MacLean Always Comes Through
Farm boy, school teacher, country doctor, holder cabinet portfolios —such were the stages in a career that made J. D. MacLean premier of B. C.
CHARLES LUGRIN SHAW
THE lusty voice of 'Honest' John Oliver is silent now. No longer does it ring in parliamentary debate and on the hustings in British Columbia, where for more than twenty years it was so often heard. The gallant old farmer premier wanted to die in harness and his wish has been granted, and to-day in a grave on a sunny slope in Saanich, a few miles outside the capital of his admiring province, the rugged statesman sleeps in the soil he loved so well.
The battered old alarm clock is gone from the hook on the wail in the prime minister’s office at Victoria -along with many other familiar relies of Oliver's somewhat colorful administration. The piles of yellowed papers with which the oki premier surrounded himself are gone. Gone from the walls, too, are the quatnt family photographs that were his pride, and the inevitable box of apples from which he occasionally treated his callers is no longer to be seen. Most of the evidence of the rugged, pioneering personality of 'Honest John has disappeared, but the big red desk is there still and the old swivel chair—and to-day, it is occupied by a quiet spoken man of middle age—a typical professional man rather than a farmer. But the spirit of John Oliver still lurks about the place and, according to the man who sits to-day at the big red desk in the old swivel chair, the spirit of John Oliver is there to stay.
Twenty-two years ago John Douglas MacLean, then a man of thirty-two, came to British Columbia, fresh from McGill Medical School, uncertain what the future held in store for him, but determined to get somewhere. Thirty-two is rather an advanced age for a man to be graduated from the university, and when MacLean had said good-bye to the mining town of Rossland, a few years before some of his friends had wagged their heads and doubted whether he wouldn’t change his mind and grab a job in the East that promised an immediate livelihood.
"A man his age can't stick around in a college for four years waiting for a degree,” they said. ‘‘He'll lose heart.”
But those who knew MacLean a little better smiled at that. “He won’t lose heart,” they said. "MacLean knows how to wait.”
He Knows How to Wait
TT IS a fact that MacLean knows how to
wait, but he is the sort who works while he waits. In four years he was a full-fledged doctor and to-day, twenty-two years afterwards, he is premier of Canada’s
Unlike his predecessor, John Oliver, MacLean did not always have an ambition to go into politics. John Oliver, who never went to school for more than a few months in his whole life but who burnt the midnight oil for years absorbing the knowledge that made him British Columbia's outstanding political figure of his time, had his eye on politics since early boyhood—but not so MacLean.
MacLean is a Westerner in spirit and outlook now, but he was born fifty-four years ago, away down east—in a Prince Edward Island village called Culloden. His parents were of Scottish descent and his father a farmer, who had been a sailor and then an officer in the Atlantic coasting trade. L'niike Oliver, MacLean never became closely wedded to farm life. He helped his father with the chores about the barns and fields, but his heart was elsewhere. At the age of nineteen he struck out for the prairies and arrived there in due course, penniless but fortified by his native courage and his ability to wait.
eventually turned up, of course—a job as teacher of a dozen farm children in a little red schoolhouse. He had received a very fair education in his native province, attending the rural schools and Prince of Wales College, at Charlottetown, although he had had to leave the latter before graduation because of reverses
Teaching was a vocation for which he seemed well suited, but after a few terms in various prairie towns he yearned for broken landscapes again and went farther west across the Rockies. He found a'job as a teacher in a little fanning community on the Fraser River, and
eventually gravitated to the Kootenay country, where a mining boom was then in progress. He was appointed to a principalship in Rossland, already a flourishing town of several thousand, and he imagined that he had just about reached the peak of success.
“Life seemed pretty good in those days,” recalled the
former school principal. “Rossland was the centre of big activity and the home of some very fine people. But school teaching in a mining town, in those days, was not particularly lucrative; nor could I imagine much further advancement there. The medical profession had always appealed to me and the idea of entering it gradually grew in my mind until it became an obsession. Leaving a steady job at the age of twenty-eight to go to college seemed foolhardy in a way, but I decided to make the plunge and I haven’t regretted it.”
So MacLean left his teaching, went to McGill Medical school, became a doctor and returned to practise in the Kootenay country. He made his headquarters in Greenwood, then a booming town, and became not only the town’s leading physician, but its leader in community work, an alderman and subsequently its mayor.
His Plunge into Politics
AND then in the summer of 1916, while the storm ■ clouds were settling over the McBride administration, supreme in British Columbia for so many years, MacLean was persuaded to enter provincial politics. He became Liberal candidate under the banner of Harlan Carey Brewster and he went into office with the landslide of votes that marked the most dramatic political upset in the province’s history.
It was then that the country doctor, who had been a rural school teacher, found a bigger niche for himself than he had ever expected. When the fog of battle lifted the Liberal party, triumphant though it had been, found
itself in need of a doctor, and a telegram from Brewster summoned MacLean to the capital.
In the days of prospective cabinet building Brewster had cast his eye over the list of candidates. He could count on John Oliver, the old campaigner, and M. A. Macdonald, the third member of the Liberal trio elected with him at earlier contests, and there were a few others whose political calibre was pretty well established. But after ticking off the names on his list Brewster still needed a cabinet minister with a knowledge of education and public health and a representative of the Kootenay country. Of course, he chose MacLean.
The unknown from Kootenay took hold of his new job with vim. His nose perpetually to the grindstone of administrative duty, he completely re-organized the provincial secretary’s department and the department of education, which was created shortly after his appointment to the cabinet. Little was heard of the new minister in those days. Public attention was focussed on more spectacular things such as the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, but in the provincial secretary’s department MacLean was effecting a peaceful revolution.
The creation of the present Tranquille Sanitorium in place of the privately-owned establishment which was previously British Columbia’s only place of treatment for tuberculosis cases the establishment of the Marpole Home for Incurables; the remodelling of the Boys’ Industrial School from a place of penal character to an educational institution, and the complete rebuilding of the hospital system of the province—these were the first fruits of the hard work of the new minister.
Education owes a great deal to those first years of his administration, for it was then that the remodelling of the school system got under way. MacLean knew the problem of the teacher from the inside, and he applied this knowledge with characteristic thoroughness. The standard of teaching was raised, technical schools were created, the British Columbia University established at Point Grey, and the educational survey carried to completion under his direct supervision. An honorary LL.D. degree conferred last year was the university’s tribute to his work.
By the time Premier Oliver succeeded Brewster, MacLean was counted one of the wheel horses of the administration. Even the new premier, himself, worked no harder than the provincial secretary and minister of education. When it came to finding a master for the Pacific Great Eastern, Oliver chose MacLean, not because he was a railway expert, but because he could be counted upon to handle the railway problem sanely.
After the election of 1924, the Oliver government faced reorganization. The finance portfolio had been left open by the retirement of Hon. John Hart from public life. There was no one in sight to take over this most difficult department of the government.
Finally, Premier Oliver decided to try MacLean. Critics of the government snickered. “What does this country doctor know about finance?” they asked. But they soon found out.
Trained as a teacher, experienced as a doctor and with some knowledge of railways, still minister of education and health, MacLean took over the new portfolio, a novice in public finance. As usual, he started to find out every detail of his job. Months of intense study at his office and at his home went into his task, until finally one day the new master of the treasury faced a legislature with the best budget that has been submitted since his government took office. Since then he has brought down a series of budgets that have been described as the best in British Columbia’s economic history.
In the beginning the thing that fortified Brewster in bringing the doctor from the Kootenay into his cabinet was the reply he had from his advisers .when he asked, “What about this fellow MacLean?” and they answered: “If you want someone who is absolutely safe, take MacLean.”
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MacLean has always been safe, and because he has been safe and a good waiter —that is to say, a man of infinite patience and tact—he has become the acknowledged diplomat and handy man of a government whose members individually have frequently found themselves in hot water with their public. MacLean stands out in splendid isolation as the only member of the old Oliver cabinet who has not found himself under fire from one section or another of the electorate during a large part of the year just passed.
After Maclean became head of the treasury, safety became the guiding principle of that branch of the government.
“British Columbia is in better shape financially than ever before,” he will tell you now. “There used to be talk of British Columbia being headed for bankruptcy, but that sort of thing isn’t being heard to-day, and it is because we have tried to face the financial situation squarely with our eyes open. No other province in Canada is making anything like the effort we are, to pay off its debt. The debt of the province is but ten per cent of the combined debt of all the provinces. And we are paying that debt off. The proof lies in the fact that our sinking fund, which we created to pay off the indebtedness is fifty per cent of the sinking fund for all the provinces. Most provinces, according to the figures, set aside only one half of one per cent each year for retirement of the debt, but in British Columbia we are laying aside enough to liquidate the entire debt at maturity of the loan. That is our basic policy in finance—a policy of safety—and it is the chief reason why I believe absolutely in the stability of the province. ’
ABOVE all things MacLean isa peacemaker and conciliator. John Oliver was a believer in the big stick and he did not hesitate to wield it upon occasion. So did some of his colleagues. But if MacLean believes in the big stick at all, which is doubtful, he believes in having it comfortably padded. He glories in victory, but he likes to let his enemies down as easily as possible. It is significant that one of his nicknames is ‘Velvet Vest’— soft to the touch, politically. He believes in the philosophy that a government should be able to administer the affairs of a country efficiently without hurting
anyone and without creating bitter antagonism.
Safety appears to be MacLean’s guiding principle, but another attribute that fills a big place in his makeup is faithfulness— faithfulness to an ideal and faithfulness to his old leader. No one realized better than he, when old John Oliver went home with only a few more weeks to live, that the government in British Columbia was first and last the Oliver Government and the vehicle of Oliver; that Oliver was the one symbol that had a magic influence upon the crowd; that Oliver with his rugged farmer philosophy and stubbornness was the man who had kept the party banner aloft through the years of intense political campaigning, and that Oliver was the skipper whose deft handling of the wheel had kept the Liberal ship on an even keel, not often in calm waters perhaps, but certainly off the rocks. And it was, therefore, not entirely faithfulness but common sense, too, that directed MacLean to announce that he would keep the torch of Liberalism aflame.
One of the first to discern this streak of common sense in MacLean was Oliver himself, for was it not Oliver who chose MacLean as his successor and who made the announcement of his choice at that dramatic meeting of the Liberal caucus a few months ago when everyone knew that the old chieftain was about to retire? Honest John, the white-haired old warrior who had risen from pit boy to premier, entered the caucus chamber on that fateful morning knowing that his days were numbered, yet secretly clinging to the hope that he might be spared the chance to die while on duty, as first citizen of his beloved province. Yet, in that last political crisis of his career, Oliver urged his followers to accept MacLean as their defacto leader. That was one of the terms under which Oliver agreed to carry on— as premier in name: That MacLean be recognized as premier—designate—as the real boss.
And so, when Oliver died and his mantle fell officially to the shoulders of the erstwhile country doctor, the task was not entirely anew one for MacLean. He had been boss in everything but name for months.
MACLEAN has some original ideas on the science of government, but those who expect him to adopt any
radical changes in the party program, such as a young and forceful new leader might make, will be disappointed.
“A lot of people seem to think that British Columbia has passed the pioneering stage,” he told me. “The real fact is obvious if you compare our area with our population. Why, we’ve hardly commenced to grow!
“Our fundamental problem, of course, is to get more settlers. There are only about half a million people to shoulder the expense of opening up the biggest province in Canada, but that hasn’t prevented us from reducing taxation steadily during the last few years. Why, in four years we have lopped off two and a half millions in taxes. Just across the international border is the state of Washington with a population three times our own; yet over there they tax farmers and business men twice as heavily as we do.
“We try to apply right down the line the policy of making the person who benefits most from government service pay the most, and I don’t like to see the general taxpayer saddled with taxes that pay for services of value to only one section of the community. We’ve been called a lot of nasty names in some places because of that attitude. Farmers in several districts have protested because we won’t make the whole province pay for their irrigation schemes, for instance, but we are convinced that our idea is the right one and we’re going to stick to it.”
MACLEAN, his friends will tell you, is one of the most sincere legislators that British Columbia has had, but he also knows where the votes come from. He knows his politics. There was a time not so long ago, when Hon. William Sloan was regarded as the political master mind of the Oliver government, as the man who pulled the strings that won elections, but the shaggy-headed minister of mines hasn’t been feeling any too well lately, and in the last by-election at New Westminster, thanks to the adroit campaign managing of MacLean, he wasn’t missed. The Liberal majority hangs by a slender thread in British Columbia and when the Liberal member who represents the city by the Fraser died a few months ago, the Conservatives, thrilled by their recent victory in the Okanagan, had it doped out that the government would delay the next by-election as long as possible. MacLean outguessed them, caught them off guard with a campaign of record brevity, injected several promises on live local issues, and elected his candidate by a handy majority. Had the Conservatives won that seat the outlook for the Liberals would have been dark indeed. Maclean according to his friends, saved the day and the life of the party.
With his party and the public—yes, and with his political enemies—MacLean is popular, yet he is not of the hand-shaking, baby-kissing fraternity. He is a quiet man and one of the least talkative members of the cabinet, and yet he is in no sense taciturn or exclusive. On the contrary, he has been described as ‘the most human man in the cabinet.’ Reserved and not particularly talkative, and a believer in the padded stick, perhaps, MacLean is not a pussy-footer. He seems to say ‘No’ to deputations almost as easily as ‘Yes,’ but he invariably says it with a smile.
British Columbia is a youthful province and deputations sometimes approach MacLean with an almost ferocious enthusiasm for their pet scheme. If it seems a little too ambitious he will smile and tell them of the progress British Columbia has already made, in spite of obstacles. “We want to be sure,” he will tell them. “We are determined to progress, but there is danger in going too fast. Wouldn’t it be better to play safe and wait a little?” .
MacLean, you see, hasn’t changed such a great deal since his school teacher and country doctor days. He’s just full of optimism, but also he knows how to wait.