by Bruce Cherney
Although he was the leader of a political party which long ago vanished from Canadian politic after a brief tenure at the national level, Thomas Alexander Crerar was named in 2004 by the federal minister of the environment as one of 13 people, events and places historically significant to Canada.
The long-time politician from Manitoba only had a short career as a federal party leader, as an unruly caucus led Crerar to announce his resignation as the leader of the National Progressive Party. The majority of Progressive MPs believed that they had been sent to Ottawa to fight for the reform of a parliamentary system corrupted by traditional party politics, so they refused to accept directions from a central authority. They felt their mission was “to do politics different” when they arrived in the nation's capital.
Just a year after the Progressives had stunned the nation by capturing enough seats in the December 7, 1921, federal election to enable it to become the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, Crerar tendered his resignation as leader of the party.
The Progressive MPs who supported party discipline simply packed their bags and moved over to the Liberals or dropped out of politics completely, leaving a rump of MPs to maintain the party name, although due to the infighting and defections, the Progressives soon disappeared as a political force in Ottawa.
The only thing that had remained as a legacy of the party was the name Progressive, which former Manitoba Premier John Bracken requested be added to the Conservative Party in 1943 when he took over that party’s leadership. But even that national party designation was abandoned when the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada. Only at the provincial level does the PC label survive.
Bracken was Manitoba's longest serving premier (1922 to 1943), who adhered during his tenure to the Progressive principle of abhorring party politics.
Crerar was born on a farm in Molesworth, Huron County, Ontario in 1876. At the age of five, he came west with his family who settled in the Silver Creek District near Russell, Manitoba.
He was educated at Portage la Prairie Collegiate and obtained a teacher's certificate. Later, Crerar purchased a quarter section of Hudson's Bay Company land which he farmed with his wife Jessie Hamilton. He also operated a sawmill for a number of years, gaining business experience which he would use to acquire a job as the manager of the Farmer's Elevator Co-op in Russell and as a grain buyer for the Winnipeg firm of Graves & Reilly at a time when “Wheat was King” in the West.
When the Grain Growers Company was formed in 1906, Crerar became interested in farmers' co-operative movements in Western Canada. In July 1907, he was elected a director and later became president of the company, serving in that capacity until 1917. When the Grain Growers amalgamated in 1917 with the Alberta Farmers Co-Operative Elevator to form the United Grain Growers Ltd., with its headquarters in Winnipeg, he served another 12 years as president until 1929. Later, he would also serve as a director of Great West Life Assurance, Canadian Steamship Lines Ltd., Algoma Steel Corp. Ltd., and Modern Dairies Ltd.
His political career began when he was elected the first reeve of Silver Creek, Manitoba.
His experience in the grain industry helped shape Crerar’s political ideology. Many Westerners were alienated by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy, an election platform announced in 1879 and when implemented, favoured high tariffs to keep out American goods and support Eastern Canadian industries. Like many involved in the farmers’ movement, Crerar was initially a Liberal Party supporter, although he was convinced by Prime Minister Robert Borden to join his Union government. The lure Borden used to hook Crerar was a cabinet position as the minister of agriculture.
Crerar accepted the offer in 1917 and began a political career that spanned decades with only two breaks. He was elected as MP in the Manitoba riding of Marquette (later ridings he represented were Brandon and Churchill in Manitoba).
Borden, though elected in 1911 as a Conservative in opposition to Liberal policy to negotiate a free trade deal with the United States, was able to persuade a number of Liberals to join his coalition. His Union government was nominally formed to present a united front during the First World War. Others would argue Borden used this tactic to keep hold of the prime ministership and to thwart the Liberal Party's political aspirations.
Crerar lasted for two years in the Borden cabinet, resigning in protest of the government's continued high tariff policy in the 1919 budget. Furthermore, the Borden government had refused to continue the Wheat Board, one measure that helped farmers, beyond 1920 in the face of drought (1918-21) and low crop prices.
As reported in the June 12, 1919, Manitoba Free Press, Crerar told MPs in the House of Commons that he was forced to resign because of his opposition to the government’s fiscal policy of “protectionist tendencies” favouring eastern manufacturers at the expense of farmers.
Crerar and 10 dissident MPs broke with the Borden government and crossed the floor of the House of Commons. They formed the National Progressive Party — “Progressives” was a name coined by Dr. Michael Clark — in 1920 with Crerar as the party’s first leader.
The Progressives would shortly evolve into a wider coalition of farmers, socialists and radicals opposed to the traditional party system. Their platform called for a reduction of railway rates, the construction of competing rail lines, a reduction of the tariffs farmers had to pay for manufactured goods and reciprocity (free trade) with the United States. They called their platform the New National Policy.
Farmers were also enraged at the Union government for cancelling their sons’ exemption from conscription in 1918.
Crerar was reluctant at first to support the new farmer-based political movement, but he was a pragmatist and recognized the appeal of these policies to soft Liberal voters.
High tariffs were the most contentious item perpetuated by the old National Policy. “It became the symbol of the wheat growers' exploitation and frustration, alleged and actual,” according to Manitoba historian W.L. Morton.
Farmers also shied away from the Liberals because they were viewed as hypocrites. The Liberals had earlier professed a low tariff policy, but in 1908 Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier’s government implemented a three-tariff system. When the Laurier Liberals returned to a low-tariff policy in the lead-up to the 1911 election, it was too late to gain back the trust of farmers.
Many Liberals, such as Clifford Sifton, the minister of the interior who had promoted mass immigration from Eastern Europe and the United States, and Thomas Crerar, turned to the Conservatives. When the Conservative-Unionists failed to implement changes, the stage was set for the formation of the National Progressive Party in 1920.
The creation of a third national party was made possible because of the immigration encouraged by the Laurier government, which included an influx of thousands of Americans and Britons who had their own political traditions. Morton said the Progressives were the embodiment of “Jacksonian, Clear-Grit democracy, reinforced by American populism and English radicalism.”
Western politics then had a populist base whereby “government rests on the will of the sovereign people,” and the direct will of the people was paramount.
The populist nature of the Progressives is evident in its composition. The more radical wing of the party from Alberta took its cues from Henry Wise Wood, the president of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), who believed Parliament should be a place of co-operative decisions made for the benefit of society, not competition between government and opposition.
Wise, an American by birth, also believed that MPs should solely represent their constituents. As a result, he said that votes in the House of Commons should only follow the wishes of constituents and not party unity.
The UFA was the base of the National Progressive Party in Alberta. Wise was offered the job of premier when the UFA swept the province, but refused. This was totally in keeping with his abhorrence of party politics.
On the other hand, Crerar believed that reform and making the national government more accountable could only be made through party unity.
These conflicting views would haunt the Progressives' political machinery.
When Arthur Meighen of Portage la Prairie, who had taken over Borden's Unionist government and converted it back to the Conservative banner in 1920, called an election in 1921, the politics of protest were sweeping farm communities in the West and into
Ontario. It helped the Progressive cause when Meighen, despite being a westerner, adopted the protectionist philosophy of the National Policy and denounced the Progressives as free traders intent on destroying the big policy for their own selfish class advantage; that is, for the benefit of farmers.
To the astonishment of political observers, the Progressives took 65 seats, including 39 in the West. The Liberals captured 117 seats (one less than a majority, forming the first minority government in federal political history) by adopting a
diverse platform with something for everyone, and the Conservatives were reduced to only 50 seats. Meighen lost his own seat in Portage la Prairie to Progressive candidate, Harry Leader.
Among the surprises in a surprising election for the traditional parties was the election of the first woman MP, 31-year-old school teacher Agnes MacPhail who ran on the Progressive ticket. She had been a member of the United Farmers of Ontario. The 1921 campaign was the first election in which Canadian women participated in significant numbers since receiving universal suffrage in federal elections.
It should also be noted that Labour Party MP J.S. Woodsworth of Winnipeg came over to the Progressives because he would not support the radicalism then being advocated by the socialist movement. But his stay with the Progressives was short, and he went on to lead the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which eventually was reinvented as the New Democratic Party.
Woodsworth, while with the Progressives, became a member of the Ginger Group, which was named after Ginger Godwin, a United Mines organizer who was shot and killed on July 27, 1918, outside Cumberland, British Columbia by a policeman hired by the mining company.
Following the election, the Progressives had the right to form the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, but Crerar refused this parliamentary standing. Instead, he hoped, to find an accommodation for farmers’ policies within the government agenda. Knowing the inclinations of Crerar, the Liberals actively courted the Progressive Party leader, offering him the post of railway and canals minister in the cabinet. As well, the Liberals urged the Progressive MPs to enter into a formal allegiance. The Liberals always believed that Progressives were simply “Liberals in a hurry.”
Crerar and the Progressives rejected the Liberal government’s proposals, opting for a “benevolent neutrality” in the House.
In fact, Crerar helped the Liberals remain in power when he rejected a non-confidence motion initiated by the Conservatives. Speaking in the House of Commons on March 28, 1922, Crerar said he was not convinced that the motion, stating the Liberals were guilty of “a disregard for political honour” for not adopting a previous cash pledge to First World War troops returning from Europe, has “a substantial foundation.”
Even Woodsworth supported the government.
As a result of the Progressive support, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Liberals survived the non-confidence motion by a 162-42 vote in the House.
While in Ottawa, the Progressives tended to support the Liberals, but their unity was tenuous at best. When Crerar attempted to impose discipline, it was rejected by many of the MPs.
Under the populist nature of the movement, the dissenting Progressives believed themselves to be a pressure group out to reform the system rather than a political party. In the end, few could agree among themselves on how to reform the system.
The Ginger Group was a problem for Crerar. This socialist segment of the Progressives had its own agenda, and by 1924, the Ginger Group had broken away from the Progressives. Among its prominent members was Winnipeg Labour MP A.A. Heaps. MacPhail also joined the new movement. It was the Ginger Group that formed the nucleus of the CCF.
Without party discipline, some Progressive MPs were becoming disillusioned, including Crerar.
In particular, Crerar rejected the views espoused Wood, who was against closer co-operation with the Liberal government, and favoured the adoption of the “class” character commonly held by the farmers’ parties in Western Canada and Ontario. Wood and his followers also regarded Crerar as a parliamentary leader rather than the leader of a national party.
The ideological rift became so great that Crerar, who wanted to broaden the Progressives’ membership to include other groups, announced his resignation as the party’s leader.
“A Member of Parliament,” said Crerar, “must act not only for his own constituents but for the whole of Dominion in the innumerable matters that come before Parliament. He does not represent one class, but all classes.”
Crerar continued to sit as an MP until the 1925 election when he dropped out of politics. Some Progressives transferred their allegiance to the Liberals, including Crerar, who was given a cabinet post when he was persuaded by Prime Minister King to return to politics.
As part of a package deal for Crerar’s re-introduction to federal politics, Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1929 sent Robert Forke, a Progressive MP from 1921 until he joined the Liberals in 1926, to the Senate. When Crerar left the Progressive leadership in 1922, Forke had served as the party's house leader.
The Liberals also made the promise to the new MPs in their midst to re-examine tariff rates. The Liberals under Mackenzie King reinstituted the Crow's Nest freight rate (subsequently abandoned in the 1990s).
Other dissatisfied Progressive MPs dropped out of federal politics altogether. In the next election, only 24 Progressives were elected. By 1926, the Progressives were a spent force in Ottawa.
As a Liberal, Crerar served as the minister of railways and canals from 1929 to 1930 (the Liberals were out of power from 1930 to 1935). From 1935 to 1945, he served as minister of mines and resources, a department that also included immigration and colonization, interior and Indian affairs responsibilities.
As the minister responsible for immigration, Crerar favoured loosening Canada’s immigration regulations to allow Jews to escape Nazi tyranny. He was forced to reverse this position in 1938 when his fellow cabinet members argued that Canada's economy could not support an influx of new immigrants.
He was appointed to the Senate in 1945, retiring in 1966. Speaking of Crerar’s appointment to the Senate, an April 20, 1945, Free Press editorial said: “No man of his generation was more persistently and cruelly assailed or more tirelessly belittled.”
According to the editorial, he was “the chief target of Conservative mudslingers” who sought to drive him out of political office “by every trick and device known in the trade of politics.
“For the most part, Mr. Crerar chose not to defend himself. In deed, as time has demonstrated, there was no occasion for him to do so. No one ever doubted his integrity, not even his detractors. But, in any event, personal controversy never appealed to him. He was interested in building up, not tearing down. In all his years in Parliament you cannot find a page devoted to destructive criticism. His instinct was constructive and his dislike of personalities intense.”
At age 90, an article by Rita M. Schilling in the January 8, 1968, Free Press, quotes Crerar saying “tongue-in-cheek” that he “should never have gone into politicals ... much too frustrating.”
Despite Crerar’s difficulties in unifying the MPs under his command, he did lead the first example of a successful third party in Canadian politics. In the future, “the Progressives served as both a model and a cautionary tale for those (third parties) that followed (Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College, 2005).
Crerar was the first politician recognized as a companion of the Order of Canada. He died in 1975 and is buried in the Elmwood Cemetery in Winnipeg.