BY Keith Roulston
A common theme throughout my career as a farm journalist has been regret by farm leaders that farmers dilute their strength by not sticking together. Probably few people around today know that wasn’t always true – that 100 years ago Ontario’s government was made up of farmers.
I was reminded of that fact when I recently read an old book, Farmer Citizen, by W.C. Good.
Even back in the later 1800s and early 1900s, before the population of cities exploded and mechanization reduced the farm population, rural thinkers like Good were concerned about the decline in political influence for rural Ontarians.
Since the 1870s, farmers had opposed Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy, which was designed to encourage the growth of Canadian industry by imposing high tariffs on imported goods. Those tariffs drove up farmers’ costs for equipment and other imports and also reduced markets for farm commodities.
Various organizations had attempted to bring farmers together, ranging from Farmers Institute, through the Patrons of Industry to the Dominion Grange. The defeat of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals, who had promised lower tariffs in the 1911 election, convinced many farmers they needed a stronger voice. Along with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, this provided the impetus to set up the United Farmers’ Organization (UFO).
UFO had two purposes. The practical side was the creation of the United Farmers’ Co-operative Company to purchase farm supplies in bulk and save farmers money. The other side was the United Farmers’ Organization, set up to educate farmers and give them a voice.
Ontario’s political dynamics changed dramatically in the spring of 1918 when Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative federal government suddenly cancelled the exemption he had promised for farmers’ sons from being drafted. Farmers had had enough.
When a provincial election was called in October 1919, UFOs in 64 rural ridings nominated candidates. Come election night, 44 of them were elected. The UFO had the largest number of MPPs. But they had never contemplated forming a government. They didn’t even have a party leader and only two of their MPPs had any political experience.
Despite his reluctance, Barrie-area farmer E.C. Drury agreed to become Premier and his minority government lasted until 1923 with support from labour. They managed to improve rural education, transportation and electrical services for rural Ontarians.
But by the 1923 election, the UFO was pretty much a spent force in provincial politics. It lost most of its seats and was never a big factor provincially again.
But in the 1921 federal election, the UFO joined with farm organizations across Canada to nominate candidates under the Progressive banner. W.C. Good, himself, was one of 65 Progressives elected to Parliament, the second highest total after the Liberals with 117 (the Conservatives had 50).
Because he was technically in a minority government position, William Lyon Mackenzie King, the wily Liberal Prime Minister, set out to ensure his government’s future by winning support of the Progressives.
But in the end, farmers were never really united and they, themselves, were the undoing of the Progressives. Though they’d come together for an election, the Progressive MPs could not agree on policies and disintegrated into several factions.
Ironically, the party created to oppose the Conservatives’ tariffs, eventually joined the Tories in the Progressive Conservative party – at least until 2003 when prairie members got rid of the hated “progressive” part of the name with the union of Conservatives with Reform Party in the new Conservative Party of Canada.◊