What you don’t know about Howe
RUTHLESS IMPATIENT COLD-BLOODED BULLHEADED FOR BIDDING . . . he’s been called all of these as well as "the architect of modern Canada” Here’s what’s behind the man who’s known as the toughest politician we’ve ever had
When the gas pipeline debate was at its bitter peak last May. the Right Honorable Clarence Decatur Howe, who on weekdays and late into the nights was the target for some of the harshest words ever heard in Canada’s parliament, spent long Saturdays crouched, pipe in teeth, behind the crowded desk of his office in a barnlike "temporary” office building. The overtime was necessary. for Howe needed to catch up with the endless conferences and visitors concerning the two ministries and eighteen crown companies in his charge. One such visitor departed from business long enough to ask a brash question: why. past retirement age. and
wealthy, did Howe persist in his career as the most embattled politician in Canada?
Howe shrugged. "It's the only trade I've had for twenty-one years." The brevity was characteristic.
It was not necessarily the whole story, however. One of Howe's close Ottawa friends has a sprightlier explanation. From the very start of the pipeline debate he was astonished to notice that Howe was looking fresher and his eyes were brighter than they had been for many months. "Then one night after a long session in which the opposition threw everything at him. I saw C.D. walk out whistling
happily. He was like a kid in a football game. And I know he slept soundly when he got to bed.”
When Howe first was elected to the “trade” that he enjoys so much, at Port Arthur. Ont., in 1935. political commentators scrambled to find sidelights on the engineer who was unknown in Ottawa but whom rumor already had in Mackenzie King's cabinet. One columnist could come up only with a single comment: "Howe likes to have things his
own way." Soon afterward, when Howe was appointed minister both of marine and of railways and canals, an opposition spokesman complained that "Howe will have more power than anyone else in Canada.”
Those two earliest comments, repeated and re-emphasized as Howe's expanding influence made them more and more obviously true, have formed the basis of what Howe's enemies deplore and his friends applaud. Today, a little stooped and shrunk perhaps by half a size after five turbulent terms in eight cabinet posts. Howe has built his habit of power and his insistence on having his own way into an almost legendary figure who is easily the most controversial living Canadian—that rare thing, a Canadian about whom many other Canadians engage in earnest and even
angry argument, in and out of parliament.
Howe's most recent actions, for example, could draw from opponents the angry charges that in pushing the gas pipeline bill through parliament under closure he was giving away a great natural resource to United States interests, putting up Canadian taxpayers' money to make the gift effective, and permanently damaging the institution of parliamentary government by his arbitrary methods. Given the same set of facts Howe's supporters could stoutly retort that he was making another of his many contributions to the Canada of today. Or. as one colleague put it. " The hand at the throttle of this buoyant bursting economy in the past twenty years has been that of Howe. His detractors should hang their heads in shame."
Considering this wide difference of opinion on the value and propriety of what Howe docs there is. strangely, almost a unanimity of opinion on what he is. His personal characteristics are not a matter of wide dispute; the disputes arc over what lies behind them. I hus everyone, f riend and foe. can agree that he is passionately fond of his own way and equally fond of getting it in a hurry. His opponents say that this is one of many proofs that he is contemptuous of parliamentary procedures in general and with the role ol the opposition in particular.
The gentle side of his nature isn’t always apparent even to officials of the Liberal Party
His friends dilute this only to the extent of calling him "impatient" with parliamentary procedures in general and with the role of the opposition in particular. Howe himself, when this widespread assessment was recalled to him by a visitor in his office at the height of the pipeline debate, smiled briefly. Impatient?" he said. "Yes, 1 suppose that’s ime.” But. he added, there can be such a thing as a "good opposition.
Howe's conception of a "good" opposition is not one that his long-time opponent George Drew' would relish, nor even that Howe himself would probably proside if he w'as on the opposition side of the house, but it is his own version:
"The opposition led by R. B. Bennett after the Liberals came back to power in 1935 was a good one." he says. "I was a newcomer not only to the cabinet but to parliament and even to politics. One of the first hills I drew up was the National Harbors Board Act which set up administration of laeilities at major Canadian ports. It wasn t a very welldrawn bill. I suppose, but in debate Bennett picked out its weak spots and polished it up. That. 1 maintain, is the function of the opposition—not to rehash old arguments endlessly, to echo old ideas. Ivc never found a subject yet that could profitably have anything more said about it after the first ten speeches.”
Howe’s friends admit that he is overly ready with a blunt opinion and an undiplomatic phrase, and blame this for the fact that in twenty years of what they claim is constructive work for C anadiaos he has never come close to winning their sympathy or affection. An exception is Howe s own riding of Port Arthur, which has elected him five times in succession with comfortable majorities. and. last year, held a nonpartisan nonpolitical “C.D. Howe Day to celebrate his twenty years in parliament.
The fact that Howe is generally regarded as a fear-inspiring and forbidding person annoys those who know' him best, since they insist that he really has an attractive personality and genuinely likes to meet people casually. 1 his gentle side of Howe's nature, however, is not always apparent even to top officials of the federal Liberal Party. At the last general election in 1953, for example, the Liberal campaign strategists laid out speaking tours where they would do the most good for members ol the cabinet, including Prime Minister St. Laurent, but not including Howe.
"Nobody wanted the job of suggesting to Howe where he should go and what he should do," admitted a member ol the I iberals’ inmost board of strategy. But Howe surprised and disarmed the Liberal leaders by casually dropping in on a planning meeting one day and offering to make a coast-to-coast campaign tour, which he carried out with considerable success.
Howe's remoteness from the heads of his party is probably due to the fact that he does not often choose his political colleagues as his companions in recreation. He plays bridge ot near-championship calibre with neighborhood friends in the notably . bridge-conscious Ottawa suburb of Rorf-wJÜffe; he golfs lustily but not too successfully with such lifelong friends as C. Jack Mackenzie, one of his
engineering students at Dalhousie who was wartime president of the National Research Council and later president of Atomic Energy of Canada. Occasionally Howe will disappear mysteriously for
three or four days and newsmen will speculate on secret international talks. Actually, he is likely to be in pursuit of Atlantic salmon, often at the Cap Chat. Que., lodge of Col. R. S. McLaughlin.
founder of General Motors of Canada. One day at Cap Chat Howe caught a 38-pound salmon ami then a 36-pounder.
"But actually." a companion confided, "1 doubt if C.D. would go fishing just for the sake of fishing—if he were alone, for example. He hasn’t the patience— which isn’t the same as persistence, mind you. Persistence can force an event, but can’t make a salmon take a fly.”
To members of the parliamentary press gallery Howe is one of the most accessible of cabinet ministers. "But,” commented one correspondent, "you’ve pretty well got to draw up an agenda to get anywhere with Howe. At least you’ve got to know exactly what you want to ask. He’s not the one to sit back and chat around a subject.”
One reporter recalls being assigned to meet a plane in which Howe was making a brief stopover after midnight on a zero night in Winnipeg. "I forgot what my first and only question was,” said the reporter, "but I’ll never forget Howe’s first and only answer. It was: ‘You go to hell!’ ”
Howe’s brusqueness is not reserved for his relations with the press and his parliamentary opponents. Even in sessions of the cabinet he quickly becomes bored with topics that are not in his field, or with colleagues who talk more than he
considers necessary. In such cases Howe has been known to doze off, or to excuse himself for a stroll and a smoke. One of the first things new members of his various staffs learn is that the boss has no use for that restful Ottawa process known as "tossing the idea around.” A young assistant recalls the first time he tried the technique on his new boss: Howe digested the suggestion (something to do with the handling of overseas reports) for half a minute then shot back, “Right—go ahead and set it up.”
“Why, in my old department the topic
would have been good for a couple of months of kicking around,” moaned the civil servant, “and in the end it would have been forgotten.”
Howe is exasperated by assistants who advise him that a proposed action is “administratively impossible.” “Nothing is administratively impossible!” he once blurted.
"But our legal adviser says it can’t be done,” replied the assistant.
“Then get me a lawyer who says it can be done,” ordered Howe.
Many an Ottawa official has found that to be introduced as “the deputy of Mr. Howe from Canada” is to be regarded with respect at international gatherings.
Once an employee understands Howe's standards and peculiarities they get along very well; and Howe’s ability to delegate duties, his recognized loyalty to assistants he trusts—and particularly his fear of nobody whatsoever on the government scene—often build up a fanatic fealty. I here was the case of a young assistant who, pale and shaken, sought audience with Howe to confess that he had had a run-in with an Ottawa official—a man both powerful and pompous—who would undoubtedly demand his dismissal for insubordination. “1 thought I might as well tell you about it before he did,” said the trembling young man.
Howe laughed. “I'll take care of the so-and-so.” he promised. “I can’t stand him either!”
Forgiveness in a lifeboat
But once Howe has formed a bad opinion of a man it is difficult, but not impossible, for the latter to redeem himself. On one occasion a man in Howe’s black book practically had to get himself killed to win the minister’s forgiveness. It was in 1940 when Howe sailed for Britain on the steamship Western Prince to consult with the British wartime leaders on Canada’s potential contribution of armaments. By chance another passenger was a man returning to Britain under Howe’s displeasure. He was a representative of a British department, assigned to Canada as liaison man with one of Howe’s departments. The two men did not hit it off, and Howe had requested his recall.
The Western Prince was torpedoed; one of Howe’s aides, Gordon Scott, was killed, and the minister and other survivors rowed, bailed and froze in a lifeboat for eight hours. The man on the seat next to Howe was the banished Briton. So heroically and cheerfully did he perform in the face of grave danger that Howe was duly impressed. He invited his shipmate back to Ottawa, where he served proficiently for the rest of his tour of duty.
When the first photographs of the Western Prince’s survivors reached Canadian newspapers, the caption writers noted the “makeshift garb” Howe was wearing and surmised that he had lost his own and that various crew members must have loaned him odd bits of clothing, oddest of all being a knitted toque. This mildly annoyed Mrs. Howe, who pointed out that every article her husband was wearing when rescued was part of a “torpedo kit” she had packed for him, consisting of warm and sensible garments for such an emergency. The toque was contributed by one of the Howes’ sons who had worn it at Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Que. Thereafter “torpedo kits” became popular with Canadian officials crossing the ocean.
Howe did lose all his ‘papers, though, when he tossed his brief case into the sea instead of into the lifeboat he was aiming at. And among the papers was his controversial passport. A few months before, there had appeared in the Canada Gazette among the names of hundreds of persons granted Canadian citizenship, one "Clarence Decatur Howe; occupation: Minister of Munitions and Supply.” Immediately a number of newspapers rushed into print the conclusion that Howe, five years a cabinet minister and more than thirty years a resident, was only then becoming naturalized and that a U.S. citizen had been running Canada’s war effort. The truth was that Howe had become a Canadian citizen as early as he legally could—five years after he took up residence. But back in 1913 Canada could confer only national citizenship; from 1927 on the papers conferred citizenship throughout the commonwealth. So when he needed a passport for travel during wartime, he had to acquire the amended papers—and his name duly appeared as having been "granted citizenship."
But the claim that Howe did not become a Canadian until 1940 persists as one of the legends that have grown around his name. One U. S. newspaper correspondent in the Ottawa press gallery likes to refer to Howe as "a smart Yankee who knows how to put it over on you Canadians.” and in almost every major controversy involving Howe his U.S. birth has been brought up. In the recent pipeline debate Donald Fleming, a Toronto Conservative, referred to "the Boston influence” as being responsible for an action of Howe's that Fleming criticized.
It is true that Howe, a New Englander from Waltham. Mass., literally became a Canadian on the toss of a coin. In 190S he and another young engineer named James Madison Barker were cooling their heels as part-time lecturers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They had graduated in 1907. but found jobs scarce; U. S. industrialists had sulked themselves into the 1907 depression over Teddy Roosevelt’s mildly prolabor policies. So it was a fateful day when one of M.I.T.'s engineering professors. George Swain, handed the young men a letter and said, "Decide between you. I’ll recommend either one."
The letter had come from Dalhousie University. Halifax. It requested Swain to forward his best available graduate to ¡ill a full professorship in civil engineering, at the handsome salary of two thousand dollars. Howe and Barker looked at each other. Solemnly a coin was tossed. Howe won.
"I’ll go up to Canada for a couple of years until things get back to normal here," he told Barker. It was the same year that Peary left to discover the North Pole, and Howe expected to be home before Peary.
A few weeks ago Howe was passing out half-dollar cigars instead of the modest stogies he usually swaps with his staff. And when they sniffed at the perfectos in surprise. Howe grinned. "I just cashed my first old-age pension cheque," he explained.
Someone asked him what had happened. forty-eight years before, to change his mind about going back to the U. S. "No one thing." he said. "From the first I liked the place and the people and knew this was the place I wanted to live."
Howe, the youngest full professor ever on Dalhousie's staff, arrived broke to take up his post. He had to borrow a hundred dollars from the university’s treasurer to tide him over until payday. Howe’s method of teaching was unlike anything seen previously in Dalhousie's school of engineering. He was only a
year or two older than many of his students, and he treated them like colleagues and companions. Railway expansion was booming in Canada in those pre-World War 1 years, and Howe and his classes spent many weeks each term camping out and laying out innumerable imaginary railroads throughout Nova Scotia.
Howe was converted from a Maritimes college professor into a prairie grain-elevator engineer by Robert Magill. a Dalhousie theologian and economist who became head of the Board of
Grain Commissioners. Canada was in great need of grain elevators at the time; it was Magill’s duty to have them built and he knew only one engineer, his colleague Howe back in Halifax.
Magill offered Howe the job. at five thousand dollars a year. Howe thanked him. but added. "1 know nothing of grain elevators. I've never even seen one."
Magill renewed his offer. "You’re the only engineer 1 know." he pointed out. Howe accepted. After three years as a salaried engineer for the grain board
he went into business for himself in 1916—and in the same year he returned to Boston to marry his former boss's daughter. Alice Martha Worcester. During vacations from M I T. Howe had worked as a draftsman in the office of J. R. Worcester, the engineer who designed the Boston subway.
The success story of the C. D. Howe Co. is usually told in one short sentence: "By forty he had made his first million." But that ignores the fact that his very first job as an independent contractor almost ruined him. A terrific storm destroyed the foundations and equipment of a large elevator at the head of the lakes. Overnight the new C. D. Howe Co. was bankrupt. Howe got hold of what cash he could persuade the banks to loan him, and by tremendous effort finished the elevator on time. The brief ceremony of turning it over to the owners, a Saskatchewan grain co-operative, was somewhat of a bitter triumph for the young Howe, though. When the chairman of the co-operative asked him how he had made out on the job, Howe answered matter-of-factly.
"Oh, 1 lost money.”
Next day the board of the co-operative met and voted Howe the money he had lost on the project. Howe rarely tells that story nowadays, and only when he wants to explain to someone why, no matter what has happened to him since, he never worries. "I used up all the worry 1 had in me during those months,” he says.
During the next twenty years Pfowe was literally to change the skyline of western Canada, to design and construct the great majority of the now-familiar
towering concrete elevators. In all, between 1916 and 1935, the C. D. Howe Co. won contracts for one hundred million dollars worth of engineering construction, including elevators, bridges, docks, factories and mills. In 1930 he was invited to Argentina to survey the grain-elevator needs of that country, and designed the towering grain terminals that are still a feature of Buenos Aires’ waterfront.
When Howe returned to Canada in 1935 the Depression was still deep, and even the C. D. Howe Co., which remain-
ed a going concern while many engineering firms were closing down for lack of business, was finding the going decidedly slow. Howe was in his fiftieth year and, he recalled recently. "I was beginning to think of retiring.”
But before the year was out Howe had begun the most active and turbulent phase of his life-—politics. To describe the manner of Howe's entry into public life requires the disinterment of a curious and faintly unsavory segment of Canadian politics.
The l iberal party, defeated in 1930 by R. B. Bennett and with a general election coming up. was trying to build for the battle. The Port Arthur constituency had been created two years before and had not yet elected a member. In adjacent Port William the old entrenched l iberals and a younger reform element were competing for control of the local party organization. When the annual convention and election of officers was held, the old Liberals "borrowed" ten truckloads of men from a nearby provincial encampment for the unemployed. two hundred men each armed with a membership credential card entitling him to vote for officers. One of the trucks was in a railroad-crossing accident, and some of the twenty passengers were killed and several injured. Among those who went to their aid was an ordained minister and welfare worker named Dan Mclvor. He discovered some of the membership cards at the scene, questioned the survivors, and strode off to the Liberal convention to denounce the old crowd —a little i 1 log ica 11 y perhaps—as "murderers.” Plis emotional speech helped the young l iberals win control.
The incident, though, disturbed Mackenzie King and Senator Norman Lambert. then head of the National Liberal Association. The Liberals had been beaten by Bennett in 1930 and were now girding for a general election. Lambert had previously tried to get Howe, by now a leading citizen of the Lakehead. to take an interest in politics, though he didn't know if Howe was a Liberal.
But Howe had been lukewarm. Now' Lambert saw in the Port William incident a possible opportunity to arouse Howe’s interest via a new approach. He felt that Howe might be interested in a problem, a challenge. He had Mackenzie King ask Howe to "trouble shoot" the Port William organization and make a recommendation. Howe did so. He recommended party reorganization in the riding, and suggested Dan Mclvor as a suitable candidate. (Mclvor won. and has become one of the most respected members of parliament.)
But when King invited Howe to Ottawa and broached the idea ot Howe running for Port Arthur, the reply was a firm "no. When he revealed his decision to Mrs. Howe, though, he was amazed to find her on the side of King. Lambert and the Liberals. It wasn t until later. Senator Lambert recalls, that Howe discovered King had cannily planted the idea with Mrs. Howe that as a politician Howe would have more time to spend with his family than he would as an engineer.
Phis, as Mrs. Howe was soon to discover. was fantastically untrue. She says now w'ith a rueful smile of memory that she used to introduce their five children periodically to their father. And that first major piece of advice Mrs. Howe gave her husband was the last time she entered his political life. "1 find," she now says, "that having seventeen grandchildren is a role that suits me much better."
Among the legends that attach to Howe is one that holds he voted in a United States presidential election—the 1908 victory of William Howard Taft over William Jennings Bryan, the great orator and unorthodox theorist who advocated the free coinage of silver. It is true that Howe was of voting age at the time of the election, but he was already at Dalhousie University on election day. “But if I had voted.” he mused recently, “I would have been for the Republicans. I didn’t like Bryan’s erratic money policies.” tracts. An opposition member suggested Howe hadn't taken into account savings caused by the merger of two departments. Howe's actual words were: “I dare say my honorable friend could cut a million dollars from the bill, but a million on a war-appropriation bill would not be a very important matter.” An occasional opposition jibe at Howe is to call him “minister of everything,” and indeed he has headed more government departments than anyone in Canadian history—namely: marine; railways and canals; transport; munitions and supply; reconstruction; reconstruction and supply; trade and commerce, and defense production.
More than a quarter of a century later, when Howe first entered politics in Canada, he might have become the Canadian counterpart of a Republican too. Not long ago he admitted that, other things being equal, he might as readily have been persuaded to become a Conservative as a Liberal.
Howe was elected to parliament on his first try—as he has been ever since with little difficulty. But even his most ardent admirers admit his campaign was somewhat less than eloquent.
Howe’s speeches are usually a straight . recital of facts (or alleged facts, as his opponents have been known to suggest), often prepared by an assistant and free of humor or references to what Sir John A. Macdonald said in 1867. To read Howe's speeches a few months or years after delivery is. for the disinterested layman, a monumental bore. When he does prepare a speech himself he invariably dictates it, since his handw'riting is slow and laborious. He has no patience with the intricacies of spelling and often uses a phonetic system. Once a man lunching with Howe at the Rideau Club in Ottawa found himself reading Howe’s order with fascination: "Plane omelet and rasin pie.”
“My children will be proud”
Possibly the only Howe speech with emotional content was made near the end of the debate on the pipeline bill, when he said, "This may be the last big project I will be called upon to undertake. 1 want to assure the members that it is not my purpose to close my years by undertaking a project that will stand to my discredit over the years ... I believe this pipeline is a project that will make my children proud that their father had a hand in it.” This is one of the rare references Howe has made publicly to his family. Another notable exception occurred in 1951 when George Drew, leader of the opposition, charged in a free-time CBC broadcast that Howe "has arranged government contracts with his own family company. C. D. Howe Co. which will give the company more than half a million dollars in fees.”
Later in parliament Drew repeated the charge that Howe, using his "immense power,” had granted the C. D. Howe Co. a thirty-million-dollar contract to build the atomic reactor at Chalk River, Ont. Drew said that Howe was not personally connected with the company, but a son and a son-in-law were, and that made it a “family company.”
In his reply Howe said, "1 don’t like to discuss my family in public. Members may have noticed that my wife never appears on political platforms.” He explained that when he sold the company the new owners insisted that they could not carry on successfully unless the name remained as before, and Howe had agreed to that. His son’s and son-in-law’s jobs, he added, were as engineers among the company’s seventy engineers, and he insisted he had nothing to do with their employment.
Drew and Howe are the traditional prime adversaries of the Commons and
have been the principals in the noisiest of the parliamentary feuds since Drew became leader of the opposition early in 1948. They clashed, notably in 1949 over the safety of TCA’s then-new North Stars and the ownership of the company making them: and over last year’s successful attempt of the opposition to prevent Howe retaining emergency powers under the Defense Production Act. Each seems particularly effective in Commons debate against the other, although, as Col. Douglas Harkness, PC member for Calgary, has noted. Howe in debate is
“more the meat axe than the rapier.” Drew and his followers have collected a small store of Howe's sayings which they toss back at him at appropriate moments, like: “Nuts!” “Who's to stop us?" and notably, “W'hat's a million?" The fact is, though, that Howe is not usually given to uttering such short sharp phrases, and they must be paraphrased to achieve their point and brevity. His “What’s a million?” faux pas, for example, occurred in 1945 when Howe was justifying a seven-milliondollar estimate for winding up war con-
It has also been suggested that Howe poaches on the preserves of other ministers. Thus he made a shortage of Ontario feed oats his business when it seemed the logical concern of Agricultural Minister James Gardiner.
Howe created Trans-Canada Air Lines and has kept it under his wing, although an unthinking layman might consider an airline a logical concern of the Department of Transport. Altogether eighteen crown companies, boards and commissions—from the Atomic Energy Control Board and the Polymer (synthetics) Corp. to the Newfoundland Fisheries Board and the Board of Grain Commissioners —make their reports to parliament through Howe.
As the biggest executive in Canada, Howe usually plays the role of irascible boss convincingly. As when, for example, he ordered a delegation of labor-union leaders out of a Toronto golf club where he was a guest. The delegation wanted to know if the operation of a Toronto wartime plant was going to continue, and threatened to strike against a decision to close it down. Howe replied that the plant was being closed— and suggested that was the best possible time for a strike.
In general though, Howe has not had a great deal to do with labor directly, which one union executive commented was “probably a good thing for the blood pressure of Canada, of labor—and of Howe.”
Sometimes, though, an incredibly mild Clarence Howe suddenly emerges. An example of mild forbearance which astonished Howe's friends occurred two years ago when an Ottawa radio station put on a daily program the object of which was to guess from clues supplied a correct answer in the form of some aspect of a celebrity’s life. Gradually it dawned on some hundreds of listeners that the answer concerned C. D. Howe. With a three-thousand-dollar prize at stake (and daily growing larger), radio fans besieged the Howe residence in Rockcliffe by telephone and in person, demanding the answers to such personal questions as what Howe ate for breakfast, whether he liked sauerkraut or pretzels, if he wore a wig or a hearing aid, his age, his preference in pets and whether he wore a nightshirt or pyjamas. Callers hammered early and late at front and back doors and once Mrs. Howe surprised a fake service-installation man prowling about the cellar “looking for clues.” Friends demanded that Howe protest the indignity to the radio-station management and higher authorities; newspapers ran angry editorials about the trials of public life. But Howe shrugged off the annoyance, and merely murmured, “That’s a relief,” when the program jackpot finally was won. (The right answer turned out to be “the career of C. D. Howe.”)
Howe’s ability to disregard disturbing influences is due, his colleagues maintain, to the fact that about the only thing he’s really interested in is getting tangible things done, and an ability to close his thought processes to everything but the matter in hand. When he first came to Ottawa he used to drive himself to the office. When he got a firm grip on his first cabinet job, though. Howe had to give up driving — he went through too many red lights, with his thoughts far away from the business in hand, planning the plans that were, for the next twenty years, to make some of the people call him a national calamity and some call him a national benefactor. ^