Will the Prairies Go Solid Again?

What kind of a “corpse” is the Progressive Party? It seems to have vanished as a national party, but to have emerged as a sectional group.

GRANT DEXTER October 15 1925

Will the Prairies Go Solid Again?

What kind of a “corpse” is the Progressive Party? It seems to have vanished as a national party, but to have emerged as a sectional group.

GRANT DEXTER October 15 1925

Will the Prairies Go Solid Again?


What kind of a “corpse” is the Progressive Party? It seems to have vanished as a national party, but to have emerged as a sectional group.

THE Progressive Party has failed. This, perhaps, may seem a severe sentence to pass upon a political group which certainly will have more than forty seats in the next parliament and which—unless the Conservatives achieve a clear majority over all—will easily be the most influential opposition party in the House of Commons.

Nevertheless, the bald truth is that the Progressive party has failed. The Progressive bowmen have loosed their arrows in vain: the target of political success remains untouched; the quivers now’ are empty

Saddest of all, the Progressive party is


This may sound very much like the tone of an editorial in the Montreal pa:etu or the Toronto Mail and Empire, but 1 have just crossed the prairies and I have talked with most of the leading w estern Progressiv es. 1 can say, honestly, that no one disputes the fact that the Progressive party is doomed.

There are great differences of opinion as to when the last Progressive will cash his last indemnity cheque: there is no common view as to when the Progressives will cease to be a first-class political power at Ottawa: but even the Progressives themselves admit that the denouement is inevitable.

The Progressive drama, staged in the House of Commons, with T. A. Crerar in the leading role, is proving to be a tragedy.

There have been many brave scenes;

.some fine acting: and frequently moments of pure comedy. The leading man has resigned his role. The rest of the players are dissatisfied with their lines. All in all, the final curtain cannot long be delayed.

Why Rebels Fail

\S A study in political pathology, the /*. Progressive party offers unique opportunities.

Most rebel political movements have failed. Almost invariably, however, the failure has been due to one of two causes. Fither the movement accomplished its aims and in doing so removed all justification for its further existence: or. the electors lost confidence in the new policies and withdrew their support. It is difficult indeed to recall a case where the need for a party was Still felt as keenly as ever in large sections of the country and yet where the party disappeared.

But this is exactly the strange fate that is befalling the Progressive party.

A few examples will make this point clearer. Cobden and Bright, while they fathered a movement which, over a long period of years, made England a free trade country, never possessed a numerous following in the Mother of Parliaments. During the years that the fight was on, their policy won ever increasing support from the electors. Their movement never faltered until it accomplished its aim, when it naturally disappeared. Likewise with the Chartist movement, in the eighteenth century-. These are examples in which the movement disappeared after attaining its purpose.

Cases to the contrary can be found nearer home. The Pujosevelt Progressive party failed because the electors lost confidence in it. The La Follette movement likewise has proved to be but a passing phase, and for the same reason.

Yet in Canada one quarter of the constituencies or more is frantically desirous that the work which the Progressive party was formed to accomplish should be done. The electors of Western Canada are not turning to either of the old-line parties. The Prairies, as a unit, are as hostile toward the Liberals and the Tories to-day as in 1921. Everyone Í3 telling everyone else that the Progressives are no good; that they never will get anywhere—but you rarely hear a syllable of praise for the others.

During the past three years the electors of the West have been going through a period of disillusionment. The party of their creation, after getting away to a fine start, gradually lost momentum: then drifted hither, thither, and yon, without apparent purpose; and finally split into factions and cliques which made effective action impossible.

However, we are getting ahead of our story,

w’hich is to tell why the Progressive party has failed.

It is not a difficult task and perhaps the best way to do it is to sketch briefly the history of the movement. In this way the underlying causes of collapse will be revealed most clearly.

Why Revolt Started

IN THE first place the Progressive party was a revolt against “fence-straddling” Liberalism and protectionist Toryism. The Prairies became disgusted at the way in which their interests invariably were sacrificed by the older parties, in order that the political jack-pot in Eastern Canada might be kept sweet.

Tory and Liberal leaders alike came to the West with policies ensnaring in their seductiveness, but these policies never were put into operation. Reciprocity had taught the old-line politicians that the path to favor on the prairies was fraught with danger. Then, too, since the days of Sir Clifford Sifton the West had never had at Ottawa a first rate man who knew the requirements of the West and had the power and ability to satisfy them.

Calder and Henders forfeited the respect of the West by forsaking their earlier allegiance. Much the same fate befell A. L. Sifton, although he never lost the respect of the people. One man only seemed able to resist the allurements of the Capital—T. A. Crerar, who resigned from the Union government when the task for which that government had been formed was accomplished.

It was in the early post-war period and the West was ripe for revolt. Mr. Crerar sensed it; other leaders sensed it also. There were but a few of them. Crerar in Manitoba, Wood in Alberta, Morrison in Ontario, and a half dozen or more lesser lights. Thus from very

small beginnings there grew the Progressive party.

In 1920, the labors of Crerar and his supporters had brought but little success —a stone or two dislodged from the mountain side; a year later it was an avalanche. In the meantime, under the hand of Mr. Crerar, the Progressive movement had broadened out from a purely sectional to a national status. It still lacked definite aims and definite policies, but the prevailing impression was that these deficiencies soon would be made good.

There was abroad in the land a feeling that new blood in our national body politic was essential. Thousands of voters n every province were under the impression that both old parties had fallen under the influence of big business, and were no longer able to manage the affairs of the country efficiently. This belief, hazy and shadowy though it was, led tens of thousands of electors, other than farmers, to vote the Progressive ticket. This belief still is rampant.

It must not be forgotten that this was a revolt against the old order. The Progressive movement was a movement born of idealism; cradled in purity. Morrison and Wood, in the role of nurses, guarded the child in its infancy, determined that no poisonous doctrines should make an impress on the plastic mind. It is not surprising, therefore, that all the reform elements of the country should be attracto this beautiful child.

So much for the origin of the movement. * * * *

That Victory in 1921

IN THE 1921 elections, the Progressives placed upwards of one hundred candidates in the field, of which sixty-five were elected. They swept the Prairies; carried nearly twenty seats in Ontario: and polled thirty thousand votes in the Maritimes. Obviously, the movement had been launched successfully.

Then came the first session. Most of the sixty-five members did the farm chores for the last time, stepped on the train with their new, clean railway passes, bound for Ottawa. It was the same old story of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. They found themselves in a new world. It is true, their very rawness was an asset. During the first session they were easily led. Mr. Crerar and those of them who had been members of the previous parliament had little difficult in calling the tune. However, some of them quickly perceived the discords that were ahead and so quite early in the session Mr. Crerar asked for a decision on what was to be for the Progressive party a question of life or death.

He saw clearly that if the movement was to gain in strength, the broadening out process must be accelerated. Mr. Crerar, from the outset, realized that there was no permanent place in the Dominion for a sectional party. Therefore, he advocated immediate organization on party lines; the calling of a national FVogressive convention; and the raising of a substantial rarty campaign fund. His plan was to organize the constituencies from Halifax to Victoria, employing the services of professional organizers. Only after such organization work had been done would it be possible to summon a truly national convention and not until the national convention had been called would it be possible to replace the vague, peurile document commonly called in 1921 the Progressive platform, with a real one. Mr. Crerar saw one step further. After the national convention had formulated a truly national platform, his intention was that missionaries should be sent far and wide to preach the new gospel.

He met with little encouragement. The first essential was to convert his fellow members to his views, and this proved to be an impossible task. FYesh from the farm, they still clung to the teachings they had imbibed in their political infancy. Partyism in all its forms, they said, is evil. Like its twin brother patronage, it must be shunned. In vain did Crerar urge his case. The majority of the Progressive members was deaf to his pleadings. and Wood and Morrison, the one in Alberta the other in Ontario, rushed to its support. Continued on page 74

Will the Prairies Go Solid Again?

Continued from page 20

It is.true that there were very few questions upon which these two saw eye to eye, but this was one. With tender but firm hands they smothered this Devil’s flame of Partyism which had broken out.

The Progressives, however, could not be guided back into the old track. Crerar had raised a vital question, which few had thought about before—what road should the group follow in the future? There is no space here to deal with all the suggestions which were made. Morrison kept watch with .sleepless eye, smiting the head of impurity wherever it bobbed up. Wood brought out a scheme all his own—that the Progressives should be a class movement and should seek support only from the agriculturists. Wood really aimed at a complete revolution in our system of government. Kis plan was that all classes should organize, elect as many members as possible to fight for the benefit of their class in parliament. He wanted the nation to be divided on horizontal rather than on vertical lines. He won many converts, particularly in Alberta.

The close of the year 1922 found the Progressives groping blindly, trying to decide which course should be followed. They never reached a decision.

In the fall of that year Crerar resigned the leadership. The United Grain Growers Company, of which he is president, was in financial difficulties, and long absences at Ottawa were out of the question. At this distance it would almost look like the hand of fate. With the disappearance of Crerar from the leadership of the party, all possibilities of the movement ever becoming truly national in character vanished.

He went down fighting. Here are the last words of Crerar, the Moses of the Progressive party, as leader of the band: “I do not believe that we sixty-five members of parliament should change the policy, lay down new policies and so forth, hut some one must take the initiative. 1 would like to see a Progressive organization in every constituency and in every hamlet which would send delegates to a national convention where the policies would be formulated. . . . We make a great mistake when we say that the evils of the past were due to party organization. They were due to the patronage system.”

Crerar’s Lost Opportunity

HAD Crerar been granted but one more year as leader of the party, the whole subsequent history of this

country might have been changed. Two years in Ottawa contributed much to the education of the Progressive members. They began to realize that both Wood and Morrison, being direct descendants of Eve, were not free from error. They saw the party machine in action at close quarters. In vain did they look for the cloven hoof. On the contrary, most of them decided that party organization was desirable.

Their conversion came too late. Had business interests not forced Crerar’s withdrawal from the leadership, he would have won. He had fought strenuously to gain his objective, but not so strenuously as to hurt the cause. He had played his cards well.

Men’s opinions constantly are changing. As a political pilot, Crerar was keenly sensitive to the ever shifting course and current of events. Undoubtedly he would have been waiting, had not other interests, outside of politics, intervened. As it was, when the opportunity came, he was gone. His seat in parliament rarely was occupied. His influence was on the wane.

His efforts, however, bore fruit. A convention of a sort was held. A policy, equally as vague and as impracticable as the first, was adopted. Robert Forke was put at the head of the party and the Progressive caravan moved on.

The session of 1922 marked the high tide of Progressivism. From then on, the party steadily lost ground. The new leader never had a chance to show his talents. Possessing no more experience in parliament than the others, he never had the personal prestige of his predecessor. Also the Progressives were becoming more and more individualistic. Accustomed to the workings of the parliamentary machine, they realized the advantages of being free to speak and vote as they pleased. Constituency control, from the beginning, had been a watchword of the party and could be urged on behalf of any member who desired to steer a course independently of the others.

Many of them took occasion to point out that they had never seen or heard of a Progressive platform until after they had been elected. Not knowing that a party platform existed, some of them had drawn up a platform for the occasion and had had it endorsed by the constituency convention. Several of them fished out the actual document. They now argued that, however much the rest of them might feel bound to show a united front, they were perfectly “free niggers.”

Whatever control had been exercised over the group now disappeared. Men like Speakman of Alberta, Lewis, Millar and Johnston of Saskatchewan, and all of the Ontario members became practically independent members. Others who had enthusiasms in common formed themselves into little cliques. In the general caucus, discussion more and more became academic. No one pretended that a vote in caucus bound the group as a whole.

The party, however, had one more river to cross on its trek to sectionalism. In the 1923 session of parliament, A. R. McMaster, M.P. for Brome, one of the outstanding members of the house and a free trader, decided that he no longer could support the government. He crossed the floor of the house and took a seat alongside of the Progressives.

McMaster possesses most of the qualities of leadership. An eloquent and forceful speaker, rich in knowledge and an excellent parliamentarian, he would have done much to restore the fortunes of the Progressive movement had he been invited to join them. Many of the Progressive members gladly would have offered him the leadership and it is scarcely likely that Forke, who has the best interests of the party at heart, would have proved an obstacle. With McMaster in the saddle, however, something approaching party unity would have been inevitable. Those in the party who were the leaders of small cliques and those who were a party unto themselves did not relish the prospects of caucus discipline.

They had all the broncho’s distaste of the leather and the bit. And so McMaster never was invited to lead the forces of reform. The party shook itself free of

this last entanglement and McMaster later on went back to the Liberal benches.

Forke’s Leadership

SPEAKING of leaders, Forke suits his party well. True, he dismissed Johnston from the whipship, but in the main the Progressives have found him like the substitute teacher in the school —lenient with the rod and studious in his effort not to see the pupils making faces. Nothing is more certain than this: that if Forke ever shows a tendency to dominate the group—as Meighen dominates the Tories and Premier King the Liberals—he will be dethrored.

The rest of the story scarcely requires the telling. The drift toward sectionalism and elassism took more definite shape in the formation of the Ginger group in the session of 1924. This was purely a parliamentary movement. When the Gingerites^ returned to their constituencies duiing the 1924 recess, they found that their breakaway had not increased their popularity. While the West was in enthusiastic accord with many of the reforms which the Gingerites advocated, the instincts of the electors warned them against diwsiors in the party. The Alberta farmers at their 1925 convention strongly urged the Gingerites to forsake their independent course and co-operate with the main group.

At the opening of the 1925 session, the effect of these warnings was noticeable. The Gingerites held themselves firmly in check. However, as the session progressed divisions of opinion in the Progressive ranks became more glaringly obvious. The freight rate debacle was followed by differences of opinion on the new Grain Act and other questions of importance.

Internal controversies burned at the very vitals of the party. For the most part they were screened from the public eye, but occasionally they burst forth furiously. Each outbreak was followed by sincere efforts to re-unite the party. However, these tender buds of compromise invariably were buried in the scorching lava of the next eruption.

Another election is at hand, but the Progressive party is not the same virile movement of 1921.

Whereas in 1921, Crerar stumped the country from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic ocean, Forke this year will scarcely concern himself with the campaign beyond the prairies. He may make occasional forays into Ontario, but as far as the Maritimes, Quebec and British Columbia are concerned the Progressive movement is dead.

Whereas in 1921 the Progressives had more than one hundred candidates in the field, there will be little better than onehalf that number in 1925.

A Sectional Party Now

WHEREAS in 1921 the Progressive party was a National party, to-day it has been driven back into the territory from whence it sprung. It is now purely a sectional movement.

In 1921 the party had the services of such men as Crerar, Shaw, of Calgary, and Hoey, of Manitoba. In addition, A. B. Hudson, of Winnipeg, while nominally a Liberal, was in close touch with the Progressives and was always ready to counsel and advise. To-day Crerar and Hoey are definitely out of politics and Shaw’s and Hudson’s activities will be reluctant and local.

To sum it all up is to say that lack of definite, practical policies, common aims and party organization have reduced the Progressive group from a national to a sectional status.

Unable to agree, incapable of resisting the pressure from the phalanxes of the other parties, they early were driven to adopt the alternative of compromise.

When a party is not definitely committed to carry out a certain programme, the door to compromise is open. Each Progressive compromise—and there have been many of them—has been a milestone on the road to oblivion.

Bright once said that it was the compelling power of great principles that won elections. Had some prophetic soul hung the quotation in every Progressive room in the Parliament Buildings at Ottawa, this story might have been different.