George McCullagh, who made his money on Bay Street in the early years of the Great Depression, bought the Globe, and the Mail and Empire newspapers in 1936, when he was 31 years old. Brilliant, charismatic and attractive, McCullagh was often touted as a future Prime Minister. In 1939, McCullagh launched a populist movement. The Leadership League to pressure the major political parties into forming a national coalition government and getting rid of provincial governments. For six months, the Leadership League seemed to have a serious shot at power. It collapsed because of its own lack of substance and McCullagh’s failing mental health.
Some Globe and Mail readers agreed with McCullagh that democracy itself was not working.
G. Ross of Regina, after demanding a complete overhaul of Canada’s constitution, added, “I am convinced that what the people of Canada are waiting for is someone who is prepared to lead them out of the doubt and despair in which they find themselves.” The editor added a note: “Does Mr. Ross mean lead or drive?” And that was the real question. Who would lead? There were a million ideas, but no one to carry them forward. It was the fatal flaw in the Leadership League.
Could it ever do enough to satisfy G.W. Anderson of Lanigan, Saskatchewan, whose note saying “Our farmers are in a hopeless condition. Thousands quietly hoping for war, would welcome rebellion, secession, or anything drastic, as a way of relief,” was printed in The Globe and Mail?
In the February 27, 1939, issue of The Globe and Mail, editors had written “Government’s Only Income is Your Money.” Leadership League coupons printed on the same page echoed those words. The February 23 Leadership League page carried a cartoon showing two boys marked Liberals and Conservatives fighting on a barrel labelled “patronage.” A barrel of “pork” was next to them, and on the ground was a crying baby with CCF on his diaper, arms out in a plea to be picked up. A taxpayer who looks strangely like an older, bald Hitler (with toothbrush moustache) looks on sadly. A coupon on that page, which was addressed to The Globe and Mail, carried the text “I wish to join The Leadership League for the purpose of RESTORING DEMOCRACY, REDUCING TAXATION and PUTTING CANADIANS BACK TO WORK.”
More than forty Leadership League branches were started in cities and towns across the country, and the creation of each was covered as news. For weeks, public support seemed to build, especially if a person read The Globe and Mail and no other newspaper. In fact, what McCullagh tapped into was the kind of anger and frustration that shows up these days on social media and in the comments under newspaper web page stories.
Some fifty-four thousand Leadership League envelopes were delivered to members of Parliament in the first eleven business days of the league’s first coupon campaign, swamping the Parliament Hill post offices.
The Toronto Star’s editors said the League was engaged “in a campaign which undermines the confidence of Canadians in democratic government.” They deplored the populist overtones of the league and McCullagh’s obsession with getting rid of the provinces: “It is mischievous nonsense, a proposal calculated to create further disunity in Canada, a Fascist proposal because it is admittedly bound up with a scheme for making the proposed all-controlling central parliament a one-party parliament. And such parliaments, with such powers, have been, in other countries, the first fruits of dictatorships.”
The weekly magazine Saturday Night called the Leadership League “a newspaper stunt” and implied McCullagh was a bit dense. British Columbia’s premier, Duff Pattullo, who was at least as outrageous McCullagh – he’d threatened to unilaterally seize the Yukon Territory and annex it to his province – called McCullagh’s campaign to get rid of provinces “nonsense.” The Vancouver Sun said “Canadian Fascism” was the outcome of McCullagh’s campaign.
McCullagh did attract some “names.” Nobel Prize winner Dr. Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin, was the country’s best-known scientist. Banting was worried by Hitler. He was convinced the Third Reich would use bacteriological warfare against its enemies and believed Canada needed to keep on top of the Nazis. And he landed Roy Brown, who had shot down the Red Baron in 1918.
What was the Leadership League? Was it a populist movement? A public search for common-sense solutions to political and economic problems? Or was it an attempt to generate a fascist movement in Canada, one that didn’t call itself fascism and tried to incorporate Canadian middle-class “niceness”? Canadian media historian Douglas Fetherling called the Leadership League “at best anti-democratic and perhaps even fascistic in its sympathies.” That seems accurate.
Finally, after weeks of hyping the League, McCullagh booked Maple Leaf Gardens. There were seats for twenty thousand people. Half that number showed up.
Some might wonder why someone so young as himself should assume the responsibility of starting a national movement, he told the crowd. This generation of politicians had come to power before and during the Great War. They’d stuck around too long, and a new generation had been shut out. “I do represent the younger generation and I hope that I can inspire you to do something about the affairs of Canada rather than to sit back to sneer and criticize. There is a real job that can be done, and the only way we can preserve democratic principles is by the people themselves asserting their right to govern.”
He, just 34 years old, was no Moses who could lead Canadians “out of the Egypt of their despair.” And he was neither a fascist nor a man with ulterior motives. That out of the way, he started spelling out his answers. There were too many lawyers in Parliament and too few businessmen.
Now McCullagh hit his stride, and his voice began to boom out. Canadians needed to be told of the stifling of “good, sound, honest business men – all too few in our public life today.” He would tell them. He would go on a national speaking tour, first to the West, then to the Maritimes. (The tour never happened.)
Send your ballots to The Globe and Mail, he told the audience in the Gardens and the thousands across the country listening on the radio. The more ballots that came in, the more the league would be a dominating force in Canadian politics.
The crowd became fired up when he accused Mackenzie King of letting Britain down during the Munich Crisis the previous fall. “Let me say,” he said, “God help this Canada of ours if England fails and falls in Europe!”
There was no heckling, but McCullagh failed to rock the hall. Even The Globe and Mail’s fawning, anonymous reporter had to admit the crowd’s outbursts were limited to polite applause and a smattering of foot-stomping when McCullagh mentioned Conservative heroes like Sir John A. Macdonald.
Then it was over. Frederick Banting, the most famous person in the hall, never rose to speak. Neither did Red Baron-killer Roy Brown. The crowd filed out, unsatisfied. McCullagh didn’t realize it for a few weeks, but the League and his political career were finished.
The Globe and Mail covered the rally as though it was one of the greatest events in Canada’s history. The Toronto Star didn’t print a word.
(Within a few weeks, McCullagh suffered a psychological collapse and the League was wrapped up. Afterwards, he would never try to launch a political career. Instead, he’d back people like George Drew, who would soon be premier of Ontario.)
Big Men Fear Me by Mark Bourrie Copyright © 2022 Mark Bourrie. Published by Biblioasis. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher.
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