T.A. Crerar: A Liberal in a hurry

September 22, 2014

“War was once again proclaimed on the political fields of Canada. But this was a new type of war; for the first time it was three-sided.”

Today, although the only Prime Ministers of Canada have been either Conservative or Liberal, with the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the official opposition, not to mention the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party, I do not think anyone can really claim that we have but a two party system.

When did this more-than-two-national-party system begin? Read on:

Western People
November 12, 1981
T.A. Crerar: A Liberal in a hurry
by Tanya Lester

The 1921 federal election must have been quite a mudslinging event. The Union Government, which had united Conservatives, Liberals and independents for the duration of World War 1, no longer existed. War was once again proclaimed on the political fields of Canada.

But this was to be a new type of war: for the first time it was three-sided. In Ottawa the man held responsible for the new political warfare was Thomas Alexander Crerar, the leader of the new National Progressive Party or the Farmer’s Party. In The Masques of Ottawa, a Central Canadian named A. Bridle dedicated a chapter entitled “Number One Hard” to the new leader. “In the triangle of leaders at Ottawa he (Crerar) is the angle of lowest personal, though by no means lowest human, interest,” Bridle wrote, and went on to compare him with the Conservative and Liberal leaders. “Meighen is impressive; King brilliant. Crerar — is business.”

By choosing Crerar as their leader, a man who was neither impressive nor brilliant but who had a head for farm business, Prairie farmers were sending a message to Ottawa. They were telling the old-line Conservative and Liberal parties that they meant business. The farmers were saying they were tired of receiving low prices for their grain while Central Canadian corporations continued to prosper. They were tired of paying high freight costs to ship their grain down east. And they were sick and tired of the high federal government tariffs which prevented them from buying inexpensive farming equipment from the United States. Disillusioned with the old-line parties because they represented and protected the big business interests of the east at the expense of Westerners, the farmers, through the Progressive Party, had decided to field their own candidates for the 1921 federal election.

In Ottaw, where he had always been regarded as a radical Liberal, Crerar, by leading the Progressives, was elevated or debased ( depending on the individual’s point of view) to the level of a revolutinary.

“In short, Crerar proposes one more revolution, whether by one fell swoop or by a slow process of getting us used to here a little and there a little more — we do not yet know,” Bridle said. “What we do know is that he proposes to govern this country by a huge economic group that used to go to Ottawa as delegations; that in his opinion the real Capital of Canada is not economically Ottawa, but the ground floor of the Grain Exchange Building in Winnipeg.” Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Meighen put it more simple. He accused all Progressives of being addicted to “Socialisticm Bolshevistic and Soviet nonsense.” Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King smugly dubbed them “Liberals in a hurry.”

King’s reference to the Progressives, as far a Crerar was concerned, was probably the most accurate. Crerar began political life as a Liberal, resigned on the tariff issue to lead the Progressives, and was finally enticed back into the Liberal Party fold. Some accounts claim Crerar’s goal had been none toher than to reform the Liberal Party, to make it more sympathetic to the farmer’s needs by, among other things, easing the tariff.

Born in 1876, Crerar had grown up on his family’s Manitoba farm. He had wanted to become a doctor but when dreams for such a career never materialized he turned to farming. Crerar soon learned about the raw deals to which most farmers were subjected. As a young farmer, he took his first load of grain to a grain elevator in Russell, Manitoba. The grain elevator operator offered Crerar fifty-nine cents per bushel, nineteen cents less than the going price at terminal. To make matters worse, he was docked a bushel and a half on the load of fifty bushels on the freight rate for his No. 1 Northern wheat. Knowing there was nowhere else to go in order to get a better deal, Crerar voiced his frustrations.

“There’s no use going to the other elevators, for you’re all alike,” Crerar told the operator angrily.

“Then take your damned grain home again!” the elevator manager answered.

Fortunately Crerar could supplement his farming income by teaching school. When he himself took a job as a grain elevator manager, Crerar never forgot the poor treatment he had received at the hands of other grain elevator operators. He won the reputation of always dealing fairly with the farmers.

Around this time E. A. Partridge, president of the new Grain Growers’ Grain Company (GGGC), began noticing the young “Alex” Crerar. When in Russell, Partridge had seen and heard about the trust local farmers felt for Crerar. At a meeting Partridge called in the area to sekk shares for the GGGC, Crerar was one of the eight people who showed up and one of the four who bought shares.

Crerar bought the shares because he was impressed with Partridge and the aims of the GGGC. “What these men were trying to accomplish appealed to him as a big thing, a bigger thing than most of the farmers yet realized, and it deserved all the help he could give it,” journalist and former secretary to the premier of Manitoba Hopkins Moorhouse wrote about Crerar’s impressions of the GGGC executive. “If an idea occurred to him that he thought might be of service he sat down and wrote a letter, offering the suggestion on the chance that it might prove useful to the Executive. He did everything he could to build up the Company’s business in the Russell district and when he returned home from the shareholders’ organization meeting he kept right on sending in business, offering helpful suggestions and saying a good word when possible.”

Crerar’s work for the GGGC continued to interest Partridge. At the time Partridge was being accused of personally profiting from the GGGC at the expense of the farmers and had decided not to run for re-election as president. A letter was sent to Crerar requesting him to consider filling the vacant position. When Crerar got the letter he ignored it, thinking he was capable of handling the GGGC presidency. But Crerar knew the agricultural business both from a farmer’s and grain elevator manager’s point of view. He also knew the workings of the GGGC. In 1907, Crerar became Partridge’s successor to the GGGC presidency.

Even before Crerar’s voice was heard in Ottawa, the provincial government in Manitoba had begun to recognize him as a powerful man who was head of a powerful company and backed by Prairie farmers.

Crerar’s correspondence with Premier Rodmond Roblin concerning the GGGC’s leasing of provincial government-owned grain elevators is only one example of the respect the Manitoba government had for him. Crerar’s letters were written in a tone few people would dare use when corresponding with a province’s premier. They were demanding letters. In one, Crerar expressed impatience with having to renew the GGGC’s lease on the grain elevators each year. In another, he named a time when it would be convenient for him to meet with the premier on the maatter. The unisgned copies of Roblin’s replies to Crerar’s letters were, for the premier, ususually meet.

“The matter (on the leasing of the elevators) was canvassed from every standpoin and while all the other offers were much more favourable from a financial standpoint than yours, the Government felt that inasmuch as your company represents farmers to this Province it was in the public interest to lease them to your firm even though the rental was very much less than that offered by others,’ Roblin wrote to Crerar. But even though it seemed the GGGC was getting a good deal on the rental of the elevators, Crerar continued to badger Roblin for further concessions. Among other requests, he wanted the GGGC to be exempted from certain taxes concerning the elevators’ rental.

Crerar had another reason for being curt with the Conservative premier. He had become politically close with both T”C” Norris, who was to defeat Roblin to become the next premier, and the Manitoba Liberal Party.

“In politics Crerar was a Liberal and an agrarian, but a national, not a sectional Liberal, an economic, not a class agrarian,” wrote W”L” Morton, author of The Progressive Party in Canada. “In 1917 he was representative, as few, if any, others could claim to be, of both western Liberalism and the western organized farmers.”

“As a great class of farmers, composing the most important factor in the progress and development of our country, we must learn the lesson that we must organize and work together to secure those legislative and economic reforms necessary to well-being,’ Crerar said. Having failed to help bring about a Western Liberal Party in opposition to Laurier’s stand against conscription in 1917, Crerar accepted the portfolio of agriculture minister in the Unionist government formed for the duration of World War 1.

Crerar had taken the portfolio in the Unionist government because the Liberal Party had given him some assurance that they supported his advocacy for a low tariff. By 1919, however, Crerar realized the Unionist government had no intention of reducing the tariff as promised. He resigned hims cabinet position and went on to lear the Progressive Party in 1921 election campaign.

But Crerar was unhappy with his life in Ottawa. In Western Canada, where Crerar continued to hold the GGGC presidency, he was a very powerful man. Ottawa gave him the feeling he had moved from being a big fish in a little pond to being a small fish in a big pond. “He missed the breezy, open ways of ‘the Peg’ and the sensation of being general manager of the biggest concern west of the lakes, the Grain Growers’ Grain Co.,” Bridle wrote. “Crerar could not business-manage Ottawa.”

Despite Crerar’s realization of how difficult it would be to get farmers’ concessions through the federal government system, he decided to lead the Progressives in the election. By “thundering” across the Prairies about the need for reduced tariffs, Crerar may well have endowed the farmers with false hopes that their needs could, at this time, be recognized and rectified.

Regardless, the farmers showed their discontent with the old-time party policies by electing 65 Progressives to the House of Commons in 1921. King won the prime ministership by only a slight minority. But rather than appealing to the Progressives, King chose to depend on the 65 Quebec members’ support who had little sympathy for the farmers’ wishes.

Having been ignored by King, it would have seemed appropriate for the Progressives to campaign even more vigorously against the Liberals in the 1925 election. Instead many members, including Crerar, helped re-elect the Liberal government. Apparently King had won the Progressives’ support on an issue which had little to do with farming. He had appealed to their sense of national pride brought on by the Customs scandal. He convinced them national unity and freedom from Great Britain’s interference was the most important issue of the day.

It can only be speculated as to whether King had already offered Crerar the Liberal cabinet position he was eventually to take. By 1925, Crerar had officially resigned the leadership of the Progressives. He expressed dissatisfaction with the Progressive Party split as the reason behind his resignation.

“This (Progressive) movement in its roots was essentially a liberal movement; but the Alberta section of it, and to a very large degree the Ontario section as well, insisted that it was a class movement, and had dreams of the agricultural community of Canada holding a balance of power in the councils of the nation,” Crerar wrote afterwards. “In so far as I was concerned, I would have nothing to do with these ideas; and upon this rock the Progressive Movement shivered and broke.” But in King’s eyes, Crerar remained the Progressive leader throughout the 1925 election and until he was once again firmly ensconced in the Liberal Party.

By this time, from a personal viewpoint, Crerar was probably thinking the Liberal Party was much more desirable than the Progressives. He was a man who had enjoyed power in the West as GGGC president. Although he remained the president until 1929, he must have realized his influence over Prairie farmers was eroding. As early as 1921 farmers had begun to see the GGGC as a company which had become more interested in its own business profits than its concern with the farmers. Crerar was closely associated with the GGGC in the farmers’ minds. They started to turn to the co-operative wheat pools that were springing up across the West.

Although it was to be a different type of power, Crerar must have foreseen that he could once again gain back his power in the Liberal Party. He rejoined the party and was named Minister of Railways. He later became Minister of Mines and Resources. For the remainder of his political career Crerar became a sorto f ambassador to the West who defended the federal Liberal government policies.

“What inconsistency there may be in the Crerar story finds its origin in his interpreters rather than in the man himself,” history professor Kenneth McNaught wrote in Saturday Night upon Crerar’s retirement from the Senate. “He always was a representative of the prairie WASP tradition — a tradition that has seldom prohibited its exemplars from moving east, like Sifton and Meighan, to put starch into the Protestant ethic in the nation’s business centres. True, he’s no longer given to thundering against the tariff as the source of all the farmer’s woes. But the essence of his economic and political thinking has not altered.”

Crerar had originally quite the Unionist government because neither the Conservatives or Liberals had supported his fight for lower tariffs. But he returned to the Liberals without revitalizing the party to the point where it was ready to focus on farmers’ needs even on the tariff issue. If he started out a “Liberal in a hurry” to refore the party, Crerar ended his career as a Progressive who had slowed down considerably.
To read the early posts in this blog, please go to http://www.writingsmall.com
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Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader” by Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or by going to the title and author name to read the first few pages and buy it at amazon.com
Tanya’s other books are Women Rights/Writes , Friends I Never Knewand Dreams and Tricksters”. They are available in some library systems and elsewhere.


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