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In 1957, local CCF organizers looking for a candidate to fight the legendary Liberal cabinet minister C.D. Howe, turned to a high school teacher in Port Arthur. Fisher took a shot at it and the end result shocked the nation as he ‘dethroned’ the man nicknamed ‘the minister for everything’. It is arguably the greatest upset in Canadian history. The win grabbed media attention in Ottawa and Fisher’s early appearances in both the House of Commons and parliamentary committees showed him to be a challenging speaker and fierce inquisitor.
Fisher won his riding by an even greater margin in 1958. However, the CCF itself was crushed by the Tories’ nationwide majority triumph. The party re-examined itself and after fiery debates, it hitched up with Canada’s organized labour movement to create the New Democratic Party (NDP).
Fisher was re-elected in ’62 & ’63 and because of his superior work in Ottawa, he was deemed by some as a potential successor to the party’s first leader Tommy Douglas. But Fisher never sought the post. And when finding his salary to be insufficient, he took on the challenge of writing a newspaper column while still serving as an MP. He retired from politics in 1965 and joined the Press Gallery, where his columns ran for another forty years.
Despite growing up in a Liberal family, Douglas Fisher’s political spectrum soon widened and like many Canadians he embraced the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The party had risen to prominence during the years of the Great Depression, when it was fighting for the common man.
An interest in both history and political theories kept Douglas reading widely when he was a soldier during WWII. When landing on a Normandy beach in 1944, his overcoat said ‘VOTE CCF’ on its back. After the war, he leapt at an opportunity with a government program providing free university educations for qualifying veterans. Joining many others at U of T’s Victoria College in 1947, Douglas was one of its leading academics and speakers. Further scholarly opportunities also drew him to U of London, England, which had become a postwar cauldron of political thoughts and theories.
Following that, Douglas was a professor at Queens University in Kingston for a time, before moving back to northern Ontario, where he took on another academic duty – as a high school teacher in the city of Port Arthur. The rest, as they say, is history…
Reflections: Transcripts of interviews with Douglas
1956 is the year I got into politics but my partisan position as a socialist and CCF supporter had been determined much earlier when I recoiled from my father’s strong Mackenzie King Liberalism. Dad had been a local party activist as a result of his friendship years before with Peter Heenan, who for a brief time in the 1920s was the minister of labour in a King government. In fact, during the summer federal general election of 1935, I worked on election day as an errand boy for Jack Donnelly, the Liberal boss in town – which paid off when the next summer his influence got me work with the Forestry Branch. But already, among miners and bush workers in Red Lake and Pickle Lake, socialist sentiment was strong and pro-CCF feeling had started to pick up when the party fielded so many candidates in that 1935 election. After that, I started to get into fierce arguments with Dad and I deserted the Liberals, at least emotionally, for the CCF and Mr. Woodsworth. With Dad, I made the case that King was too reactionary and overcautious in confronting the Depression (at least until FDR came along, giving King coattails to hang on to), that he was not moving on old age pensions, and so on. Later, when the war broke out, we argued over King’s military policy. And of course, during the conscription crisis, when I was in the army, I wore black coveralls with ‘Vote CCF’ on the back (see my army recollections).
My formal entry into the party did not crystallize, however, until after the city of Port Arthur held a CD Howe day, to honour their greatest citizen – ‘the minister of everything’ in King’s and St. Laurent’s governments. To raise an audience, they had PACI and other students traipse down to the arena to fill out the crowd of adults. I had to march my grade nine home room class downhill about 15 blocks to the arena (it was late April, I’m pretty sure). My gang wound up in the top rows at the middle of the rink. Tauno came up to me; his kids were right next to mine. While waiting for Howe to arrive, he asked what I thought about our kids and us being obliged to turn out. I said that it made me angry, that this was really a pre-election event designed to help guarantee Howe’s reelection. He said he agreed and said he wished we could raise hell about it. I said I wished so too.
I had already been through the embroglio over Lakehead Tech’s slow pace to universityhood and some further actions I took now that I was out of there were the push I needed to join and run for the CCF. I knew George Wardrope, the local MLA and minister in the Frost government, and had lobbied him for action on LCI, with no response. I had then tried the local Liberal provincial candidate, Dan ?, and he said he’d send it to the party leader at Queens Park – but again no word. Then I gave the critique to Tauno who sent it to Donald C. MacDonald, the new CCF leader in Toronto. He phoned me, asked a lot of questions, and said he would certainly ask about the matter during debates on the department of education’s estimates. And he did, very effectively. Frost himself had to enter the debate to rescue his education minister, Dr. Dunlop, who was elderly and confused confronting Macdonald, who knew so much more about the Lakehead post-secondary scenario than he did. As a result, Frost announced that very night on the floor of the legislature a grant of I think it was $300 thousand dollars to buy land and hire an architect to start what was to be Lakehead College first, then to become Lakehead University. This news, of course, made the front page in the Lakehead for several days. Tom Miller and others were very pleased – he had helped me write the critique. Tauno told me what Macdonald had said to him – that surely Fisher realizes that by doing something political, things can be accomplished. Why didn’t he consider being a candidate for the upcoming federal election. Next time Donald C. came to town, he came around to see me – expressing his pleasure at meeting me and saying he’d never received so organized and pungent a critique, that its effect in the house was devastating. I told him that I would indeed take out a party membership and that I would consider running.
I guess it was in September that I attended my first meeting as a member and met the active core of party people, who turned out to be smart, friendly and hard-working – Fred Robinson (Port Arthur’s mayor), his wife Jean (a Port Arthur alderman), Ron Wilmot (a grocer and alderman who had been the provincial CCF MLA from 1944 to 1952), and several union bosses: Steve Brodack of the carpenters, Jack Pecheau of the pulp cutters, Dave Sproule of the shipyard workers, Frank Mazur of the grain handlers, and ? of the steelworkers. We had a great evening (lots of fun, very interesting) and they said that with a good, aggressive candidate, there was a chance to beat Howe, who had got a lot of backs up.
We decided to meet once a week through means of a sub-committee on election preparedness. It was very quickly agreed that Peter Hennessy, my fellow history teacher, would be the official agent, and that Ron Wilmot would be the official campaign manager. It was tacitly accepted that I would be the candidate, so I asked – what if another mounts a challenge to my nomination and wins? I was told that another was sure to run but that I would certainly win. The party women supported the idea of Fisher’s candidacy. So did ‘The Jolly Boys’, an informal club of beer drinking men who had parties at the local Moose Hall at which they drank beer, played cards and put so much per ‘pot’ into the election fund. Our weakest representation was out beyond the city.
There were six active CCF clubs more than 75 miles beyond Port Arthur, in Nipigon, Terrace Bay, Marathon, Beardmore, Long Lac, and Geraldton. None of them knew much about me. One of things we planned at our regular meetings, usually at our house, was getting to know the hinterland, where 40% of the votes were. Remember, this was a huge riding, the largest in Ontario. Planning at these meetings got into signage, pamphlets, letters to the editor, transportation, and canvassing for new members and re-signing old ones. When I joined the CCF, we had about 125 members. By election day we had about 800 members. The women who would run the main committee room in Port Arthur were chosen – Jean Robinson and Jean Wilmot being chief among them. We began to establish the list of those who would enumerate for us. The CCF, which ran second to Howe the Liberal in the 1953 election, was entitled to name enumerators to develop the voters list, who were paid a fee of about $50 by the Chief Electoral Officer. Local CCF practice was that the enumerator would give the fee to the campaign coffers (quite legitimate).
By the time the nomination meeting was held, we had a very active organization and had worked out our strategies to concentrate our money and skills on the use of television, which was new in the riding and easy to book.
I began a series of fortnightly 15 minute appearances on CKPR, right after the local evening news, when the audience was high. This became weekly, then as the campaign went on, we were on every second evening. This garnered a very positive response. I did the ‘blackboard thing’, dealing with issues one by one. By the time the election came along, I was doing family scenes with attractive local personalities such as ‘Aunt Ede’ – Mrs. Wiggands. I got her talking about her friends who were less fortunate than she. She realized so many of them were near starvation on small old age pensions. She was fortunate not to be in that condition but thought that old age pensions were the most important issue of the election. The rise in pensions had to be more than $6 a month, which was all that the Liberals had offered in their last budget.
Another strategy we worked on was visiting bush camps, beginning in February when all the pulp and paper camps in the riding were busy. The union was quite strong. I would finish school at 3:20 p.m., then walk out the door straight into a very fast car which took us into the bush. We usually arrived about 6, just after the men finished their supper. The union stewards in each camp would make sure the men got to the bunk house best designed for a pack of men to listen to a short speech from this prominent CCF member. Of course management disliked this intrusion but wouldn’t risk a wild cat strike by barring the union officers and their companion from the property.
The bush camp strategy really suckered the Liberals. They started getting reports of me speaking to the regimented workers – about 3,000 in the riding. They fretted and of course got the cold shoulder from the union guys when they tried the same thing. Besides, by the time the campaign was on in earnest, pulp cutters were leaving the bush, the season now over. Howe’s people also found that CD Howe didn’t like these small meetings. He preferred meeting in a small town’s hotel lobby with prominent local citizens. Howe also didn’t like television appearances, so he didn’t make many. Local Liberals tried to get the TV station’s owner to stop me buying so much air time but for local reasons, he said ‘no’, even though he was a staunch Liberal (he was angry with the Liberals about something). As for the Conservative candidate, he didn’t do well on TV because he always looked like he was scowling.
I started doing five minute TV bulletins, telling viewers what we had been up to in the campaign, reporting, say, on visits to places like Nipigon. I was very frank about money, always letting them know what money we had raised and how we’d raised it. This was to show that we were a people’s party, not servants of corporate Canada. I also reported on the other parties and what they were doing, commenting on their signs, their advertisements. Whenever Howe held a meeting, I’d give a report on it. He didn’t hold many meetings – maybe three in the entire campaign. I’d also let viewers know where we were canvassing, how to get in touch with us, and so on.
The TV thing had a big effect. It really impressed people that I was on TV. It turned me into a local personality. By the end of the campaign we had three different ‘sets’ at CKPR – and a couple of the staff there were very helpful to me. I had a living room setting, an office setting, and the classroom with blackboard – to lay things out on.
My two star programs that first campaign were with Aunt Ede, and with a smashingly good looking Finnish woman who ran the Finnish book store across the street from The Hoito. She spoke beautiful English and knew all about Finlanders and the bush workers. She came on to explain the difference between Red Finns and White Finns and the makeup of the Finn community around the Lakehead. This was not partisan; it was informational. I had created a local entertainment program. The station owner was flabbergasted at the audience he got for my appearances. The Fort William CCF candidate wanted to come on but he was a dog of a candidate. I had him on once, with Stanley Knowles. Mike Chicorli was to ask Stanley a question. Instead, he asked the question, then proceeded to answer it – going on for five minutes. I was just steaming. His people, of course, thought this was great! But their candidate wasn’t invited back to share air time with me.
One of the things we tried to do was isolate the Lakehead from the whole campaign in the rest of Canada – for a couple of reasons. One, Diefenbaker was on the rise, which, although it suited us to a degree because it might help split Howe’s vote, was also a threat. But the big thing was that the CCF nationally had only 8 or 9 percent in the polls, compared to 40 for the Liberals. We didn’t want that fact to sink us locally.
There were a couple of highlights to the campaign, when the leaders came to town – M.J. Coldwell for the CCF and John Diefenbake for the Tories (Dief’s was just a whistle stop; in 1958 he drew 7,000 people). St. Laurent never came because the Liberals assumed Howe would have Port Arthur all sewed up, as usual. The other highlight was when journalists came to town. Judith Robinson, an Ottawa columnist for the Toronto Telegram, one of the best there has ever been, came, along with James M. Minifie (author of ‘Peacemaker or Powder Monkey’, a book about our defence policy role vis a vis the USA), a friend of hers. They sent out the message that Howe was having trouble, that he was in a tussle. This was great for me to crow about in my bulletins, where I could quote what these Ottawa journalists had to say about my and Howe. One of our main aims was to convince people that Howe could be beaten.
This sudden involvement in politics – a complex project with defined goals, with a group of upbeat determined volunteers – forced me to become a public person, making speeches, appearing on radio and TV, writing pamphlets. I had wonderful help – Barbara, Peter Hennessy, Tom.
One aspect of the campaign particularly intrigued me was the Catholic component. It was widely note that across Canada, and notably at the Lakehead, that Roman Catholics by and large voted Liberal whereas Anglicans and the United Church and Baptists by and large voted Conservative, with some in the United Church becoming CCF voters. We decided to face up to this quite openly. On one tv program I raised the ‘Liberal equals Catholic’ matter and developed the argument that in part this had been over-stated and that it was a matter that I was going to address because there were more themes of Christianity in the social gospel of the RC Church than many Roman Catholics believed, given the regular counsel of their priests that the CCF was the closest of the other political parties to the godless Communists. I made a lot of Woodsworth and Stanley Knowles and Tommy Douglas as Christian clergymen of the left. And I used the most photogenic fellow teacher, a French Canadian from a prominent PEI family, to come on and tell why he as a young Catholic supported Doug Fisher and the CCF. Barney Gallant was not only handsome and well spoken, but very skilful musically, becoming choir leader at the staunchest Roman Catholic church in the city, St. Andrews, which happened to be a Jesuit church. On tv, Barney did very well at making it clear that he, a good Catholic, was very proud and sensible to be voting CCF. The outcome – one RC woman, Mrs. Baxter, called the Jesuit priests to ask “Father, were you watching television.” “Yes I was,” he replied. “Are you referring to Mr. Gallant and Mr. Fisher.” “I certainly am,” she said. She went on, “That’s wrong father. What can be done about it?” “What’s wrong with it?”, the priest asked her. “Catholics aren’t for the CCF,” she spluttered. The priest replied, “Obviously Mr. Gallant is, Mrs. Baxter. And you know, he is a very good Catholic boy.” Outraged at this, Mrs. Baxter hung up on him.
The Catholic strategy we used was designed to submerge the stock wisdom in the region that the CCF was very socialist and somehow kin to the communists and the ‘Red Menace’. It was tested as a strategy in the last televised performance by CD Howe before the election. Howe was in a televised interview. The young and pleasant interlocutor asked the great man if he had any particular concerns about the campaign itself. Howe said yes, there was one thing. He didn’t like to raise it but he thought frankness was deserved. In the interest being taken by voters in the CCF candidate, there had been so little recognition of the fact that the CCF was a very radical party. Mr. Howe insisted he was not saying that Fisher was a communist but it was simply political reality that like the Communist party, the CCF was a socialist party. The program was hardly over – I was watching it at home – when a phone call came from one of the most prominent lay Catholics in the city. He had phoned to apologize as a Catholic for what Mr. Howe had said. And he told me that his wife had just said, that’s two more votes for Fisher, when we heard Mr. Howe smear you as a Communist. Next morning, I went into the electoral office to get another copy of the voters list and encountered the officer himself, Joe McCormick. He was a long time acquaintance of mine and very popular in town as one of the stars of the Port Arthur Bearcats, natinal hockey champions in 1939. Joe had the job because he was a Liberal but he was not a blind or stupid one. He said to me, you must be feeling a bit safer this morning. Why. He said Howe made an awful mistake last night. He doesn’t realize that through television you have established yourself very positively and pleasantly with the people and that Communist smear will boost you, not hurt you. And it probably did.
Eventually, at the nomination, several of the senior best known party members were nominated but they immediately withdrew their names. And so I won the CCF Party nomination for the federal riding of Port Arthur by acclamation. Madame Therese Casgrain was our guest speaker. It was from her that I first heard of Pierre Trudeau. She thought that leadership of the CCF in Quebec would go either to Trudeau or Michel Chartrand.
As CCF candidate won election over C.D. Howe June 10th by a 1,300 vote margin. This was the election the Diefenbaker Tories won. We were living at 410 Arthur Street, now Red River Road.
Election called in February. Won reelection to the Diefenbaker majority parliament in April by several thousand votes (2,002 votes). This was the huge Tory sweep.
Moved to 416 Dawson Street.
This was the year that Harry Crowe set off a furious, divisive debate about academic freedom, which rocked United College and the United Church of Canada. See more under the entry for 1962.
August, moved for school year to Tierney farmhouse at Jockvale, near Manotick, south of Ottawa.
Summer, moved back to 416 Dawson Street, Port Arthur.
John born on September 1st, St. Joseph’s Hospital.
August, move from Port Arthur to 2698 Priscilla Street, Britannia, Ottawa.
Won reelection by best margin (3,009 votes), to a Pearson minority parliament.
Luke born June 27th at Salvation Army Grace Hospital in Ottawa.
Election called and according to my plan I didn’t run and took up a post in the Parliamentary Press Gallery as regular columnist for the Toronto Telegram and a host on a weekly TV program on Channel 13 Ottawa Channel 9 Toronto.
June, move to 79 Pentland Place, Kanata.
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