J.K. Blair caused furor with maiden speech in House of Commons

About 18 months ago this column featured an outline of the public career of Dr. J.K. Blair of Arthur, who sat as the MP for North Wellington in the 1930s.

Dr. Blair was one of the breed of politicians, of whom there were a number in Wellington County, who put their own ideas and principles at the forefront and were not afraid to disagree with their party leader if they believed their own ideas were the correct ones.

Dr. Blair was elected as a Liberal in the 1930 federal election that saw Mackenzie King’s Liberal government defeated. The Conservatives, under R.B. Bennett, formed the government.

Dr. Blair was elected despite the unpopularity of his party. His victory, and the wide following he attracted, had surprised many people, including many in his own party.

Dr. Blair made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on Sept. 11, 1930.

He criticized Bennett’s government for a bill that would approve blanket expenditures, not specified in the legislation. He complained that the money would be in the hands of those who had no control or supervision of the expenditures.

He stated that the farmers in his district would “take strong objection” to those expenditures.

Many farmers were in extreme need, he argued, and farms were being sold for tax purposes.

He wanted clear programs to improve that situation, and was convinced that people wanted to know how money was to be expended before it was voted on.

Later in that speech, he accused Ontario Premier Howard Ferguson of campaigning actively in the 1930 federal election on behalf of the Conservatives, and of using provincial funds and public works in ways that would assist his federal counterparts.

Most significantly, Dr. Blair said there were suggestions that the Conservatives would use their influence to deprive Old Age pensioners who voted Liberal from receiving their pensions.

The pension was then administered by the provinces, though with substantial funds from the federal government. Dr. Blair did not believe that the provincial government would administer the program on a non-partisan basis.

“Old age pensions should be held absolutely sacred,” he thundered. “People who are tottering on the verge of the grave should not be dealt with in a threatening fashion.”

After a few weeks the controversy seemed to be dying down, but it heated up again when Duncan Sinclair, who had lost the election to Dr. Blair, jumped in with a letter sent to several newspapers.

Sinclair said he challenged Dr. Blair either to produce specific details of his charges or to apologize to the electors and to the Conservative party.

Specifically, Sinclair objected to claims that workers on road projects were ordered to vote Conservative, that the Conservatives had interfered with the widows and orphans fund, and that Old Age pensioners would lose their pensions if they did not vote Conservative.

Sinclair concluded by stating that all Dr. Blair’s statements were “absolutely false, and I challenge him to prove them or to be brave enough to apologize.”

But Dr. Blair neither apologized nor qualified his statements in any way.

Over the winter the matter seemed to die down, only to come to the fore again in the spring of 1931.

Dr. Blair was one of the chief speakers replying to the government’s speech from the throne in April.

He used that occasion to criticize again the tactics employed in the previous election by the Conservatives. In particular, he accused Conservative campaigners, in the 1930 election, of telling pensioners that the  pension would be discontinued to anyone who did not vote Conservative.

Dr. Blair had made clear that the complaints did not originate with him, but had come from Toronto.

He did state that when the Conservatives tried to line up votes in North Wellington, “they had to go out like Nicodemus in the dark and try and secure them.”

A few days after that speech Dr. Blair was subjected to a scathing attack in the House from J.H. Harris, the Conservative member for Toronto-Scarborough.

In the meantime, several editorials in newspapers in Wellington County, notably the Palmerston Spectator and the Fergus News Record, had severely criticized the new MP, and had demanded specific details of his charges.

J.H. Harris and his Conservative colleagues were not the only ones upset about Dr. Blair’s charges.

At that time recipients of the Old Age pension were subject to a means test, and each application was referred to an Old Age Pension Board in every county.

The members of the Wellington Count Board issued a statement that “the allegations are a very grave reflection on the integrity or uprightness of the county representatives on the local board.”

They requested that Dr. Blair substantiate his charges or issue an apology. The board for the county consisted of Udney Richardson, R.J. Holton, William Whitelaw, George Dodge and James Beattie. All had been fixtures in county and local politics for years.

In a couple of weeks Dr. Blair’s remarks had escalated into a furor. To resolve the matter someone would need to back down, which would cause considerable embarrassment and loss of credibility to themselves. And some people only made the situation worse.

The worst example was Sinclair, the defeated Conservative candidate in the 1930 election. He worked himself into a lather with fresh sets of charges against Dr. Blair.

A week after his reply to the speech from the throne, Dr. Blair repeated his charges in the House of Commons, and again mentioned no specifics. That further angered his critics, who accused him of using parliamentary privilege to avoid exposure to a civil lawsuit.

Dr. Blair’s response was to issue a circular to his constituents back home.

In the letter he states that he was congratulated on his speech by Mackenzie King, who had no objections to its content.

Blair claimed that his predecessor, Sinclair, had sat for four years in the House before making a speech. Dr. Blair wrote that he had no intention of waiting that long, and that the gist of his remarks in the House did not relate to election irregularities, but rather, to the sad state of agriculture in Canada.

He said his main goal as an MP was to assist farmers in coping with the Depression, and to help ordinary Canadians.

“I think the people are not getting a fair deal,” he wrote.

On April 13, several other members, including a couple from Quebec, levied similar charges to those made by J.K. Blair.

That took the heat off Blair to some extent. That day, MP J.H. Harris rose again, and summarized the controversy stirred up by Dr. Blair.

He did not back away from the government’s position, but his comments helped to diffuse the situation.

In the context of what had been said earlier, his criticism of Dr. Blair was mild: “the member should not exercise his privileges in the House in that way,” he said of Dr. Blair’s speech.

He spent a great deal of time on Blair’s charge that his predecessor, Sinclair, did not speak for four years. Harris proved that Sinclair’s silence had only lasted three years.

After that the controversy largely subsided.

Dr. Blair had shown that he was not a man to be intimidated, and that he had a mind of his own.

As an MP he would not be controlled by his leader or influenced by anyone in the House of Commons, regardless of their reputation or position.


Stephen Thorning