Leslie Frost’s masquerade as the common man
Next to Diefenbaker, he’s the nation's most important politician. For ten years he's steered his Ontario Tories through scandal and sheer adulation, and yet he remains the nation's least-known major figure. How—and why—does he do it?
For ten years the second most important job in the public life of this country has been held by one of the least-known Canadian politicians. The job is that of premier of Ontario, and the firmly unspectacular figure who holds it is Leslie Miscampbell Frost. As head of a government which administers Canada’s richest and most populous province, Frost holds a viewpoint which commands the respect of the molders of national policy. As a Conservative he probably ranks next in the party hierarchy to John Diefenbaker. Many people still believe that if he had chosen to try, Frost could have wrested his party’s national
leadership from Diefenbaker at the historic convention of 1956, and so, perhaps, have become prime minister of Canada. And though there is no evidence that J-rost wants the job, many still believe he might eventually become Diefenbaker’s successor as head of both the party and the country.
Frost clearly is a man about whom Canadians should know more. The fact that they don’t is due not so much to national indifference to provincial figures as to Frost’s studied determination to impersonate a nonentity. He grew up among people who suspect flamboyance and he shrinks from
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"He's a marvelous brain-picker"; "The craftiest figu
the headline hunting that characterizes the behavior of many politicians.
Born in Orillia, ninety miles north of Toronto — a locality that inspired Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — Frost earned his first dollar as a lawyer in nearby Lindsay, an equally small, tranquil and sober-sided community. The voters of Victoria, the riding in which Lindsay stands, first elected him to the provincial legislature twenty-two years ago because they were charmed by his avuncular manner and ability to remember nearly all their Christian names.
Frost’s early speeches were so dull that they rarely made a line in the newspapers. He dwelt on hog subsidies, cheese prices, mill rates and loans to municipalities for waterworks, sewage plants and incinerators. But his grasp of these mundane and essential matters made him a valuable backroom boy.
In 1943, at the age of forty-eight, he became provincial treasurer in the government of George Drew. He underestimated revenues, overestimated expenditures, concentrated on debt reduction and kept a sharp rein on ministers who showed a tendency toward departmental extravagance. As a result he brought down a series of budget surpluses that deeply impressed serious students of provincial politics. To the man in the street, however. Frost remained almost unknown.
Two significant events spurred him on in his political career. First, Cecil Frost, Les Frost’s beloved brother and law partner, a man who’d risen to be president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Association, died in 1947. Friends think that Frost felt the loss so keenly he no longer had any enthusiasm for the law practice in Lindsay. While he retained a financial interest in the practice he took on other partners to run it and gave all his time to politics.
The second event was the resignation of Premier George Drew, who moved to Ottawa to lead the federal opposition. For a year the late Tom Kennedy, a “grand old man” of Ontario, held the premiership in a "caretaker” capacity. Then, at a Conservative convention in 1949 the hard-headed delegates, who were aware of Frost’s relative obscurity but equally well aware of his qualities, nominated him as successor to Kennedy. Slowly Ontario began to take an interest in the quiet man who had risen so unobtrusively to power.
Today they see a grey-haired sixty-four-year-old man who carries his bulky five-foot-eleven frame with an air of weary nobility, an effect heightened by a slight limp from a World War 1 wound. Frost wears expensive, sober clothes, but to the chagrin of his clever, handsome and ambitious wife, Gertrude, he always contrives to take on a look of rumpled negligence. Rimless glasses, a striking facial pallor and a ponderous way of speaking suggest gravity, industriousness and formality. At a political meeting a woman once exclaimed to him: “1 never realized you were so plain.”
Behind that plain facade, however, lies a sagacious brain. Chief Justice Dana Porter of Ontario says: "Les Frost is a master of political strategy and he has an uncanny grasp of the problems and emotions of the ordinary man.” Colonel G. A. Weeks, a native of Lindsay, and a hunting and
fishing crony of the premier's for more than forty years, says: “Every Conservative in the country knows that Les Frost is the most eligible successor to Diefenbaker. But I don’t think you'll ever see him at Ottawa. He is a greater specialist in provincial affairs than he is in federal affairs and on these grounds he thinks it is his duty to remain in Toronto.”
Since Frost took office in 1949 Ontario’s population — augmented by more than half the postwar immigrants to Canada — has increased from four million to five and a half million, and the province’s contribution to total Canadian production has risen from thirty-three to forty-one percent.
Claiming credit for unprecedented development and prosperity, Frost’s government, in two elections, has reduced the opposition parties to two tiny groups. Out of ninety-eight seats only eleven are held by Liberals and only three by CCFers. So enormous is the Conservative majority that Frost’s government stands up to attack with the aplomb of a battleship’s crew under light machinegun fire.
While the government has been embarrassed by scandals or near scandals, Frost’s personal reputation is such that he can face his foes serenely and dismiss as mere “indiscretions” charges of ministerial corruption. Frost’s bland attitude toward a construction scandal that resulted in the resignation of George Doucett, minister of highways, in 1954, aroused the opposition to fury. Arthur Reaume, a Liberal MLA, says: “Frost is a whited sepulchre. He is double-tongued and two-faced. He puts the telescope to his blind eye.”
CCF leader Donald C. MacDonald says: “Frost is personally incorruptible. But he has two sets of moral standards. One for himself and one for the party. He is the craftiest figure in the Tory den and the greatest one-man show in Canadian politics. He will sacrifice anything or anybody to defend the party’s reputation.”
Donald MacDonald splashed the latest and biggest blot on the Conservative party’s escutcheon in 1957 when he produced evidence in the legislature to show that Philip Kelly, minister of mines, had made a fortune out of stock in the Northern Ontario Natural Gas Company. The stock soared in value after the Ontario government decided to share in the financing of a pipeline. Two other cabinet ministers, George Griesinger and Clare Mapledoram, had befught NONG stock on Kelly’s advice. After a government enquiry all three resigned.
During the eight-week parliamentary session that ended last Easter, Donald MacDonald was on his feet day after day insisting that Frost had been aware of Kelly’s interest in NONG before the government decided to invest in the pipeline.
Frost denied this indignantly. He said that while he always warned his ministers to keep out of any stock that might benefit from government policy, i't was not his practice to ask them for an accounting of their private holdings.
Toward the end of one of the bitterest sessions on record MacDonald fired two shots that broke Frost’s legendary self-control. First MacDonald said that Frost must have
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Leslie Frost's masquerade as the common man
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“Furious over the accusations against his friends, he shocked the
House with his language”
known all along of Kelly's interest in NONG because he (Frost) took breakfast every morning in the Royal York Hotel with Alexander David McKenzie, president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Association. McKenzie is a lawyer who helped to incorporate NONG and profited handsomely from holdings in the company. Secondly, MacDonald suggested that Leo Landreville, now an Ontario Supreme Court judge, had. in days when he was mayor of Sudbury, been instrumental in getting NONG the valuable Sudbury franchise in return for stock. These accusations against two of his friends aroused Frost to a fury. Members listened in shocked silence while the premier, using language he had never employed in the House before, shouted at MacDonald :
“You're an imputer and insinuator of disgraceful things . . . You're a character assassin . . . Your stock in trade is of the lowest nature ... 1 wish you'd close your trap for a while . . . Don't sit there and chatter like a pig in a trough . . . Ciet down in the sewer and get yourself covered in it . . . You rub salt into wounds as useless as a horse having five legs.”
That night Frost's wife rebuked him and the next day the premier apologized generously for his unparliamentary language. But for many weeks the terms of t he abuse remained in the members’ minds. They were in some ways a reflection of the stresses imposed upon Frost’s character by his origins and experiences.
Frost's paternal grandparents came from Glasgow and his maternal grandparents from the outskirts of Manchester. In Frost’s veins, therefore, flows the blood of Scots and Lancastrians, two of the most phlegmatic, hard-headed and puritanical races in the British Isles. I he paternal grandsire opened a bakery in Orillia and the maternal grandsire managed a foundry in London. Ont.
Frost's father, William Sword Frost, opened a jewelry and watchmaking business in Orillia and prospered. An eloquent and politically minded Sabbatarian and prohibitionist, Frost senior became mayor of Orillia shortly before World War 1. He attempted to introduce to Orillia an old-country novelty known as summertime, with somewhat chaotic results. For this he was nicknamed Daylight Bill or Fast Time Frost.
Every Sunday Daylight Bill drove his wife and sons to three Presbyterian services in a cart drawn by a gelding named Prince. The boys, Grenville, Leslie and Cecil, sat in the back scat and according to Leslie “talked politics." Leslie, the second son. was given his middle name Miscampbell for Andrew Miscampbell. an Ontario MLA who was a great friend of his father's.
Leslie Frost and his brothers attended the Orillia high school and went in for canoeing, sailing and basketball. They chummed around with George Leacock, who had an oddball brother named Stephen. In the calvinistic social clique of Orillia and nearby Peterborough and Lindsay, women with daughters kept a watchful, approving and speculative eye upon the manly graces and steady behavior of the Frost boys.
When World War 1 broke out Leslie and Cecil, the two younger brothers,
were at the University of Toronto and uncertain of their futures. Both enlisted immediately. Leslie volunteered for the infantry and Cecil for the machine-gun corps. They were commissioned and in 1916 went overseas. In March 1918.
when the Germans broke through at St. Quentin, Leslie was a lieutenant commanding a platoon of the 20th Canadian Infantry. The oncoming Germans forced Leslie’s battalion out of its trenches and drove it back into open country. During
a German attack on Neuviljc Vitasse, near Arras, Leslie Frost had difficulty in getting his men to hold their position. Under heavy small-arms fire he was darting about yelling encouragement at them when a German sniper's bullet splattered
his right hip bone and felled him. His platoon broke and fled.
Leslie Frost would have bled to death had not Major George Musgrove, the company commander, rallied two stretcher bearers to duty. As the stretcher bearers carried Frost to safety their movements were protected by Canadian machine guns which suddenly opened up to give them covering fire. The machine guns were commanded by Leslie Frost’s brother Cecil who, by chance, had been ordered into the same sector. Friends say the miraculous coincidence deepened the mutual devotion of the brothers.
Later in the same action Cecil was wounded and both men spent many months in hospital before their discharge. After the war they followed their father’s
advice and went in for law. On finishing their education at Osgoode Hall, Toronto, in 1921, they bought a practice in Lindsay and called it Frost and Frost. Their older brother Grenville eventually became a professor at Queen’s University.
At first Cecil and Leslie Frost scrambled for clients. They defended six men charged with murder and won five acquittals. In one alleged case of murder in a hunting cabin Leslie Frost personally carried out some ballistic experiments. He then took the witness stand and produced evidence to show that the angle of the bullet’s trajectory suggested not murder but a drunken accident. The accused, for whom Cecil pleaded eloquently, was acquitted.
Cecil was always the best speaker and
Les the best researcher. Their youth and talents brought them prosperity. In the early Twenties they were wooed by Lindsay Conservatives as a couple of likely recruits to the party. Cecil took the platform at political meetings and Les went around knocking at doors, canvassing votes, and getting on first - name terms with the voters. In 1926 the brothers married sisters. Leslie married Gertrude and Cecil married Roberta, the daughters of John C'arew, a local lumber magnate and former Conservative MLA. The matches hiked them into the upper crust of central Ontario society.
In the early Thirties Cecil Frost aspired to the provincial parliament. But Lindsay Conservatives decided that Leslie, who had won more popularity through his door-knocking, would make the better candidate. Leslie was nominated Conservative candidate for Victoria, the Lindsay riding, and in 1934 unsuccessfully contested the seat held by William Newman, a Liberal dairyman nicknamed Buttermilk Bill. Three years later Frost fought Newman again and won. He has held the seat ever since.
Today, people who listen carefully to Frost meandering through a thicket of platitudes toward an inevitable moral conclusion usually find deep in each speech a half - buried kernel of fundamental conservative philosophy. A sampler of some of his typical remarks would include:
“The government’s task is not finding things to do, but doing the things that must be done, and only afterward doing the things it would like to do.”
"A government has no money of its own. It is your money. This money must be raised by taxes. Please remember that services have to be paid for.”
“I am a pragmatist. Let us look at both sides of the question and decide what is best for the country. At all costs let us be reasonable.”
“Nobody should expect this country to maintain full employment all the time. That could not be done without regimentation.”
“The time will never come when all the problems arising between the three levels of. government in Canada will be settled.”
Case of the missing hat
The premier’s deportment is usually as sombre as his speech, and only on rare occasions has he gone along with the sort of lighthearted publicity gag most politicians relish. Three years ago university students across Canada conducted a “heist your premier’s hat” campaign. The idea was to steal the hat of every provincial premier and exhibit the collection at the Canadian University Press convention in Toronto.
University of Toronto students stole Frost’s hat from his office at Queen’s Park. The premier said to the press, “This is a serious matter. Unlike my wife, who has a hat for every occasion, I have only three. Besides the hat that’s been stolen I have only a hunting hat with a red top and an old plug hat I bought when George VI was touring Canada. If I can have my stolen hat back I’ll give the students my old plug hat.”
The gentle whimsy was characteristic of Frost's humor. He rarely arouses more than a smile and when he does it.is often by virtue of his sly allusions to other people’s personality quirks rather than by wisecracks or descriptions of situation comedy. A few weeks ago. at a dinner in the Mississaugua Golf Club, Toronto, he brought the house down. Later most of the guests were astonished to discover that they could hardly remember what
Frost had said to make them laugh. According to Ontario Chief Justice Dana Porter the amusement was provoked by Frost's remarks about the character traits of many different members. It wasn’t what he said that created the mirth but the revelation of his amazing knowledge of the foibles and occupations of so many members.
Frost denies that he knows the first name of everyone in Lindsay. “But I used to.” he says, “until a few years ago.”
His knowledge of modest citizens far afield from Lindsay constantly surprises
his friends. A few months ago. when he stopped for a meal in a small northern Ontario village, he asked the waitress her name. When she told him, he told her the names of her parents and grandparents. He never enters an elevator without speaking to the operator or enjoys a restaurant meal without sending his compliments to the chef. Often he travels from Toronto to Lindsay on Friday evenings in a day coach and spends the whole time moving down the seats chatting with passengers. On Saturday mornings he walks along Lindsay's main drag
hailing tradesmen and scores of shoppers by name and stopping to talk. During his speechmaking at Lindsay he frequently points to a humble member of the audience and says: “I know that my old friend John over there will agree with me when I say . . ."
Duncan Sinclair, a retired Lindsay grocery manager, and one of Frost's oldest friends, says: “Some people take this for old-fashioned politicking. But it isn’t. Les Frost is genuinely interested in simple people.” Frost's political opponents refuse to believe this, and ascribe his sociability
to hypocrisy or to a voracious appetite for votes. Liberal MLA Arthur Reaume says, “Take Frost's attitude on liquor. He tries to please both wets and dries. Last February he repeated in the house three times that no liquor was ever served at government functions. The next night the Speaker threw his annual banquet to the Ontario MLAs and liquor flowed freely. When I tackled Frost about it in the house he said the Speaker was independent of the government, and had his own entertainment allowance. It was over this matter that I called him a hypocrite to his face.”
Frost himself didn’t drink until middle life but he voted for cocktail bars in Ontario. Of the Ontario liquor laws he once said: "There are faults, failings and injustices but they work with some degree of satisfaction.” Generally speaking, however, he shuns discussion of liquor. Donald MacDonald says: “Frost is in a state of conflict over liquor. He finds it hard to reconcile the principles he learned from his prohibitionist father with the new ideas that are abroad in Canada. But he is also too much of a realist to underestimate the value of the tax revenues from liquor and the contributions to the Conservative party by the liquor interests.”
Friends say that Frost’s policy on liquor is in line with his passion for gradual. cautious change. He once said: “Things in this old province of Ontario move very slowly. We should do a little here and a little there and then wait for next year.”
Critics contend that a degree of arrogance is beginning to weaken the appeal of Frost’s caution. They point to his habit of jumping up and interrupting ministers' speeches to steer the course of argument out of dangerous channels. Reaume says: "He treats his ministers like boys. He pitches, catches, strikes and plays outfield.”
At private meetings of the party. Frost is said to exercise icy authority. "But what it comes down to,” says one high Conservative, "is listening to Frost reason out every point logically. When he’s finished talking nearly everybody agrees with him."
Frost is not given to quick decisions. If he has a feeling that some action must be taken he will seek first the advice of many authorities. When he was preparing the Ontario Hospital Insurance scheme for submission to the then Liberal government in Ottawa he armed himself with facts and figures gleaned in scores of interviews with insurance experts. “He is a marvellous brain-picker.” says Ontario Chief Justice Dana Porter.
Frost was prominent in the negotiations which brought about the digging of the St. Lawrence Seaway; the construction of the atomic energy research station at Chalk River; the creation of Metropolitan Toronto; the expansion of the government-owned Hydro-Electric Power Commission; great developments in mining, conservation, provincial parks and agriculture; and in the shaping of penalties for people who discriminate against potential employees and tenants on racial grounds.
While Frost is the most important provincial premier in Canada he is unostentatious. He rarely uses the private car that is provided for the premier on the provincially owned Ontario Northland Railway. Nor is he a martinet in his attitude toward government employees. While waiting to drive aboard a government-owned ferry, he was once held up by the skipper who called forward, out of turn, two friends who were driving cars behind Frost’s. When Frost finally got aboard the ferry he rebuked the skipper. The skipper, not knowing he was talking to the premier, became abusive. The skipper still holds his job, though he has mended his ways.
“My wife is waiting”
Frost is as sentimental as he is forgiving. At a reception a few years ago he met a young teacher and said: “I know your face.” The young man said: “We have never met before.” It turned out that he was the son of the Major George Musgrove who'd saved Frost’s life in World War I, only to be killed later himself. “You are the living image of your dad.” said Frost. “I shall never forget your dad’s face.” A few days later Frost and his wife visited Musgrove's widow to pay their respects.
Frost admits that he is influenced strongly by his wife, who inherited a love of politics from her father and has a sure grasp of the factors that sway the important rural vote. When trying to get away from meetings Frost’s favorite excuse is "My wife is waiting for me."
Mrs. Frost is a tall, slender woman with big, glowing eyes and stylish taste. She looks sophisticated but has little liking for city life. During the twenty-two years in which politics have keptthe Frosts in Toronto they've never bought a house or rented an apartment there. They prefer to occupy on weekdays a suite in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and at weekends their own modest home in Lindsay. They commute by train or by Frost's official chauffeur-driven Lincoln.
“When we get home to Lindsay,” Frost
When Frost tires of women and children, he retires to his log cabin, which is strictly stag”
once said, “I am just Gert’s husband.” He raises an occasional smile in the legislature when he speaks of “the opposition in my own house.” Once he told the legislature: "Nobody is going to push me around except my wife.” Mrs. Frost later told the press: "1 never have. But I've always known I could.”
Like her husband, Mrs. Frost has a strong sense of family ties. Her Lindsay home is filled with antiques carefully collected from the estates of their relatives. A treasured exhibit is the Bible which Frost’s grandmother gave to his grandfather and on which Frost took the oath of office, with tears in his eyes, when he became premier.
Ten miles from Lindsay, at Pleasant Point, on Sturgeon Lake, the Frosts have a cottage. Back in from the cottage is Frost’s personal log cabin. The couple came across the cabin originally in a nearby township and fell in love with it because it was a hundred and twenty years old. They had its twelve-inch, handhewn logs and beams dismantled and reassembled on its present site. Once Mrs. Frost got hold of some cedar logs to fix up the porch and she squared them herself. "She is a wicked woman with that broad axe,” said her husband.
At the cottage and cabin the Frosts entertain on most summer weekends. Being childless themselves they encourage friends and relatives to bring along their offspring. The children call the Frosts Aunt Dct and Uncle Les. When Frost wearies of women and children he retires to the log cabin which is "strictly stag.”
On winter Saturdays Frost heads alone
for his log cabin. Soon lie is joined by such Lindsay cronies as J. W. Deyell, a printer; E. D. Fee, an automobile dealer; Judge J. A. McGibbon; Duncan Sinclair, the retired grocery manager; and Colonel G. A. Weeks, a retired manager of a trust company. Weeks says: "We call ourselves the Swallow Club because we like swallowing things. These things include food. We are gourmets. Our favorite dish is turkey. Les Frost is the cook."
After turkey Frost's specialties at the kitchen stove are baked beans, mulligan stew, and steak-and-kidney pie. When the afternoon feast is over chef Frost sleeps while his cronies wash the dishes.'“Then,” says Weeks, "we start talking about anything under the sun. When the conversation fails to interest Les he just falls asleep again. As soon as the conversation turns to his liking he wakes up with a snap."
On some Saturday nights Frost rejoins his wife and they go to the small home of Duncan Sinclair to play euchre. Once, for their summer vacation, they went to England to pay a sentimental visit to the home of Frost’s maternal grandparents, a stout granite house standing on windswept moors above Edenfield, a cottonmill town north of Manchester. But usually the Frosts take a trip into the U. S. with the Sinclairs to enable the premier to pursue his study of the life of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln is one of Frost's historical heroes. He has visited Lincoln's birthplace, Lincoln's home, and the courthouse where Lincoln once pleaded. Walking up the stairs of Lincoln’s home he rubbed
his hand lovingly along the balustrade and said to Sinclair: "Just imagine. Old Abe's hand touched this too.” Once when Mrs. Frost asked her husband what he'd like for his birthday he said, “Sandburg’s life of Lincoln.” She ordered it. thinking it a very modest request. She got a shock when she found it consisted of six expensively bound volumes.
As an admirer of Lincoln, Frost likes to tour Civil War battlefields. While his wife and the Sinclairs roll their eyes in patient resignation Frost insists on stopping to read every historical cairn. He once brooded for half an hour over the tomb of Stonewall Jackson. Another time he scrambled out of the car and went to scoop up a souvenir handful of earth from the scene of the Battle of the Wilderness.
Scholarly but banal
“It is important,” says Frost, “for a Canadian to understand American politics. And nobody can understand American politics until they have studied the divisions and factions that led up to the Civil War.”
His knowledge of British imperial battles is also immense. In Lindsay's exclusive Twenty Club, a literary society limited to twenty members, he often gives papers on military history. At a private dinner in Toronto he was introduced to the late L. S. Amery, a former British cabinet minister. Frost said: “Weren't you a war correspondent in the Boer War?” When Amery nodded Frost asked him searching questions about minute details of the Jameson Raid.
Some intimates find it difficult to reconcile Frost's scholarly interests and private conversations with the banalities he often employs on political occasions. When he was opening a new city hall in Oshawa. Ont., he made the civic elders smile by exclaiming: “Lo and behold! What do 1 see in Oshawa? A facsimile of the UN building which my wife and I saw in New York!”
Some intimates find it equally difficult to reconcile with his perspicacity the occasionally patent political gestures. When he opened the Toronto subway in 1954 he knew that Allan Lamport felt that he himself, as mayor, should have officiated. So. just before Frost pulled the lever, ho called Lamport over and asked him to join hands with him in that operation.
"It was good politics,” said the Toronto Star, which usually favors the Liberals and criticizes the Conservatives. “But it was more than that. It was the act of a kindly man whose natural impulses are friendly. He does the generous thing without affectation. That, alas, is one of the things that make him so hard to defeat.”
While some Liberals and CCFers rage at mention of Frost's name, Joseph Salzberg. one of the last Communist MLAs to sit in the Ontario legislature, once remarked: "You can't help liking the man.”
One of Frost’s friends sums him up thus: "He is a great patriot and a great philosopher but lie’s a great politician too. He plays the game hard and he plays it cleanly. And he is far far too clever, of course, to let the public realize how clever he is." A: