The Story of the Canadian Youth Congress
by Ruth Latta
The Canadian Youth Congress grew out of the Great Depression. Originated, developed and administered by young people, it began as a Toronto-based group in 1935 and grew into a national umbrella organization, including youth from all social classes and a variety of religious and ethnic groups.
Delegates from the affiliated groups met annually. After the initial organizing congress in Toronto in May 1935, five subsequent national congresses were held: in 1936 in Ottawa, in 1937 in Montreal, in 1938 in Toronto, in 1939 in Winnipeg and in 1940 in Montreal. The Canadian Youth Congress sent representatives to the first World Youth Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1936, and to the second, at Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1938. It split in 1940 over the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but continued in reduced form until 1942. At its peak, it had a constituent membership of over 400,000 and its annual national conferences were attended by over 700 young people.
During its short life, the Canadian Youth Congress had a signficiant impact, both directly and indirectly. It proposed a Canada Youth Act which never became law but influenced Prime Minister King to establish a committee of the National Employment Commission to investigate youth problems, and a Dominion-Provincial Youth Training Program. In 1938, the CYC conducted a survey of unemployment conditions among the young, and the following year, sent a delegation to the federal Minister of Labour, asking for an expansion of the Youth Training Program and a greater expenditure on public works, to provide employment.
The CYC expanded the horizons of many young people. The coming together of young people from coast to coast could not help but break down barriers among religions and cultures. On a personal-development level, participation in the CYC and its affiliates was an education for many young people.
To write They Tried: The Story of the Canadian Youth Congress, Ruth Latta not only looked at the organization's archived material in the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections in the Mills Memorial Library at McMaster University, but also interviewed older adults who had been involved in the CYC.
Among them was the late Kenneth Chown Woodsworth, former Secretary of the CYC. In a 1993 interview with Ruth Latta, discussing the CYC's legacy, he said, "Well, we didn't bring about world peace or a more humane economic system, but we tried."
The Canadian Youth Congress demonstrated that a youth constituency existed and paved the way for subsequent youth organizations. Its inclusiveness was remarkable then, and now as well. In a large, sparsely populated country, the Canadian Youth Congress helped young Canadians get to know each other and fostered the growth of a Canadian identity.
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