Heenan, Called Peter

An intimate character sketch of the warm-hearted Irish-Canadian who holds the Labor Portfolio at Ottawa

TOM WAYLING January 1 1930

Heenan, Called Peter

An intimate character sketch of the warm-hearted Irish-Canadian who holds the Labor Portfolio at Ottawa

TOM WAYLING January 1 1930

Heenan, Called Peter

An intimate character sketch of the warm-hearted Irish-Canadian who holds the Labor Portfolio at Ottawa


IT WAS in Toronto—the mayor’s office at the City Hall. The atmosphere was charged with trouble, like black clouds and the muttering of thunder over the hills.

The mayor presided. There were contractors and labor men, two sets of each and all at daggers drawn. A building strike was at stake.

Hon. Peter Heenan, the Minister of Labor, had been summoned from Ottawa. Everything else had failed to bring about a settlement. Tempers were frayed and nerves ragged. The language became lurid.

The mayor intervened. “Now, now,” he chided. “You mustn’t use such language before a minister of the Crown. Remember where you are.”

“Oh, that’s all right, Mr. Mayor,” said the minister. “Let ’em get it off their chests if they feel like it. Then we can get somewhere.”

, So they got it off their chests, relieved their feelings, felt better, listened to the minister’s suggested compromise and the breach was healed. Another peaceful settlement marked down to Peter Heenan.

The incident crystallizes the basic principle of the success of Hon. Peter Heenan as Minister of Labor. “Let ’em get it off their chests; then we can get somewhere.”

^\N SUCH a principle 160 labor disputes have been ^ smoothed over and settled since Peter Heenan entered office three years ago. There has never been a strike where he had authority under the Industrial Disputes Act to intervene.

In August last, he went down to Saint John to speak at the annual convention of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada. He intended to stay just long enough to deliver a speech. He stayed a week.

During that week he adjusted several threatening labor disputes, appointed several boards of arbitration, discussed labor troubles with a dozen delegates and

various matters with scores of individual labor men.

The door of his room was open to any and everyone and he always lent a willing ear to their troubles. It was “Peter” this and “Peter” that, and never a man was fobbed off with an excuse. He took no secretary along, because a secretary’s chief job is to keep people away from his minister. No man ever asked to see Peter Heenan and was turned down.

That’s why they call .him “Peter.” The Right Honorable James Thomas, speaking at the same convention, declared that the secret of his own success was that he never got above the men who placed him where he is. To them he is and always will be “Jimmy” Thomas.

So it is with Peter Heenan. He is and always will be, to labor men in Canada, Peter Heenan. And thereby hangs another tale.

Many years ago there was a christening in the little church in Tullaree, Co.unty Down, Ireland. It was a warm August day and the little church was a pleasant bit of shade against the heat. By the same token it was a drowsy day, and old Father O’Connor droned along like the bees beyond the gate, intoning the baptismal ceremony over the Heenan baby.

“ ’Tis a fine bit of a bhoy,” said his reverence to the sponsors, and the blue-eyed mite kicked up his heels and smiled up into the old man’s face. So Father O’Connor had to put in another word or two that was not in the baptismal ceremony and a word or two after that, until what with the heat and the pleasantness of the day and the wriggling of the Heenan baby, he forgot the service entirely.

The father of the baby scratched his head. ’Twas a fine day indeed, but there was the baby to be baptized and prayers .to be said, and here was the old priest gossiping with the sponsors. Timidly the mother of the

child drew back the wandering thoughts of the father of the flock to the business in hand.

“Faith, Margaret,” said his reverence ruefully, “and here I am forgetting where I was at in the service. Never mind, I’ll start the prayers all over again. God knows, if the bye lives long enough he’ll need ’em all.” And so he called the child Peter after the father of him, standing by there at the christening.

Caution in Costa Rica

ACCORDING to Peter Heenan he has needed those extra prayers. There was a night way down in Costa Rica, a black stormy night betwixt Port Limon and San José.

Black thunder and white lightning, and rain like the rush of water through a broken dam. Tracks washed out and bridges gone, and no headlight on the engine save a little oil lamp, and Peter Heenan at the throttle.

Young Peter had done his bit of schooling back there in the Old Country, and a bit of mining, and here he was driving an engine in a weird country that was the next edge to desolation.

Peter had faith in himself and his engine, but not in the bridge works, and faith without works, he thought, wasn’t up to much. There was a bridge ahead of him

The train stopped and Peter shook a lamp free of its bracket and went ahead. The bridge seemed all right, so he got his train gingerly over it. Ahead once more and through the dark to the next bridge. Another stop and another plunge alone into the black night ahead with the guttery little lamp. All safe.

Time after time in that wild night Peter felt out his bridges and crossed them. The track itself was bending and buckling on the sodden right of way. The harassed engineer felt like a black man in a dark room looking for a black cat that wasn’t there.

Another stop. The conductor swore, the passengers stormed. What kind of a railway was this, with the engineer fussing over bridges like an elephant on tubs. But the Irishman knew his bridges and was not to be rushed.

Another stop, and a long one. The bridge at first sight seemed all right, but out in the middle there was a deeper blackness. Lowering his lantern, the engineer found the centre span had gone. The luck of the Irish was with him.

“All right then, let’s back up,” said the conductor.

“Not me,” said Peter, “not until I know what’s behind me. It was there when we came through. It may not be all there when we go back.”

Nothing would budge him, and when daylight came his doubts were justified. Back along the road sections of track had been washed away. It was three weeks before the train got out.

And Peter Heenan got promotion and a bonus.

From Costa Rica Peter Heenan came to Canada. The tropical fevers had got into his blood, so he went to the other extreme. Canada was good to him and he stayed, though there was a day when South Africa nearly, got him.

It was in Winnipeg. He applied to the C.P.R. there for a job. The master mechanic quizzed him. Locomotives were developing rapidly, and there were new gadgets and whatnots. The master mechanic discovered this pleasant-speaking Irishman knew kinks about the new link gear and other developments that were beyond the depth of his own Canadian railroaders. He promised Peter a job, and Peter, who had been offered a post in South Africa, stayed in Canada.

So Peter Heenan went to Kenora, and worked out from there. He liked Kenora and Kenora liked him. Then came the day of a bad wreck, with the engine down under the waters and the engineer and fireman with it. What a to-do! It was no job for a wrecking crew. They wanted a diver.

Somebody thought of Peter Heenan. Sure, Peter had been a diver. Sure, he’d go down if they’d get him a suit. Somebody remembered an old diving suit which had been used in the mines nearby. It was hastily requisitioned and Peter Heenan as hastily stuffed into it.

Back in the Costa Rica days Peter had watched the divers go down into the sea. They had let him try it one day, and another day, and so on. They put him in the rubber suit, strapped the great leadsoled shoes on his feet, buried his head in the globular helmet and sent him down.

A queer uncanny feeling it was down there under the sea; a queer pressure on

him from all sides. Darting fish swirled around him or goggled into the glass of his helmet. But not for long. Even a fish can’t make faces at an Irishman and get away with it. Peter returned to the surface, but from then on, every spare minute in Costa Rica found him down by the sea with the divers.

It’s a far cry from Port Limon to Kenora, but the amateur sport of Peter Heenan became a valuable aid when his pals went down with their engine. The suit was old and leaky, and as the rescue train thundered the twelve miles from Kenora to the wreck he patched it up as best he could. As he put it on and prepared to go down he felt like the old gentleman with the blunderbuss; would it go off or would it explode?

He used up another one of Father O’Connor’s extra prayers and went over the side. He did his job and came out safely. Years later there was another wreck and rescue work under water, and again the old diving suit was requisitioned.

Then there was another day when he even took his locomotive diving with him. His train was sloshing along through storm and rain. Suddenly the engineer spied a washout ahead and slammed on his brakes, but not soon enough. The train rushed to the hidden peril.

The engineer and fireman stuck to the cab. With a horrible sinking feeling they felt the engine slide into the gap. Shades of Father O’Connor, the rails were still held together under the water. The train ducked down and up again, stayed on the rails and came through without a soul hurt. . But all were shocked into speechlessness.

All save one indignant Swede. He stormed up to the engineer and shook a fist in his face.

“Vot you mean?” he cried. “Lookit all that vater on your tracks. The next time I travel by C.P.R. I go on the Canadian Northern !”

The Luck of the Irish

ONE day Peter Heenan called on the Fawcetts, friends of his in Kenora. He found most of the family sick with colds and what not. They were perturbed. Here was Annie Fawcett, of Beauséjour, coming from Manitoba on a visit, and nobody to meet her at the station. Would Peter ...

Peter would—and he did. He gave his hair an extra slick, looked in the glass to see if his face was on straight and set off for the station. He spotted the young school teacher without difficulty, and she found no difficulty in discovering he was Irish.

Blarney flowed from Peter’s tongue like the wind rippling over the golden wheat of her native prairies. He haunted the Fawcett house like a genial banshee. He showed the visitor the lakes and the woods, the sunsets and the moonrise.

Before Annie Fawcett went back to Beauséjour she had made up her mind that if Peter Heenan meant one half of what he said, the school trustees of Beauséjour would have a vacancy on their hands.

They did. Within six months the pair were engaged and in nine months married. The luck of the Irish was with Peter Heenan, though he hints that he’s used up all the rest of Father O’Connor’s extra prayers since then.

Peter’s popularity in Kenora doubled with his marriage and it has been multiplied by two wherever he has been ever since. No record of Peter Heenan’s career would be complete without Mrs. Peter. He was elected to the town council, then to the Ontario Legislature, then to the House of Commons, thence into the Cabinet. Throughout the journey the warm-hearted, kindly Manitoba girl walked beside him; sharing his hopes and his ambitions, his plans and his work.

That Windsor Uniform

'■"THUMBNAILING Peter Heenan in 4politics, it can be said that his rise was due to sheer hard work, loyalty to the men who gave him their confidence, and integrity in whatever office they placed him. Never for a moment did he lose contact with his workmates or with the ranks of labor from which he rose.

Comes a story to mind of a Windsor uniform and a ukase from Rideau Hall. In 1927, it was intimated by certain very eminent personages that Cabinet Ministers were expected to wear Windsor uniforms at Viceregal functions. Ministers who did not do so would not be de rigueur, or welcome.

Most of the ministers declined pointblank to subscribe to the doctrine of sartorial titles in Canada; among them Peter Heenan. He had not the slightest objection to donning overalls and getting into the cab of a locomotive. He slipped on slickers and went down into the coal mines at times. But he would not, and did not buy him a Windsor uniform. The overalls were the badge of the trade in which his life interest was centred. Gold lace was another thing entirely.

In Kenora Peter Heenan served five times on the council as alderman. He became a prominent figure in the labor movement and was chairman of the Association of Locomotive Engineers for eight years. In 1919, when the farmer government was swept into power in Ontario, Peter Heenan was elected from Kenora.

There is a bit of secret history that has never been told, not even by Peter Heenan. The eleven Labor men who were elected held a meeting. Most of them were opposed to going in with the

farmers to form a government, and were for rejecting Drury’s offer of two Cabinet seats for Labor.

In the conference there was considerable bickering. MacBride, of Brantford, was considered of Cabinet calibre, but he overplayed his hand. Heenan took the other extreme. Labor legislation was needed and personal ambitions should go. For himself he was not looking for a portfolio. He urged the Labor men to go in and he would support Harry Mills, of Fort William, for a seat in the Cabinet.

So it was decided. Mills went in, and Walter Rollo, and the man who put principles before promotion loyally supported the new ministers.

Delivering Kenora’s Goods

TT WAS during his tenure in the Ontario

House that Peter Heenan accomplished a task which he has always considered the most satisfactory incident of his career. For twenty years Kenora had tried to get a paper mill built, but there had always been too much outside opposition.

Day and night, inside the house and out, Peter Heenan fought for Kenora. The Backus interests were willing to build, if they could get the necessary timber limits. The Legislature was opposed to Backus getting the limits.

The perseverance of Heenan and the people he got to support the project finally won, and out of the storm of opposition he emerged successful. Backus got his limits, the paper mill was built and Kenora’s population and prosperity increased.

Later, when Peter Heenan went into the federal cabinet, Kenora gave him an illuminated address in which this paragraph recognizes his loyalty to the town which made him and which he made.

“Kenora knows that the great prosperity which it now enjoys is due very largely to your persistent and willing efforts, by which Kenora has been made an important manufacturing centre.”

Then in 1925 Peter Heenan resigned from the provincial House to contest Kenora in the federal arena. It was a fine fight, with a popular returned soldier as the opposition candidate. Day and night Peter Heenan travelled the huge constituency, and Mrs. Heenan organized the women’s vote, addressed meetings, and called at farmhouses.

Even in the election the queer luck of the Irish held good. Late on election night the returns had piled up, giving Colonel Machin a majority, and his election was conceded. Like a good sport, Peter Heenan went over to the Conservative headquarters and congratulated the successful candidate. A torchlight parade was perambulating the streets, and Colonel Machin’s supporters were in high feather.

Then came the morning after, with the unbelievable news that the belated returns had turned the tables, and that Peter Heenan was elected by a majority of fifty which later piled up to 190. What can one do with a man like that?

In 1926 there was another election and Peter Heenan was returned, this time by a majority of 700. In one of his meetings at Kenora during the campaign, there in the audience was that old English schoolmistress of his, watching with glowing pride the youngster whose feet she had guided in the brambled paths of knowledge and whose jacket she had dusted when he got in among the brambles.

In the Federal Cabinet

‘ I 'HERE was a dance at Dryden in the Kenora district after the 1926 election. In the middle of it a telegraph boy came in and handed the yellow envelope to the member for Kenora. Immediately there was a buzz around the hall: “Peter Heenan’s been called to the cabinet— Peter’s going to Ottawa!”

The message, however, was from the Prime Minister, asking Peter to come to Ottawa and see him. Peter went, and the Train News was handed to him by the conductor on the way down. It carried an Ottawa rumor that Peter Heenan had been called to the Cabinet.

“Peter,” said Mr. King when he arrived in Ottawa, “I want you to join my Cabinet as minister of labor.”

It was a proud moment for Peter Heenan. He recalled that the Ministry of labor had been Mr. King’s own first love; that the Prime Minister had been the first deputy minister of labor and later minister of labor; that Sir William Mulock, the eminent Ontario jurist, had once held the portfolio.

So Peter Heenan was strangely moved. “Mr. King,” he said soberly, “I’ll take it, and I hope you will never regret it.”

So far, Mr. King has never regretted it, and never expects to. Peter Heenan has not only retained the confidence of labor men but has become their champion. One of the first things he did was to check up his department and make it active rather than passive. If labor trouble looms ahead, he is there before it grows serious. He is the ultimate anomaly; a fightloving Irishman spending his life stopping fights.

“The Fighting Irish”

A T THE same time Peter Heenan has lost none of the age-old pugnacity of the Irish. Once upon a time, down in the mining country, there was a celebration, and in the evening he was to deliver an address. Some of the celebrants had become involved in an argument. They stayed outside the meeting to finish the argument.

The minister of labor started his address. Then suddenly a yell from a chap near the door:

“A fight! A ruddy fight!”

Peter Heenan knew his audience. “Fellers,” said he, “this meeting’s adjourned pro tem."

And the whole audience streamed out to watch the battle.

The argument being settled in the good old-fashioned way, Peter mounted the platform and calmly went on:

“Now as I was saying ...”

The speech continued, and so did the argument outside. Another pair of argufiers decided to chuck disarmament overboard and go to it with their coats off. Again that yell from the door:

“A fight! A ruddy fight!”

“Fellers,” said the speaker, “this meeting is adjourned pro tem." And speaker and audience once again streamed out to the ringside.

The argument settled, and the loser counted out, the crowd refilled the hall. The speaker got back on his perch:

“Now as I was saying ...”

So there it is. Among the miners of Cape Breton, among the skilled artisans of Toronto, with the labor men of Winnipeg, the lumberjacks of northern Ontario, the minister of labor is Peter Heenan—just Peter. They treat him as one of themselves, and because of this he knows when trouble comes, just where the shoe pinches and how to act.

Yet Peter Heenan is not as aggressively, pugnaciously a laborite as some of the men in the Winnipeg strike. He has hobnobbed with the Prince of Wales, stayed at Government House in Ireland, been feted and wined and dined by statesmen. Labor comes first to him but it must be labor which does things constitutionally and in order.

Old Age Pensions

rT'HE Trades Congress of Canada recently thanked the minister for his efforts to promote old age pensions. This Act is probably the minister’s pet child. It provides old age pensions for all persons over seventy years of age, the federal government paying half the money and the provincial government the other.

Because of the latter provision, some

of the provinces were chary of accepting the Act, which needs concurrent legislation from the provinces before it can be put into effect. With his usual contempt for circumlocutory methods Peter Heenan went direct to the provincial governments and discussed the Act with them. As a result most of the provinces have accepted the Old Age Pensions Act and put it into effect.

When Peter Heenan visited Windsor somebody came to him in the midst of a crowd of notables and whispered that an old woman wanted to see him.

Without hesitation the minister left the notables and went to the old woman. Timidly she asked if she could speak to him.

The warm-hearted Irishman put his arm round her stooped old shoulders. “Sure, mother,” he said, and he took her over to a seat.

“Mr. Heenan,” she said, “ . . . I am very old, and so is my husband. Things were very hard for us, but now we’re going to get the pension. And . . . and I wanted you to know that me . . . me and my old man, we pray for you every night, Mr. Heenan.”

To Peter Heenan the simple tribute was more than the accolade of the King.

Peter the Peacemaker

A GAY, dashing, sympathetic Irishman, Peter Heenan, and with the courage of his race.

When the transatlantic plane Bremen landed on Greenly Island there was an Irish officer aboard. When the crew were rescued, it was thought in Ottawa that Peter Heenan might go down to Quebec and give them a word of welcome.

There was not much time, so Peter Heenan thought he’d fly down. He asked me to go along. We waited impatiently for the Prime Minister’s sanction. The minister of national defense would supply a plane.

It was winter, and flying arduous. Knowing the daring of his Irish minister, the Premier vetoed the proposal. I fancy he suspected Peter might try and fly through to Greenly Island.

So Peter Heenan came out of the council chamber. “Tommie,” he said, “our wings are clipped.”

They were clipped for the time being, but they grew again. Since then, Peter Heenan has used a plane on every possible occasion. He flew from London to Paris. He flew from Ottawa to Toronto to sign the Old Age Pensions agreement. But he never flies off the handle.

There are times when he feels like taking a recalcitrant employer or employee and talking with an Irish blackthorn. But he always restrains the impulse. A Labor dispute in Toronto became critical. A conference was arranged in the mayor’s office. At the last minute the men backed down and wouldn’t attend. Peter Heenan went over to the Labor Temple. They came, and a settlement resulted.

At one such conference the men called him Peter. The Chairman scolded; it was not respectful to the minister.

“That’s all right,” said Mr. Heenan. “Peter’s my name, isn’t it? What the . . . !”

So they always call him Peter, and they always will, and sometimes it’s Peter the Peacemaker, for so he is.


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