General Articles


BLAIR FRASER September 15 1948
General Articles


BLAIR FRASER September 15 1948


General Articles


Maclean’s Ottawa Editor

Here’s a close-up of the next P.M.’s views on controls, taxes, trade unions, defense, subsidies and other national issues

WHEN William Lyon Mackenzie King resigns and Louis S. St. Laurent is sworn in as his successor, Canadians will have a Prime Minister they hardly know. Two thirds of us can’t pronounce his name (Sahn-Lorahn is about as near as English spelling will get to it). Even in his native Quebec, after only seven years in public life, he is not yet a really familiar figure.

What sort of Prime Minister will he be? Where does he stand on the issues of the day?

Mr. St. Laurent has not formally committed himself on all these issues. However, as Minister of Justice and now of External Affairs, he has given colleagues and officials many a token to judge him by. Also, he has made speeches on a wide variety of topics.

More important still, he has been remarkably accessible for private talk. He’s not fond of formal interviews; he prefers to be frank and he’s often embarrassed by a candid phrase taken out of context. But to anybody wanting background information his door is always open and, like most Ottawa reporters, I’ve had chats with him from time to time about different issues. From all these

sources—talking to colleagues, reading his speeches, remembering conversations — it’s possible to form a general idea of the line he might be expected to take on the fundamental issues of government.

Since the Liberal convention last month the impression has spread that “the Liberals chose a Left-wing platform and a Right-wing leader.” Mr. St. Laurent’s co-workers say this notion is gravely misleading. The Prime Minister-elect is a cautious man and by no means a radical, but neither is he a blind defender of things as they are.

Speaking in Parliament last April, he said: “Democracy does not mean merely the preservation of the status quo . . . We must demonstrate by deeds and not merely by words that democracy is a more dynamic, humanitarian creed than Communism.”

As a liberal he’d like the state to have as little directly to do with the production and distribution of the real wealth of the country as possible.

He firmly believes private enterprise can provide a high level of employment and prosperity. He also believes, however, that when or if private enterprise fails to provide enough jobs, public investment should take up the slack not with doles, not with relief works of a wasteful kind, but with public works that will increase the real wealth of the country.

Among the Cabinet, Mr. St. Laurent is regarded as generally favorable to social-welfare legislation. Unlike his close friend, C. D. Howe, who often growls about “this social-security nonsense,” the well-to-do corporation lawyer has a keen awareness of the needs and hopes Continued on page 8

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of the poor and the unsuccessful. However, his sympathy with such projects as health insurance, contributory old-age pensions and the like is limited by two considerations:

First, he is very conscious of the cost of these things. Colleagues feel that he wants them in principle, but this desire competes in his mind with a desire to leave the average Canadian the greatest possible amount of his own money, to spend as he likes.

Second, and for the moment more important, is his profound concern with Dominion-provincial relations and with the danger of even appearing to trespass on provincial ground. Contributory old-age pensions, for one thing, would require an amendment to the British North America Act. So far as Mr. St. Laurent is concerned, no such amendment would be sought without the full consent of all nine provinces. He knows, perhaps better than anyone else, that the present moment is hardly propitious for such an agreement.

Mr. St. Laurent was the leading spokesman for the Ottawa proposals at the Dominion-provincial conferences of 1945 and 1946. He fought hard for those proposals—the integrated scheme of social insurance and of public works that was offered in return for a reallocation of tax powers between the Dominion and the provinces. If he could have his wish today, it’s likely that the deal which seven provinces have accepted would be extended, with little change, to all nine.

However, Mr. St. Laurent is above all a realist in public affairs. It is evident now that the proposals as they stand are unacceptable to the governments of the two largest and wealthiest provinces. If there were any other way of achieving the same end, or a substantial part of that end, by modifying the proposals or by taking a different approach, few doubt that Mr. St. Laurent would be willing to try it.

By now, of course, the Dominion-provincial stalemate has become a contest of political prestige —neither side can give way without losing face. As a politician Mr. St. Laurent is by no means unaware of this fact, but of all the men now in public life he is perhaps the least likely to be swayed by it against the public interest.

“We’ve got to move toward trying to do the things that are good,” he once remarked to a friend, “and forget who gets the credit for doing them.”

Government Not a Landlord

ONE ISSUE of public policy on which Mr.

St. Laurent has been hotly challenged is housing. A while ago, at a meeting of the McGill Liberal Club, he was quoted as saying that “no Government of which I am a member will ever subsidize housing.”

He has never denied the statement and it’s probably what he did say, but his friends say it distorts his real views on housing. Mr. St. Laurent doesn’t believe the Government should act as a landlord and put itself in the position to choose which favored citizens would get better housing opportunities than others. He thinks the state should play no favorites, has no right to make any distinction among citizens. He dislikes the idea of offering a certain number of people the chance to live in subsidized homes, below cost.

Today, though, low-rental housing can’t be built at all without help—costs are too high. Mr. St. Laurent has never opposed the use of Government money to flatten out these abnormal costs and give to tenants who must have 1948 houses something like the same opportunity as tenants who are still living in 1938 houses. Whether or not this is entirely consistent, it’s a fact. He has no objection to Wartime Housing Ltd., for example, which builds cheap homes for veterans.

What about farm policy? What changes may we expect there when the St. Laurent Government takes over?

Probably not many. It is taken for granted in Ottawa that Rt. Hon. James Gardiner will still be Minister of Agriculture Continued on page 73

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Where Does St. Laurent Stand ?

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and to a large extent Liberal farm policy is Gardiner policy.

Mr. St. Laurent has taken no positive stand, in public, on the controversial questions in this field—such as the recent and much-disputed decision to have compulsory marketing of coarse grains through the Canadian Wheat Board, or the establishment of a Wheat Board monopoly and a fixed contract price for wheat. As a member of the present Government he shares responsibility for all these things.

He does have a personal, amateur interest in improving the productivity of the soil. He’s concerned about things like soil erosion and depletion of fertility and he has a feeling Canada could do more to prevent them. If the St. Laurent regime does introduce any changes in farm policy, it’s likely to be a heavier emphasis on making the soil richer.

Would he favor a return to price control? In some of the Cabinet arguments on this matter during the past year Mr. St. Laurent was reported to be among the ministers in favor of more protection for the consumer in this inflationary period. Under ordinary circumstances, though, the answer would undoubtedly be “No.” Mr. St. Laurent is a constitutional lawyer, who knows the limitations of federal power and has no thought of extending them in any such fashion.

“Faith Unshaken”

Except in a war or a postwar emergency, Ottawa has no power to impose price control. The controls now remaining in force are based on a Transitional Emergency Powers Act which has to be renewed each year, and each year, as the war recedes farther and farther into the past, the lawyers in the Cabinet feel less and less confident that their “emergency” powers would be upheld by a court. Mr. St. Laurent shares this uneasiness.

Mr. St. Laurent’s views on international policy are better known.

He has been Minister of External Affairs for the past two years and was often a Canadian delegate to international conferences before that. Most of his opinions on world issues are on record.

He has said repeatedly what he told the House of Commons last April 29:

“During the past two years our faith in the United Nations as an effective organization for peace and security has been pretty severely shaken. What is unshaken is our determination to make of it, or within it, an effective organization for these purposes. What is also unshaken is our faith that this can be achieved.”

A month or so later he told a Toronto audience: “We do not believe in the

blasphemy that a third World War is inevitable. No war is inevitable. We shall do our best to diminish the possibility of a war breaking out.”

In that effort he would not shrink from bold measures. “Victory in war,” he said, “has to be won by a judicious mixture of caution with a willingness to run calculated risks for great objectives. Victory over war can be won only by a similar willingness on the part of free nations.”

Mr. St. Laurent has not minced words in naming the only visible enemy. “Our foreign policy,” he told Parliament, “must be based on recognition of the fact that totalitarian Communist aggression endangers the peace and security of every democratic country, including Canada.”

What about the Communist menace at home? What would he do about that?

Mr. St. Laurent was Minister of Justice when Igor Gouzenko exposed the Communist spy ring in Ottawa. He was the man peculiarly responsible for the procedure followed in examining the suspects—a fact which makes some, even among his admirers, a little dubious about his stand on civil liberties. By others, however, his stern handling of the spy case is regarded as a great feather in his cap.

It may be doubted, though, whether he’d favor any of the measures to “outlaw Communism” that are occasionally put forward. Mr. St. Laurent has never said anything about the matter in public, one way or the other,

but as a former Minister of Justice he knows the limitations of law enforcement. Short of shooting known Communists, or putting them into concentration camps for life, how can you effectively “outlaw” Communism?

To fight Communism as a world menace, though, Mr. St. Laurent has made numerous suggestions—notably “a closer association for collective selfdefense” by the free nations of the world.

“Such an association,” he told Parliament, “could be created within the United Nations by those free states which are willing to accept more specific and onerous obligations ... in return for greater national security.”

I once asked him what “specific and onerous obligations” he had in mind. He didn’t want to be too precise, but apparently the general idea would be a degree of intimate collaboration, in anticipation of war, which is far beyond the present reach of the United Nations. There could, for example, be a prearranged allocation of duties among the participating countries, each undertaking that share of the joint defense and production job that it could do most efficiently.

Conscription Question

Would he, a French Canadian, be willing to impose conscription?

Certainly not if it could be avoided. Neither he nor any other Cabinet minister has any thought of following the American example and having compulsory military training in time of peace. During the late war he believed in sticking to the voluntary system as long as possible; he thought it was the only way to keep Canada united and therefore capable of a maximum war effort.

When the voluntary system failed in November, 1944, Mr. St. Laurent did not hesitate to support the use of conscript troops. He set forth his reasons in a brief, lucid speech to the House of Commons. He believed with all his heart, he said, that Canadian participation in the war had been essential to the safety of Canada and now all the reasons for participation had become reasons for the use of conscript troops.

“I fully realized the probable reaction among a great many in my province,” he said . . . “But 1 came here to do a war job and I feel I must still go on, whatever may be the increase in the difficulties of the task ... I still felt and hoped that compulsion might not be necessary, but no chance could be taken about it and I decided I would stand or fall with the Prime Minister. The all-important fact is that reinforcements shall be neither insufficient nor delayed.”

That was four years ago, at a moment of crisis in the war. Last Mardi a delegation from Catholic labor unions came to Ottawa with a brief which demanded, among other things, a promise that there should be no conscription for “extraterritorial wars.”

Mr. St. Laurent wouldn’t give them any such pledge. He said he hoped there would be no war; he felt that no one, not even the Soviet Union, really wanted war. But he said the Soviet Union was trying to expand Soviet influence as far as it could without provoking armed reaction; the Communist tyranny was spreading across the face of Europe “like an oil stain.” Sooner or later a time would come when the free nations of the West would have to say to the Soviet Union, “Stop, you shall go no farther.”

If that meant war, he told the delegates, it would be everyone’s duty to do his part. “We shall have to fight to preserve our institutions and our liberty; all the democratic countries will be in the same boat and all will have to defend themselves.” He didn’t say conscription would be necessary to such defense, but he didn’t say it wouldn’t either.

Jealous of Sovereignty

Meanwhile, what changes would a St. Laurent Government be likely to make in Canada’s defense policy? Would our forces be made bigger, or smaller, or kept about the same?

The probable answer is that development of the armed services would go forward pretty much as it’s doing now. Mr. St. Laurent has no military experience and is not known to have any strong personal views on defense policy.

He would probably be inclined,

temperamentally, to as independent a line as possible in defense matters. In the House last spring he was speaking of Canadian-American relations and noted “a tendency on their part to consider us so much one of themselves that, with the best of intentions, they occasionally forget we are as sensitive as any nation about having control of our own affairs.”

Not that he objects to collaboration with the Americans in defending our north—such hesitation would be “the height of folly,” he said in the same speech. But he believes Canada should be the one who knows most about her own northland, is best prepared to defend it and that we should need no help in the provisioning of northern defense posts.

English Canadians may wonder whether, in international affairs, he would be inclined to rely primarily on Britain and the Commonwealth, or on the United States.

The Broken Triangle

It’s clear from all his speeches that he would rely on both. He would hope to have Britain and the United States standing together as an Anglo-American core to which all free nations, in and out of the Commonwealth, would be glad to adhere.

In economic affairs he would probably take the same view, but he does feel—like Finance Minister Abbott— that the current trend of events will inevitably link Canada more and more closely to the United States. He has been a convinced supporter of the policy of recent months to increase Canadian exports to the United States and bring Canadian-American trade closer to balance. The “Atlantic Triangle” on which Canada’s foreign trade used to depend—selling to Britain and buying from the United States—has now broken down; Mr. St. Laurent is one of those who doubt that it can ever be made as complete or as solid as it used to be.

Would he go as far as customs union with the United States?

No, he wouldn’t—he indicated that quite plainly in a speech to a Rotary meeting in Montreal last April.

Customs union would mean the adoption by Canada of the United States tariff; Mr. St. Laurent is too jealous of Canadian sovereignty to consider such a proposition for a

moment. What he does believe in very strongly is the removal of all barriers to trade, as quickly and as completely as may be feasible.

In 1911, when Sir Wilfred Laurier campaigned for full reciprocity with the United States, the young St. Laurent was one of his ardent supporters. There has been nothing in the intervening 37 years to show that he has changed his mind on that issue.

By the same token he might be expected to favor steps toward the removal of the Imperial preference.

What about fiscal policy at home? Does he accept the theory, behind the Abbott Budget, that taxes should be high in prosperous times to reduce the national debt so as to permit tax cuts and deficits in time of depression?

He does, but colleagues think he accepts it with some reservation. Nominally, of course, all members of the King Cabinet are equally committed to this thesis—the so-called Abbott Budget is the policy of the whole Government.

However, it is no secret that some ministers are more dubious than others as to how far this theory can be pushed and St. Laurent is classed among the doubters. He would agree that the theory is sound economically, but he knows that theory has to be tempered by the people’s will.

“It’s no use,” he once remarked, “to implement an ideal if in the process you make everybody unhappy.”

On other domestic issues his stand is pretty well-known. He believes Canada should have her own flag and her own national anthem, though he indicated, in the flag debate two years ago, that he had no particular objection to the red ensign and maple leaf. He believes that appeals to the Privy Council should be abolished and the Supreme Court of Canada made the final court of appeal.

He also believes Canada should have the right to amend her own constitution and has said so on many public occasions, but he has never suggested a procedure for doing so. All he’s ever said on this point is that “some method must be found whereby all parties (i.e., the provinces) are satisfied that their essential rights will still be protected.”

On immigration he’s pretty much a neutral. He has never publicly expressed any misgivings about the present immigration policy—or pri-

vately either, so far as I could learn. He appears to favor the admission of Displaced Persons and others on the present scale, so long as jobs and homes can be found for them, but he’d probably oppose any great increase in that scale.

On questions of education and labor, he thinks first of the constitutional issues. Education is purely a provincial matter; so is labor, except in the handful of industries specifically placed by the British North America Act in the federal field. Mr. St. Laurent thinks that, particularly at the present time, it would he harmful to suggest any interference, however innocuous, with provincial rights.

Mr. St. Laurent has indicated no disagreement with the new Federal Labor Code which makes collective bargaining compulsory in federal industries. But, on const itutional grounds, he would oppose any attempt to extend the Code to cover all industries. It. would take an amendment to the BN A Act and he thinks this is no time for that.

Toward organized labor, generally, his attitude is described as sympathetic but somewhat reserved. He took the recent railway strike threat very seriously, his colleagues report. The idea that any one group of people should be in a position to threaten the whole economy with paralysis, as the railway unions were, is repugnant to him.

Broadly, though, he regards himself as a liberal, with a small “1.” He is not. one of those, for example, who thinks there is no important difference between the two older parties and that they might just as well combine against the CCF.

The whole Liberal Party, at its convention last, month, took a formal stand against “any coalition by the federal Liberal Party with any other party whatsoever.” But, even without that declaration, he wouldn’t have favored a coalition of the Right.

He knows very well that there are lories in the Liberal Party, though he doesn’t, consider himself one of them. He knows, too, that there are liberals in the Conservative Party. But he sincerely believes that in his own group the liberals outnumber the tories and that in the other the reverse is the case. He fears that if the two were to merge, the result would be a domination of t he Liberal Party by the forces of the extreme Right and the exile of some of its best men to some other party of the Left and he thinks such a net result would he deplorable.

So much for policy. What about the man himself? What abilities, what t raits of character does he bring to the office of Prime Minister?

Too Nice a Guy?

Two days before he was elected leader, a group of reporters were discussing Mr. St. Laurent and one of them said: “The big thing against him ís that he has no enemies. You can’t be a good Prime Minister without making enemies. St. Laurent is too much of a nice guy for the job.”

That’s almost the only personal criticism I’ve heard of the Prime Minister-elect. It’s a perfectly valid criticism and there may be a good deal of truth in it.

One of his top officials, a man who has worked at one time or another with several members of the present Cabinet, said the same t hing in different words: “His weakness is that he

expects other people to be like himself

he doesn’t expect them to do things that he wouldn’t do and. when he finds they do, he doesn’t quite know how to deal with the situation.”

But this same knows

Mr. St. Laurent ô„ -»lately, was

confident that his chief would be able to say “no” as often as necessary. St. Laurent likes to defer to other people’s wishes when he can; he even hates to bring his secretaries back to the office in the evening. But, if he thinks a given course is right, he follows it no matter how many exalted toes are trampled in the process.

Even as a lawyer he would never argue a case unless he was personally convinced it was valid. Once, years ago, he was retained as counsel by a big insurance firm; they were charging an insured person with misrepresentation and fraud and refusing payment of a large policy on those grounds.

St. Laurent was asked how to take the case before the Supi-eme Court. It was a big case and the company was a big new client for the then youthful counsel. But, on the eve of the hearing, he informed them he had known the insured man, an old schoolmate.

“I don’t think he was capable of fraud,” he said. “You can let the allegation stand if you like, but I won’t press it—I don’t believe it.”

The company’s lawyers were horrified, but it was too late to do anything about it. They had to sit by while St. Laurent went before the Supreme Court and let half of their case go by default.

That was typical of the man. It was also typical of him that he won the case anyway, retained the confidence of his new client and shortly thereafter became a member of their board of directors.

“I have never known anyone in public life,” said an official who has dealt with every member of the present Cabinet, “who based his actions so completely and disinterestedly on what he believed to be the right thing.”

Civil servants also like him for personal reasons. Partly it’s because of the way he treats people. “If I send a messenger to his office,” a deputy

minister says, “he treats the messenger just the same as he’d treat me.” But they also like the way he does business.

“From the civil servants’ point of view,” one senior official said, “St. Laurent will be the perfect Prime Minister.” Not because he is a pushover or stooge for the bureaucrats—on the contrary, he intervenes in departmental decisions more than any other minister—but because he gives them a quick, firm answer one way or the other.

When External Affairs sends a batch of documents to the Minister’s office, they come back promptly, each one read and understood, and each decision made without dillydally. He reads fast and retains it well. When he goes into Cabinet or into conference his officials feel confident that their Minister is master of the subject under discussion.

All in all, Mr. St. Laurent seems wellequipped to fill the role of Prime Minister in office. Whether he will be a good party leader is another matter.

St. Laurent has none of the tricks or talents of the politician. When he goes into a room full of strangers, he’s rather shy, reserved and a bit stiff. His eyes go from face to face, looking for someone he knows; your true politician makes every stranger in the room feel like an old and valued friend. During the convention, his friends had great difficulty prodding Mr. St. Laurent into the proper amount of handshaking —at one reception in his honor he forgot to turn up.

As a campaign speaker he is not good. One of his officials said “St. Laurent would speak in exactly the same way to the United Nations Assembly or to a political meeting of Quebec farmers. He might even use the same speech.”

I heard him in the recent Quebec campaign at a big meeting in Montreal with Adelard Godbout, Quebec Liberal leader. There were about 3,000 people there, three quarters of them standing up. They stood for two hours in the atmosphere of a smoke-filled Turkish bath, roaring approval as Mr. Godbout damned the “thieves and rascals” who infested the opposite party.

Mr. St. Laurent rose at 11 p.m. and started a sound, logical refutation of Premier Duplessis’ campaign. He hadn’t been speaking 10 minutes before the crowd began to melt. It wasn’t hostility—just that they sud-

denly realized they’d been standing a long time and their feet hurt.

In the by-election campaign in Vancouver Centre he delivered an erudite lecture on the philosophy of Communism. Unfortunately his radio time had expired before he remembered to mention the by-election, or the Liberal candidate therein. As a practical politician he has a lot to learn.

He may learn it, though. Up to now Mr. St. Laurent has had no political coaching and almost no personal staff. Prime Minister King’s political speeches are drafted by the same battery of experienced men that works on his official utterances. Mr. St. Laurent has one secretary, a young man with even less practical political experience than his chief.

When he takes over Mr. King’s office this will change. He wall then have the most competent political advice he can command; for the first time he will go into a political campaign adequately briefed and, like any good lawyer, Mr. St. Laurent works best from a brief.

Meanwhile, he has qualities that offset the lack of political know-how. One is the lack of personal ambition. St. Laurent really didn’t want his present job—as late as the summer of 1947 he was still telling friends he intended to go back to law. Colleagues persuaded him that he ought to stay, but he is still a genuinely disinterested man.

Another quality is courage. When St. Laurent voted in 1944 for sending conscripts overseas, the outcry in Quebec was pretty daunting. There were rumors, for instance, that the St. Laurent law practice would be moved from Quebec City to Montreal, where he could take refuge among the English. The rumors, of course, assumed his defeat in the next election and prophesied that he would then “never dare” go back to practice law in Quebec City.

Just five months later Mr. St. Laurent was running for re-election in Quebec East. It was the riding of Sir Wilfred Laurier and Ernest Lapointe, but in 1945 St. Laurent won it by the largest majority ever rolled up in the constituency by anyone.

Maybe there’s a moral there. Maybe courage, ability and integrity can bring a man to success in politics. If so, Louis St. Laurent need have no misgivings about the future. ★