On Thursday, November 24 in the Berney Theatre, the Jewish Heritage Centre, Parks Canada and the Manitoba Historical Society unveiled a plaque designating Abraham Albert Heaps as a person of national historic significance. Heaps, a labour activist and politician at the local and national level played a prominent role in lobbying for major public programs such as the old age pension and unemployment insurance.
The newly-named person of national historical significance, A. A. Heaps, was born to a working class family in Leeds, England in 1885. He left school at age 13 to work as an upholsterer. In 1911, Heaps came to Winnipeg to seek greater opportunity and found work in the CPR shops that paid him enough to bring over his fiancée. Bessie and Abe Heaps, as they appear in the 1916 census, married and had two sons, David and Leo, both of whom became decorated war heroes in World War II. A journalist and author, Leo wrote his father’s biography, Rebel in the House.
Unionization was more advanced in England than in Canada, and Abe became active in the Trades Union Council. This propelled him into politics and he served on the Winnipeg City Council from 1917 to 1925. As a unionist he was active in the 1919 General Strike while, as an alderman, he sought a compromise solution. Nevertheless, the Canadian government arrested him and charged him with seditious libel. Conducting his own defence, he won an acquittal.
Now famous across Canada, Heaps won election to Parliament in 1925 as a representative of the Independent Labour Party along with J.S. Woodsworth. The two held the balance of power in the 1926 parliament and kept Mackenzie King in power in exchange for passing Canada’s first Old-Age Pension Act. When the Liberals won a majority, Labour’s influence waned and Heaps failed to pass an Unemployment Insurance Act until the depths of the Depression. His other proposals had to wait until after World War II. Despite his progressive agenda, Heaps’s constructive attitude and careful preparation earned him the friendship of Liberals and Conservatives alike.
In addition to advocating for the working classes, Heaps kept a special eye on Jewish affairs. The second Jewish Member of Parliament, he pressed the government to increase Jewish immigration. At first successful, he could only intervene in numerous individual cases as Canadian policies became more restrictive. One example of his intervention was lobbying the government to relax bureaucratic obstacles preventing the Makarever Rabbi, Shmuel Abba Twersky, from bringing his family from Europe. In another case, he helped a Jewish woman return to Canada after she foolishly went to Detroit without proper papers. During the 1930s, Heaps did everything he could to change Canada’s “None is Too Many” exclusion of Jewish immigration without success.
The Leeds, England Jewish community was known for Labour Zionism and Heaps was no exception. In the early 1930s, he successfully lobbied the Canadian government to abolish tariffs preventing the sale of Jaffa oranges. The grateful Palestinian Citrus Association invited him to visit. On his return, Heaps spoke and wrote enthusiastically about Jewish achievements in the land of Israel.
Community activities filled Heaps’s days when he came back to Winnipeg from Ottawa. He addressed numerous meetings in the Jewish community, ranging from community fundraising to banquets honouring departing rabbis, to election rallies.
Heaps’s political career came to an end when he lost the 1940 election to his Liberal rival. Opponents portrayed him as a pacifist, opposing Canadian participation in World War II. The charge was untrue but plausible, since he had opposed conscription during the First World War. Another reason was that the North End was changing. A measure of economic success eroded some of socialism’s appeal to the district’s growing professional and business classes.
At age 55, Heaps was scarcely ready to retire and he didn’t have enough money, anyway. Turning down a Senate seat, he accepted government appointments such as supervising grain shipments to Britain from Port Arthur (Thunder Bay). He also bought and sold art works, even donating some significant paintings to the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Heaps died in 1954 while visiting relatives in England.
This remarkable figure with a GradeSix education became a statistician, a lawyer, and a parliamentary critic of note. His progressive agenda and his persistence truly made him a person of national historical significance, while his care for specifically Jewish matters made him a major figure in the history of the Winnipeg Jewish community.