llsley the Man

GRANT DEXTER October 15 1942

llsley the Man

GRANT DEXTER October 15 1942

llsley the Man


"He casts a lengthening shadow...because people realize he is doing a first-rate job in one of the toughest spots on the home front"

ON PARLIAMENT HILL politicians speak of James Lorimer llsley, Minister of Finance, as the likeliest successor to Mr. King either as Liberal leader or prime minister. Two years ago the choice, almost unanimously, would have been Col. J. L. Ralston.

This is remarkable for several reasons. Mr. llsley is not a politician’s politician. As a votegetter he has mest of the handicaps which your true-bcrn politician strives to avoid. He is not a strong party man. He has yet to prove that he possesses the most precious of all the gifts—the ability to distinguish well in advance the difference between a band wagon and a hearse. He has a streak cf stubborn independence. He has never submitted against his own judgment to party discipline nor obeyed the crack of the party whip.

Nonetheless he has gained swiftly in public esteem since July, 1940, when he became Minister cf Finance in his owm right. And he has done so without aid of any of the normal arts cf politics. He has made no speeches outstanding in eloquence. He has coined no popular phrases. He has shown no aptitude for coating bitter pills. He has not lightened the load on the taxpayer’s back. There have been no sugarplums or silver linings in his budgets.

He casts a lengthening shadow across the political scene because people realize that he has done and is doing a first-rate job in one of the toughest spots on the home front. They recognize and respect courage, ability and a sense of public service.

Mr. llsley, to speak frankly, has become an outstanding public man because of his work as finance minister rather than the impress of his personality on the country.

The man, llsley, is perhaps the least known of all our political leaders. And that goes not only for the country but for the House of Commons. He is an enigma to most of the Liberal members. They rate him high because his budgets and administration are popular with the electors back home, because he is a powerful debater. The man himself they do not understand. How could they when he lacks the qualities that the average politician prizes? He is an indifferent mixer, inclined to be undemonstrative. He has no small talk worth mentioning. He is a washout as a political fixer. Np backbencher would have the nerve to ask llsley to do any of the little things which Cabinet ministers can do and which help a fellow get elected. He doesn’t drink, apart from an occasional glass of wine. While he fiddles with cigarettes, he doesn’t really smoke. He has little use for cards and regards gam-

bling as a vice. He is immune to flattery. He can’t be wheedled. He has no ambition for place, power, or money.

While all this is true, it is a superficial view. Actually, this forty-eight-year-old leader has the things that count: character, warmth of heart, complete sincerity, fidelity to principle, an as yet unplumbed capacity for public service. He has a delicious if sometimes biting sense of humor.

He is a lawyer, with a difference. He loves law not as the court-room pleader but in the great tradition. “Of Law,” wrote Richard Hooker, “there can be no less acknowledged, than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world.” llsley would agree. Last, but perhaps most important of all, he is a democrat to the marrow of his bones.

He is of middle height, slender, quick of movement, high-strung. His outstanding feature is a mane of flaxen hair. His eyes are expressive. They can be dull and lack interest. They can sparkle like sun on water. llsley more often laughs with his eyes than his lips. His face is long and narrow and the chin juts out. In the whole make-up there is nothing deft, nothing smooth. He is a,ngular, oddly awkward.

To understand him you must understand his background. And his background is certainly not that of Parliament Hill. Somehow, he just doesn’t fit in there.

His mother was a Caldwell, of United Empire Loyalist stock. Snatches of the Caldwell history are in Kenneth Roberts’ story of the revolution—“Oliver Wiswell.” The book gives a good line on Ilsley’s hereditary background. His middle name, Lorimer, was given him in memory of a Baptist preacher in Boston for whom Ilsley’s parents had great respect.

Ilsley’s father was of English blood. He was a farmer. As a lad he left school at twelve years of age to work with his mother on a farm at Kentville, Nova Scotia. He inherited the farm and married Miss Caldwell, the schoolteacher. There were two children—James (born in 1894) and a younger brother. The brother is now in California.

It was hard sledding on that farm. The order of life was hard work and frugality. Ilsley’s father paid for the farm and never went into debt. llsley was raised with a horror of two things—debt and waste.

He was a brilliant student. He passed his entrance at eleven years of age. His father held him back a year because he thought the boy too young for high school. But he finished collegiate, in Berwick, N.S., at fourteen and graduated from Acadia University with a B.A. at nineteen. He entered a law firm for a year, went to Dalhousie and got his degree two years later and began to practice law at Kentville in his early twenties. Later he moved to Halifax but before he had time to make a mark he was offered and accepted the Liberal nomination in his home constituency. He was elected to Parliament for the constituency of Digby-Annapolis-Kings in 1926 and has held the seat ever since.

Ilsley’s father died in 1912. The boy shouldered the responsibilities as best he could. The Continued on page 49

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farm was sold and his mother resumed her career of schoolteacher. She was in every respect a remarkable woman. It may seem strange but it is true that she holds a place in the hearts of the folk of Kentville which her son has never equalled. She died two years ago.

The rest of the story can be told in a few words. He was a backbencher until 1935 when he became Minister of National Revenue. During the illness of Mr. Dunning in 1939 he was acting Minister of Finance and as such he delivered the famous budget speech in the special war session of September 1939. Later Col. Ralston took over Finance but Ilsley returned to this portfolio as the permanent minister in July, 1940, when Col. Ralston went to National Defense. Except for this brief period he has been in charge of Canada’s war finances throughout.

If Mr. Ilsley were in Washington, they would ticket him in five minutes. He would be classed with complete accuracy as a New Englander. At Ottawa, for reasons which are not obvious, the type is rare. There has been none like him in Parliament since Confederation. Fielding, Rhodes, Ralston and Tupper showed little or nothing of the typical New England spirit.

The traits of the New Englander stick out at every point. Thriftiness, simplicity, dislike of waste or show, sincerity, a touch of coldness, an inability to act or to dissemble, a dry sense of humor, scepticism in the presence of emotion, ruggedness, shyness, and the kind of introspectiveness which is merciless in selfcriticism. Democracy with this, type is a kind of religion.

A hallmark of the Ilsley policies is that they reflect the viewpoint of the average man. He has never been impressed by wealth nor desired the society of wealthy people. His income before entering the Cabinet was about $5,000 per year and he continues to live on this basis. He owns a Ford but can’t remember whether it is a 1938 or earlier model. He prefers to travel by foot or by streetcar.

It has never occurred to Mr. Ilsley that other people are better

than himself or that he is better than others. Hence his imperviousness to influence. To him there are no classes —just individuals. He likes people intensely in the mass but he deals with them as individuals, regardless of whom or what they are. Instinctively, he has as much respect for the policeman at the front door of the East Block as for the general manager of a great corporation. It is told of him that while he was riding home on a streetcar one night last spring, a woman, carrying a basket of apples, slipped and upset the basket. Ilsley was the first one down on his hands and knees to retrieve the apples.

In the finance department the officials swear by him. As a minister he is difficult and often hard to help. Most politicians have a way with them. However disagreeable it may be they can put on a show with delegations, pretend to have a deep interest in the matter in hand and send them away with words of commendation and hope. Ilsley can’t do that. Unless he is interested, he cannot disguise his boredom. He looks out the window, he yawns and fidgets. He looks at the delegates with cold, half-resentful eyes. If he is interested, of course, all is well. He goes into the matter in detail, and he never rests until action has been taken. Lack of showmanship, however, has been a heavy liability to him.

As for the finance department, Ilsley, in the experience of the officials (the brain trust) is unique. Normally, there are two kinds of ministers of finance. The first are content to be the head of the department and leave the work to the experts. Their speeches are written for them. They enter the House of Commons primed to the ears with information, which they promptly forget as soon as the debate is finished. Then there are the ministers who have had experience in business or finance and who come in with preconceived ideas. These men are hard to handle because they prefer not to discuss policy with their senior officials and are always getting leads from outside sources.

Ilsley came to finance without any deep-rooted opinions on policy, ex-

cept a determination to keep down debt and cut expenditures. He refused to accept ready-made policies from his staff. They had to argue every point and while quick to learn, Ilsley is a ready and severe critic.

Today they will tell you that Ilsley is a match for any of the economists or financial experts. His grasp of policy is sure and tenacious. He has given everything he has to the job. In the House of Commons he needs no prompting and is always ready to meet the Social Creditors or the socialists—on their own ground. It is as though he had gone to school for two years with some of the best economists in the country—twelve hours a day and every day of the week. It was not a theoretical but a practical school and the state of the nation’s finances today is the best evidence of his success.

Ilsley has not minded the long hours, the unending grind. He has loved it, and says so. But there have been tough stretches.

Unlike most politicians, Ilsley is sensitive. Fighting in the House of Commons takes it out of him. He does not thrive on controversy like Mr. Gardiner of Saskatchewan. He has none of Mr. King’s toughness. He worries and frets. He cannot go half out. He is at his best only when aroused, and the nervous energy thus expended is a heavy drain. If he is not steamed up, he falls below the average member. But his best cannot be equalled by any man in Parliament today.

It is easier to tell of him by stories. A few years ago a. dispute arose between a large corporation and the national revenue department as to liability for tax. The officials at last suggested a compromise—a deal.

i Ilsley was horrified. To his mind it e was immoral to bargain over a matter s of taxation. The corporation either e was liable and must pay or was not , liable and owed nothing. He made the decision and applied it. There I was no compromise, s As for his sense of humor—Not f long ago, at the end of a conference s with his experts, Ilsley smiled and '. said, “The trouble with this departs ment is that we have no civil serj vants. We are all statesmen.” e Mr. Ilsley is not an easy man to t sketch. His qualities are so unusual: r he is so different. But when all is t said, the dominant trait is the e quality of the democrat. The average e person in Canada would agree that a responsible government is the best e kind of government and let it go at t that. With Ilsley, democracy is not something you approve of. It is I something you live by. It means s freedom and justice, and these are B not abstractions but as necessary to men as the air they breathe. Injuss tice hurts him as if it were physical f pain. Tyranny evokes in him a 3 flaming resistance. There has been B no act of oppression or cruelty in a these days which, having come to his ;. eye, has not made its mark in his D heart. The collapse of the League of i Nations was for him a personal s tragedy. Everything that makes s life worth living for him is at stake i in this war. He is in it with everyt thing he has—to the end.

The writer tried a little while ago to talk to Ilsley of the postwar world. / He listened abstractedly, fidgeted, B looked out the windows. And then, i “So far as I am concerned, I am not t interested. I am going to go on t thinking of killing for a long while . yet.”