Crerar changed federal politics

On October 9, Parks Canada unveiled a plaque commemorating Thomas Alexander Crerar in Russell, Manitoba. Many may not be aware of Crerar’s role in history, but he was the man primarily responsible for changing the face of Canadian politics by creating the first successful third party at the federal level.

“Thomas Alexander Crerar’s contributions to Canada have been broad in their scope and long-lasting in their impact,” said Jim Prentice, Canada’s environment minister and minister responsible for Parks Canada in a press release announcing the new plaque in Crerar’s hometown. “It is truly remarkable that one man could accomplish so much in one lifetime.”

Inky Mark, MP for Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette, said during the ceremony in Russell that Crerar “made a major impact in both the economic and political spheres of our country. Mark said Crerar was an “influential architect of the Canadian grain trade, pioneering political leader and prominent member of the Senate.”

Crerar was born in 1876 in Huron County, Ontario. When he was five years old,  his family left Ontario to farm in the Silver Creek District near Russell. Crerar as a young man became influential in farmers’ organizations, building the Grain Growers’ Grain Company into the largest farmer-owned enterprise on the prairies. As the head of the GGGC (after 1917, the United Grain Growers), Crerar was instrumental in shaping the co-operative structure of Canadian grain marketing prior to 1930.

But it was in the field of politics that Crerar’s influence paved the way for latter-day political parties such as the NDP, Reform, and the Canadian Alliance before it joined with the PCs to form the Conservative Party. Ironically, the label Progressives dated back to 1920 and the party was formed by Crerar at a meeting of disgruntled farmers on January 6, 1920, in Winnipeg.

At the Council of Agriculture convention in Winnipeg, the newly-created National Progressive Party declared its “intention to make a determined effort to secure ... as many representatives as possible to the House of Commons at the next general election in support of the new national policy,” according to the January 7, 1920, Manitoba Free Press.

The new party arose out of the various United Farmers’ movements that were beginning to make inroads in provincial politics in Ontario and Western Canada.

Crerar is known as the architect of the “Progressive,” which he championed after resigning from Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Union cabinet in 1919. He abandoned the Unionists over a dispute in the government’s continued disregard of farmers’ issues.

Crerar and 10 dissident MPs became the base for the launch of the National Progressives into federal politics. The Progressives soon evolved into a wider coalition of socialists and radicals — Crerar was a moderate, while Alberta’s Henry Wise Wood was a radical — opposed to the traditional party system. Their platform called for the reduction of railway rates, the construction of competing railway lines, a reduction of the tariffs farmers had to pay for manufactured goods and reciprocity (free trade) with the United States under what they called the New National Policy.

The most contentious issue was high tariffs. “It became the symbol of the wheat growers’ exploitation and frustration, alleged and actual,” according to Manitoba historian W.L. Morton. 

Farmers distrusted the Borden Conservatives for their protectionist policies favouring Eastern Canadian manufacturers as well as the Liberals, citing the later as hypocrites for implementing in 1908 a three-tariff system contrary to an earlier low-tariff policy.

In the House of Commons, the new agrarian movement was labeled as “dangerous’ by Brantford MP W.F. Cockshutt. Turning in the direction of the new party members in the House, Cockshutt said, “If Mr. Crerar comes here as the head of an agrarian party, I hope he will not forget the little chaps outside,” implying the Progressives were an exclusionist party. 

“At this, Mr. Crerar rose, raised his hat, and gravely bowed in the direction of Mr. Cockshutt,” according to the March 4, 1920, Free Press.

At the time, the Progressives had yet to run their first election campaign. The opportunity came shortly thereafter when Prime Minister Arthur Meighen of Portage la Prairie, who had replaced Borden in 1920, called an election a year later. Meighen adopted the Conservatives’ old protectionist philosophy and denounced the Progressives as free traders intent on destroying the old policy for selfish class advantage; that is, for the benefit of farmers only.

To the astonishment of political observers, the Progressives took 65 seats in the House of Commons, with 39 of them from Western Canada. The Liberals captured 117 seats (one less than needed for a majority), while the Conservatives ended up in last place with 50 seats.

The Progressives had the right to form the Official Opposition in the House, but  Crerar refused, hoping for an accommodation of the farmers’ issues in the Liberal’s agenda. The Progressives also refused to act as a traditional party — when Crerar attempted to impose party discipline, it was rejected by most of the Progressive 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. But in the end, few of them could agree on how to go about reforming the system.

Without party discipline, many MPs became disillusioned. Crerar resigned  as Progressive leader in 1922, but continued to sit as an MP until 1925 when he dropped out of politics. Other Progressives eventually transferred their allegiance to the Liberals, including Crerar, who was given a cabinet post in the Prime Minister Mackenzie King Liberal government, while others dropped out of federal politics altogether. 

By 1926, the Progressives were a spent force in Ottawa. Crerar continued in the Liberal cabinet until 1945, when he was appointed by King to the Senate, retiring in 1966. Crerar was the first politician recognized as a Companion of the Order of Canada. He died in 1975.

While the Progressives only had a brief impact on political power by propping up the King government, the party’s influence is still felt today, as Canada’s federal political system is inhabited by parties other than just Liberals and Conservatives, presenting Canadians with more choices at election time.