The reform movement and the social gospelThe early twentieth century reform movement was in essence a multi-pronged and often overlapping campaign for social purity. In Manitoba, social reformers could become active in a dizzying array of organizations: the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Direct Legislation League, the Social Service Council, the Political Equality League, the Women's University Club, the All People's Forum, the Trades and Labor Council, the Women's Labor League, and the Methodist Church. Not all reformers agreed with each other on all issues: to give just one example, many leadings suffragists supported prohibition but were critical of trade unionism, while prominent Protestant clergymen were active supporters of suffrage, prohibition and trade unions.
This movement was in large measure a response to the industrial revolution, which was seen to have polluted society. Winnipeg's rapid growth had been accompanied by the growth of crowded slums, severe public health problems, and, in the eyes of the reformers and the nation's newspapers, a growing prostitution problem. The growing number of young women working alone in the city as servants or factory girls led many to worry about how they would put a roof over their heads, and others to fret about their morality.
The reformers saw threats coming from every direction: drink was the cause of most poverty and crime, while the teachers in bilingual schools were not educating young people in the language and cultural values of a British nation. The political parties were corrupt because they only looked out for the interests of politicians and their supporters. Politicians could pass laws that would serve to regulate morals, but only if the political system was first purified.
Many in the reform movement claimed they were building Christ's Kingdom on Earth. This reflected the fact that they had been inspired by the social gospel movement that was sweeping through many of the Protestant churches. In Winnipeg many of the city's most prominent Methodist clergymen embraced the social gospel. The most influential of these was Salem Bland, who taught at Wesley College and shaped the beliefs of many young ministers. Bland's teachings so outraged Premier Rodmond Roblin that he wrote to the college demanding that he fired. The social gospel ministers placed great importance on a Christian's social responsibilities: as a result they found themselves taking stands on suffrage, temperance, labour relations and educational reform.
One could see the social gospel in action at the All People's Mission in Winnipeg's North End. Originally intended to win new immigrants to the Protestant faith, under the direction of J.S. Woodsworth it began to minister to their more immediate needs. Fresh air camps, gymnasiums, night classes in English, boys and girls clubs and concerts were part of the program at the mission.
Dismay with a corrupt political system, led reformers to call for the introduction of what they termed direct democracy. Manitoba's Direct Legislation League called for adoption of the initiative, recall, and the referendum. The initiative would give the public the right to create laws directly by requiring governments to either adopt a law or hold a referendum on proposals that had the support of a significant portion of the province's population. Referenda would provide people with a way of blocking unpopular laws: once a bill had been introduced in the Legislature, people could petition the government to hold a referendum on it before it was put into effect. The recall could be used to make sure that politicians did not lose touch with the electorate: if 15 per cent of the voters in a constituency signed a recall petition, the legislature would have to hold an early election in that constituency.
The reformers were not without their own prejudices. Many automatically concluded that poverty was synonymous with immortality, viewing the festivities and social celebrations of the immigrant communities as drunken debaucheries. This was one of the reasons why this movement met with opposition. Roman Catholic leaders were suspicious of a movement that wanted to make the state, rather than the church, the regulator of morality. The reformers' more rigid and narrow-minded attitudes are often described as nativism, a term that reflects their suspicion and often hostility towards Roman Catholics, Eastern Europeans and political radicals, all of whom they viewed as posing a threat to English Canadian values. This nativism contributed to the reform movements' attraction to laws intended to regulate, and thereby improve, the behaviour of groups in society that were judged in some manner to be corrupt or inferior.