Last week, I talked about John Bracken, a former premier who became the Leader of the Progressive Conservatives from 1943 to 1948. Today, we have another premier, George Drew, who served as the premier of Ontario during the same years Bracken led the Tories. It was Drew who would come along to replace Bracken, after splits in the Tories began to appear in the late 1940s.
George Drew was born to Annie and John Jacob Drew in Guelph, Ontario on May 7, 1894. His grandfather, George Alexander Drew, for whom he was named, was a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Conservative Party from 1867 to 1872 and from 1878 to 1882. The family itself had come from United Empire Loyalists who immigrated to Canada from Boston following the American Revolutionary War.
When he was 10, his father would drive him to Conservative meetings throughout the area.
In 1910, at the age of 16, Drew joined 16th Battery Artillery in Guelph.
As a young man, he would attend Upper Canada College and graduate from the University of Toronto. He would study law at Osgoode Hall Law School.
His studies were put on hold in 1914 when he chose to enlist to fight overseas. At the time of his enlistment, he stated he was a student. He would be assigned to the 11th Battery as a Lieutenant thanks to his previous experience with the military.
Sent overseas in May of 1915, he would command the 64th Battery by 1918.
In 1916, he was severely wounded in battle, and a notice was published in several papers on July 25, 1916 listing a “George Drew” as wounded. A piece of shrapnel had shattered his left arm near the wrist, resulting in 13 bone grafts. The wound was bad enough that he had to spend two years in the hospital as a result. Throughout his life, the arm would be mostly useless.
After the war, he had reached the rank of Lt. Col. With the 64th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, and would eventually be given the honorary title of Colonel. He would command the battery in Guelph until 1929, at which point he took command of the 11th Field Brigade in the community.
In 1920, he was called to the Ontario Bar.
In 1921, while living in Guelph, he would serve on the executive for the Guelph War Memorial Association and was instrumental in having a war memorial built in Trafalgar Square in Guelph. One year later, he was elected as an alderman on town council.
In 1925, he would make his first move into politics when he was elected the mayor of Guelph. At the age of only 31, he was the youngest, and likely remains the youngest, mayor in the history of the community and was also the youngest mayor in Canada at the time.
He would serve as mayor of Guelph until 1929 when he left to become an assistant master and then master of the Supreme Court of Ontario.
During this time, he would also become a regular contributor to Maclean’s Magazine. His first article, printed on July 1, 1928, was titled “The Truth About The War”, which criticized the American belief that they had won the war for the Allies by entering it in 1917. It produced a flood of congratulatory telegrams from across Canada. For the next several years he would routinely write articles about the war. After a series of articles on profiteering in the armament manufacturing industry, the League of Nations Secretariat in Geneva received so many letters they called the mail “today’s attack of Drewitis.”
In 1931, he was appointed as the first chairman of the Ontario Securities Commission. He would serve until 1934 when the Liberals came to power in Ontario.
By this point, Drew was eyeing provincial politics. At the time, the Conservative Party of Ontario was at a low point politically. The party had been in power from 1923 to 1934 but were now dealing with a loss of an astounding 73 seats in the 1934 election as the Liberals came to power. In that election, the Conservatives lost four out of every five seats they had won in the previous election.
Drew would run for the leadership of the party in the 1936 Conservative Party Leadership Convention. On the first ballot, he finished second with 480 votes to 782 for Earl Rowe. On the second ballot, Rowe increased his vote count to 1,005 to take the leadership of the party.
Rowe would not forget Drew, and would reward him with the position of provincial organizer of the party. This position would not last long as Drew broke with the party when they opposed Premier Mitchell Hepburn’s attempt to break the Congress of Industrial Organizations unionization attempt at the GM plant in Oshawa.
The year that he failed to get elected, he would marry Fiorenza Johnston, a manager with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Together, they would have two children. The couple would often spend a great deal of time together on the election campaigns of the 1930s to the 1950s.
In 1937, ran for the first time to sit in the Ontario Legislature but he would be unsuccessful. Rowe would also lose his seat in the election that saw the Conservatives only gain six seats and once again fail to form a government. In that election race, 30 of his old army comrades came from as far away as Montreal and Kingston with cars to put at the disposal of Drew and his supporters. According to those around him, Drew was moved to tears by this gesture.
In 1938, with Rowe now out as leader of the Conservatives, Drew ran for the leadership of the party once again. He would easily defeat his opponents on the first ballot, picking up 796 votes, more than his other three opponents combined.
In his speech to the delegates, he would say, quote:
“The past is past, we look to the future.”
He would add, quote:
Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would write in his diary after hearing Drew had won the leadership, stating quote:
“Everything considered, he is perhaps the best man to fight Hepburn and to expose his shortcomings. He is, however, a terrible jingo, very narrow and extreme.”
Now leading the party, he then ran in a 1939 by-election in Simcoe East and reached the Legislature to serve as the Leader of the Opposition.
Hepburn, likely seeing Drew as an easy target, opened the session of the Legislature on March 8, 1939, stating quote:
“Mr. Speaker. We used to have the Rowe Boat, now we have the Show Boat.”
Drew did not respond to the comment but the next day produced an article he wrote for Maclean’s in 1936, stating that the Liberal Party had no new ideas. After then being accused by Hepburn of using his position as a federal employee at the time to criticize the government, Drew responded with quote:
“I wasn’t taking advantage of my position and I wasn’t taking advantage of anything else. I was simply exercising the right and privilege which is everyone’s of using my spare time at night to study the affairs of this province, something that other members of this House might very profitably do.”
The comment resulted in applause from the gallery and Hepburn soon saw Drew to be a worthy opponent in the Legislature.
Despite this, and due to Drew’s good looks, athletic build and stiff posture, Hepburn often called him “The Miss Canada of the Legislature.”
Drew’s physical fitness was something very important to him. Throughout his life he would maintain a strict weight and in the 1930s was known to run against trains in order to keep his weight down. Later in his life, when he gained 15 pounds over the winter, he quickly began to diet to lose the weight. Throughout his life, he played sports, beginning with football and track as a young man and transitioning to squash, tennis and golf as he grew older.
Another aspect of Drew that many were impressed by was his stamina. He was said to often stay up until 4 a.m. chatting with his army buddies, only to be fresh and ready for work at 8:30 a.m. that day. For his drinking, he would drink moderately, and never during Lent.
One interesting story about Drew comes when he was supposed to appear in court. He slipped and broke his war-injured arm an hour before the court appearance. He would appear in court, with his arm unset, to speak for 20 minutes.
The Ontario Liberal Party of this time was beginning to feud heavily with the Liberals on the federal level, who were led by William Lyon Mackenzie King, the prime minister of the time. At one point he compared King to Hitler. This feud would cause a series of crises that would lead to the resignation of Hepburn and the collapse of the Liberals.
In the 1943 election, the Conservative Party had adopted the name of the federal party, the Progressive Conservatives, and won a minority government. The Liberals would lose 48 seats while the Conservatives picked up 15 seats to form a minority government.
Drew now found himself as the premier of Ontario. Seeing the mood of the times, Drew ran on a left-wing platform that promised free dental care and universal health care. His government did not implement either of these but his platform moved the Ontario Progressive Conservative party more towards being moderate. In July 1943, Drew released the 22 Point Programme which promised to improve vocational education, cut school taxes, increase allowances for mothers, implement a house program, provide public service jobs for veterans and support fairer labour negotiations. The Globe and Mail would say of the platform was, quote:
One thing implemented by the Drew government was the Drew Regulation, which made it a requirement that all schools in Ontario have one hour of religious instruction each week. This measure caused controversary due to the fact that the Christian faith was the religion that was taught during this hour. This led to accusation of anti-Semitism by the Ontario Jewish community.
As the leader of the province, Drew was highly critical of the King government in Ottawa, attacking his leadership in the war effort and criticizing King for not implementing full conscription in 1944.
At the Dominion Provincial Conference that year, a party thrown by the very anti-Drew Ottawa press gallery, Drew showed up first, drank his share and was the last person to leave, endearing himself to several individuals who had been his critics before.
The 1945 Ontario election would come only a month after the end of the War in Europe and Drew would shift tactics to run a Red-baiting campaign against the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The material used for drumming up a Red Scare against the party came from the Ontario Provincial Police’s Special Investigation Branch and Agent D-208, also known as Capt. William Osbourne-Dempster. He was supposed to be investigating war-time saboteurs in 1943 but that year in November he started investigating opposition politicians in the Legislature. Ted Joliffe, who led the CCF, made accusations in a speech on May 24, 1945. In response, Drew appointed Justice A.M. LeBel to lead a Royal Commission to investigate the charges. The Commission found in its report, released well after the 1945 election, on Oct. 11, 1945, that much of what Joliffe charged was indeed true but stated that the premier did not have a secret political police reporting to him. This was due to a lack of evidence, and it would be 30 years before that evidence was found, long after the case was closed.
In the end, the Conservatives gained a majority government, picking up 28 seats, while the CCF fell to third place amid the Red-baiting campaign of Drew, losing 26 seats, reducing the party to only eight seats.
One of the main projects for the Drew government now was to spend $400 million over the course of 10 years to convert the Ontario electric grid from 25-cycles to 60-cycles to standardize it with the rest of North America.
Drew’s government also wanted to take advantage in the growth in immigration following the Second World War. Ontario would set up immigration offices in the United Kingdom and offered cheap charter flights to 20,000 British immigrants to come to the province. This is considered the first mass migration by air in world history. As for why Drew focused on British immigrants, he would say that the British were, quote:
“The right class of people”
His government would put more money into roads and it increased the share of the province’s education spending from 15 per cent to 50 per cent.
One of the more controversial choices during this time was Drew’s decision to allow cocktail bars into Ontario, which many stated was because Drew liked to drink too much.
Thanks to these efforts and the base of the party that Drew helped to build up, the party would lead the province for the next 42 years until 1987 over the course of six Progressive Conservative premiers.
Despite this, in the 1948 election, which the Tories won a majority in, Drew would lose his own riding to William Temple of the CCF. Drew would blame a future Communist takeover of Ontario on the failure of his constituents to re-elect him.
At this point, Drew could have just run in a by-election and remained as premier, likely throughout the 1950s, but instead he decided to focus on federal politics. In the 1948 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, Drew went up against John Diefenbaker and Donald Fleming for the leadership of the federal party. In his speech to the delegates, Drew called for stronger ties between Quebec and English Canada and warned against the centralization power in Ottawa. Most expected that this convention would be an easy win for Drew, and that is exactly what it was. Drew picked up 827 votes for 66.6 per cent of the vote, over 500 votes above second-place Diefenbaker.
Grattan O’Leary, who was at the convention, would say quote:
“Arriving in Ottawa for the 1948 leadership convention, Drew came on like a conquering hero, greeted by the kind of hyperbole usually referred by the cynics in the Press Gallery for visiting movie stars.”
King would write in his diary the following day, quote:
“I said at once that the result was what we had expected. Pointed out the similarity of the vote to that which gave St. Laurent his election, and Gardiner and Power their respective positions.”
King would then write about his worry about what a win for Drew meant for Canada.
“I cannot overcome a feeling of sadness of what I fear as a consequence of Drew becoming leader of the Conservative Party. He will revive all the old Tory spirit in its hatefulness and bitterness, something I have been able to prevent in my years of office. He will be worse than either Meighen or Bennett.”
The next task was for Drew to get into the House of Commons. He would run in a by-election in Carleton for his seat but the federal-level CCF wanted to defeat him for his previous actions against the party in Ontario. Bill Temple, who had taken Drew’s seat in Ontario in the provincial election, was brought in to speak at a meeting in Richmond where Drew and his opponent Eugene Forsley were speaking. Temple would make accusation against Drew, stating that he was a tool of the liquor interests and questioning the sobriety of Drew. Then, Drew misheard Temple, thinking he called him dishonest. Drew flew into a rage and the two men had to be restrained before they could begin hitting each other.
King would write in his diary on Dec. 13, 1948, quote:
“For the Liberals to meet with defeat there in the first by-election as between St. Laurent and Drew, is a serious business, especially in the light of Drew’s behaviour at one or two of the meetings.”
On Dec. 20, 1948, Drew would win his by-election by 8,000 votes. With that win, he became the Leader of the Opposition.
Drew immediately took on an antagonistic approach against the Liberals, in stark contrast to the more cooperative Bracken. On the first day of the Parliamentary session, Prime Minister St. Laurent introduced a motion and Drew immediately found a flaw in it and forced St. Laurent to withdraw.
When the throne speech was given, Drew called it inadequate. He then spent an hour and 45 minutes, he would lecture the Liberals on the faults in centralizing power in the federal government.
The success that Drew had in provincial politics would not translate to success on the federal level.
Maclean’s would write in 1948, quote:
The issue for the Conservatives was that Drew was abrasive, while Louis St. Laurent was affectionately called Uncle Louis.
During the election campaign in 1949, Drew tried to find an issue that would capture the public imagination. In his first campaign speech, he would announce the start of his fight to save Confederation by working with provinces, rather than centralizing power in Ottawa. The next day he attacked creeping socialism in Canada. On May 26, 1949, he gave a national radio broadcast where he proposed a national health program, old age pensions and family allowances for every child. He would say quote:
“The vote on Monday will decide whether our public affairs are to be directed by an irresponsible bureaucracy or whether we are to return to the democratic principle of government of the people, by the people themselves through their elected representatives.”
In the 1949 election, the Progressive Conservatives under Drew fell 24 seats while the Liberals won the largest majority in Canadian history to that point.
In a poll after the election, when respondents were asked who did the best job for his party, 62 per cent chose St. Laurent, while nine per cent picked Drew.
Major reasons for the lack of success in that election came down to the fact that Drew had called French Canadians a defeated race, and his support of conscription in the Second World War did him no favours in the province, where many still remembered the Conscription Crisis during the First World War.
When Queen Elizabeth was coronated, Drew became the first man to be made a privy councilor while serving as the Leader of the Opposition.
The Ottawa Citizen would describe Drew’s methods of speaking in the House of Commons, stating quote:
“He seldom made a poor speech. His Commons statements usually took hours to prepare but he also had the gift of making fluent impromptu talks.
During the election campaign in 1953, Drew promised that his party would cut $500 million from government spending, would make sure more of Canada’s raw materials were processed by home industries and that Communism would be attacked and countered with stricter laws. The problem with saying he would cut government spending by so much was that Conservative candidates could not make any promises to increase spending in local areas.
In the 1953 federal election, the Progressive Conservatives picked up 10 seats in the election, but failed to oust the Liberals or even reduce them to a minority government. In Quebec, the Progressive Conservatives picked up only four of 75 seats, an increase of only two from the previous election.
By this point, there were calls in the party to replace Drew as leader. John Diefenbaker would actually stop such an attempt in October of 1953 when the British Columbia Progressive Conservative Association told him they had two resolutions expressing non-confidence in Drew and demanding a convention. Diefenbaker told them to tear up the resolutions and suppress the whole topic. He would say, quote:
“Disloyalty of any kind would ruin any party.”
The irony, of course, is that Diefenbaker would be ousted from the party over a decade later.
Following a nearly fatal attack of meningitis that put him out of commission for three months in 1953, Drew would resign as leader of the Conservative party on Sept. 21, 1956.
In his resignation letter, he would write, quote:
“Although the doctors have assured me that in a few months I shall be restored to full health, they have also advised that it would be extremely unwise for me to take on the heavy strain of a session and an election campaign so soon after my illness.”
Drew’s wife, Fiorenza, would state quote:
“Today I’m just a private citizen and its heaven. He is wonderfully well. He has made wonderful improvements.”
He was succeeded by John Diefenbaker, who had been trying to gain the leadership of the party for 16 years by that point. Two years later, Diefenbaker led the Progressive Conservatives to the largest majority in Canadian history, ending 22 years of Liberal rule in the House of Commons.
Just prior to his resignation, he would be involved in one of the most contentious issues in Canadian Parliamentary history when he clashed with the Liberals over their decision to invoke closure in the debate over the Trans-Canada Pipeline. He would call the day that closure was invoked, Black Friday, and this fight over the issue would lead to the Liberals losing the next election and bringing in Diefenbaker.
From 1957 to 1964, Drew served as the Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Even during this time he did not lose the fire that made him well known in Canada. When a British TV program said that Canada was becoming increasingly dependent on the United States, Drew attacked the program so strongly in a speech that the Daily Mail began calling him the Angry Canadian.
From 1965 to 1971, he served as the first chancellor of the University of Guelph.
In 1965, his wife would pass away and in 1966 he remarried.
In 1967, he was one of the first individuals to receive the Order of Canada.
In November of 1972, he would suffer a heart attack. His condition would continue to worsen throughout the remainder of the year and into January and he would remain in the hospital beginning on Nov. 19, 1972
On Jan. 4, 1973, he would die of heart failure at the age of 78. He requested not to have a state funeral, and instead had a public family funeral in Toronto. Drew died only eight days after former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Flags were flown at half-mast on federal buildings in Ottawa, and throughout Ontario.
Ontario Premier William Davis would say of Drew, quote:
“To those of us in politics and public service, Mr. Drew remained throughout his notable career, a personality of high ideals and exemplary behaviour.”
His successor and the man who rode the wave that Drew started to become prime minister, Diefenbaker would state that Drew was one of the three or four greatest Canadian parliamentarians of the past century.
Governor General Roland Michener would say of Drew, quote:
“From my association with him in the Ontario government I can testify to the energy and determination with which he pursued the causes in which he believed and to very good effect. His was a full life of many accomplishments which will be recorded with appreciation in the history of our times.”
One of the most touching comments came from the man who clashed routinely with Drew. E.B. Joliffe, the former leader of the CCF in Ontario would state that if not for health, Drew would have been prime minister instead of Diefenbaker, and that, quote:
“Because of his hard fighting in politics, he was sometimes misunderstood. In fact, he had some very human qualities, including shyness and self-consciousness.”
Information from History of St. George’s Parish, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, History of Guelph, Time, Library and Archives Canada, TVO, Ottawa Journal, Regina Leader-Post, Vancouver Province, The National Post, Macleans, Dynasties & Interludes