Joe Zuken: Citizen and Socialist


225 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55028-303-0
DDC 971.27'4303'092





Reviewed by Paul G. Thomas

Paul G. Thomas is a professor of Political Studies at the University of


This book is a fine biography of an extraordinary individual. Zuken was
a long-serving politician on first the school board and then the city
council of Winnipeg. He was also a Communist, with an intense passion
for social justice and a strong identification with the less powerful
within society. Once viewed as a threat to the social and political
order, Zuken ultimately gained respectability and admiration from the
establishment he so often fought. When he died, in 1986, more than 400
people from all walks of life attended his funeral and he was widely
praised for being the conscience of the city. It was his intelligence,
honesty, and integrity that were so impressive. No rigid ideologue, he
was, in Smith’s words, “a complex human being who spent his life
wrestling at the edges where reality and ideals come into conflict.”
(Smith served as Zuken’s campaign manager in a 1979 run for the
mayor’s job. While Zuken was bound to lose the contest, he saw it as
important to challenge the directions being taken by the city.)

Smith has done extensive research on Zuken and on the historical
context in which he worked. In a very readable fashion, he describes the
social and political forces that shaped Zuken’s life. While most
Manitobans have heard of Zuken, they will discover here parts of his
life that were previously little known. For example, he went into
theatre to overcome his severe shyness, and both directed and acted in
radical-theatre productions in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a lawyer,
providing the cheapest legal help in town. In the 1920s and 1930s he
defended strikers in the needle trade; during the 1940s he defended
people persecuted under wartime regulations. He fought the lunacy of
Cold War paranoia during the 1950s. On the school board he promoted a
kindergarten program and the eradication of racist materials from the
curriculum. From 1962 to 1983, Zuken served on city council as a
representative from Winnipeg’s north end. He regularly fought pitched
battles with the conservative majority from the suburbs and with
developers. Even after his retirement from electoral politics in 1983,
he came back to lead a citizen’s movement to oppose an opulent pension
plan for councilors. Zuken was not just a mischievous troublemaker; he
sought to use the system to advance the cause of greater equality. While
he was never mayor or leader of a major group on council, he served his
cause with great distinction. This book is a worthy tribute to him.


Smith, Doug., “Joe Zuken: Citizen and Socialist,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 28, 2024,