Dana Wilgress, master of trade, commerce, diplomacy, is regarded as the ideal Canadian to interpret Canada to Russia
B. T. RICHARDSONFebruary11943
Hands Across the Pole
Dana Wilgress, master of trade, commerce, diplomacy, is regarded as the ideal Canadian to interpret Canada to Russia
B. T. RICHARDSON
THE MAPS of our school days left us with the illusion that there is nothing at all beyond the Arctic fringe of Canada. Now the war and the airplane have taught us that beyond the North Pole lies not a geographical vacuum but a big powerful, enigmatic neighbor—Soviet Russia. Now we know that Canada possesses a vast, sprawling undefended frontier of the north, a frontier across which neither hands nor minds have reached. No warm glow of a Good Neighbor policy has nourished that frontier. No afterlunch speakers have spoken of invisible bonds with the Russian people in whom we have found a great and good ally in dark days.
Dana Wilgress may change some of these things. He is Canada’s first minister to Soviet Russia. He is taking up his wartime assignment in Kuibishev, knowing more about Siberia than most men in the western hemisphere, knowing that the Russians have outstripped the world in development of Arctic lands, and that in the postwar era the nebulous north may fade away as the frontier of Canada marches toward that of Russia to interlock in the fabulous and undiscovered regions of tundra and frozen ocean.
We talked of this in the pleasant living room of the Wilgress home in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe the other day. Mr. Wilgress, as wobbly as a buck private from inoculation shots in the arm in preparation for his overseas assignment, spoke of the Siberia he knew so well from his days as Canadian trade commissioner in Omsk, when the old Russia crumbled and fell and the new Russia took its place. He was twenty-five then and he is twice that age today but Wilgress is as hardy a Canadian as he was in the days he travelled some of the mighty rivers of Siberia. He wrote voluminous reports for the Commercial Intelligence Journal about his travels up the aspen-fringed Irtish to the distant border of Outer Mongolia where it rises in the Great Aidai mountains, down the Ob river which is longer than the Mississippi, and along the broad Yenisei, as majestic an Arctic-bound river as Canada’s Mackenzie. We can learn much from the Russians in the
development of northern territories, Mr. Wilgress said. No longer mere sources of furs, minerals and fish, the Russian Arctic has come to possess large settlements. Cities of 50,000 persons have been built to flourish in some of the coldest regions of northeastern Siberia.
This is a phase of Russia that is as outlandish and powerful to Canadian ears as a Shostakovich symphony. To find a Canadian who knows at firsthand this great frontier development is a rarity. It explains why the appointment of Wilgress as Canadian minister to Russia was widely recognized as the most logical that could have been made.
Career of a Public Servant
1EOLYN DANA WILGRESS is one of * Canada’s dozen topnotch public servants. At fifty he has already spent twenty-six years in public service. Today he is a trim, active man of medium stature. He has been a familiar figure, walking briskly across Parliament Hill from his office of Deputy Minister of Trade and Commerce in the West Block over to the East Block, perhaps to advise the Cabinet on economic policy. He has the grey hair of maturity and the energy of youth.
October seems to be Wilgress’s lucky month. He was born on October 20, 1892. The Communist Revolution occurred in October while he was in Siberia. He was appointed Deputy Minister of Trade and Commerce in Ottawa in October, 1940. Again in October, 1942, he was picked by Prime Minister King as Minister to Russia.
The trip to Kuibishev will add mileage to his career, but he probably already holds some kind of a record for travel. He was born in Vancouver, where his father was employed by Canadian Pacific Steamships. The boy shuttled back and forth across the Pacific, to Hong Kong at the age of eight, back to school in Vancouver at the age of ten, to Yokohama to school at the age of twelve. He had crossed the Pacific and Atlantic each six times before he entered government service in the spring
Continued on page 21
Continued from page 18
of 1914, crammed with McGill University curriculum in economics and political science.
In 1914, Sir George Foster, then Minister of Trade and Commerce, asked the universities of McGill and Toronto to select likely students for Canada’s foreign commercial service, then largely governed by patronage. Professor Stephen Leacock picked Frank B. Common, who preferred to study law and subsequently became a leading Montreal lawyer and business executive, Norman D. Johnston, who entered the Government service but resigned in 1923 in favor of business, and Wilgress. So in 1916 Wilgress went to Omsk. Even then, though Canadians knew no more of Omsk than they did of Isfahan, the department realized the identity of economic interest that would some day arise between the Canadian and Siberian barrens.
The March revolution in Petrograd in 1917 was heard in dim echoes in Omsk. Newspapers carried little news. Then the Czar was arrested. Magically the newspapers began to car*y plenty of news. After the October revolution, new people arrived to take over public offices.
The vast land of Asiatic Russia was in chaos. The Canadian Government transferred Wilgress to Vladivostok in August, 1918, where Canadian troops of the Siberian expedition arrived in October. Looking for an office and place to live in Vladivostok in 1918 was like looking for a house in Ottawa in 1943. Wilgress found an apartment in a building owned by Rudolf Buergin who lived next door. The new tenant married the landlord’s daughter, Olga, the next year. Mrs. Wilgress and their three children will stay in Ottawa at present. But they look forward to the day when the Russian capital will be moved back to Moscow and they will move to a Canadian legation there. To obtain quarters for Wilgress and his staff of seven or eight in Ivuibishev, the Department of External Affairs had merely to cable the Russian Government. In that crowded city Wilgress will rub shoulders with diplomats who pine for spacious Moscow. Among newcomers like himself will be ministers from Australia, Cuba and Mexico.
No one in the Department of Trade and Commerce was surprised when Dana Wilgress was appointed
Pass Along Your Maclean’s to the Boys in Uniform
Letters from troops, sailors and fliers tell how much they enjoy seeing Maclean’s. If when finished with your copy you take it to the Active Service Magazine Depot in your city or to a Navy League branch, it will be sent to the boys in uniform here and overseas and to men on the merchant ships. If there are no depots near you write to Active Service Magazine Depot, 122 King Street West. Toronto, or to Navy League Magazine Depot, 1193 Bay St., Toronto, Or give your old copies to a salvage organization. Paper is needed in the war effort. Do not bum or destroy it.
Minister to Russia. “He’s so darn capable,” said one of his colleagues. Wilgress was a member of the Canadian Economic Mission to Siberia in 1918 and 1919. He investigated postwar trade opportunities in southeastern Europe in 1920, and after the Imperial Conference of 1921, he was dispatched, with Col. H. J. Mackie, M.P., to Moscow to investigate resumption of trade with Russia. Wilgress would have been Canadian Trade Commissioner in Moscow in 1922, but Canada was not on speaking terms with Russia. He went to Hamburg instead.
Ten years later Wilgress was recalled to Ottawa to become head of the Commercial Intelligence Service. Wilgress plunged into the work as trade adviser to the Canadian delegation to the Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa. “That was nothing but hard work,” he recalled. But long hours of committee work resulted in a series of trade treaties. The next year Prime Minister Bennett took him to London to the World Economic Conference which, as history records, amounted to practically nothing. It was exciting but unsatisfactory to Wilgress.
In the next six years Wilgress accumulated impressive mileage as professional promoter of Canadian export trade. There was the trip to London with Mr. Bennett in 1935 for the King George Fifth Silver Jubilee. There were visits to Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Holland, New Zealand and Australia, with trade missions. A three-man Canadian brain trust, Wilgress, Norman Robertson, Department of External Affairs, and Hector McKinnon, chairman of the Tariff Board, served behind the scenes in Washington in negotiating trade treaties with the United States in 1935 and 1938. By 1939 the Commercial Intelligence Service operated thirty-four offices throughout the world.
Master of Economic Warfare
WILGRESS was already in the top rank of public servants when war came in that year. He is one of the small group of able men who molded the government machinery to new tasks and pressures that were suddenly thrust upon it. He laid aside the briefcase of trade promoter and took up the secret dossiers of economic warfare. He became a member of the Cabinet advisory committee on economic policy, and of the Foreign Exchange Control Board. The Trade and Commerce Department itself faced war duties.
“Suddenly the whole emphasis,” he recalled, “was turned away from selling goods to conserving supplies needed for war.” Wilgress went to London with Hon. T. A. Crerar, to talk with the British government in 1939. In time, Canada was shipping surplus war production to all the principal United Nations. The department built up a rigid system of export control. Wilgress served as chairman of the Canadian shipping ooard, of the shipping priorities
committee of the advisory export control committee. Much of the work of these committees is shrouded in wartime secrecy. But it can be said that Wilgress has been Canada’s foremost strategist of economic warfare, and he fitted neatly into the pattern of domestic controls as well. He has been a member of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board.
To take a man out of these jobs and send him to a foreign post is like removing a vital part from the machinery of Canada’s wartime economy. Only the utmost urgency could have compelled the Government to send Wilgress to Russia. That and recognition of the importance to Canada of the new legation in Kuibishev.
Commerce And Diplomacy
DANA WILGRESS as minister to Russia stands for the new international mixture of commercial and diplomatic relations that mark a great transition in international affairs. A brilliant and able conversationalist in Russian and German as well as English, he has what it takes to be a diplomat. His literary talents
for years have been buried in the volumes of the Commercial Intelligence Journal, where his reports on Russia may serve as models for young men coming into the service. Economic relations, he remarked, have become an important part of diplomatic relations. External trade deals in external relations.
No one in Ottawa has any doubt that Mr. King has made a good selection as Canada’s first minister to Russia. As long as the war lasts, as Mr. Wilgress told a Toronto rally recently, the job will be to see that Canada helps Russia as much as possible. He hopes that Canada will achieve a better understanding with Russia, turning the page on the economic, social and religious antagonisms that blacked out relations in the past and reduced Russo-Canadian Trade to less than $1,000 a year.
Canada and Russia, he says, will face common economic problems in the postwar era. The two countries are neighbors on their northern approaches of the Atlantic and the Pacific and the Arctic, where, as we now see dimly through the fog of war, the age of air travel will batter down old barriers.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.