Notes on 31st Text for Reading Field: Thompson and Seager

Canadian History, Week Five

happy campers

“Church Army party of youths from Winnipeg bound for farms. c 1920s.” Source: Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau / Library and Archives Canada / C-034839.

John Herd Thompson, and Allan Seager. Canada, 1922-1939: Decades of Discord. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

John Herd Thompson and Allan Seager supply a well organized description of the “several Canadas” that the provinces evinced during the period they survey.[1] They characterize the period as having an “essential unity” in that the two decades it spanned were marked by failure, tragedy, and missed opportunity.[2] Overall, the onus for this regrettable historical legacy is laid upon Canada’s political leaders. This conclusion Thompson and Seager arrive at through surveying general economic, social, and cultural trends at various political scales.

On the federal political scale, the authors note that the period between 1922 and 1939 opened with a general election in 1921 that saw the installation of Canada’s first minority government and consequently the demise of the two-party system that had dominated to that point. They tie this circumstance to regional and ethnic diversity among the electorate, but attribute it as well to underlying class cleavage made prominent in “the wave of industrial unrest that swept the nation in 1919.[3] As well, they observe that the preceding Union government’s interventionist programs (for example the nationalization of the three railways and the creation of numerous regulatory boards), gradually eroded, there being no sense that federal spending and taxation policies might be used to bolster the economy’s strength. Federal tariff policy, it seems, was destined to remain a political football.

At the scale of the provinces, Thompson and Seager note that federal authority was diminishing (with the possible exception of the Old Age Pensions Act of 1927), so that, steadily, “the provinces became coordinate with, rather than subordinate to, the dominion.”[4] In good part this appears to have been a function of increased determination on the part of the provinces to wrest control over exploitable resources from the federal government (finally achieved in the West in 1930). In terms of economic benefit accrued from resource exploitation, Thompson and Seager note that provincial politicians saw no conflict between meeting public interest and ensuring private profit – including that of foreign investors.

A point of interest at the international scale is that, where Thompson and Seager note that the depression struck Canada and the United States more severely than other countries, they neglect to mention Newfoundland. In terms of Canada’s domestic failures, they find that these were offset, somewhat, at least in form, by achieving international recognition of the country’s autonomy — codified with the passing of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Canada also established a presence in the League of Nations, and set up international legations in Tokyo, Paris, and Washington. Concurrently, those Canadian politicos who had hoped for “a new and greater Imperial Commonwealth” saw their hopes dwindle — especially in light of King’s ‘passive resistance’ to adopting an explicitly dependent status in either a British, or an American, ‘empire.’[5]

Socially, Thompson and Seager charge that the Depression and the onset of the Great War brought to light the “narrow vision” of Canada’s political leaders: while they were unwilling to direct expenditure to relieve the plight of the unemployed, they were willing to fund war efforts (thus hitting upon a grim solution to the surplus of young men languishing without prospects).[6] Thompson and Seager’s description also makes clear the difficulty that the mass of the Canadian population (those a the ‘bottom’ of the socio-political hierarchy) faced in attempting to have their voices heard in the political realm. For example, although farmers who were inspired by the tenets of Progressivism managed to organize under a ‘United’ banner across the country, they were ultimately unable to overcome “division, defeat, and eventual dissolution of their movement.”[7] Thompson and Seager also describe enthusiasm for supporting the quest for social betterment as shifting. Initially, religious congregations and activist Social Gospel adherents were intent on securing morality through creating a liquor-free polity that would be  electively bolstered by what was thought to be women’s stabilizing influence. Calls to support the Social Gospel cause were eclipsed by those eminating from secular organizations intent on securing just conditions — such as recognition of women as persons under the law, or having ‘Maritime Rights’ redressed. This enthusiasm for instituting a better society, however, apparently petered out. Thompson and Seager’s account suggests it waned due to popular disappointment: what was promised always seemed so much more impressive than what was achieved. Perhaps, however, exhaustion might be suspected of having played a part?

An interesting point that Thompson and Seager put forward is that Canadians beset with difficult challenges during the period surveyed were not given any more voice in the cultural realm than they were in the political. The fledgling ‘professional’ Arts community appears to have been rewarded for celebrating Canada visually, or for demonstrating a near competence when it came to imitating literary forms developed elsewhere. There was little to no interest in supporting artistic production that admitted of contemporary “sordid conditions.”[8] Ultimately, Thompson and Seager find that English- and French-Canadian intelligentsia who engaged in contests over mythologizing identity contributed a great deal to their fellow Canadians’ confusion over questions of cultural appreciation.

Any real power between 1922 and 1939, according to Thompson and Seager (who echo the observation of Mackenzie King), lay with “bankers and businessmen … commerce, finance and industry.” These interests made up the “the real though invisible Government” of Canada.[9] Unfortunately, those with the most control over money and formal politics were, the authors assert, plagued by “poor judgment and short sighted optimism.”[10] In retrospect, the binges of endeavor that economic and political power brokers embarked upon might still appear impressive in scale. Take railroads for example, or the sell-off of access to, and production of, Canadian natural resources – to the tune of 80 per cent by 1930. Nevertheless, Thompson and Sager’s analysis shows bigger was not always better: these projects appear to have hindered, rather than helped, past Canadians in navigating their way through the 1920s and 30s.

Additional resources:

Richard Jones, revue, Canada, 1922-1939: Decades of Discord, par John Herd Thompson, et Allan Seager, Revue d’histoire l’Amerique francaise 39, no. 4 (1989): 600-602 [available online at,].

[1] John Herd Thompson and Allen Seager, Canada, 1922-1939: Decades of Discord (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985, 13.

[2] Ibid., 330.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] Ibid., 331.

[5] Ibid., 39.

[6] Ibid., 332.

[7] Ibid., 39.

[8] Ibid., 175.

[9] Ibid., 331, 21.

[10] Ibid., 80.

great depression

“(Relief Projects – No. 62). Road construction at Kimberly-Wasa.” Source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-036089


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 5 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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