The role of the conscription crisis in Canadian politics can’t be understated. It would fracture the Liberal Party and many of its supporters would move over to the Conservatives or the Progressives. That was seen with the last episode and Hugh Guthrie, and today we have another Liberal turned Conservative leader with Robert James Manion.
Born in Pembroke, Ontario on Nov. 19, 1881 To Mary Ann and Patrick Manion, third generation Irish settlers in the area, who operated a farm and then a small store. For the first years of his life, his family lived in hotels, rough frame houses and near the town bar before they could afford a better home in the community.
In 1895, when he was 14, a story states that he took a tray of food prepared by his mother to a local boy who was suffering from spinal meningitis. While the boy was enjoying the food, Manion told him a spirited story about how the Fort William lacrosse team had defeated the Port Arthur lacrosse team. From here, a love of medicine and a desire to be a doctor soon grew.
As a young man, he was also noted for his skill as an athlete. He played lacrosse, was a runner and enjoyed swimming. He would play hockey for various schools, and for the Ottawa Wanderers. Once with the Fort William Lacrosse team, he helped take them to the Western Canada Hockey Finals against Winnipeg.
Manion would study medicine at Queen’s University, graduating in 1904 and then at the University of Edinburgh until 1906.
He would move back to Fort William, where his parents had lived since 1888 and from 1913 to 1914, he served on city council.
In 1915 he enrolled with the Canadian Army Medical Corps and was sent oversees with the 21st Canadian Battalion. He was unable to get a commission, so he chose to be a stretcher bearer and he would remain so until his skill as a doctor and surgeon was discovered while on the field.
At the Battle of Vimy Ridge, he would be awarded the Military Cross for Heroism. Speaking of his time in the war, he would write, quote:
“Most men are brave, though some are braver than others. It is only a matter of degree. At the same time, it may be pointed out that only with the severest type of military discipline would it be possible to get thousands of men to climb out of trenches, where they are comparably safe, to face machine-gun fire, bombs and bayonets as they must during the mass action which is necessary for success in warfare.”
Returning home that same year, he switched his party allegiance from the Liberal Party to the Conservative Party due to his support of conscription and Sir Robert Borden’s Union Government. He would also write “A Surgeon In Arms”, a short book about his experience in France, which sold well in both Canada and the United States. He would be chosen as the Liberal candidate for Fort William while he was still in France, and returned home to be elected.
Maclean’s magazine would write of him in 1930, quote:
“When in 1917, he came to Ottawa as a Liberal-Unionist, sitting behind Rowell and Guthrie and Pardee and the others, he still spoke the accents of Liberalism and less than three years ago he told the House that he was unrepentant and unashamed of his youthful support. Manion was the most brilliant and certainly the most belligerent of all the young returned men who were swept into the House in the war election of 1917. Handsome, athletic, curly-haired, a creature of moods and enthusiasms, he almost immediately leaped into the spotlight with a dashing propensity to tackle the doughtiest of foes.”
As a young man in the House of Commons, he would clash with Laurier and Borden, as well as back benchers if he felt passionate about an issue. Maclean’s would write, quote:
“His tumultuous, headlong manner, coupled with an extraordinary capacity for a rapidity of words, frequently got him into trouble.”
In his first speech in the House of Commons, he would speak of the medical benefits that could be derived from daylight saving.
While his work in the House of Commons would limit his work as a doctor, he would often help people while out campaigning or just out in his duties. The role of a surgeon and doctor would always be close to his heart. He would write later, quote:
Relating his experience in helping a young boy whose heart was being squeezed by the sac, he would say quote:
“The boy was given a few whiffs of an anesthetic. I cut very rapidly an inch of rib over the heart, opened the sac and inserted a tube. The patient made an uninterrupted recovery and later I passed him into the ranks as a soldier during the war.”
When the war ended, he would remain with the Conservative Party, as Hugh Guthrie did.
Manion would come out to speak on several issues during the war years, including stating that he was against the awarding of titles to Canadians. He was in favour of military orders and medals, but felt that knighthoods and hereditary titles did violence to Canadian institutions.
While others would play cards or bridge during breaks at the House of Commons, Manion would be found in the parliamentary library, reading over the writings of political economists.
When Sir Robert Borden retired and Arthur Meighen became prime minister in 1920, Manion was appointed the Minister of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment. Unfortunately, the government soon fell in 1921 as William Lyon Mackenzie King came to power and for most of the 1920s, he would serve in the Official Opposition except for a very brief period in 1926 when he served as the Postmaster General when Arthur Meighen was prime minister again that year.
During his time in the Opposition during the early 1920s, Manion became known for his vocal attacks in the House of Commons. Maclean’s would state in 1930, quote:
“There was nothing of subtlety or finesse about the attack of Manion. He tore into the enemy lines with the same crashing vigor that carried him down the field in the days of his lacrosse triumphs, unconcerned with fine tactics and details, content to be right in the gross, and seeing only the goal attached.”
Whenever Manion was to speak, any Member of Parliament not in the House of Commons would quickly get to their seat for the show. Maclean’s continues, quote:
“What he lacked in cold logic or in crystal clear argument, he more than made up with a passion and an enthusiasm and sometimes a fire, which if it did not always impress, invariably stirred the house. The words “Manion is up” could always empty the smoking rooms.”
In 1927, Manion had ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party but he would finish a distant fourth, with only 148 votes and 9.5 per cent. Going into the convention, many had Manion as a main challenger to Bennett, but he would take only half the votes that were expected. Prior to the election, the Windsor Star would state, quote:
“His name has not been seriously considered as a first choice among the party delegates but he has many qualifications that make him a prominent figure. He has a more or less knowledge of French, has a brilliant war record, is a great speaker, is popular and has general qualities that go to make up a successful politician.”
“Canada is just as much a part of the Empire as England. Canada, being British, charity should begin at home. The Empire is like a chain, only as strong as its component parts. When I’m forced to choose between my land and another I will align myself with my land and that is the attitude of the Conservative Party.”
Manion’s fortunes would change in 1930 when R.B. Bennett became prime minister. At this point, Manion was appointed as the Minister of Railways and Canals, a rather high profile position but it also came with great scrutiny from the public during The Great Depression.
During the election, Manion crossed the country several times and was known for his speeches that helped win votes for the Conservatives in several ridings.
As the Minister of Railways, he would deal with the Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, both of which were feeling the effects of The Great Depression. He would pressure both of the railways to be more economical and cut costs to survive. He would also negotiate the treaty for the construction of the St. Lawrence Deep Waterways, which was ratified by Canada but rejected by the United States. This would be the precursor to the eventual St. Lawrence Seaway of the 1950s.
The Edmonton Journal would report of him, quote:
“Dr. Manion is merciless in attacking his political opponents but seldom bitter. He is personally popular with all parties in the House of Commons and is quick to appreciate a joke at his own expense.”
In 1933, he would head the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations and the Disarmament Conference at Geneva that same year.
In 1935, the R.B. Bennett was decimated in the election and Manion would lose his riding in the process. Despite this, Manion was still seen as very popular in the party, at least according to Maclean’s Magazine. It would state quote:
“When the Tory flag flaps feebly, and the party’s spirits droop, it is always Manion who, flashing his sword, calls the dispirited back from flight.”
The article also stated there was those in the party who did not want him to lead if Bennett left, stating quote:
While Manion did not have a seat in the House of Commons, he would put his name forward in 1938 to replace R.B. Bennett as leader of the Conservative Party. As a Catholic, he had the support of the large number of Orange Order delegates from Ontario. He was also seen as more left than the other candidates and he campaigned on providing government assistance to end unemployment. As well, he had little in the form of competition among the other delegates at the convention.
Even though Bennett had resigned, many delegates did not want him to leave as leader. Bennett had planned to leave but with the Draft Bennett movement growing, he stated he was willing to continue as leader and he attempted to persuade the other leadership candidates to withdraw so he could remain as leader. Manion refused to do this and one hour before voting began, Bennett stated he would not be a candidate.
When voting began, Manion was a heavy favourite to win, but even with that, he nearly lost to Murdoch Macpherson, the former Attorney General of Saskatchewan. On the first ballot, Manion finished with 726 votes and 46.3 per cent of the vote, good for first and 250 votes ahead of MacPherson. On the second ballot, Macpherson came back with a force picking up 11 percentage points and reducing the lead of Manion to less than 200. Fortunately for Manion, he was able to garner support from delegates and he won the leadership of the party with 830 votes and 53 per cent of the vote.
Among the delegates at the convention, it was hoped that with his Catholic background and marriage to a French-Canadian woman would help the party in Quebec since the province had seen the party as anti-Catholic and anti-French.
Speaking to delegates, Manion would say, quote:
“It is an honour too high. I know my limitations but I am your chosen leader and I will try with all my strength, all my modest qualities, to lead the party in a manner worthy of the great leaders who have led you in the past.”
King would meet with Manion after he became leader and would tell him, quote:
“Try not to see too many people. There is nothing more fatiguing. You must ration very carefully the number of people you see each day or you can’t carry on as a party leader.”
In a by-election in London, Ontario in 1938, Manion was able to return to the House of Commons.
Many in the Conservative Party began to criticize Manion due to his move to the left and his calls for action against unemployment.
At the same time, William Lyon Mackenzie King was unpopular as prime minister and Manion hoped that by working with Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec through the promise of federal funds for unemployment relief in exchange for his support of the party.
King, for his part, thought very little of Manion, at least at first. In his diary, he would write, quote:
“Manion is making a buffoon of himself. The Tory party are disgusted with him and are almost in despair.”
When the Second World War erupted, Manion would oddly campaign against conscription, even though in 1917 it was his reason for joining the Unionist government and the subsequent Conservative Party. Even though Manion did not support conscription, the Liberals launched a campaign in Quebec that claimed Duplessis’ support of Manion would lead to conscription.
This would have a devastating impact on Duplessis, who would lose in the 1939 Quebec election. With that defeat, Manion’s hope of gaining Quebec were dashed.
King would then tell Manion that due to the war he would not call an election but in March of 1940, he suddenly called an election that caught the Conservatives by surprise.
The Progressive Conservatives would campaign on the platform of a National Government and forming a wartime coalition government.
In response to this, King would state, quote:
“I can only conclude that Dr. Manion sees no possibility whatever of the election of a Conservative Government.”
The Liberals then began releasing pamphlets that cast doubt on a National Government, asking who does he represent, who are his sponsors and who are his supporters. It would conclude with, quote:
“Never before have the Canadian electors tolerated an unsponsored candidate for the prime ministership, why should they do so today?”
In the election, held on March 26, 1940, Manion’s National Government Party would not lose any seats, but at the same time did not pick up any seats. King and the Liberals would pick up six seats, forming another majority government.
As for Manion, he would lose his own seat, officially ending his political career.
In May, King would confide in his diary that Manion was at his end with the party. He would write, quote:
“Manion, I hear, was very incensed at his treatment by the Tory party, was quite Violent in his language about them.”
King would see Manion soon after and would write in his diary, quote:
“I felt no ill will towards him, but rather a feeling of sympathy. Shook hands with him and asked him to join us in the group of Privy Councilors. I think he felt rather boldly.”
With no prospects and no money, Manion would find a benefactor in the man who sparred with him from across the aisle, King.
King would write in his diary, quote:
“This morning, Hanson came to my office to tell me that he had discovered Manion has no private means, has saved nothing and is hard up. He wondered if the government might not give him some post in connection with the war, send him to London, give him some work in one of the offices in London or some other post. I told him I thought it was nice of him to come and speak on Manion’s behalf and that I would be quite ready to meet his wishes.”
It was King who would offer Manion a job as the director of the Civilian Air Raid Defence. He would also write his autobiography, Life Is An Adventure.
On July 2, 1943, after taking a stroll through his neighbourhood, he came home and began reading in his library. He then informed his wife Yvonne that he was not feeling well. Within moments, he had collapsed and died.
The Ottawa Journal would write in his obituary, quote:
“He was more than a fighting party leader, he was a human leader who knew the struggle of the common man. From close contact with his fellowman he knew the motivating factors underlying their actions. His generous sympathy and broad understanding endeared him to all classes.”
Gordon Graydon, the new leader of the Conservative Party and the man I will cover on July 2, would state quote:
“Death struck him while he was again serving his country in World War Two. Few men in Canada had a larger or more affectionate circle of friends than this tolerant, warmhearted and brilliant Canadian of Irish descent.”
In his diary, dated July 3, 1943, King would write, quote:
King would call Manion’s son, who was a captain in the military to give his condolences. He would write, quote:
“Gave him a message to him to give to his mother. He asked me if I would be a pall-bearer on Monday night which I said I would be very happy to be. He spoke of his father having had great respect for me and friendship as well.”
It was to King that Manion would reveal something few others knew. King would write in his diary, quote:
“I now recall related to a belief in the survival of human personality but also to confession on Manion’s part that he should never have left the Liberal Party, of how badly he had been treated by the Conservatives and of how descent I had been to him at all times.”
No Conservative leaders attended the funeral but King would honour the request to be a pall-bearer.
Writing in Life Is An Adventure, Manion would reflect on the five prime ministers he had known in his life. He would write, quote:
“Of the five prime ministers known by me, Sir Wilfrid Laurier was probably closer to Sir John A. Macdonald, who was my ideal as a leader. Sir Robert Borden was the soundest. Arthur Meighen was the ablest debater the house has had in my time or perhaps at any time since Confederation. R.B. Bennett was the most brilliant and Mackenzie King was the best politician, if by that term one implies skill in winning elections.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, 21st Battalion, Wikipedia, Dynasties and Interludes, Great War Project, Library and Archives Canada, Macleans, the Regina Leader, the Winnipeg Tribune, the Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Province, Ottawa Journal,