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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

United Farmers became major political force in 1919

A domestic political consequence of the First World War was the rise of the farmers movement.

In the 19th century, agriculture dominated the economy and the political culture of Ontario, and much of North America. Beginning in the 1890s farmers saw their influence begin to decline, and many felt that their share of the growing economy was slowly shrinking year by year.

There were various attempts to channel that discontent into political movements, but not until the years of World War I did a mass movement develop. In Ontario the voice of farmers was the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO).

The UFO, founded in 1914, was an amalgamation of several farmers groups. The key figure in the provincial organization was a Wellington County man, James J. Morrison, of the Arthur area. Morrison devoted much of his activity to the organization and management of the United Co-operative Company, a business organization set up to market farm products and purchase seeds, fertilizer and equipment at cost.

War conditions produced much discontent among farmers. Many were outraged at the efforts to conscript young farmers into the armed forces, and there was a widespread belief that farmers were the victims of various war profiteers. The UFO grew rapidly. In 1917 there were 350 local organizations, with more than 12,000 members. Two years later membership swelled to more than 50,000.

Many members began to make political demands. They wanted legislation that would encourage co-operatives, the nationalization of the railways, and a more progressive tax structure that would impact the war profiteers. The UFO also published a newspaper, the Farmers Sun. Members believed they were not receiving all the news in the existing newspapers, which they saw as opposed to the interests of farmers.

The decision to enter elective politics, and in particular to act as a political party, was a controversial one. Morrison feared the movement would be taken over by others, diluting the voice of farmers. He and his faction within the UFO saw their role as a pressure group, supporting or opposing political parties depending on their policies toward farmers.

Morrison did not prevail on that point. A UFO candidate in the Manitoulin riding won a by-election in 1918 running on the UFO ticket. The UFO decided to enter the 1919 provincial election in a big way, hoping to hold the balance of power.

On Jan. 20, 1919, the UFO held a meeting and rally in Fergus. Interestingly, the major topic was not the provincial election expected later in the year. Instead, much of the time was consumed by a discussion of a plan to publish a daily newspaper aimed at farmers.

There was much feeling at the time against both weekly and daily newspapers. UFO members believed there was a conspiracy to silence the voice of farmers. Organizers of the Fergus meeting took steps to exclude reporters. For some reason, they permitted the youthful Hugh Templin of the Fergus News Record to enter the hall. His is the only account of that meeting.

The planned UFO daily newspaper, while the main topic, was not the only matter considered that afternoon. There was discussion of a plan by the United Co-operative Company to become involved in the processing of livestock.

Other speakers lamented the paucity of farmers in the legislature, and the over-representation of lawyers, businessmen and professional politicos. All of them acted in their own interests. Farmers were fools to vote for those men, one speaker said.

Another stated farmers, miners and lumbermen were the only actual producers of wealth. He saw a dangerous trend: in 1881 only 14 per cent of the population lived in cities. That figure, in 1919, was better than 50%. Yet the lion’s share of taxation fell on farmers.

At the end of the meeting, organizers asked those present to subscribe to a membership in the Co-operative Company, and commit to financial support of the planned daily newspaper. Many signed up for the Co-op, but interest in the new daily was lukewarm at best.

Young Hugh Templin was intrigued with the UFO, and largely sympathetic to its goals and to the concerns of farmers, noting farmers had been “hit both coming and going.” He devoted a lengthy opinion piece to the issues raised at the meeting and to the UFO in the issue of the News Record published that week.

Templin did voice some caution regarding the UFO. Despite their protests to the contrary, he found their rhetoric to be exaggerated to the same extent as the older parties. He was also concerned that they seemed determined to pit the farmers against town folks, and especially people living in cities. In this the UFO was playing to old fears and resentments. For decades farmers had lamented that their children were being lured to cities by all sorts of vice and evil. Templin thought such fears were groundless, and that pitching town against country obscured the real problems facing the country in the postwar period.

Editorials seldom drew written response from readers at that time, but Templin received two responses the following week. One, from a reader identifying himself as “Eramosa Farmer,” castigated Templin for belittling and ridiculing farmers. Templin, of course, responded that he did no such thing. But that letter does show that some farmers felt they were being oppressed from all sides.

A lengthier response came from W.L. Ham, a senior manager with the Beatty Brothers firm. He took issue with the notion, expressed by UFO speakers at the Fergus meeting and elsewhere, that farmers, miners and lumbermen produced the only true wealth. Ham pointed out the products of farm, forest and mine, in themselves, had very low value. The value of the products was enhanced to a huge degree by the labour and skills brought to bear on it in producing finished goods.

Ham also took issue with the notion that cities were drawing young people from the countryside who should remain on the farm. Ham noted that although the farm population had dropped dramatically over the previous 30 years, actual production had grown dramatically. The increased productivity of farmers meant greater prosperity for themselves and better prices for the consumers of the products.

Templin’s articles on the UFO and the responses were written in a very civilized way, stressing logical argument rather than bombast and name calling. Interestingly, no UFO members or supporters jumped into the discussion.

Despite their reluctance to engage others in public debate, the United Farmers drew increasing levels of support during the spring and summer of 1919. The election came on Oct. 20. Sir William Hearst’s Conservative government, to the surprise of few, went down to defeat. The results amply demonstrated one of the flaws of the electoral system in Canada when there are more than two parties.

The United Farmers ran candidates in only rural ridings. They had formed an informal alliance with a short-lived Labour Party, which ran candidates in only urban ridings. The UFO captured 44 seats out of 111, with only 22% of the popular vote. The Labour Party gained 11 seats, with 12% of the vote. Their combined vote equalled that of the Hearst’s Conservatives, though Hearst’s party claimed only 25 seats. The Liberals captured 27 seats, with 27% of the vote.

All but one of the UFO members were rookies. After much discussion, they formed a coalition with the Labour members, who were also all newcomers. Two of the three Wellington ridings elected UFO members: Albert Hellyer in Wellington East and R.N. McArthur in Wellington North.

J.J. Morrison, head of the UFO, refused to become premier. It was not an auspicious start for the new party, and there would be a series of internal disputes and much animosity that largely crippled the government.

Four years later, in 1923, the United Farmers were swept from office. The UFO gained support in the unstable postwar years, when idealism and impatience with the old order combined to shake up the political structure. Within a few years, society settled down once more, and voters returned to their old political alliances.


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