Ottawa’s biggest surprise package

With his screenstar face, bulging shoulders and bankroll, he was mocked by the Liberals as the millionaire playboy of parliament. But he’s since won wide approval as an efficient minister

Peter C. Newman June 20 1959

Ottawa’s biggest surprise package

With his screenstar face, bulging shoulders and bankroll, he was mocked by the Liberals as the millionaire playboy of parliament. But he’s since won wide approval as an efficient minister

Peter C. Newman June 20 1959

Ottawa’s biggest surprise package


With his screenstar face, bulging shoulders and bankroll, he was mocked by the Liberals as the millionaire playboy of parliament. But he’s since won wide approval as an efficient minister


Whether they have been delighted or pained by the quality of the ministers John Diefenbaker was able to recruit after his party’s twenty-two-year exile from power, Ottawa’s political pundits today share one unanimous opinion: the biggest surprise in the PC cabinet has been George Harris Hees. Only two years ago Hees was classed by his own party as an affable but not overly bright lightweight. Few on either side of the House could imagine him as cabinet material. Yet Hees, since his appointment as minister of transport, has turned out to be a capable administrator, gained the respect of his department and become a favorite confidant of the prime minister.

George Hees represents a refutation of the theory that Canadian politicians must be pompous to be successful. "Most people," he says, "think that to be a good cabinet minister you've got to look worried all the time. But 1 don't believe anybody is interested in a morose guy. When I am worrying 1 don’t advertise it. 1 like kidding people. 1 enjoy life."

An unblushing extrovert. Hees loves to lead the sing-song at parties, play catcher at the MPs' annual baseball game and trade quips with back-benchers in the parliamentary corridors. At the Department of Transport picnic last summer, he and his wife entered the three-legged race. "We ran like the devil," he says, "but we only came in second.”

Hees is a politician in the nineteenth century tradition of excluding other pursuits from his life — a luxury he can afford as the cabinet's only millionaire. His admirers say he is poised and vigorous; other call him brash and shallow. Both groups agree that he has cultivated with Dutch single-mindedness the talents he does possess. "I want,” he says, "to do everything 1 try better than anyone else.”

He compensated for his failure at high-school football with a grim training schedule that eventually made him a star linebacker of the Argonaut team that won the 1938 Grey Cup. After he was flattened in a 1933 amateur boxing bout at Maple Leaf Gardens, he resolutely battled on until he had knocked out the heavyweight champion of all the British armed services.

When war broke out. he trained just as hard to be a good officer, and became a brigade major with a brilliant record. He then schooled himself for public life with the dogged determination he had shown in sports and the army.

At first he bungled badly and frequently. Today he administers an annual budget of a quarter billion dollars and although the transport portfolio gives him lots of chances to bungle, he seldom does. He reports to parliament for fifteen thousand civil servants and the one hundred and twenty thousand employees of the CNR and TCA. Not a plane, ship or train moves in Canada that does not in some way come under his jurisdiction.

Soon after he took office. Hees met Jack Pickersgill in the lobby of the Chateau Laurier Hotel.

"How does it feel to be in power, George?” enquired the former Liberal cabinet minister.

"Oh. I'm just a voice in a suit." Hees grinned back.

The exchange referred to the jeers of Liberal back-benchers who had often chanted "Good suit — no brains” when Hees stood up to speak. During his seven years in opposition Hees was tagged a playboy by C. D. Howe, who referred to him as "the juvenile member for Broadview.” Montreal's Le Devoir called his parliamentary manner un air hou enfant.

Hees demonstrated his love of trivia by campaigning diligently for such causes as a stamp to commemorate the opening of the Toronto subway, permission for the Girl Guides to use the government-owned Connaught Rifle Range near Toronto, and parliamentary support for having Grey Cup matches alternate between east and west.

He called the establishment of the Canada Council "a dodge to reduce the surplus in the federal budget” and made such a fuss about the poor condition of a field at the back of Parliament Hill that "Hees heeds weeds’’ became a favorite anti-Conservative taunt during question periods. He was labeled "the malarkey man in the House” by Jimmy Sinclair, the Liberal minister of fisheries, who called him "very charming, but better endowed physically than mentally.”

Even when Hees' attacks on government policies were well documented — such as his speeches on national defense and housing — Liberal cabinet ministers brushed them off as "nothing but Heestcria.” While in opposition continued on page 64

Once an Argo line-backer, Hees goes right on proving a cabinet minister needn’t be pompous

Continued from page 19

Hees is “a nimble batter on a sticky wicket” who arms himself well for debates in the House

the Conservatives never allotted him any higher parliamentary duty than deputy leader of the public-works caucus and when the clerk of the House, in a 1955 roll call, mistakenly referred to him as “Mister Heel,” many PCs pounded their desks with as much delight as the Liberals.

A senior PC who was with Diefenbaker when he was planning his cabinet says that Hees asked for and v/as appointed to trade and commerce, but his name was withdrawn when some Toronto businessmen, who had found out about the impending appointment, protested the choice on the grounds of Hees’ inexperience in business matters.

In the parliamentary session that followed John Diefenbaker’s 1957 election victory, the Liberals were certain they could capitalize on Hees’ reputation as a trifler to demonstrate to the nation the weakness of the neophyte PC cabinet. “He’s a bird-brain and we'll prove it,” chortled one Liberal front-bencher. Liberal house leader Lionel Chevrier, who had been a transport minister in the former government, was picked to swing the hatchet.

Chevrier waited until he spotted what he considered to be an obvious Hees' blunder. A foreman had been dismissed from his job with the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, on Hees’ orders, when a Tory MP complained that the man had worked against him during the election campaign. Chevrier angrily protested the dismissal. Hees sheepishly replied that he thought such firings were in line with parliamentary practices.

“I can find nothing in the rules which permits it," Chevrier shot back indignantly. Hees, grinning broadly, next day produced a letter written in 1936 by C. D. Howe approving the firing of a federal dockworker in B. C. for Tory politicking. The Conservatives pounded their desks with delight, and even Paul Martin, the former Liberal minister of national health and welfare, put his head in his hands to hide his guffaws.

Chevrier later remarked: “The minister certainly comes into the House well prepared.” W. H. Herridge, the CCF's deputy House leader, has praised Hees for being “a nimble batter on a sticky wicket.”

Most Ottawa politicians agree with a recent assessment of Hees by The Times of London as "a man whose personality outstrips his ability," but he is also recognized for effectively carrying his points of view in cabinet and for having the wisdom to rely on his departmental officials to carry out policy. While he does lean heavily on his advisers — particularly Mel Jack, his brilliant executive assistant — Hees has, during the last two years, been studying the anatomy of his sprawling department with the care of a medical student learning the functions of the body.

Now forty-nine, he still looks much more like an athlete than a politician. His two - hundred - pound, six-foot-twoand-a-half-inch body is planted on the ground with a permanent backward lean, as if he were holding the world on a leash. His head bursts out of a perennial-

ly too-tight collar; muscled arms sprout powerfully from a forty-two-inch chest. His skin flushes with the man’s splendid health. A meticulously trimmed, now white-sprinkled mustache camouflages the firm set of his lips, just as his tufted brows shield the stubbornness of his direct brown eyes.

Under Hees’ polished devil-may-care appearance is an uncompromising sense of discipline. He goes to bed every night by eleven, even when it means having to excuse himself from parties in his own home. He doesn't smoke or gamble and drinks moderately. One habit annoying to his friends is that he chews Dentyne gum all day. “I keep telling him,” says Mabel, his vivacious, red-haired wife, “that chewing gum just isn’t socially acceptable. But he keeps telling me that it’s a lot healthier than smoking.”

A major ingredient of Hees’ fitness program is a daily swim. As soon as the House of Commons adjourns he walks over to the Chateau Laurier, dives into its sixty-foot-long pool and crawls twenty lengths without a pause. In Toronto, he uses the Granite Club pool. When he’s traveling he usually takes his evening dip at the local athletic club. There isn't a YMCA pool in the country that he hasn't sampled. “Swimming to me is a necessary tonic for the tenseness of politics,” he says.

He walks four miles a day

Although he still plays tennis and squash, Hees now prefers golf and skiing. He likes to ski so much that when he was invalided out of World War II with an elbow wound, he asked to have his cast set in a position that would enable him to hold a ski pole. He spent most of his convalescence on the slopes.

Hees so arranges Tiis Ottawa schedule that he can walk at least four miles a day. This involves intentional detours between his parliamentary office and his desk at Transport, in the downtown Hunter Building. He leaves his Chateau Laurier suite at six every morning, takes two or three turns around the grounds of Parliament Hill, then breakfasts at Bowles Restaurant on Sparks Street, arriving at his office just after 7.45. John Diefenbaker, also an early riser, often calls him for a chat.

Hees dictates as many as a hundred letters a day. He refuses to read bulky briefs, parsing them to one of his thirteen assistants with the notation: “Shake it down.” He launches most of his telephone conversations with a hearty “Howyou-doin’, it's George HEES!” and punctuates his comments with “Right-e-o. boy!” or “That's a hundred percent!”

During the rare gaps in his daily schedule of visitors, Hees catnaps on the couch in his office. "I’m one of the world's greatest sleepers. I fall asleep just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.

His faculty for sleep once placed him in an awkward situation. While being driven to a political rally at Norwood, Ont., a hundred and fifty miles southwest of Ottawa, late in 1957, he fell asleep in the car's back seat. When the automobile

stopped for gas, he woke up and sauntered over to the service station restaurant for a ham sandwich. He came out to find that the chauffeur, who had assumed that Hees was still dozing in the back, had driven off without him. So, sandwich in hand, Canada’s minister of transport tried to hitch a ride. Not a car stopped.

Finally he stepped into the middle of the highway and waved down the next vehicle. When he got to Norwood and asked where the meeting was being held, he was told: "Oh, there’s quite a schmozzle down there. The guest speaker didn't show up.” The rally was about to break up when Hees strode through the door.

His political duties seldom limit his fun. Last summer, waving a cowboy hat, he led the parade that opened the fiftieth anniversary of the Wainright Stampede. At the Ottawa Philharmonic's 1958 Spring Time Party he rode a dapple grey farm horse called Dan into the Ottawa Coliseum. He was dressed as Prince Charming and his assignment was to rescue Snow White, portrayed by Joyce Davidson, the television star. Hees’ costume included a golden tunic which might have been taken for that of a storybook prince, but his pants were definitely those of a twentieth-century RCMP constable. At dress rehearsal, his outsize haunches astride the outsize farm horse had split the rented costume’s white-satin pants from knee to knee. Hees frantically telephoned Ottawa Hunt Club members for a replacement, but the only pair of white riding breeches that would fit him were owned by a Liberal who was out of town and whose wife wouldn't lend them to a PC cabinet minister. The RCMP supplied the emergency replacement.

Such panic is not typical of Hees. He rarely leaves even politically irrelevant acts to chance. When he was asked to open Ottawa's 1958 football season by kicking off at the Roughrider-Argonaut game, he took two hours away from work on the morning before the match, to practice. His official kick traveled thirty-two yards, shading the record held previously by Earl Alexander, who as governor-general booted a football thirtyone yards at the 1951 Grey Cup opening in Toronto.

He is equally thorough about learning French. He has employed a private French tutor for seven years and lived part of one summer with a French-Canadian family at Quebec City. During the last election campaign he spent twentyfour days — more than any other English-speaking cabinet minister — touring Quebec. On the day before the election he set olf from Quebec City in a chartered helicopter to speak at eleven rallies in seven constituencies. He flew back to his own riding in Toronto just in time to watch the voters give him the greatest majority ever won by a candidate in the constituency's history.

Even at that, his victory in the traditionally Tory Toronto-Broadview riding was less spectacular than the effective way he reorganized the party in 1954 and 1955, in cross-country trips as president of the National Progressive Conservative Association. Hees became association president by defeating Gordon Churchill, the present minister of trade and commerce, who had been put forward as a compromise candidate by the party's Old Guard, which opposed Hees. Hees didn't get much support from parliamentarians, but his popularity with the party’s Young Turk element was enough to upset Churchill.

Hees turned the office into a personal crusade to sell his formula for a Conservative election victory: move election campaigns from the halls into the streets

and onto the doorsteps. "On the platform,” he pleaded, "were just talking to the already converted.”

He wrote a booklet advocating that PC candidates be promoted "in the same manner that corporations sell a particular brand of automobile or soap.” He toured the country, giving what he called his "lecture course in political charm” to any politically inclined Canadians who would listen. He urged men and women who wanted to become PC candidates to find out what the residents in their ridings like to do. “I don't care if they like acrobatics or eating cream cheese — if they like it. give it to them," he preached. “It's about time we realized that people would rather be entertained than educated.”

To more conservative Conservatives such tactics were tasteless heresy. Hees made so many speeches on so many subjects that old-line Tories complained he was hewing away from PC policies. Less charitable critics maintained that he didn’t even know what the Conservative line was. This assessment has since been changed. Hees was one of the most requested speakers in the 1957 and 1958 campaigns.

While he was head of the PC Association. Hees ignored the earnest advice of

his elders in the party to tone down his approach. Much like an itinerant medicine man. he continued his constituency visits, carrying out a political credo which he once described to a friend: "Whenever I see a hand sticking out of a sleeve. 1 shake it."

On a trip through Saskatchewan with Alvin Hamilton, now the minister of northern affairs but then the PC organizer for that province. Hees gave advance copies of his speeches to the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, marked with dates of delivery. as no daily was then bothering to send reporters to his meetings. When Hees and Hamilton arrived at Star City. 120 miles northeast of Saskatoon, they were told by Jim Hill, the local organizer, that no hall had been hired because he couldn't find another Conservative in the district. Hees insisted that he had to make the speech—the Saskatoon paper might run its report. Hill rounded up his brother George and the two men sat in the back of Hamilton's car while Hees loudly intoned his address to them. "It was,” Hees claims, "the smallest public meeting in Canadian political history."

This kind of determination has been reflected even more flippantly in some of Hees' bets. He once promised to eat his shirt if Elizabeth Janzen, the PC candidate for Waterloo-North was not elected. When she lost, he mounted the steps of Kitchener city hall and told the crowd of two thousand that had gathered for the occasion: "You’ve heard of nylon.

Orion and Dacron — you know, those materials you can do anything with except eat. Well, this shirt is made of Heeslon, which eliminates that exception!” It turned out to be a shirt-shaped cake with red candy buttons, which Hees distributed among the delighted kids at the edge of the crowd after taking an enormous bite out of its “collar.”

In his own riding of Toronto-Broadview, an industrial district in the city’s east end, Hees spent the time between elections calling on as many as forty houses a day, shaking hands and discussing PC policies. Probably his most direct service to a constituent was his capture, in 1955, of a man whom he spotted ransacking a house on Lowther Avenue. He tackled the thief and held him until the police arrived.

Hees does not live in his constituency, preferring the comforts of a large stone house on Dunvegan Road in fashionable Forest Hill Village. Despite his obvious popularity with what he calls “the lunch pail vote” in his riding, his background certainly does not fit him as a spokesman for factory workers.

He got his early education at a private school in Port Hope, Ont., then at Royal Military College, Kingston. (“I could picture myself in a scarlet tunic, fighting the enemy, bringing glory to myself and my family.”)

Despite his indiscretion of running a car onto the commandant’s front lawn on the night of the June Ball in his second year, he graduated among the top seven of his class and enrolled in a political science course at the University of Toronto. When during his second year there, he inherited S 12,694 from his grandmother, he left before getting a degree and spent a year at Cambridge.

Hees first became interested in sports at high school. Although he was barely able to qualify as a spare on the second football team, that taste was enough to make him determined to learn the game. He trained hard and played centre on the inter - collegiate championship Toronto Varsity Blues of 1932. Hees also started to box at university and battled his way to Canada’s intercollegiate heavyweight championship. He then decided to tackle some of the rougher amateurs at Maple Leaf Gardens, but in his first fight he was knocked out in one and a half minutes by Bill Maitch, a free-swinging heavyweight from Brantford. Ont. As the crowd cheered his defeat. Hees resolved to become a good boxer. Chosen to represent Cambridge in its annual tournament with Oxford, he was amused to see the fight billed as:


Eton and Balliol



“After that," he says, “I had to win.” He knocked out Lord Hamilton, a sixfoot-six concrete block of a man, in three rounds, then, in the traditional victorysalute of North American boxing, paraded about the ring with arms clasped above his head. The crowd was shocked into silence. Billy Childs, the Cockney who was Cambridge's trainer, severely reprimanded the young champion.

"Mister ‘Ees." he said, "that was a shocking display of emotionalism. I would far rather you ’ad lost the bout." Hees later defeated Lieutenant Cooper, the Imperial Services heavyweight champ.

After he returned to Canada in 1934. Hees married Mabel Dunlop, the daughter of Ontario's provincial treasurer, joined his father's Toronto draperies firm and signed up as a defensive line-backer with

the Toronto Argonauts. He starred on the 1938 team that won the Grey Cup, then retired from football to devote his full time to the family business.

Hees maintained the connection he had established with the army at Royal Military College by becoming a member of the Toronto militia. At the outbreak of war he was called up as a lieutenant in the Third Anti-Tank Battalion. After serving with distinction in the Normandy landings, he was promoted to brigade major of the Fifth Canadian Infantry Brigade. His last action was a combination of the brashness and wild luck that have characterized his life. It happened during the Canadian advance along the Walcheren Island Causeway, off Antwerp. Hees was leading an infantry charge with his revolver tucked inside his battle-dress tunic. "Then I felt something go through my elbow and passed out." When doctors removed his pistol they found it has been cocked by the impact of a German bullet. The revolver had served as a shield, and the shot that might have entered his stomach had been deflected to cause only a minor elbow wound.

While Hees was home on convalescent leave, George Drew, then leader of the Ontario Conservatives, asked him to make a speech in the by-election being bitterly fought in the western Ontario constituency of Grey North. The Liberal candidate was General A. G. McNaughton, the former commander of the First Canadian Army, who had been appointed by Mackenzie King as his minister of national defense. The by-election was the first expression of voting opinion regarding King's policy of limiting overseas reinforcements to volunteers, a measure designed to keep anti-conscription Quebec within the Liberal Party. McNaughton dismissed attacks on King's policy as nothing more than "political football."

Pleads for more soldiers

Hees was one of several army officers imported by the Conservatives to give eye-witness accounts of overseas troop shortages. He strode into the last election meeting at the Owen Sound town hall in uniform, his wounded arm strapped grotesquely under an army walking coat. His empty right sleeve undulating with the passion of his plea, he described how in his job as brigade major he had been forced by the manpower shortage to order into combat cooks and postal-corps men untrained for fighting.

McNaughton, who was badly beaten in the election two days later, demanded that Hees be court-martialed for political activity while in uniform. King interceded. pointing out that it would only make Hees a popular martyr. In the general election that followed a few months later. King allowed the armed services to grant special leave for officers and men who wanted to campaign.

Hees ran in that election as the PC candidate for Toronto-Spadiua, but he was trounced by the Liberal candidate, David Croll, a former Ontario cabinet minister. He went back briefly to the family business, but when Tommy Church, the PC who had represented Toronto-Broadview for sixteen years, died in 1950, Hees managed to beat Ralph Day, a former mayor of Toronto, for the nomination, and in September of that year he won the seat in a byelection.

Soon afterward, the Hees family business, which was begun by George's grandfather and namesake in 1880, and which grew into Canada’s largest manufacturer of draperies, window shades

and Venetian blinds, was sold to a Bay Street syndicate for three million dollars.

Gilbert Jackson, a Toronto economist, now looks after George Hees' investments, leaving him free to devote all his time to politics. He lives most of the year in his Chateau Laurier suite. The Hees have three daughters. Only one of them, seventeen - year - old Roslyn, is still at home in Toronto. Twenty-three-year-old Catherine is an usherette in Carnegie Hall in New York and is studying ballet; twenty-one-year-old Martha is taking graduate work in economics at the Uni-

versity of Western Ontario, in London.

Hees’ wife Mabel (called "Mibs” by her friends) divides her time between Toronto and Ottawa. “I really live on the night train,” she says.

Hees refuses to speculate about his political future. “When you have as good a prime minister as John Diefenbaker,” he says, “you just don't think in terms of any other leader.” Although Hees considered himself as a serious candidate for party leadership when George Drew retired in 1956, a quick swing through western Canada convinced him he could

not muster significant support. He then became a ground-floor Diefenbaker man, but did his best to implant the idea that he was a kind of crown prince—that he would be to Diefenbaker what Nixon is to Eisenhower.

It’s too early to speculate about the future leadership of the Conservative party. But his friends insist that Hees is already extending the mulish resolution which has carried him this far into a campaign that will make him the candidate to beat when the time comes to pick Diefenbaker’s successor. ★