Will Walter Harris be our next Prime Minister?
If Louis St. Laurent retires this year his most likely successor could be this shy and stiff Ontario Baptist who’s a white-haired boy in Ottawa but almost unknown to the rest of the country
CONTRARY to the average Liberal’s opinion, the cabinet’s favorite to succeed Rt. Hon. Louis St. Laurent as Prime Minister is not the glamorous L. B. Pearson, who as Minister of External Affairs is well-known throughout Canada and most of the free world. Neither is it Paul Martin, famed as dispenser of family allowances, nor Jack Pickersgill, theastute political counselor of two prime ministers. The cabinet’s choice is a man whose name even now is only vaguely familiar to many a loyal Grit—Walter Harris, who recently succeeded Mr. Jqstice D. C. Abbott as Minister of Finance.
Canadians are likely to hear a lot more about Harris in the immediate future, for the problem of the Liberal succession is no longer academic. The party is waiting anxiously for Prime Minister St. Laurent to complete his summer vacation at St. Patrice, Que. Unless he comes back from his two-month rest in much better form than when he went away, colleagues think he will soon retire.
At the session’s end he looked years older than he did when he set off round the world last February. It would have been a fatiguing journey for a man of any age, and for one of 72 it was too much. The Prime Minister came back still buoyed up by the stimulus that carried him through the trip, but within a fortnight he had suffered what could almost be called a collapsean onset of physical and nervous exhaustion from which he hadn’t recovered when parliament rose.
In addition to being tired he was bored. “Mr. St. Laurent hasn’t a great deal of vanity,” a colleague remarked, “and for a man who isn’t vain, who doesn’t get much pleasure out of pomp and status, this job is tedious and tiresome.” After six years of its exacting routine the Prime Minister was fed up.
Two months of fishing in the sunshine of the Lower St. Lawrence may send him back to Ottawa with zest and vigor restored, but an increasing number of Liberals doubt it. They think it likelier that he’ll announce his retirement some time this autumn or winter, and call a party convention for 1955.
This leaves Liberals in the deepest quandary they’ve known for 35 years. For the first time since Mackenzie King beat W. S. Fielding at the convention of 1919 the party is uncertain where to turn for leadership.
Of course if ill-health should force the Prime Minister to step out immediately there’d be no problem. His successor by unanimous choice of the Liberal caucus would be C. I). Howe, Minister of Trade and Commerce and St. Laurent’s righthand man. But Howe is (>8, and he has always said he intended to retire with his leader. He’d be most unlikely to stand for the leadership at a convention.
Inescapable publicity photos usually show Harris wishing fervently he was someplace else
There’d have been no problem, either, if Finance Minister Douglas Abbott hadn’t been so determined to leave public life. Abbott could have carried a 1955 convention without even making a speech, but he didn’t choose to run. Abbott’s withdrawal to the Supreme Court reduces a 1955 convention to a contest between two men there may be other contenders, but only two are likely to count. They are Pearson and Harris.
Pearson is still a betting favorite because, as one colleague glumly remarked, “After St. Laurent and Howe, Mike Pearson is the only Liberal the average voter ever heard of.” Pearson, as Minister of External Affairs, became known from coast to coast. Favorably known, too he’s always had a good press, and a minister of external affairs doesn’t have to make any unpopular decisions. A convention next year might not dare forego the votegetting power of Pearson’s name.
But if they consulted only their own preference, most of his cabinet colleagues would pick Walter Harris who five years ago was an obscure politician from rural Ontario, almost unknown outside his own riding. Even today, after four years in the cabinet and one session as Leader of the House of Commons, he’s one of the ministers least known to the general public. Nevertheless, he is the man the present cabinet would like to make the next prime minister.
Not that they dislike Pearson. They’re quite happy to have Pearson at External Affairs. It’s only as leader that they don’t want him, and they don’t want him as leader because they say he doesn’t know enough about politics.
“We never think of taking a political problem to Mike,” one minister explaihed. “Mike takes his to us. We take our own to Walter.”
Backbenchers say the same. “In the House, Walter is the most sat-with of all the ministers,” said Colin Bennett, Liberal MP from Grey North, neighbor riding to Harris’ Grey Bruce. “Somebody’s always dropping into that chair beside him. One man might want him to vet a radio speech, another might want his help to get a law amended. Walter is always interested, he always sees the point, and he almost always has something to suggest.”
For similar reasons he gets on well with Opposition members. As House Leader he’s “hard but fair,” they say. “If you make a deal with Walter you can be sure it will stick.”
Immigration, Harris’ portfolio since he entered the cabinet in 1950, provides little publicity but lots of chances to make friends or enemies among MPs who go to him about borderline cases under immigration rules. Harris has made friends. He is regarded as no pushover for sob stories, but as a man who is willing to interpret the regulations with compassion and a sense of humor.
Not long ago a Chinese girl came in to join her father in North Sydney, N.S. She was admissible only as the unmarried daughter under 21 of a Chinese legally resident in Canada. The girl was visibly pregnant, but she and her father both assured the immigration authorities that she was unmarried. They let her come.
Hardly had she got her bags unpacked before she turned up at the immigration office with a marriage license and applied for admission of her husband (spouse of a Chinese legally »esident in Canada). Officials said she’d have to be deported instead— if she had a husband, then she wasn’t legally admitted in the first place. The girl went for help to the local MP, Clarry Gillis, of the CCF, and Gillis took the case up with Harris.
Legally, of course, she had no case at all and could have been sent back to Hong Kong. Harris said, “Let her stay. She fooled you when she got you to swallow her story. Take your medicine, and don’t be fooled again.”
The girl is still in North Sydney, her husband’s application is still pending, and Gillis thinks Harris is a man who knows when the joke is on himself.
This is a frivolous example but there have been plenty of serious ones. Alistair Stewart, CCF member for Winnipeg North, who has a great many foreign-born electors in his constituency, probably handles more cases of would-be New Canadians than any other MP in any party. Stewart’s admiration for Harris is so great that he hesitates to attack the Immigration Department when its estimates come up.
But the Immigration Department, under Harris, has had its share of criticism. C. H. Millard, Canadian director of the United Steelworkers of America has called Harris’ immigration policy “silly, absurd, discriminatory and ineffective on several counts.” And George Hees, the new national president of the Progressive Conservatives, has called Harris’ policy “chaotic.”
The most embarrassing position that Harris had to face publicly came in the summer of 1952 after his department had been under fire on charges of refusing to admit Negroes into the country. The Toronto president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters attacked the department as “illogical, unsound, undemocratic and un-Christian.” But the most damning bit of evidence was brought out by the Toronto Negro Citizens’ Committee which produced a letter, signed by Harris, stating that it was impossible for Negroes, owing to climatic conditions, to adapt themselves to Canadian life.
A red-faced department official had to admit that the letter was a bureaucratic mistake, drafted by officials of the department and duly presented to the minister for signature. • Harris signed the letter
but suggested that it be held up while the department reconsidered the situation. Somehow, the letter got into the mail. Harris hurriedly issued a statement denying that there was any prohibition against Negroes becoming citizens.
As Leader of the House of Commons Harris has shown his gift for smoothing out differences of opinion. Howard Green, of Vancouver, spokesman for the Progressive Conservatives in arranging the business of the House, occasionally irritates his own caucus by imposing a veto on some line of parliamentary tactics which the majority wants to follow.
“We can’t do that,” Green will say, “because I told Walter Harris we’d accept this other procedure. Walter always keeps his word with me, and we’ve got to treat him the same way.”
These qualities make Harris a politician’s politician—the sort of man MPs like to deal with. Unfortunately they are also the very qualities that keep a man out of the public eye. Harris’ forte is settling things quietly, keeping intra-party and even inter-party disputes off the front page, and from one point of view he is too good at it. The average voter never heard of him, and even the Liberals, with their formidable machinery for building a man up, despair of making a public figure out of Walter Edward Harris.
As Wordy as a Cablegram
He’s the sort of man who turns up in the back row of group photographs. At 50 he hasn’t a line in his face or enough grey hair to show at ten paces, and he looks no older than when he came back from overseas ten years ago, yet nobody calls him boyish. He’s a big man—just under six feet, 200 pounds—and he used to play football at school, but he doesn’t give the impression of being athletic. He has no hobbies or amusements; for years he hasn’t done anything for fun except go home and read a book.
All his relaxations are those of a contented family man. He doesn’t smoke or drink—never has done either. He seldom misses Sunday service at the Baptist Church in Ottawa or the United Church in Markdale, where his wife played the organ for years. Harris always works a six-day and often a seven-day week, but when he does take a day off he likes nothing better than to go on a picnic with his wife and the two younger children. (His elder daughter, now 19, is training as a nurse at a Toronto hospital.) He likes the comforts of home - in addition to the family house at Markdale, where he spends the summer and where his mother lives all the year round, the Harrises have bought a large comfortable house on the Driveway in Ottawa,
still one of the most pleasant, though no longer the most fashionable residential districts in the capital.
As a speaker Harris is about as wordy as a cablegram. He says what he has to say wit hout rhetoric, and sits down. This endears him to wind-weary MPs, but is something less than electrifying to campaign audiences. Harris doesn’t like making speeches. He arranges many more for other people to make than he ever makes himself. In spite of his flair for practical politics he’s a poor handshaker and backslapper. He is shy, tends to be stiff with strangers, and is embarrassed by personal publicity.
No one in his department keeps a file of press clippings about the minister. When he took over Immigration in 1950 Tim Reid, information officer of the department, rang up to ask for biographical material.
“You’ve got the Parliamentary Guide, haven’t you?” Harris said. “It’s correct.”
The Parliamentary Guide biography is one 12line paragraph. Reid pointed out that it omits a lot. For instance, it doesn’t mention the fact that Harris is the only MP to have been wounded in action in World War II.
“It doesn’t,” said Harris, “and don’t you mention it, either.”
This attitude depresses Liberals who’d like to set press agents to work making the name Walter Harris a household word. Without more co-operation from him, they can see no way of turning him into a Colorful Character.
He might conceivably be presented as a Poor Boy Who Made Good. He was born on a farm not far from Markdale, a little Ontario town 80 miles northwest of Toronto, which has been his home since 1931. The farm didn’t yield much of a living; when Walter was five the family moved to Toronto where his father got work as a carpenter.
By Harris’ account, though, his boyhood was comfortable and commonplace. If the family was poor the three children didn’t know it. Walter, the youngest, went uneventfully through school, played football for Humberside Collegiate (he recalls with some pride that he played on the senior team while still young enough to be captain of the junior team as well) and graduated at 17. He went immediately to work for a Toronto law firm as an articled clerk, studied part-time at Osgoode Hall, the Ontario law school, and after five years of this was admitted to the Bar.
Harris wishes now he had taken time to work his way through university, as a law student would have to do today. Perhaps because of regret that he never went to college, he has kept his formal education in unusually good repair he can still help his 14-year-old daughter with her Latin and algebra, though he was never particularly good at either subject. History was his long suit, and still is.
After his admission to the Bar he spent several years trying to set up practice in Toronto. It didn’t work. The first year he made less than $1,000, and he never made much more. Harris decided to move to the country.
In Markdale, where he had numerous relatives on both sides of the family, there was only one Liberal lawyer, the late Patrick McCullough, and he was getting on in years. Harris went to see if he could buy the McCullough practice.
“I understand you’re a Liberal, my boy?” the older man saic}. Harris admitted this was true.
“Well, you come in here and beat the Tories, and you can have the practice. I don’t want any money.”
Harris did his best. He was already an experienced doorbell ringer for the Liberal Party—politics had been his ambition ever since high-school days, and he was secretary of the Ward Six Liberal Association in Toronto while he was still a law student. In Markdale he worked hard for the Liberals, was secretary first of the provincial and later of the federal association in Grey Bruce, and stood for the Liberal nomination in 1935. He lost by seven votes, but the winning Liberal nominee was beaten as usual by the late Agnes MacPhail, a Progressive. In 1939 Harris won the Liberal nomination, and in 1940 beat Miss MacPhail in the general election.
When he went to Markdale he was already engaged to Grace Morrison, whom he’d met at a Baptist church in
Toronto. She is a daughter of J. J. Morrison, for many years secretary of the United Farmers of Ontario—a fact which helped Harris get Progressive support in Grey Bruce. Like most MPs’ wives she dislikes politics and wishes her husband had stuck to law, but perhaps because of her own home background she’s more resigned to her fate than most.
When war broke out in September 1939 Harris was 35, and his wife was expecting their second child. He joined the local militia regiment, the Grey and Simcoe Foresters. It was left in reserve that winter, so Harris had time to campaign in the 1940 election and to attend the first six weeks of parliament. In June it was called up. Harris closed his law office and went active with his unit.
Promotion Made Him Mad
Parliament didn’t see much of him thereafter. He would turn up occasionally, in uniform, and in the five years he was on active service he made three speeches. In all of them he spoke more as a serviceman’s representative than as MP for Grey Bruce.
Harris’ commanding officer was Brigadier Tom Rutherford, now director of soldiers’ settlement and the Veterans’ Land Act. Rutherford says Harris was his best officer—“If he hadn’t been an MP he’d have been promoted further and faster.” (Harris came out of the war a major.)
Overseas in 1944, he was commanding a tank squadron after his regiment had been broken up for reinforcements. Just before D-Day, at the suggestion of Mackenzie King, the 39year-old Harris was “promoted” from his tank command to a staff job at General Eisenhower’s headquarters.
Harris was furious. He consulted Tom Rutherford who said, “You’ll have to go, but you can easily show them you weren’t cut out for a staff officer.” Harris took the advice, reported for duty at SHAEF, and in about a week was back looking for a I combat post again. His own command had been filled, but there were casualties enough in June 1944 to leave no I scarcity of openings for a man who wanted to get into the fight. In two days Harris had another tank command and was on his way to Normandy.
Five weeks later, during an engagement south of Caen, he was climbing out of his tank to confer with an in! fantry commander when a sniper’s bulI let shattered his right foot. That ended his combat career—it took two operations before he could walk again.
Harris was in hospital when he got a letter from the Liberal Association of Grey Bruce. They were planning a nominating convention the following month. If he would come home and attend to business as an MP he’d be renominated unanimously. If he insisted on staying overseas they intended to pick another candidate.
Harris was pretty annoyed; for a while he thought of telling his constituents to jump into Georgian Bay. However, he knew he could go home all right if he wanted to. He was j through as a fighting soldier anyway, what with his wounded foot and his fortieth birthday only a few months off. If he stayed in the army it would be in some office job; if he went home he’d be going back to his life work. He swallowed his irritation and cabled the riding that he’d be home.
Back in Ottawa he became once more an unobtrusive backbencher. He spoke briefly in the conscription debate of December 1944, supporting the Government’s decision to send 16,000 conscripts overseas but rather belittling the desperate outcry for reinforcements. His experience in the j armored corps, he said, was that there was a reinforcement crisis every month as the pool became depleted; then the next shipload would arrive, and the j crisis would be off for another few weeks. Opposition speakers accused him of “befuddling the issue” by citing experience in the armored corps when the reinforcement shortage was in the infantry, but they were careful not to I attack Harris too sharply. His own
war record was not to be taken lightly by home-staying civilians.
In March 1945 he made another brief speech in the debate on the forthcoming United Nations Conference at San Francisco. Hansard index makes no further reference to W. E. Harris MP, until after the general election of 1945.
But he had not, in fact, gone unnoticed. Prime Minister King had his eye on Harris all through the war years —he had been advised by Senator Norman Lambert, who comes from the same part of Ontario as Harris, that this was a young man to watch. When parliament reassembled in the fall of 1945, Harris was named Commons chairman of the committee to choose a design for a Canadian national flag, an assignment the Prime Minister took very seriously.
The Fiasco of the Flag
Harris’ task was a devious one, calling for diplomacy and a dash of cynicism. He had to preside with proper solemnity while the committee plodded through the maze of new designs—nearly 3,000 were submitted in all—and listened to long technical expositions of heraldry, heated appeals for or against the inclusion of the Union Jack, and complicated explanations of equally complicated symbolic inscriptions. At the same time he had to lead the committee unerringly to the design King had already picked out before the committee held its first sitting—a red ensign with a gold maple leaf instead of the coat of arms.
There were difficulties—-the only design actually submitted which conformed to the Prime Minister’s specifications was crudely drawn and colored in school crayon. Harris got around that by having an official artist prepare drawings of identical style, size and color in four designs which he thought the committee might favor. By similar means he got around all other difficulties as well and the committee duly delivered the report King wanted. It was never adopted—debate revealed that the old issue of the Union Jack would have split the Liberal Party wide open, so the matter was quietly shelved. But King remembered and appreciated Harris’ skill in quietly bringing the committee to its foregone conclusion.
Getting Confederation off on the right foot in Newfoundland was ticklish
His next assignment was to be a parliamentary delegate to the United Nations Assembly in New York.
Most MPs regard these jobs as plums. Harris didn’t. He had just got through a long hard session in which, unlike most Ontario MPs. he had dutifully stayed through Friday evenings and got back in time for Monday sittings: he wanted some time with his family. Also, he was hard up and wanted to earn some money in his law business. The living allowance provided for the parliamentary delegates isn’t enough to pay all their expenses at the Biltmore Hotel. Harris was getting a chance not only to spend some more time away from home, but also some of his own money. He expressed all these objections to his friend Jack Pickersgill, then special assistant to the Prime Minister, who had given him the news of his appointment, and told Pickersgill he wouldn’t go.
“Don’t be silly,” Pickersgill replied. “You don’t refuse appointments like this from a prime minister.”
Harris still grumbled, but he went. Before the Assembly was over he had been appointed parliamentary assistant to the new Minister of External Affairs, Louis St. Laurent.
It was Mackenzie King’s appointment. St. Laurent hardly knew Harris and had made no suggestion as to who his parliamentary assistant should be, except that he ought not to be Frenchspeaking. It turned out that the two men hit it off well.
One of Harris’ chores was to go to Newfoundland and arrange the last legal details of union. The political situation there was extremely ticklish
personal jealousies and rivalries threatened to get the whole great project of Confederation off on the
wrong foot. Harris did a job of quiet and unobtrusive diplomacy which straightened out the difficulties, and which his senior colleagues still remember with admiration.
In 1947 he was vice-chairman, under the veteran Chubby Power, of the committee on redistribution of seats, one of Parliament’s nastiest jobs. Harris came through without indelible scars or implacable foes.
He began to get a reputation as a man who actually liked the political headaches from which most politicians flee. Most people enjoy exercising a skill, and Harris’ skill is finding the acceptable compromise bet ween opposing points of view and settling disputes without rancor. St. Laurent began to depend more and more on Harris’ political judgment. When Mackenzie King retired in 1948 and St. Laurent became Prime Minister, he took his parliamentary assistant with him to the new job.
The Big Wheel from Toronto
By the time the 1949 election came along Harris was not yet in the cabinet but it was obvious he soon would be. He had as much weight as an Ontario minister in councils on strategy and tactics, and he was in charge of the campaign for central Ontario. It was and still is a delicate question just where Harris’ authority ended and Paul Martin’s began. Martin, MP for Windsor and senior minister for the region, is still a bit touchy on the subject, but most people regard Harris as the big wheel from Toronto all the way west to the outskirts of Martin’s Windsor.
It’s hard to find simple examples of Harris’ skill as a politician. In this, as in other matters, he is invincibly undramatic—indeed, his whole strength is his ability to avoid dramatic developments and straighten things out quietly.
“There isn’t much you can say about Walter,” said a childhood friend, “except that he always does everything right.”
That’s a good quality to have in a party leader—between elections, it’s perhaps enough. At election time it’s nice to have something more dramatic. Probably the most important unanswered question about Walter Harris is whether he can learn to project to large groups of people the persuasive impression he makes at short range.
Another unanswered question: How will he go down with Quebec?
It’s no disadvantage that he is a devout Baptist who seldom misses church on Sunday—the next Liberal leader is bound to be a Protestant anyway, and the fact he’s a churchgoer is in his favor with churchgoing Québécois.
Not so favorable is the fact that he’s a Mason. Quebeckers look upon the Masonic Order as a sinister secret
society dedicated to no other purpose than the overthrow of the Roman Catholic Church. Harris’ biography in the Parliamentary Guide, which like all Guide biographies is written by the subject himself, used to list as No. 1 among his clubs: “Hiram Lodge No. 490, A.F. & A.M. (Past Master). More recent editions say briefly “Mem. A.F. & A.M.”
It may also be a drawback that he has been a minister of immigration who brought real enthusiasm to his task. Harris’ maiden speech in parliament, away back in 1942, devoted con-
siderable time to immigration as an urgently necessary postwar policy and he has done what he could to bring that backbencher’s dream to reality. More than 600,000 of Canada’s million postwar immigrants have come in durjng Harris’ regime; his second year of office saw the largest total immigration since 1907—just under 195,000. Immigration has never been popular in Quebec, where it is regarded as an unfair device of “the English” to match the higher birth rate of Canadiens.
Also, Harris speaks no French.
Pearson is not as nearly bilingual as Doug Abbott, but his French is fairly fluent. Harris has only the residue of what he learned in school. And in Quebec, even more than in the rest of Canada, Pearson is a known name and Harris is not.
There is one way in which Harris could become famous overnight in Quebec. Premier Maurice Duplessis has been deadlocked with federal authorities for months over the deductibility or non-deductibility of Quebec’s new income tax. For the moment thousands of income taxpayers in Quebec are having to pay double. If Harris as Minister of Finance could find a way out of the impasse and work out a mutually satisfactory formula with Duplessis, he’d be a made man.
However, this is a fairly far-fetched pipe dream. It’s not easy to make deals with Duplessis, even for such a skilled deal maker as Walter Harris. And Duplessis would be as quick as anyone to see that if he allowed an amicable settlement to bring kudos to Walter Harris, he’d be doing the greatest conceivable favor to the Liberal Party.
What! No Press Agent?
Harris of course is well aware of all these facts, and unperturbed. If you ask him he’ll tell you that if there is to be any change in the party leadership in the near future, which he doubts, then Mike Pearson will get the job if he wants it. If he doesn’t want it, there are several others (whom Harris will cheerfully name, in approximate order or probability) who might be a convention’s choice. He would work cheerfully with any of these as prime minister. He himself, he says, is definitely not interested.
His actions seem to bear out his words; so far, at least, he hasn’t developed any of the characteristic traits of a man running for office. He still has no press agent. He still dislikes having his picture taken. With the Press he is no more and no less agreeable than before, which is to say that he’s accessible and helpful if you want facts about his department, but uncommunicative about himself.
Harris’ supporters don’t exactly doubt his statement that he isn’t interested in the leadership. They merely ignore it. They assume that any man who really likes political life, and has no other ambitions, will not refuse advancement if it’s offered him.
And there is certainly no doubt that Harris enjoys politics. In late June, at the end of the longest and dullest session in years, I asked Harris what he found most difficult or unpleasant about the work he was doing. He pulled his chin for a while, admitted he couldn’t think of anything in particular. I put the question the other way: What did he like best about it?
This time the answer came without a moment’s hesitation:
“What I’m doing now is what I’ve wanted to do all my life. I like it all.”