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Farmers who made our country

As sesquicentennial celebrations get underway, here are three farmers you may not have heard of, but will want to remember

From left: Jean-Charles Chapais, Thomas Crerar, Harry Hays.

As Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2017, we’ll hear a lot about how the fisheries of the Grand Banks and the forests and the lucrative fur trade of the interior helped build our nation.

We’ll hear less about the unique contribution farming has made to this country, but farmers have played an oversized role in the shaping of Canada in the past century and a half.

To explore how, we look at three critical points in Canada’s history: at our birth when politicians needed farmers to open up the West; during the First World War when Canadian farmers fed the soldiers at the front, affirming our role as one of the world’s breadbaskets; and during the early 1960s as farms modernized and made Canada one of the most prosperous nations on earth.

Three ministers of agriculture — all farmers themselves — presided over government agriculture policy at these defining moments, helping to shape not only the farm community but also the nation itself.

The founding farmer

Jean-Charles Chapais
Jean-Charles Chapais photo: Government of Canada Archives

Jean-Charles Chapais, Conservative
Minister of Agriculture 1867-69

Among the Fathers of Confederation who united the Province of Canada (later called Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, in 1867, there was one farmer.

Jean-Charles Chapais of Saint-Denis, in eastern Quebec, was a retail merchant, fishery owner, cattle farmer and politician. As the only farmer among the founding fathers, he was the natural choice to become Canada’s first Minister of Agriculture and to oversee the department’s fledgling office of 23 clerks in Ottawa.

By the time of Confederation, the importance of fisheries and the fur and timber trade had declined, and agriculture was counted on to bring prosperity to the new country. There was hope that agriculture would lead to the expansion of the transportation, manufacturing and commercial industries.

In his short tenure as minister — two years and five months — Chapais’ real focus was therefore on encouraging immigration to Canada and the expansion of agriculture beyond Ontario into what would become the Prairie provinces. In the years leading up to Confederation, migrants had been settling in large numbers in the American Midwest, but fewer were attracted to the lands north of the 49th parallel.

The rock and forest between southern Ontario and Manitoba was an obstacle to the planned agricultural expansion into the West. The solution lay in extending existing rail lines and the subsequent building of the Canadian Pacific Railway to run from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But Chapais did have two other noteworthy firsts. In August 1868 he prohibited the importation of horned cattle into Ontario and Quebec from the United States. Texas Fever was killing thousands of cattle in the states neighbouring the two provinces. At that time American cattle travelled by rail through Canada to reach markets in the American east. The ban was enacted even though it meant a loss of revenue to Canadian railways. Chapais appointed the first two agricultural inspectors to enforce the ban at border crossings in Windsor and Sarnia, Ont.

Chapais’ second noteworthy act was the passing of the agriculture department’s first piece of legislation, An Act Respecting the Contagious Diseases of Animals, in 1869. Its intention was to provide protection from rinderpest and other diseases for farmers trying to establish their livestock herds. By 1869 the country’s first veterinary inspector oversaw quarantines and inspections at ports and border crossings to stop diseased animals from entering the country.

Chapais’ expansion of agriculture and settlement meant he was a nation builder, but he was still said to be disappointed when he was replaced as minister and appointed Receiver General in November 1869. Agriculture had been a role he was proud of. In a letter to his supporters, Chapais said, “as a farmer… working for agricultural prosperity is, to my way of thinking, more than a duty. It is also a source of immense pleasure.”

The activist minister

Thomas Crerar
Thomas Crerar photo: University of Manitoba

Thomas Crerar, Unionist
Minister of Agriculture 1917-19

Conscription was the No. 1 issue in the federal election of 1917. Prime Minister Robert Borden had assembled a coalition of Conservatives, Liberals, independents and labour representatives to run as the Unionists in support of conscription.

Throughout the war Canadian farmers had been encouraged to increase production to meet international demand at a time when labour was in short supply. They rose to the challenge, and in recognition of the important work they were doing at home, they asked that their sons be exempted from military service. The Unionists agreed.

But, in 1918 as recruitment slowed at home, and the war in Europe dragged on, the Union Government cancelled the exemption. The news came in spring as planting was set to begin, and farmers were angry.

Thousands of farmers from Ontario and Quebec, along with farmers from the West and Maritimes, descended on Ottawa to protest the move. It had little effect and conscription of farmers went ahead. Some commentators say that this issue was the first to drive a wedge between the rural and urban populations of Canada.

The minister of agriculture during this tumultuous time was Thomas Crerar. Born in Molesworth, Ont. but raised in Manitoba, Crerar’s credentials to be minister were undisputed. He was a schoolteacher, homesteader, sawmill operator, grain buyer and elevator manager in northwestern Manitoba before entering politics.

Crerar’s most noteworthy action as minister likely came at the end of his tenure, in June 1919, when he resigned from his post. He had always fought for farmers’ interests in cabinet and he couldn’t support the 1919 budget that did not meet demands from agricultural organizations to significantly reduce the 12.5 per cent duty on imported binders, mowers, threshers and reapers.

Crerar retains the distinction of being the only minister to have resigned over farmers’ issues.

Farmer organizations across the country were becoming increasingly vocal and politically engaged at this time. (In the early 1920s, famers’ parties were in power in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.) Following his resignation, Crerar helped to create a national farmers’ party — the Progressive Party of Canada — and became its leader in 1920.

In the 1921 election, the Progressives criticized the fact that there were 12 lawyers in cabinet and no farmers. (Of the 30 current cabinet ministers, there are seven lawyers and one former farmer.)

The Progressives won 65 of the 235 seats, the second most behind the Liberals. They won seats in each of the Western provinces, Ontario and New Brunswick. Crerar took a risk in turning down official Opposition status and instead asked for farmers’ policies to be included in the government agenda. His gamble backfired, and Opposition status was instead taken up by the third place Conservatives.

The Progressives’ second-place result was significant for another reason. Canada’s first female member of Parliament, Agnes Macphail, won a seat in the 1921 election under the Progressive Party banner.

Like Chapais, Crerar’s time as minister of agriculture was short at only 21 months. But it was a significant period of time for the nation’s farmers. They had answered the call to increase production for the war effort. Their economic power increased, and with it, they found that their voice could carry further into the corridors of political power. Farmers demanded a better deal on policies that had an impact on their day-to-day lives. They became a voice that couldn’t be ignored in federal politics.

The minister of the modern family farm

Harry Hays
Harry Hays photo: Courtesy Glenbow Library and Archives

Harry Hays, Liberal
Minister of Agriculture 1963-65

In the early 1960s the shift was on to bigger farms, bigger machinery, and higher costs. Between 1941 and 1961 the average Canadian farm size had increased from 237 acres to 359 acres. The agricultural labour force was declining and there were worries that the family farm would disappear.

Farmers found a champion in Harry Hays, one of Canada’s most colourful ag ministers. Hays entered politics first as the mayor of Calgary and then as a member of Parliament, because he needed, in his words, “something to do in retirement.” By the time he ran for a seat in the 1963 election in the riding of Calgary South, he had already made his mark as a rancher and dairy farmer. His resume also included working as a cattle exporter, Holstein breeder, radio broadcaster, and auctioneer (which he remained throughout his time as minister, despite protests from the Opposition).

Hays was promised the opportunity to develop the Liberals’ agriculture policy if he stood in the 1963 election. He ran and won, and was the only Liberal elected in Alberta and Saskatchewan in that election under Prime Minister Lester Pearson.

As Pearson’s minister of agriculture, Hays introduced an ambitious slate of legislation that he believed responded to rapid changes taking place in agriculture. His goal was to see the family farm remain efficient and viable.

One of the most pressing challenges was the availability of credit in order to mechanize and to keep up with the pressure to expand.

Under Hays, the maximum loan amount available to a farmer through the Farm Improvement Loans Act doubled from $7,500 to $15,000. The loans were meant to help farmers purchase better livestock for breeding, labour-saving equipment, and to improve farmhouses.

Hays also amended the Crop Insurance Act of 1959. The original act was created to help provinces provide insurance, but only three provinces had joined and only 8,500 of the 480,000 farms in Canada in 1964 were covered by crop insurance.

Hays said that expanding coverage would remove the “long-standing fear of being ruined overnight by disasters over which they or anyone else have no control.”

A journalist from the Toronto Star Weekly commented of Hays: “No minister seems more inept inside Parliament and few get so much done outside it.”

Hays established the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon and also developed an importation plan to help farmers access quality exotic breeds. In 1965, 113 Charolais cattle were imported into Canada from Europe. Imports of Brown Swiss, Main-Anjou, Simmental and Limousin followed.

Hays’ own involvement in the cattle industry continued throughout his political career. He developed what was recognized in 1975 as the first Canadian pure breed of cattle, the Hays Converter.

Hays was defeated in the election of 1965. Albertans were unhappy with the Liberal Party’s policies on medicare, pensions and the new flag that the Pearson government had introduced. In 1966 he was appointed to the Senate where he served until his death in 1982.

Hays is also remembered as an unusual politician who had little formal education, poor grammar and a tendency to swear in media interviews.

Opposition members chided him as being the “travelling minister.” But, explained Hays, Ottawa’s slow pace was “a burr under my saddle.”

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