[singlepic id=113 w=320 h=240 float=left]Clarence Decatur Howe, widely known as the “Minister of Everything” in the government of Prime Ministers Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, organized and managed Canada’s industrial war effort throughout World War II. With foresight and determination, he forged an industrial powerhouse that mobilized millions of Canadians and established Canada as a leading industrial power. He set the stage for a postwar economic boom that propelled Canada into becoming one of the leading industrialized nations.
Born in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1886, Howe graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1907 with a Bachelor of Science. In 1908 he moved to Canada to become the first professor of engineering at Dalhousie University in Halifax. From 1913-1916, during which time Howe was the chief engineer for the Board of Grain Commissioners, he resided at Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario.
In 1916, C.D., as he was colloquially known, started his own engineering and construction firm that specialized in designing and building concrete grain elevators. It soon expanded into building all types of structures including docks, bridges, and factories. By 1935 his firm had built over $100 million worth of infrastructure. His reputation for quality construction was unsurpassed.
In 1935, Howe was talked into running for Parliament as the Liberal member for Port Arthur. With no prior political experience, he won his seat in a Liberal sweep of the country and was given a dual Cabinet position as Minister of Railways and Canals and as Minister of Marine, but these ministries were soon combined into the Ministry of Transport.
In his first term he reorganized both the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Canadian National Railways, created a National Harbours Board, and set up Trans-Canada Airlines. During this period he established a reputation as a man who could talk sense with businessmen and industrialists. He scorned red tape and long circuitous conferences as much as they did – because at heart he was one of them.
Howe believed firmly that, in many sectors, Canada was too small a country to support more than one company. He preferred a system of either private monopoly regulated by government controls or Crown-owned corporations. In crafting the economic system and companies that are still evident today, he developed a personal style that was described as no-nonsense, even authoritarian in its pursuit of industrial development. This style carried over into the House of Commons where he would not speak on a subject until he had thoroughly researched it and decided what needed doing, after which he rarely deviated from his position.
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, C.D. Howe taught engineering at Dalhousie University in Halifax before becoming the most successful businessman politician of his day. In Sudbury, Ontario, in 1942, C.D. Howe, viewed here, as Minister of Munition & Supply, exhorts Canada’s nickel belt community to buy Victory Loan Bonds. [Courtesy, National Archives of Canada/C-19380]
Canada entered World War II in September 1939 unprepared both militarily and industrially. In the next few weeks legislation was rushed through Parliament creating a War Supply Board headed by C.D. Howe that was given wide-ranging powers over private industry to direct arms production. During the “phony war” that winter, Howe started a massive rearmament program that involved the manufacture of ships, aeroplanes, small and large arms, clothing, vehicles, and other items required by the allied armed forces. To manage this effort, Howe hired his famous dollar-a-year men, corporate executives with solid management skills who were called to Ottawa to organize the economy as efficiently as possible. As Canadian author Peter C. Newman concluded, “It was the network of connections and interconnections between business and government, fathered by Clarence Decatur Howe, that became the Canadian Establishment – its great dynasties spreading into every form of commercial enterprise across the country.”
The war mobilization involved transforming Canada, in just a few years, from a country with an agricultural economy to one with a modern industrial economy. Canada’s GNP grew from five billion dollars in 1939 to twelve billion dollars in 1945 as Howe and his staff from the new Department of Munitions and Supply directed 1.1 million Canadian workers. The volume of war material produced by Canadian industry was staggering. In a few short years, over 500,000 vehicles, 600 ships, 85,000 heavy guns, and millions of tons of military supplies were manufactured and shipped overseas. By the end of World War II, Canada had the second largest navy in the world, produced 40 percent of the world’s aluminum, and was a leading producer in many sectors of the world economy.
The Joint Air Training Program was the most visible war program that Howe’s team managed. It involved the construction of 120 airports run by 40,000 staff who trained 131,000 Commonwealth aircrew. Howe experienced the war first-hand on a visit to Britain to co-ordinate this Canadian effort when his ship, the Western Prince, was torpedoed and sunk on December 14, 1940. After being picked up by a passing collier and taken to London, he negotiated not only the training program for pilots but an aircraft production program as well. By the end of the war, Canada had produced over 12,000 aircraft.
During the war, Howe’s great foresight became evident as he worked with Dr. C.J. Mackenzie, the head of the National Research Council (and one of his former students at Dalhousie University), to establish Canada’s nuclear industry. Starting with the Eldorado Mine in the Northwest Territories, which the Federal government purchased in 1944, Howe initiated a Canada-wide search for uranium and established a nuclear research program that evolved, after the war, into the CANDU reactor program and the construction of Canada’s first nuclear reactor at Chalk River. He was also instrumental in supporting the National Research Council in its efforts to establish Canada’s scientific research capabilities in other fields.
Industry Canada is headquartered in the C.D. Howe Building in Ottawa.
Following the war, Howe established the Department of Reconstruction and became its first minister. His efforts now were focused on changing production from guns to butter and producing hundreds of thousands of new houses and a consumer economy for returning veterans. By 1948 this was accomplished, and Canada was well on the way to an economic boom unsurpassed in its history.
The Korean War gave Howe his old powers back as chief organizer of the Canadian economy, but rather than launching an all-out effort, he managed a controlled response so as not to disrupt the boom at home. In an era of rising expectations, he produced the war material that was required, kept the Canadian economy rolling, and held down rising prices – a rare achievement in any industrialized country. He also initiated, with the construction of the Trans-Canada Pipeline, the first of many Canadian megaprojects.
C.D. Howe’s competence as a national industrialist was unsurpassed; in the 22 years he was a cabinet minister, he transformed Canada from an agricultural society to an industrial and financial power. The Parliament of the day clearly recognized his talent and bestowed on him legislative powers that gave him de facto control of the Canadian economy not only during the war but until he left office in 1957. Many of the companies he was instrumental in founding such as Air Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are household names. What is most impressive, however, was his management and direction of the Canadian economy that transformed Canada into a world-leading economic power.
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