know that Canada is not free, that the United States is not free, that there is as much slavery in these countries as there is in Siberia.” Sedova was absolutely right, and the restrictions on liberties in the fight against Bolshevism in Canada would increase in the years to come. On September 27th, 1918, 13 socialist or leftist organizations were banned, all in the name of the struggle against Bolshevism, the “enemy alien.”

The workers and sailors at the Amherst concentration camp did not miss the opportunity to salute their Russian comrades. Trotsky describes the scene of his departure:

Although the officers shut themselves up in their compartment, and only a few poked their noses through the chinks, the sailors and workers lined the passage on both sides, an improvised band played the revolutionary march, and friendly hands were extended to us from every quarter. One of the prisoners delivered a short speech acclaiming the Russian revolution and cursing the German monarchy. Even now it makes me happy to remember that in the very midst of the war, we were fraternizing with German sailors in Amherst. In later years I received friendly letters from many of them, sent from Germany.

This brief episode of Trotsky on Canadian soil gives us insight into the impact of a figure like Trotsky in the revolutionary movement. Trotsky's “fiery Marxist speeches” which threatened to transform the 700 German workers and sailors into communists foreshadowed the unique role that Trotsky would play a few weeks later in Russia. Whether it was in the Petrograd soviet or later on the various fronts of the civil war, Trotsky became, along with Lenin, one of the main leaders of the revolution. It is no exaggeration that without the presence of these two outstanding revolutionaries, the Russian working class would not have been able to take power in Russia in 1917, nor would they have been able to keep it.

A report made by the National Post in 2014 about Trotsky's short passage in Canada ends with this: “As far as dangerous socialist goes, Leon Trotsky certainly fit the bill!” Today, more than ever before, more and more workers and youth are rediscovering the legacy of the Bolsheviks and this “dangerous socialist” Leon Trotsky. We must now build the forces of Marxism in order to complete what Trotsky, Lenin, and their comrades started 100 years ago.