Arthur man turned down job as Ontario premier

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


A couple of weeks ago a reader from the north of the county took the time to call and admonish me for the dearth of political material in this column of late.

He noted particularly that I had never published a biography of one of Wellington’s most notable figures, J.J. Morrison.

That caller was correct. Morrison’s name was included in the nominations to a potential Wellington Hall of Fame, back in 2004 during the 150th anniversary celebrations of Wellington County.

But Morrison deserves much more.

Historians are fond of calling James J. Morrison (he invariably used only his initials) as the Father of the Ontario Farm Movement. Indeed, there would have been no United Farmers of Ontario nor the United Cooperatives of Ontario without him.

And when the United Farmers won the provincial election of 1919, he was the obvious man to take the premier’s seat in the legislature, but he turned the job down.

J.J. Morrison was born near Arthur, in Peel Township, on July 25, 1861, on a farm that remained in the Morrison family for four generations. That part of the county was still something of a frontier then, and clearing the land continued to be a major activity during his childhood. A tall and lanky youth, he became associated with various farm organizations when he gained adulthood: the Grange, then the Patrons of Industry, and the Farmers’ Institutes, an organization established by Oliver Mowat’s provincial Liberal government.

The Farmers’ Institutes provided educational and social functions, but was expressly forbidden to be involved in politics. Morrison soon saw that provision as a mistake. He came to realize that farmers needed to be united if they were to fight effectively for a fair share of the profits from their farming ventures.

The Patrons of Industry filled that desire in the 1890s. The north and west of Wellington County was a hotbed for the movement, electing MPPs to the provincial legislature. Morrison worked on the fringes during elections, but was never a candidate himself. Indeed, he was off the farm during those years, working for a manufacturing firm in Toronto from 1888 until 1900.

The Patron movement faded after 1900, but Morrison continued to think and develop his ideas for an agrarian political movement. In 1903, back on the family farm, he was elected secretary-treasurer of the West Wellington Farmers Association. That organization was a radical one for its time, surprisingly so considering that some of the area’s most prominent farmers supported it, and James McEwing, the Liberal MPP, was a member and strong supporter.

McEwing declared that the organization sought “a fairer share of what is produced from the soil.” Morrison had plenty of ideas and theories, but the group could do little more than offer its members some practical advice to improve their efficiency, and a forum in which to vent their frustrations as insignificant individual farmers in an increasingly powerful economic structure.

Through these years Morrison continued to think and theorize to anyone who would listen, while farming and raising his family.

In 1912, at the age of 51, he experienced his first serious illness. Quarantined and bedridden with smallpox, he spent weeks doing nothing but thinking of the plight of farmers and agriculture. He came up with a plan.

His idea was to co-opt the various farmers groups in the province, and make them explicitly political organizations. He discussed the idea at length with W.L. Smith, editor of the Farmers’ Sun, a paper oriented to agriculture that had been the organ of the Patrons of Industry in the 1890s.

Smith was skeptical.

“I admire your nerve,” he told Morrison.

Later that year Morrison organized a meeting with three prominent and sympathetic farmers: E.C. Drury, Col. J.Z. Fraser of Burford, and W.C. Good from Brant County. The four had planned to meet at the Sun offices on Queen Street in Toronto on a Saturday afternoon. They found the office closed. They had to settle for an alternate place in a nearby saloon. All four ordered glasses of beer, but three of them were teetotalers. The Colonel did the drinking for the entire party. That meeting was one of the most important in Ontario history. Guided by Morrison, the four planned the founding of a new farmers’ movement that would have both political and economic branches.

Those four men began the planning that led to a farmers’ convention at the Toronto Labour Temple in March 1914, where the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) was born, an organization formed to play a direct part in politics by running farmers’ candidates. The convention also established the United Farmers’ Cooperative Company, to purchase goods for farmers and sell them at cost.

J.J. Morrison accepted the position of secretary of both organizations. As with previous farmers’ groups, he preferred to look after administration and organization rather than assume the higher profile of the top leader.

Events over the next five years played into the hands of the UFO. Robert Borden’s federal government promised that farmers would never be conscripted into the army during the Great War, but he later went back on the promise. Farmers marched on Ottawa with no effect, and came home radicalized and sympathetic to the UFO. Then, in 1919, the provincial Hearst government disintegrated as the time for a provincial election approached.

The UFO fielded candidates across the province, some in urban ridings, including Sir Adam Beck, the founder of Ontario Hydro, who stood in a London riding. Morrison had hoped to capture the balance of power in a three-way contest. He was as surprised as anyone when the UFO captured the largest number of seats.

Uncertain of what to do, Morrison called a meeting of elected and defeated candidates a week after the election, at the UFO office above a store on Toronto’s King Street. The UFO was unlike the other parties. They had a president and secretary, but there was no explicit political leader.

It was a motley group that assembled on Oct. 22, 1919. Over half the winning candidates were former conservatives, and the others placed themselves all over the political map in their origins. Only two had any legislative experience. Now they had to select not a house leader, but a premier of Ontario.

Though he had been defeated, Sir Adam Beck was the initial favourite of the majority of those present.

Morrison was appalled – he insisted that the premier be a farmer. “Do you intend to barter off all you have gained for a plate of hot soup like a lot of children?” he asked the meeting. He managed to stall for time, convincing the meeting to adjourn for a week, with a committee to consider potential leaders.

Most of those present, as well as the majority of Ontario’s newspapers, thought Morrison wanted the job of premier for himself. When the caucus reconvened, the committee named Morrison as their choice, to cheers from the caucus. Morrison rose, adjusted his famous round wire-framed glasses, and told the astonished assembly that he would not accept the job because he was unsuited for it.

“If you leave it to me,” he added, “I’ll name E.C. Drury.” Morrison said Drury was a far better speaker and better educated, and could command the respect of the entire province. Brutally frank as usual, Morrison cautioned that Drury needed the help of the caucus: he had a tendency to be naive, was too trusting, and could be easily flattered. Drury rose and said he would accept on the condition that he could count on Morrison’s advice. The pact was sealed, and a jubilant caucus left the somewhat seedy UFO headquarters.

Bliss lasted barely a month. Before the end of 1919 there was friction between Drury and Morrison, and it deepened to bitter hostility during the remainder of the four-year term. Drury proposed a pension plan for civil servants. Morrison opposed the idea. Neither did he approve of Drury’s aggressive efforts to enforce prohibition.

“It is a mistake to use a club,” he argued.

By 1921 Drury wanted to distance himself from the UFO grassroots organization. He championed the ideas of “broadening out,” seeking support from all sections of the province, not just farmers.

Morrison insisted that the movement remain strictly one of agrarianism, and that expanding the UFO would dilute the voice of agriculture, eventually turning the UFO into a party like the others.

The fight was not a public one, but a bitter internal one that eventually wrecked the UFO. By the time of the 1923 election, E.C Drury did not even carry a UFO membership card. In all the press reports, Morrison was portrayed as an embittered would-be dictator, crowded out from his initial prominent place behind the throne. It was easy to dislike Morrison: his manner was blunt, and he was typically argumentative with reporters, though on occasion his sense of humour managed to poke through.

Drury, with his eloquence, captured the popular imagination, and a UFO convention applauded his plan to form a great Progressive Party in Ontario. But on a practical level that meant nothing. Morrison continued to hold sway over the local riding associations, most of which were composed solely of farmers who wanted no interlopers. In effect that left Drury with no effective organization for the 1923 election.

Drury’s government went down in flames in the 1923 election. A few stalwarts, all Morrison loyalists, continued to run in elections into the 1930s, but the UFO, as a political force, was history.

Though working from the Toronto office during the 1920s, J.J. Morrison retained his ties with Arthur. He served as chairman for a banquet held by the Arthur Old Boys Club in Toronto in 1923. That event, which attracted 700 people, raised $570 for the Arthur cenotaph.

Morrison was also a strong advocate of active participation by women in politics. He was a mentor to Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first woman MP, and he guided the entry of his own daughter, Rae Luckock, into politics. She was elected an MPP in 1943.

J.J. Morrison remained as secretary of the UFO until 1933. He held the secretary’s position of the far more successful United Farmers’ Cooperative (later the United Cooperative of Ontario) until 1935, one year before his death at the age of 75.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Sept. 29, 2006.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015