Go Easy—Let Others Spread Out
There is a time for caution and a time for bold initiative, counsels Hon. “Jim” Robb, finance minister, expert in flour and budgets.
J. EDGAR MARCH
WHO is this man, James A. Robb, recently appointed acting minister of finance in the Mackenzie King Government, and whose tariff reductions created such a decisive split in fiscal opinion?
Mr. Robb has reached an enviable pinnacle of national prominence, but as a matter of fact he has been coming for a long, long time.
Farm boy, mill hand, student miller, small town politician and sportsman, master miller, member of parliament—his story is typically Canadian. A story of a mighty hard struggle up from poverty to affluence; from the back concessions of Huntingdon county to the front rank of public life of Canada.
A shrewd, kindly man, armed with the twin weapons of humor and ability, he is at the moment one of the nation’s leading figures, not too fond of his task, or obsessed with his own importance, but determined to carry on in the path which he believes to be right. His has been a career of achievement and not a little of sacrifice.
Succeeding Rt. Hon. W. S.
Fielding in the post of minister of finance is no light task; to initiate that task by creating a new national policy giving cause for a potential party mutiny requires a man of courage and persistence. Mr.
Robb has these requisites in large measure. His career shows that.
He was not made acting minister of finance out of the blue, or because of his appearance. He was elevated because he is a successful business man, a parliamentarian of wide experience and because he is obviously the man for the job. First he is of Scotch descent; secondly he was born on a farm; and thirdly his prosperity is of his own making, and these three in Canada are plainly three essentials which lead to eminence.
Canada’s finance minister was born on a farm just a few miles outside of what is now Huntingdon, Quebec. There he was young Jim, and split wood, •drove home the cows and got himself licked for neglecting to weed the kitchen garden. He is still a critic of gardens and personally superintends the progress of his lawns, flower beds and kitchen truck plots at his Valleyfield home. He has even been known to disagree with the gardener as to the proper times and methods of planting.
In the intervals of his farm work Mr. Robb attended the country school where, on his own confession, he fell under the master’s displeasure and a hickory stick for playing hookey from school—not once but many times. The fish in the millpond on the Trout River, and the lazy warm spring days combined to bring about his earlier sins, and it is still on record among the old timers in Huntingdon who attended the country school ■with him that Jim Robb—“him that’s to Ottawa now”
■—was a first-class fisherman, an indifferent scholar and stood his lickings without undue outcry. The other boys were thrashed, too; Jim was by no means unduly “favored.”
Impressions of the Hickory Stick
MR. ROBB has a tendency to recall those days with just a suspicion of regret, and likes to hark back to them over a last pipe—feet on desk—before going home at the close of the day’s sitting. That country school and the hickory stick made a lasting impression and he still remembers by name the young men and women who strove mightily a few hours a week to make up for neglected earlier years. Many of them were upwards of twenty years of age, and they
were learning to read and write. They are now among his regular supporters on election day.
He distinguished himself in other ways, notably in his ability to train yearling steers, and usually, when he was supposed to be feeding the stock, he had one of the animals out behind the old barn breaking it to harness. He succeeded on more than one occasion in training his victim to haul a sled at a smart pace and was therefore popular with his pals because of his sled rides behind a tractable trotting steer.
Mr. Robb, as an elder .in the Kirk—and he is—would probably rise up to-day against any small boy inhuman enough to tie a tin can to a dog’s tail. But, list to the tale of old Hen Wallace and his two hounds. One Sunday James and his younger brother were left at home to keep house and the Sabbath in a proper and dignified manner. The house managed to keep itself, but the Sabbath was badly fractured. The boys managed to secure Hen’s hounds and a reasonable supply of tinware. The result was a near riot, two mad dogs, a disturbed neighborhood and a total absence of cows from their usual pastures. Hen was upset about it— so were the boys—later.
If the Finance Minister to-day possesses a sound appreciation of a joke it may be traced to his beginning with Uncle Robert. James was fond of a gun and one day beguiled Uncle Robert, a sturdy old Scottish character, into a contest. Uncle fired and missed; repeated and missed again. Then he wasted numerous shots missing steadily and becoming increasingly angry. Some days afterward he discovered that James had been charging that gun with powder only!
Occasionally” justice was done as on that occasion years ago when, as a visitor from Valleyfield, Mr. Robb undertook to best his brother while racing the farm horses to water. He won the' race. The horse galloped as far as the river bank and stopped, Mr. Robb did not, and the Trout River that day received him, visiting store clothes and all.
But the happiness and struggle of the old farm home are still among his pleasant memories. His father, Alexander Robb, pioneer Scotch farmer, and his mother, were making their fight against the wilderness, and money was not plentiful.
“We didn’t have much,” Mr. Robb will explain, “and we had to be careful, very careful.”
The finance minister of Canada can still remember when his father spent the dawn hours loading a wagon with farm produce for sale in Cornwall and returned at night with a few bags of flour and a half barrel of red herrings with which to keep the home going. Herring and bread were two of the staple foods of the early days and Mr. Robb had his full share of both. Incidentally he has not lost his taste for the fish.
The urge for further “learning” eventually took Mr. Robb to the academy at Huntingdon where he was known as a steady and persistent, but not a brilliant, pupil. It was during his academy days that Mr. Robb, then a boy of fifteen, was forced by the death of his father to make his first big decision. The home farm was not sufficiently productive to support both himself and his elder brother. One of them had to give up his share that the other might carry on. They talked it over at the end of a day’s work, and in the end Jim Robb chose to learn à trade. The decision was against his desire at the time. He did not want to leave the farm. It was the only job he knew and, on his own admission, he did not want to become a miller, or a politician, and he would have fought the man who suggested . the finance ministership, on the ground that his practical Scotch blood forbade dreaming, and unseemly jibes.
Learning Miller’s Job
TIM ROBB came down from Huntingdon to Valleyfield before abandoning''his farm clothes for a suit of overalls in the flour mill owned by his uncle, James McDonald. Valleyfield was chosen for two reasons, first because the embryo miller desired to learn French’ and secondly because there was a job there with his’ kinfolk. Since that day his life interests have all centered in Valleyfield, and milling has been his principal task, although once he narrowly escaped becoming a theo^ logical student, and ultimately a Presbyterian divine. The opportunity of, in time, becoming moderator of that great church evidently did not appeal. Frankly he dodged the theological course, although he still retains a deep feeling of gratitude toward the kindly minister who generously offered to foot the bills.
The apprenticeship in the milling business was much more strenuous than the proffered ministerial career. In those days the mills lacked many of the labor-saving devices and part of the finance minister's early training consisted in man-handling barrels and bags of flour, both in the mill and in the warehouse.
But he prospered. Becoming an expert in the old stone milling process, he was sent to Milwaukee to learn the fundamentals of the then new roller process, and subsequently he went to Minneapolis for a post-graduate course. In Minneapolis he not only achieved a complete mastery of the flour milling business but he was badly smitten with a healthy attack of the wanderlust. Valleyfield, for the moment, seemed pale and uninteresting, and the West was calling. The desire was fanned to full flame by one of those extravagant billboard advertisements of the period in which an American railroad offered to haul any deserving young man to Portland, Oregon, for the meagre sum of four dollars. Mr. Robb had the necessary amount and surely there must be flour mills somewhere in the West.
The sudden death of his uncle prevented the trip, and he returned immediately to Valleyfield faced with the necessity of taking over the control of the mill, and providing for his aunt and her children. Since those days he has travelled to many parts of the world, sometimes as the representative of his government, but in none of these journeys has there been the real spice of adventure sought in the wanderlust of his youth.
Continued on page 62
Go Easy—Let Others Spread Out
Continued from page 19
with everything dependent upon his efforts, were days of genuine effort and struggle reminiscent of the home farm, and left their definite imprint upon the minister. He is still steady-eyed and serious.
Many times young Robb deserted the office for the warehouse in time of need and “wrestled” flour barrels into freight cars. He did not keep union hours, and was forced to days of twelve and eighteen hours by keen competition from a rival concern. In the day time he worked in the mill, and in the evenings he visited nearby towns selling flour to the store keepers and merchants. His business was not the wealthy concern it is now, and Mr. Robb’s Scottish caution and the trick of seeing farther through a wall than most saved the day on more than one occasion. Where the rival traded on credit Mr. Robb was forced by circumstances to trade on cash, and in his own words:
“We had to go easy, but the other fellow spread out.”
The truth is that Mr. Robb’s competition caused the other fellow to spread too far and eventually to go the way of all ' concerns managed by ill-advised optimism. Thereafter the milling business under the guidance of the man who narrowly escaped becoming a minister came into its own, and each year brought steadily mounting prosperity and expansion. Mr. Robb’s cousins, sons of the uncle who gave him his first job, became men and were given posts of responsibility in the business and Mr. Robb began more and more to turn his attention to politics. His cousins are still among his greatest admirers and frankly admit that “James A.,” as they call hirri, was their port of shelter in times of youthful trouble and that he bought them their first lacrosse sticks, baseball bats and fishin’ poles.
Just one incident will show the interest he took in those boys. A championship lacrosse match was being played in Ottawa. Tickets, were scarce and Mr. Robb, knowing his boys wanted to attend, took time from parliamentary duties, secured the tickets, reserved rooms at the best hotel and then used the long distance to urge them to come. This is just one of the reasons he is known as “James A.” in Valleyfield, and why all the neighbors united in 1906 to convince him that his metier was civic politics. They made him mayor of the town, and his first official action was to stage a regular clean-up at the City Hall. One of his first steps was to put the city treasurer in jail for tinkering with the civic receipts.
After that the mayoralty was his as long as he desired it. He enjoyed the work. His friends say that “Jim always was a bit of a chap to go. around with the boys.” He was and is, and his political bent led him into speaking campaigns in the back concessions. In one little town he experienced the scare of his life, and has had a respect for firearms ever since.
The scene starts in one of those friendly country hotels where everybody knows everybody else; the time approaches midnight, so the hotel porter was glad to invite the budding politician to join him in meeting the midnight train. It was necessary to have some one along who was not afraid of ghosts. Mr. Robb went, apparently not so sure of the desirability of the journey himself. It was a hot campaign and feeling ran high. Their worst fears were realized. Down the road they met a fellow-citizen possessed of whiskey demons, political fervor and a gun. The demon-ridden one was all for pot-hunting his tormentors, real or imaginary, and included one superstitious hotel porter and a Liberal campaigner in the latter category. He
opened a brisk fire. Mr. Robb and the porter gave a display of fancy ditch diving, and then Mr. Robb left the porter to go to the railway station alone if he cared to.
At intervals between running a town, and a flour mill Mr. Robb found time for sport of the more active kinds, and he still retains a suspicion that golf is a form of mild exercise for elderly persons. He went in for lacrosse first as a player and, later, because of his executive ability, as the manager of the Valleyfield team. His ambition was to produce a championship aggregation, but he failed for lack of material. In Valleyfield, Cornwall and surrounding towns the minister of finance still retains a reputation among former athletes as a most persistent and determined debater with umpires, and as one possessing a certain persuasive ability with short-tempered players. Mr. Robb is silent on the subject of fights. He just smiles, but has admitted the usual number/of sportive engagements still undecided by reason of the undesired interference of outsiders. Fate, in the person of Sir Lomer Gouin, pitchforked Robb into federal politics just when he was preparing to offer himself in the Quebec provincial field. Sir Lomer didn’t think “James A.” could carry the constituency, and was convinced that W. H. Walker, the sitting member, could, and by acclamation. Mr. Walker, himself, had federal ambitions but Sir Lomer’s opinion carried such weight that Liberal Party plans for Huntingdon were entirely changed, and in the process of keeping a safe seat sure Mr. Robb was neatly shunted out. The thing was not done without a great deal of negotiation. Mr. Walker came to Valleyfield to straighten the tangle and a conversation something like this took place:
“Now, Jim, you know how it is. Sir Lomer thinks I’d better stay in the provincial house. No reflection on you, but they don’t think you could carry it.”
“All right,” says Jim, thinking it over. “I’ll do what is best for the party.”
“Will you come down to the convention and say so?”
Walker got his acclamation and went to Quebec. Robb returned to the business of grinding more and better flour. Afterward the general elections of 1908 came along and political virtue was rewarded. Mr. Robb was brought out by his friends as a prospective candidate, and he admits he was considerably flattered.
“You know,” he says, “how it does make a fellow feel good.”
He was compelled to fight for the nomination and captured the convention by only one vote, and was equally hard pressed in the campaign, winning the seat by eighty votes.
That was the year the Conservatives took it upon themselves to protest all the Liberal seats in Quebec, and Robb found his right to sit in the Commons contested in the courts. At the time Mr. Robb wasn’t as pure a party man as he subsequently became. In fact he suffered badly from an attack of independence. Not a cabinet minister had appeared in his constituency during the campaign, and not an outside orator had assisted in compiling that eighty vote majority. Mr. Robb felt all these things and showed his feeling in the way young and independent members adopt, was a bit kicky in caucus; not so reverent of his party gods as he ought to have been, and was generally a candidate for discipline. He even gave serious consideration to allotting more time to the flour business and less to politics. Then Sir Wilfrid Laurier used his charms, showed a trifle of his power to handle all classes of men, and the bold independent capitulated without terms.
This,was the way of.it.
The protest of the Quebec 'Liberal. ; seats, was still in the courts, The House was in session, and one 'evening the official fixer of such matters _ called 'Mr. Röbb out of the Chamber to impart the information that the Conservatives were prepared to settle all the constituencies save and except Huntingdon. What did Mr. Robb propose,to do about -it? Mr. Robb didn’t propose to do anything, and didn’t, care a hoot what the Conservatives, the Liberals, or anybody else did. And the next day, the Liberals Caucused.
“Come up here, Robb,” Sir Wilfrid ¡called from the platform.
The independent came up, and Sir Wilfrid talked of many things, and Mr. Robb waited and wondered. ...
L “How is your protest?” • o ", ■
“In the courts.” _ -¡ No more was said until the protests and the Conservative willingness to •forego all except Huntingdon came up for consideration. Then Sir Wilfrid ruined Mr. Robb’s independence.
“Until my friend Robb’s is settled,” ¡ said he, “no seat is settled.” And that ¡eventually was the way of it.
; And “Friend Robb” made a mental reservation that if ever the “Old Man” needed him in a crisis he’d be there without question and until the end. This promise he kept in 1911 and 1917, . and as a matter of fact stayed in politics when he wished to drop out, for urgent family and business reasons, because Sir Wilfrid expressed a wish to have him stay. ... .-
Mr. Robb’s political life has been -productive of several good stories, some of them on himself. Once Mr. Robb invaded Dundee Town and In the main hall smote the Conservatives in general and his opponent in particular, hip and thigh. It was one of those old-fashioned thorough-paced, hustings orations _ in which nothing was left to the imagination. After it was over a Conservative asked Mr. Robb if he’d mind taking a small parcel over to Valleyfield and hand it to ^ the Conservative candidate. ;
Mr. Robb undertook the commission -and so great was his zeal to be right neighborly that he delivered the parcel before breakfast next morning. The next night Mr. Robb found that he had delivered a stenographic report of his fiery speech right into the camp of the enemy, his opponent getting in some good punches while the punching.was good!
Mr. Robb has never deserted his home ; town of Valleyfield, still slips home for week-ends, and can usually be found on the Canadian National train from Couteau Junction to Ottawa on Monday morningsOne of his personal concerns at the moment is the quality of the butter turned out by Huntingdon farmers, and there is, perhaps, a shade of suspicion in his mind that the churning ¡ is not so good as when he was a boy and on the business end of the churn plunger.
......In Ottawa, Mr. Robb’s quiet, Scotch
persistence has been instrumental in keeping him on the job, and this together with his native .energy and ability has been responsible for his steady advance* ment along the path to political eminence. The farm boy became a wealthy miller. The private member of parliament became a minister of the crown. The progress was almost unchanging . in its steadiness. First just a member, then up on the.„second line of defense; after that chief Liberal Whip and, with the return of his party to power in 1921, minister of trade and commerce..
Here he seemed to have reached the summit and earnestly turned his attention to settling trade problems and extending commerce. A trip to Australia for the purpose of negotiating a trade treaty seemed to confirm him in his post,, but the new arrangements for the Immigration Departmefit and the need of an energetic minister, changed his plans. When he was called upon to relieve Mr. Fielding he was exceedingly busy arranging raids on the Nordic types of Europe for the purpose of building up Canada’s population.
His departmental career has been one ; of success. _ He quickly established a fine, working comradeship with his ’ officials. He is above all things a friendly man—not that he can’t, and sometimes does, lose his temper. In the House he is reasonable in speech, not given to flights of oratory but rather to calm, reasoned addresses, which he delivers slowly and with evident care. He is popular with all three parties, and is widely considered one of the best minds in the Chamber. A fairly tall, grayhaired man, smiling, kindly and efficient, he is journeying quietly on toward his sixty-fifth birthday, as he was born August 10, 1859.
Mr. Robb’s family life at Valleyfield is ideal. He owns and lives in a beautiful, tree-shaded home, and his neighbors indifferently refer to him as “James A.,” or “Jim.” His knowledge of the surrounding country is sufficient to appal the ordinary man. He seems to know everybody and possesses the right to call most of the folks down there by their first names. In several centers where the infusion of the old Scottish blood has produced three languages, English,French and Gaelic, he can pronounce the names with correct accent in each case. The people like him, and in Valleyfield his opinion on the value of farm lands and soils is held in high esteem.
He has not forgotten the fine art of plowing, and he can still handle a hay rake, reins and all, if he feels the urge. His pet form of conveyance when home is not a sport model car, or even a stately limousine, but rather a comfortable-appearing old carriage which is# drawn at an equally comfortable pace* by the family horse. Mr. Robb drives. If anybody else does and the horse becomes overheated, or shows signs of ill-usage, woe to the transgressor!