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Electioneering, War Economy « Douglas Fisher



Reflections: Electioneering, War Economy
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas

My first involvement in politics was running errands in the election of July, 1935, in which King, the Liberal, was trying to oust Bennett. I was running errands for the local Liberal boss Jack Donnelly. I got my introduction to party politics as a fifteen year-old taking sandwiches from the Chinese restaurant to a couple of the polling places. Of course, my father was not only a Liberal, but a great fan of Mackenzie King. Through him, and his arch-rival across the street, Archie Campbell, there was a lot of political discussion. Archie was a devoted Conservative and an Orangeman. They could not pass each other nor walk in their neighboring gardens without arguments. Now, it was fairly reasonable and the both read the Winnipeg Free Press. My father had the eastern farm paper, the Family Herald, and a bunch of magazines. He read every magazine he could get his hands on. Their arguments were always about things like high tariff, low tariff Their other disagreements were about the railway. Archie didn’t like the CNR, which was government-owned. He thought that they should put the CNR and CPR together – under the CPR, a private company. My father was all against that. The Campbell-Fisher rivalry that got embedded then has left me fascinated with politics.

When Bennett was defeated by King, the former prime minister decided he was going home. To everybody’s surprise, that was not going back to Calgary, where he had a big law practice. And he was not going to New Brunswick, where he was from. He went over to Britain where, with the help of Lord Beaverbrook, he got himself a Lordship. During the war, my regiment was stationed not too far away from the estate the Bennett had bought. I went over there with a couple of guys to have a look. It was kind of a lonely-looking place, with trees and shrubs and gardens. The home looked sort of forbidding; we could imagine the old bachelor living there. But it seems so far away. As a kid, I gained the view that he was a very loquacious man.

The 1935 election was the first one in which radio was a big factor. Both party leaders gave a lot of speeches on radio. It was studio talk, most of it live. They had no debates as such. Bennett was better on radio than King, who was laborious and so serious. But King had more real content when he spoke. It was cast in a very old-fashioned form. Years later, Jack Pickersgill told me that he helped write some of King’s stuff in 1935. He told me that King spent hours going ever all the paragraphs to make sure he got it just right – particularly nuances. He said that only King could really understand them. King then had a run of 13 years, from 1935 to 1948, when he retired. He retired in favour of St. Laurent, whom he had brought in during the middle of the war as a replacement of his lieutenant in Quebec – Lapointe.

Prime Minster King was the leader of our effort during WWII, when Canadians made such a great effort for the Allied side; putting over a million people in uniform and creating an incredibly diverse economy. Now, it was not all in the hands of the prime minister. Down in the U.S., president was much more in charge, if you want, than the prime minister in Canada. This was due to the broad delegation of responsibilities. This was primarily due to the work of C.D. Howe; the person who was, in effect, in charge of the wartime economy. For example, creating and equipping all of the air bases in Canada that turned out pilots and air crew from Britain.

When you go from an army of 4,000 to an army of 600,000; when you go from a navy of  1,000 to a navy of almost 100,000; when you go from an air force of about 1,500 to an air force of 350,000, huge responsibilities are placed on both the bureaucracy and the cabinet.

King’s wartime Cabinet was not big, by today’s standards. He had 18 cabinet ministers, or so, and of them the powerful ones were the minister of defence Ralston, minister of trade, commerce and industry, Howe, and then the minister of finance was Oakley??. But there was also a minister for the navy. Power was the minister for the air force and Angus L. Macdonald from Nova Scotia for the navy.

It was a controlled economy during the war, in which the government had very strong manpower policies so that they could direct people to appropriate places. They needed that control so that they could keep enough young men on the farms to turn out grain crops. From 1935 until the end of the war, it is amazing what Canada achieved. This was a country of about 11 million people at the time. But it started readying for war in 1937, when the pace for conflict was triggered by reactions of the Americans and the Brits to the Japanese and Hitler. What you might call the ?? ?? began and it involved spending and borrowing money. King was very ginger about this and so were his financial people. But, they began to take more of a lead and make this a national issue by the fact that there had been so much trouble with the provinces – with most of them being broke. Alberta was one of them, but it began to profit from the oil industry in the 1930s.

In that concentration of organization during the war, we had a bureaucracy and we had so-called “dollar-a-year” men come in. Donald Gordon, who was later the head of the CNR, was brought in as the number two guy in banking. They took control of so many things. There were ration cards and there was registering for national service and there was conscription. They used the people as if they were a pool of resources.

One of the things about the conscription, or the drafting young men for military training was to get them to sign on. There had been lots of volunteers in the first two years of the war and then it began to wane. The cream of all the kids available went into the air force. That was because they, of course, had the highest education. The military wanted senior matriculations – particularly for the key air crew. Now, later on in the war they would take guys barely out of high school as the air gunners and things like that. It was the quality part of the air force’s recruiting that stood out.

All of these things meant an enormous change in Canada. In the depression, we as a nation were just marking time. There was an awful lot of suffering and hardship around. All of a sudden things began to move and people began to move. By 1940, the disaster of Europe was making Hitler look triumphant. By 1941, when the Japanese attacked, things looked hopeless for Britain and the Commonwealth. Young people wanted to take part in the historical events. As a result, I wounded up on the west coast with the XII Manitoba Dragoons to defend it from the yellow peril within two weeks of Pearl Harbour. By Christmas of 1941, my regiment was out there on the lonely beaches on the straights of Juan de Fuca; facing the United States and fearing that in the middle of the night there might be a Japanese landing. There were so many disasters occurring in places like Hong Kong and the Phillipines.

This all created Canada’s unbelievable war effort. Mackenzie King was hesitant about going too far, but the military did push him. They had plans for a six-and-a-half division army. A division is twelve to fifteen thousand, so that is a big army. Eventually, as the war closed there were five divisions and two separate army tank brigades. It was a tremendous drain and on top of that were the air force and the navy.

For example, miners were kept on their jobs. Nickel, lead and zinc were so important. Now, the miners did get more and more pay. And they were ready to strike if they didn’t. Workers like that were a major factor in the war effort.

Those were in some ways Canada’s finest hour. After the war, the bureaucrats took credit for it. They were not prepared to give any of the credit to generals or air marshals. It was a “war that we managed and arranged” mindset. They deserved credit, but denied it to others.

The number one politician in the country then was not Mackenzie King. It was C.D. Howe, the “minister of everything”. As King left in ’48, in favour of St. Laurent, there was what you might call the high point of the cabinet system in Canada. After Diefenbaker came along, things began to go downhill. Part of that came because we switched from the radio age to the television age. On television, a new kind of politics came in that dealt with personality and a focus on the leadership. So everything became Pearson vs. Diefenbaker. The Dief encouraged this kind of thing, but he wasn’t one who spent a lot of time in his office managing. He loved to play the House of Commons game and Pearson had to play it with him. The politics through the elections of 1957, 58, 62, 63 and ’65, put a tremendous focus on the leaders as they barnstormed across the country. Television played more and more of a role in it. By the ’53 election it had some influence. Louis St. Laurent came over quite well on television, whereas George Drew, the Tory leader, looked more like a “stuffed shirt” and was stiff and pompous. Whereas, uncle Louis was a fatherly figure with twinkling eyes and very good manners.

****With Dief and Mike you began to get the shaking down of the cabinet system and the emergence of the the PMO and the office of the leader of the opposition. In a way, Pearson as leader of the opposition made House debates very much a fighting, egocentric cockpit. Even the minister of finance began to drop further down in the structure of power. We had nobody who came along as an heir to C.D. Howe – either in the Diefenbaker or Pearson governments – as the grand minister.

If you date the beginning of the disappearance of the significance of cabinet government, in favour of prime ministerial government it started then. But it didn’t begin to take shape until we got to Pierre Trudeau – in 1968 as prime minister. He was elected in 1965, along with Pelletier and Marchand from Quebec. Before he became prime minister, Trudeau served as minister of justice, where he made a great impact. It was probably shyness as much as his conceit and arrogance that led him in a way to isolate himself. The other thing about Trudeau in terms of his behavior as a prime minister was that he didn’t have an extra amount in terms of energy. He was a man who looked after himself physically. He ate frugally, he exercised a lot. He liked canoeing, he liked skiing. But he wasn’t what you might call and Iron Man or a team player. He protected himself and his path and  didn’t want a lot of moving around and socializing. He never really came out of that shell when he was elected prime minister, until he was almost defeated in 1972. Then he was pulled out of that behaviour by Keith Davey, who forced it on him. Trudeau went along with that and had Margaret with him and they began to wander back and forth across Canada charming people.

Basically, he had established his isolation in the third term; what you might call a protective court around the prime minister. In a way, that brought a great deal of mysteries. “Who were the action people?” people would ask. A lot of people assumed it was Marc Lalonde, who was Trudeau’s first chief of staff. What it really turned out to be was that Trudeau was even isolated in his own party. He tried, in a way, to restore cabinet government – in other words the importance of the ministers. It was almost as though the system and the people didn’t want that to happen. The media continued to concentrate on the prime minister. To a degree it was an Americanization. But I think I can explain it the best by citing the numbers in the Press Gallery. In 1957, when Diefenbaker arrived, there 70 people who belonged to the Parliamentary Press Gallery. In 1968, when Trudeau became Prime minister, it had grown to 200. Within a couple of years, it was up almost to 400. A lot of it was the television and radio coming in – with technicians and cameramen. What it signaled was the popularization of politics. It wasn’t just for party members and fans across the country as it had been before the television age. Television made everyone watching think that they are an authority. All of sudden, they were seeing the big wheels of politics every night. Familiarity with the prime minister breeds fascination. It can also breed a lot of contempt.

The personality of politicians came to mean so much more and politicians were tracked and followed. I know I tried in my own way, as a journalist, to develop the personality thing; particularly for my own benefit. I managed to have myself become “the railway MP” and an exceptional debater – someone provocative. It wasn’t that there were not any politicians before me that did that kind of thing, but the whole emphasis shifted when you add the forum of television to radiate a personality and performance. I got myself, through John Bassett – who owned the Telegram and the new private channel in Toronto (later CTV) – a newspaper colum. I started to it as an MP in 1962 and within no time at all I had a half-hour program of television on Sundays. I just use myself as an example of being part of this shift towards television and the popularization of politics. Of course, one of the things you discover when you expose yourself on the popular medium, where every viewer gets a chance to see the people of significance in politics is that some of the judgments come pretty fast and are often very cruel.

One of the greatest advantages that Trudeau had was that he had the kind visage and physique that tended to stand out. And, of course, he played the wealth role. He was as wealthy man, but a cheapskate when it came to spending money. His bachelorhood was part of his appeal. He married a very pretty girl. Shortly, the marriage began to have difficulties. She was a circus performer herself. She loved the limelight and it had an enormous impact on many Canadians that Trudeau became fairly well-known in Britain and the United States. She hung around with rock groups and took New York by storm. He also had attention brought to him by spending time with stars, like Barbara Streisand and Margot Kidder.

Yes, Trudeau very quickly became more of an interest than Marchand, whose problem was that his English was not very good – to say the least. He was passionate in French and had no appeal in English. As for Pelletier, he was the most likeable of the three and, in some ways, the most sensible. He was educated; across the board. Trudeau had glamour. Here was a guy who drove around Parliament Hill in his Mercedes. He had a reputation of dancing all night. He was a great skier. As Justice Minister, he started to talk about the state having no place in the bedrooms of the nation. He was making it clear that he was not only a metropolitan man; he was a Bohemian in a way. That fascinated a lot of people.

Diefenbaker was one of those appalled, saying that Trudeau was running around in sandals and, instead of wearing a tie, he was wearing an ascot. The other thing was that he didn’t make himself available that much. According to Margaret – who insisted to me years later that he really was an awkward, shy man –  that’s why tended to do silly things once in a while; like dancing around with his finger on his head or sliding down a banister at Buckingham Palace.

During his first four years as Prime Minister, ’68-‘72, he experimented and lay down hard rules for anybody in his government who leaked information. In his cabinet, he was ruthless in a way. At meetings he had a lot of ministers scared stiff. John Munro, who held a big post as Minister of Health, said he would sweat and agonize all night if he had to make a presentation to cabinet the next morning. He said Trudeau could cut you to ribbons in a hurry and he didn’t waste any time. If he didn’t like a presentation, it was “Boom” and it was gone.

So Trudeau very much put a one-man stamp on the government. To give him his due, he was very well-briefed. He did a lot of reading. And you can’t read and run around the country. You can’t read and be out chatting or sitting in the House of Commons. He cut down the appearance of the prime minister in the House enormously. Both Pearson and Diefenbaker tended to spend time in the House and not just for Question Period. Diefenbaker liked to be there any time of day.

Trudeau was not that good in the House. He was not a natural on his feet. He would like to feel that he had something to say. He considered that an awful lot of what went on in the House was just bullshit. He began to pick his spots about when he should be in the House. The first thing we noticed was that he was rarely there on Fridays. Then, quite often he wasn’t there on Monday. So, it became Tuesday to Thursday week in Ottawa.

One of the consequences was that the amount of coverage he got was enormous. A lot of it was, in a way, guess work. There was all the speculation about girlfriends and so on. I had one of his girlfriends working with me at CJOH – Jennifer Rae. She was a lovely looking girl whose father was Saul Rae, an ambassador for Canada. And her brother was Bob Rae, later the premier of Ontario. Jennifer was going out with Trudeau a fair bit. I don’t know how great a romance it was, but when she was being queried by a girl in our working group as to what kind of date she had with Trudeau. And she said, “Well, most of the time he treats me as though he is addressing a seminar. He’s very serious.” But she said that he was also a good man.