Minister of Supply

GRANT DEXTER May 15 1942

Minister of Supply

GRANT DEXTER May 15 1942

Minister of Supply


IT IS C. D. Howe, Minister of Munitions and Supply, talking, following a trip to Britain in which his ship, the Western Prince, was torpedoed: “Then we saw the U-boat . . . It played its searchlight on us. It was only about from here to the wall away (about fifty feet). It let go and the ship disappeared in less than à minute . . . My strongest recollection of that day was the terrible cold. A sleet storm was blowing and the boats were loaded to the gunwales. We had to keep bailing to keep afloat . . . We had the feeling that if we were not rescued by • dark we would never keep afloat . . . One of the lifeboats turned over ... I saw forty people perish from being frozen, from drowning and from being crushed in getting to the rescue ship . . . When I stepped on land at Glasgow it came to my mind that I was now working on borrowed tiipe ...”

That was in December, 1940, seventeen months ago.

A month or so ago I called on Clarence Decatur Howe in his office in the House of Commons. He sat facing a desk littered with papers. He answered my questions in monosyllables, obviously impatient to get on with his work. His grey hair was ruffled. He fidgeted with his spectacles, puffed at his pipe.

The man stands about five feet ten. He has the bearing of an athlete, narrow hips and broad chest. His features are sharp; his chin juts out. His blue eyes are straight. He clips his words. All over him is the stamp of aggressiveness.

He is one of the strong men of the Government, although still a comparative youngster in politics. On the public platform he is no spellbinder, oratory not being his line. In the House of Commons he rates as a good debater in his own field but never takes part in general discussions. He relies wholly on facts, not rhetoric. His critics say that sometimes his facts are colored by optimism.

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Mr. Howe has risen steadily as a national figure partly because he is a natural war minister. His courage is absolute. He never quits. His ardent nature has never known failure. When things go wrong he redoubles his efforts until they come right. Most precious of all, he has the gift of leadership. He drives himself and his subordinates unmercifully. But when he backs a man he sticks to him through thick and thin. In the Munitions and Supply Department hundreds of businessmen who did not know each other a few years back are working as a team, pulling together as one.

Mr. Howe is not given to intro-


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spection. He is definitely not interested in how he got to be Minister of Munitions and Supply or how he built Canadian industry into the war machine that it is today. He is only interested in what lies ahead.

For a minute or two, however, he looked back over the years and answered questions. In the story he told there was no evidence that he had ever consciously planned his career. One thing had led to another; inevitably he arrived at today.

For much of the material in this sketch the writer went elsewhere. Mr. Howe, with the best will in the world, found it impossible to talk at length about himself. His dislike of personal publicity is ingrained.

He was born in the watch-making town of Waltham, Mass., on January 15, 1886. His dad was a builder and his granddad a farmer. Far back there are family roots in Nova Scotia. Joseph Howe, Nova Scotia’s famous Confederation statesman, was a distantcousin, though “C.D.” never mentionsthe fact. Hewaseducated in public schools, played rugby and excelled as an oarsman. He chose to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was fortunate in having as his professor George Swain, one of North America’s great teachers of engineering. Howe was a brilliant student and graduated in 1906 at twenty years of age.

A Chance In Canada

IT WAS a bleak world. The “rich men’s panic” had sent business into reverse and there were no jobs to be had. Howe was good enough to be kept on as a teacher for a year, and then a request came from Dalhousie University, Halifax, for a professor in engineering. Swain recommended Howe. And so in 1908 he came to Canada, never doubting that he would go back to his native New England as soon as business improved. He taught at Dalhousie for five years and for many it might have been a life assignment.

But those who knew him then and later were impressed by one characteristic. There was never a chance of “C. D.” staying in the teaching business. His ambition was to get to the top of his profession—civil engineering. He wasn’t bumptious or snooty about it; he was just on his way.

He was an unusual professor. He never tried to lecture in the professorial way. But he knew his stuff and he lived with his students, just a year or two his juniors, as equals. Much of his teaching he did out-of-doors. This was the era of railway expansion, of the transcontinental, with an apparently unlimited demand for civil engineers. Howe and his class, weather permitting, took to the field, slept under canvas, and engineered imaginary railways all over Nova Scotia.

Mr. Howe is extremely proud of his pupils. He names the more brilliant of them—Jack Mackenzie, now president of the National Research Council; Geoffrey Gaherty, of the Calgary Power Company; Dennis Stairs, now director of construction for Munitions and Supply; and Jack Cahan, son of Hon. C. H. Cahan, the most brilliant of them all, whose career was cut short by death following wounds received in the last war.

Far west on the prairies events were shaping which would profoundly affect Howe’s life. Farmers were in revolt against the grain trade; the now ancient feud between wheat growers and Grain Exchange was in its first and bitterest phase. Nearer at hand, at Pine Hill Presbyterian College (principal “Bob” Falconer), was a brilliant professor of theology, Rogert Magill. Magill was becoming increasingly less of a theologian and more of a radical economist. Walter Murray, Dalhousie’s professor of philosophy, went west to become president of Saskatchewan University and Magill succeeded him. He and Howe became friends.

Meantime the Millar Royal Commission had investigated the grain trade and the report was being thumbed over in uncertainty by the politicians at Ottawa. In 1910 the Saskatchewan Government appointed the Langley Commission to find ways whereby farmers could help

themselves. Magill was a member of the Commission and the report, of which he was the chief author, resulted in the Saskatchewan CoOperative Elevator system.

There was an urgent need, on behalf of the wheat growers, to provide terminal elevators where wheat could be handled efficiently. The incoming Borden Government found the problem on its doorstep and the Board of Grain Commissioners (1911-12) was the result. Dr. Magill was named chairman and one of the first jobs to be tackled was the building of government terminal grain elevators. Magill only knew one first-class civil engineer—Howe— and he offered him the job.

Howe built the terminal elevators at the head of the lakes, at Vancouver, Calgary, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon. Soon he quit the Board of Grain Commissioners—a $5,000 per year job—and set up for himself. As it turned out he continued to get the Board’s elevator jobsand plenty more from other grain companies. He built the Prescott elevator, the Churchill elevator. He built bridges like the Centre Street bridge at Calgary. His buildings towered up in every part of the country. His ambition was achieved: he was tops in his profession.

Early in his career—in 1916—he took time out to return to Boston and marry the daughter of J. R. Worchester. Worchester was an engineer in the construction business and Howe had worked for him, as a lad, in summer holidays.

All told, C. D. Howe handled more than $125,000,000 of construction up to the time he entered politics. The scope of his activities led him out of the strictly engineering field, into general executive work. He came to know most of the big firms of the country and every port and area. In the early 1930’s he went to Argentina to advise the government with respect to a grain elevator system. He stayed eighteen months, made a report which was subsequently carried through.

Paying Back a Debt

ALONG about 1934 he decided to . retire from business and enter public life. Why? Well, for one thing he had achieved his ambition. He had got to the top. He had made all the money he needed. He had never desired to build up a great fortune. His satisfaction had come out of building things. The country, after four years of depression, was in an appalling mess. Perhaps there were things that he could do to help straighten them out.

To a man of Howe’s ardent, optimistic nature, depressions are no more than a challenge to think straighter and work harder. It had never occurred to him to doubt the future of the country.

He was intensely a Canadian. He had not been a Canadian by birth. He had chosen Canada as his home and had put his life into it. Canada had been mighty good to him.

Why not spend the rest of his life trying to pay back the debt he owed?

Word of this drift of thought came to Ottawa, reached the ears of Norman Lambert, then head of the

National Liberal Federation. Lambert was an old grain man and knew “C. D.” well. He was the type of man needed in public life—a practicalminded businessman who knew the country backward. The next time Howe came to Ottawa he was invited to Laurier House and was asked by Mr. King to run in Port Arthur. Howe did not say yes or no. He went down Sparks Street to talk things over with Charlie Dunning, whom he had known intimately since he had first gone to the West. Dunning insisted upon him getting into politics and in due course Howe accepted the Liberal nomination for Port Arthur, never thinking that he would win a seat which had always returned a Conservative. He won in 1935 and again in 1940.

He had not asked for cabinet preferment and there had been no promises, but Mr. King gave him two portfolios—Rail ways and Canals, and Marine—to amalgamate into the Department of Transport. The department fitted him like a glove. He became immersed in the reorganization of the National Railways, the creation of the National Harbor Commission, the reorganization of the CBC, the launching of the TransCanada Airways. His days of building were not ended.

When the war came, Howe had little part in war activities. Although few realized it, the Bren Gun enquiry had profoundly changed departmental organization for war. The Davis report had recommended that the business of war buying be taken away from the National Defense Department and placed in the hands of efficient businessmen. The Government implemented the report by setting up the Defense Purchases Board. The Board, created a few months prior to the outbreak of war, functioned under the Minister of Finance. This arrangement did not work smoothly, so in October the War Supply Board took over and Mr. Howe assumed direction.

In April, 1940, the Munitions and Supply Department came into being with Mr. Howe as Minister and this setup has continued without change! Whereas in Britain and the United States each service has its own supply department, Canada has but one buying department. Later on when the defense department was split into three—Army, Navy, Air Forceno change was made in the buying system.

Looking back over the first months of war, Mr. Howe remembers that most of the business done was for our own armed services. He tried to obtain orders for weapons and equipment from Britain. He tried to get the plans and specifications of tanks and guns so that we could put our industry to work. Progress seemed to be impossible.

For eight months, until the crisis in the spring of 1940, Howe was frustrated. Then with the fall of France and the accession of the Churchill Government, all changed. The British Purchasing Mission went home, leaving Howe as Britain’s supply representative. Orders flooded in. The vital Commonwealth Air Training Plan was menaced by the inability of hard-pressed Britain to furnish the two-engine bomber trainers stipulated in the agreement. British designs and specifications had to be re-engineered in terms of mass production and of materials available here.

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War struck Canada, industrially, like an avalanche.

There were plenty of crapehangers on Parliament Hill in those days; many who wondered if Britain could stay the course if the war were not lost. C. D. Howe was not one of them. The thought of defeat never crossed his mind. His response was immediate and swift. He called in the leaders of industry. Where demands were so urgent that it was manifestly impossible to meet them at home, he flew to Washington in search of substitutes for British machines and equipment.

Pioneer Spirit Did It

HIS SUCCESS is apparent in every factory town of the country but he takes no credit for it. He gives it all to the industrialists and the workers. War industry, he says, will produce $2,500,000,000 worth of goods in 1942, and that is the measure of the skill and adaptability of our captains of industry and the men and women at the machines. He points out something which perhaps nobody but himself has noticed: that the

infinite adaptability and resourcefulness which marked the pioneer generation in Canada has turned up in our industrial life.

His system of operation was simple. When he had a job to be done he called in the best man he could find and turned it over to him. He did not interfere and he did not ask questions. He backed him to the limit and ninety-nine times out of a hundred the man came through. If a chap kept falling down on a job Howe, in the end, was ruthless. He fired him and brought in somebody else.

When I asked him if war industry could be still further expanded, Mr. Howe was careful in his reply. If, he said, you are thinking in terms of past expansion you will be disappointed.

We have doubled and trebled our output and it is now so great that we cannot expect to double and treble it again. But it will continue to expand rapidly. We are buying more machine tools today than ever before. Our tightest bottleneck, management, will gradually ease off as some of the jobs now in hand are licked. We still have the materials necessary to expansion but not in as great abundance as heretofore. This means, he said, that we must be very careful what we take on.

As for the war, Mr. Howe hasn’t a shadow of a doubt about what is going to happen* We have not started to win yet, but our day is coming and coming quickly. We have far greater resources than the enemy and our job is to deploy those resources in killing power—guns, tanks, shells, airplanes and so on. By 1943 the flood of equipment will be immense.

After the war? Mr. Howe isn’t worried about overproduction or excess plant. We are penning back a tremendous demand for things— houses, office buildings, apartment blocks, motor cars, goods of all kinds. It will not be difficult to adapt war plants to civilian needs. Invention will find new products to raise the standard of living and put people to work. There will be Europe to rebuild, and China and India will be great markets. There is no reason for anybody to be discouraged about postwar problems.

The one thing that would wreck us, as in the last war, is inflation. But inflation has been halted so far and we must be ready to make any sacrifice to keep it so.

With Mr. Howe there is, too, a personal side to this war.^ His eldest boy, Bill, is in the Navy, serving in the Far East. On the day I talked with Mr. Howe he knew the boy had been in the recent fighting but no direct word had come through for many weeks. Later he learned that Bill had survived the sinking of the cruiser Dorsetshire off the Indian coast.

The rest of the family, one boy and three girls, are at home.