He transcended partisan politics. Stanley Knowles, the longtime conscience of Parliament, came to Ottawa 55 years ago to improve the plight of the weak and poor. His work ethic and grasp of parliamentary procedure were awe-inspiring. So were the dignity and decency that always kept him above the rough-and-tumble of the political wars. Former prime minister Joe Clark remembers being a young Conservative MP, embarrassed by one of Knowles's NDP colleagues on a procedural technicality - and the way the legendary parliamentarian crossed the floor and sat down with him for a 30-minute pep talk. "With Stanley, you had a sense of collegiality in the fraternity of Parliament," recalls Clark. "He was not an ideologue at all: his attitude was more Christian than socialist."
Knowles, who died last week just days short of his 89th birthday, never really drew a distinction between his religious and political faiths. "I knew him to be a man of great integrity," Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said in a statement last week, adding that Knowles had a "passionate commitment to making Canada a better place."
Decent and compassionate, he had true empathy for the downtrodden. And no wonder: Knowles was born in California on June 18, 1908, after his staunchly Methodist parents moved there from Nova Scotia to seek their fortunes. But they died broken and penniless. Knowles, who came to Canada at age 16, worked as a printer to pay his way through Brandon College in Winnipeg before becoming a United Church minister. Many years later, he would still reach into his wallet and proudly pull out his membership card in the printers' union. But even as he demanded that governments display Christian compassion for those suffering during the Great Depression, he realized it was "not enough to preach these things from the pulpit. I had to get into the struggle."
In the 1930s and 1940s, there was no better place for that than Winnipeg, the centre of Canadian socialism. Knowles twice ran unsuccessfully for Parliament under the banner of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to the New Democratic Party. Then in 1942, he won a byelection in Winnipeg North Centre when the seat was vacated due to the death of party founder and leader J. S. Woodsworth. So began an astounding run in Canadian political history - a string of 13 federal election wins, broken only by the sweep of the Diefenbaker Tories in 1958. Inside the House, Knowles wasted no time. His maiden speech in 1943 was an appeal for social justice, lower unemployment, better pensions and improved housing. He returned to those same themes thousands of times over his decades in the House. It was a mark of the esteem in which he was held by members on both sides of the House that his pleas for equity for the less fortunate were always listened to with respect, no matter how often he made them.
As an opposition MP, his clout was limited. He found a unique way to get around that barrier: mastering parliamentary rules and procedures to the point where no one in the House knew them better. "Stanley was the Gretzky of Parliament," recalled Douglas Fisher, a former CCF MP and now an Ottawa newspaper columnist. Knowles's great moment in the sun: the month-long national pipeline debate of 1956 when he and Davie Fulton, the Tory House leader, were constantly on their feet challenging the Liberal government's tactics in invoking closure to pass a bill incorporating TransCanada PipeLines Ltd., a debate that led directly to the defeat of Louis Saint-Laurent's Liberal government a year later.
His tireless work habits earned him additional respect and affection. Former governor general Ed Schreyer, who as an NDP MP was Knowles's neighbor in the House of Commons, recalled the elaborate cross-referencing system of Speaker's rulings and parliamentary rules Knowles kept in his office. That helps explain what kept Knowles toiling long into the night through weekends and even on Christmas Eve. When his wife, Vida, who always lived in Winnipeg, died in 1978, he took a day off - then headed back to work.
There was, in fact, always a monastic quality to his sparse office, his frugal lifestyle, and the way he boarded with the same Ottawa family for more than four decades. But as Knowles freely admitted, the House of Commons was "his main life" - a fact that Clark recognized by appointing Knowles to the Privy Council in 1979. His life, however, changed forever in 1981 when a debilitating stroke left him unable to follow the flow of questions in the House and ended his active parliamentary career. Three years later, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made Knowles an honorary officer of the House of Commons and gave him a special seat at the clerk's desk where he could watch the proceedings. A painfully thin Gothic figure, he continued to make regular trips to his sixth floor office and then to the House to watch the daily give-and-take. As Alistair Fraser, the former clerk of the House of Commons, pointed out: "It is hard to imagine Parliament without Stanley." The void he leaves is much greater than a simple empty chair in the huge chamber he so loved.
Maclean's June 23, 1997