Considering the recent election of a new (well, old) government, I thought I’d use this page (mwahaha!) to write about a time long-ago when Ontario voted for a party of farmers.
It was October 20, 1919 when 64 farmers ran as independent candidates in a provincial election, out of utter fed-up-ed-ness with both the Liberals and the Conservatives. By the end of the day farmers had 43 seats, and the Liberals trailed with 30, the Conservatives with 25, and Labour with 11.
So, the farmers created a party and a coalition to form a majority government. And they did what farmers do best, they fixed things.
But let me back up. The story goes way back. Well, the story of farmer organizing goes way way back, but suffice it to say that the farm organizations of the day were more of a secret society or an old boys club than an effective advocate for agriculture.
J.J. Morrison, born near Arthur and (thanks to the Wellington Historical Society) was finally inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame this year, had been both strongly involved in and disillusioned by these organizations. He met three other farmers who felt the same in October of 1913. It was a meeting of minds that would have far-reaching results; these men were W.C. Good, E.C. Drury, and J.Z. Fraser. They became the founding fathers of the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO), which was officially born six months later.
In March the following year, J.J. Morrison, despite being absent due to illness, was elected as the Secretary of both the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) and the United Farmers Co-operative Company (UFCC). That will teach you to never miss an annual meeting!
The UFO was a reaction to the times: farmers were overwhelmed with taxes and felt the government was too influenced by big business and not enough by morals. Despite Morrison’s conviction that the UFO represent farmers as an economic group rather than a political one, the UFO membership eventually decided that political action was the only action.
Still, when 43 farmers found themselves as independent MPPs for their respective ridings in 1919, they didn’t quite know what to do with themselves.
Within a few days, however, the independent farmers became the United Farmers of Ontario’s political party and created a majority government by forming a coalition with the Independent Labour Party. E.C. Drury became the eighth Premier of Ontario.
Between the years of 1919 and 1923, the province was run by a farmer government. During their short time in office, the farmers recovered money that the Conservative government had misspent, increased taxes on the rich, instituted minimum wage for women and girls, started the Department of Welfare, as well as a public bank to extend credit to farmers and other small business. It protected forests, promoted rural electrification and constructed major highways.
They lost the 1923 elections to the Conservatives and soon withdrew from politics altogether. In 1944, the UFO officially dissolved into the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) that had been founded in 1936.
After the organization left politics, the vision of the UFO remained in dozens of “independents” in the provincial and federal governments, including Grey County’s Agnes Macphail, who helped formed the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1933. This would eventually become the New Democratic Party (NDP), finally ending the two-party system in Canada.
Of course, that was almost 100 years ago. Nowadays, I’m always reminded that farmers are less than two per cent of the population, so farmers have no power. Yes, the statistic may be true and perhaps farmers had more of the vote then. But what intrigues me is what farmers did with their power when they had it. They built co-operatives and, eventually, marketing boards. They didn’t cut taxes or slash budgets to benefit farmers; instead, they invested in people and infrastructure.
The farmers’ party did what was good for the people of Ontario, because what is good for the consumer is good for the farmer… and what is good for the farmer is good for the consumer. We talk about this two per cent statistic as if there is an epic battle between farmers and non-farmers, as if our needs are totally opposed to each other. That’s ridiculous.
There’s a lot that farmers and non-farmers have in common. For one, we all would rather bitch and complain about the government and other factions of society, than proactively work towards common solutions. Or, is it just me that does that?
What if farmers held the reins of Ontario again now, 100 years after the UFO? No more bitching allowed, we’d just have to make the tough decisions to run the whole province. Would we do as Doug Ford does? I wonder sometimes if even more dramatic than the decreasing numbers of Ontario farmers in the last century, is the shift to right wing ideology and individualism.
I joke that I want a W.W.J.J.D. bracelet for my birthday (it was in July folks, you missed it). “What would J.J. do?” When the farm organizations weren’t serving farmers, J.J. made a new one. And when the government wasn’t serving farmers, J.J. made a new party – even if it was a fluke. He believed in power together, not power over. And he believed in the power of collective action and collective buying, not collective bitching.
We’ve come a long way in 100 years, but there’s still a lot we can learn from Ontario’s farmer party! ◊