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Manitoba History: An Interview with Jock Brown

by Nolan Reilly, Keith Ralson & Gerald A. Friesen

Manitoba History, Number 3, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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This interview is an edited version of five conversations which took place in the spring of 1981. Participants were Nolan Reilly, Keith Ralston and Gerald Friesen, who prepared the text. The tapes and transcripts of the interviews, about 160 pages, are deposited in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. The transcription was typed by Irene Sexton, St. Paul’s College.

Jock Brown was born in Hamilton, (near Glasgow) Scotland, 12 February 1895. His father was a partner in a prosperous construction business. Jack went to a private academy until the age of 14 when, tiring of school, he took a job in the laboratory of a local steel company. In the spring of 1913, he emigrated to Canada where he joined his brother on a farm near Cartwright, Manitoba. With the exception of a brief interlude in the Army during the War, he remained on the farm for the next twenty-seven years. He was married in 1921, had two children and became active in co-operative enterprises and eventually in the Manitoba CCF, in which he served as the first president of the farm branch in the mid-1930s. He left the party, disillusioned with what he regarded as its lack of principle and its unwillingness to espouse truly socialist policies in 1940. Shortly thereafter, he became involved in the prairie farm movement’s attempt to found a farmer-owned machinery company, Canadian Co-operatives Implements Limited (CCIL). He was president and general manager of the enterprise from 1941 until his retirement in 1969. In this period, he was involved with the founding of a co-op newspaper, the Winnipeg Citizen, with the organization of a number of group tours of China, and various other co-operative activities. He is a lively trenchant commentator on modern society and politics, and has a keen interest in international and socialist affairs.

Jock Brown

Q. What kind of society were you born into? Would the Duke, for example, be considered at the top of the social ladder in Hamilton?

The Duke of Hamilton was not on the social ladder, he was above it all. He was one of the wealthiest peers in Great Britain, largely derived from the fact that he owned the great part of Lanarkshire and it was underlaid with a great bed of coal. That was what made Glasgow the great ship building centre and what made these large steel works operate. This was where my political education began. His royalty on each ton of coal was equal to the wage, the average wage, the colliers received. As landlord, as owner of the minerals, he invested no money. He merely derived an enormous income from the coal ...

Q. Were there any socialist speakers in your district who influenced you?

Oh yes, I listened to them. And then, you see, I talked to men who were socialists. I had been doing it all the time since I was fourteen—I was in touch with these people. I knew their outlook very well.

Q. What did your father think of these socialists?

Oh I didn’t discuss these things much with him at all. Fathers didn’t discuss much with their sons in Scotland in those days.

Q. Was he horrified to think you were a socialist?

Oh no, he wasn’t, but some other people were. I remember one of my uncles taking me very seriously to task Fathers in Scotland don’t pay too much attention to children. They leave that to the women. He spent a great deal of his time at the Liberal Club, of which he was president.

Q. Would you drink or spend time with the labourers from the steel plant?

No, because they always went to the pub as soon as they got out. They would head for their own particular pub, several of them not far from the gate.

Q. And people like you, from the laboratory or the offices, didn’t go to the pub?

Oh no, you see my father would never go into a pub. Never.

Q. The 13-week coal strike of 1912 must have created problems in your district.

[Yes.] By this time I was working in a small steel works. I was the only person in the laboratory but we had a chief chemist who was my boss and he came to me one morning and said, “Why don’t you go down to the office and get Jimmy’s name.” Jimmy was the labourer that we used to use to take the samples for us. You see, you weren’t supposed to ever dirty your hands when you were in a certain kind of work. You always had to have a labourer to do that. “Tell him he can start tomorrow morning. It will help one poor devil anyway.” Now this Jimmy used to come to me almost every Tuesday morning and borrow 2 shillings when we were working. Then he would borrow another 2 shillings on Thursday and he would pay me back the four shillings on Saturday when he got paid. The invariable custom in the Old Country at that time was to pay at one o’clock on Saturday. That was how short he was. He was earning 18 shillings and 9 pence a week. That was all he had to finance over a week—it was a tremendous task. He was a very nice man, Jimmy. I liked him so I went down to the office to get his address and went to the part of town where he lived. In the Old Country at that time, you didn’t go into parts of the town that were inhabited by people of a different class from your-self: you just didn’t do that. So anyway I got there and he lived 3 stories up, a common close, as we called it. I knocked at the door,—they were all single rooms—each door with a brass plate, giving the number of adults allowed in the room—a 3½ (a child) and that kind ... So a woman came to the door and invited me in. It was a room about the size of this. [10 x 20 feet] A fireplace here, a pile of rags here, another pile of rags on this side and a bit of wooden box was the only piece of furniture. And it was Jimmy’s wife that met me at the door. She had a baby in her arms, obviously hungry, and there was another little girl about two years old sitting on one of the piles of rags. And another woman who was Jimmy’s sister—and she had a baby too, a few months old. Now that was all that was in the house and of course they were very glad to know Jimmy could start to work the following morning. When I left his house and came down the stairs I thought of the works. It was a privately owned family affair. Tennant was his name and he had a very good stable of racing horses. He would always go to the races in various regions—one of the big races was in Hamilton, another in Ayr ... It was the contrast between his labourers getting 18 shillings and 9 pence a week and him spending far more on his race horses of course than he paid all those men put together. This was so obviously ridiculous that I made up my mind I was going to find out what was the cause of it. 1 could see no justification for it so 1 became a socialist. After I had read a bit, I understood this was the solution to the problem of injustice.

Q. You left Scotland with thousands of other emigrants in 1913. Can you remember your arrival in Winnipeg?

Oh yes, quite well ... We walked up the street, had dinner and at dinner I remember—the old Alberta Hotel was where we were—the waitress came to take the order and when it came to dessert she said. “there’s apple, raspberry and some other sort of pie.” I said, “I’ll have some of that.” I didn’t know what the dickens pie was, you know. Pie to me was a meat pie. It reminds me of a man from Hamilton. He came back from Canada after being over here for about a year or so. He couldn’t stick it out at all. He explained to some of the rest of us that the reason he came back was the talking in Canada: “They don’t know anything there. They even call a tart a pie!”

Q. Do you remember anything about the farm and your brother’s shack? It must have been quite different from what you had known.

I can understand how you think it would be very different. But young people adjust themselves pretty quickly I didn’t have any problems adjusting to it. It just had to be done.

Q. And you enjoyed the initial farming experience?

Oh yes. I’d groan sometimes about the aches in my bones.

Q. Were you good with horses?

Oh, I loved horses. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the farm ... I used to drive twelve horses myself, on a big Massey disk, 14 feet wide; cover a lot of ground with that.

Q. Were you, in that first summer, breaking land?

Yes. The first job I had was breaking a field and I had one balky horse and one very slow horse, on a four-horse team.

Q. Did it strike you as a historic event to break your land?

Oh yes, it was ... a consciousness of the fact that it was land that had never been disturbed. being turned upside down and cropped to produce food. The one lesson I learned very quickly was that it was impossible for anyone to work himself too hard. Anyone that couldn’t work the legs off the best team of horses doing the harrowing might as well go back to where he came from.

Q. You married a local girl in 1921. How did you meet your prospective bride?

She taught school. That’s what happened to school teachers.

Q. You soon sold three quarters and retained the other three (480 acres) for your farm?

Yes ... there was too much work in the house for my wife altogether. There was two or three men and it was too much bother. You couldn’t enjoy farming nearly so well as a result of that.

Q. Did you read farm journals in those days?

Oh yes, most farmers took the Family Herald and Weekly Star of Montreal and of course the Weekly Free Press and the Grain Growers’ Guide.

Q. Did you get them all?

Oh yes, and in addition to that, I always had, for many years right after 1 came to begin with, the Daily News, which was then edited by A. G. Gardner, in bundles of three every week for a good many years. Of course. in those days the Daily News was an excellent newspaper and had regular columnists such as ... a lot of Fabians—good paper. The first editor was Dickens and A. G. Gardner was the most outstanding of his successors. I remember him very well, got some of his books, Prophets, Priests and Kings.

Q. Did you participate actively in politics in any way?

Not really, I was very clear on one thing; the best way to chop down a tree was with a sharp axe and the best way to make any headway was to be single minded about it. It is so easy to spread yourself too thin. You do that, it is just like using a dull axe. You don’t cut into the wood at all. So my feeling at that time was quite distinct and that was, here’s the job that’s got to be done first When that is soundly enough established, then you can think of outside.

Q. What did you do in the wheat pools movement?

I canvassed for members, drove around and I was active in the formation of the Pools. Helped, of course, in political matters. By this time, my ideas were beginning to crystalize fairly clearly and I didn’t have very much faith in liberalism anymore. I wasn’t concerned about the struggles between the two contending political parties of the same stripe really.

Q. Do you remember having any views about John Bracken or T. A.Crerar in the early 1920s?

Well, I didn’t think much of either Crerar or Bracken.

Q. Why?

Well, by this time, I was beginning to have some worthwhile grasp of the socialist idea and that didn’t predispose me very favourably to people who were at the head of the so-called Progressive movements that really weren’t progressive in any significant way. I never met Ed Partridge but he was a far more estimable man, in my opinion, than either Crerar or Bracken.

CCIL Board of Directors, 1951. Back - Andy Davie, Dawson Creek, B.C., Ray Coolie, Birtle, Man., Lloyd Acton, Rocanville, Sask., Jim Bentley, Edmonton, Alta., Carl Strayer, Drinkwater, Sask. Front - Jim Cuddy, Sanford, Man., Denis Downing, Saskatoon, Sask., Jock Brown, Winnipeg, Man., Bill Harper, Whisky Gap, Alta.
Collection of Mr. J. Brown.

Q. Did you have contact with members of the Independent Labour Party in the 1920s?

No, You see, I was ten miles from town. We got the mail in Mather, to begin with, and that was a good 10 miles. We had no means of contact, no way you could get away from there but to come to Winnipeg by train, and that took a great part of the day, and another day to get back out. And of course you’d got the work at home to be kept up.

Q. You used the Wheat Pool library?

Yes, I forget just exactly when it was established but I would guess around ‘26, maybe ‘28. They had a very good catalogue, (it was all non-fiction), prepared by John Hull, who was director of education and publicity, very well-read man, with a short comment on most of the books, just to give you an idea of what was there, and the postage was paid both ways, so it cost absolutely nothing. And this was carried on all the way through the thirties, when times were very bad and the Pools were rocking and not sure they were going to live.

Q. Can you think of some of those things that you might have read through the Library?

There were two books, particularly, that had a very profound effect on my thinking. Stewart Chase’s (the American economist) Tragedy of Waste, which demonstrated the appalling amount of waste that goes on under capitalism. And the other was R. H. Tawney, The Sickness of this Acquisitive Society. And the library had an excellent stock of left-wing literature. During the thirties, of course, I was subscribing to the American Guardian edited by Oscar Armoringer. He was the best left-wing writer in English, I think—that is, popular writer—he wrote editorials every week, and he also had a column. He was a German; his paper was published in Oklahoma City.

Q. Where did you first hear about the C.C.F. as a movement?

The first meeting that was held here in Manitoba, outside of Winnipeg, was in the fall of 1933. That was right after the annual meeting of the Manitoba Federation of Agriculture. I didn’t attend the meeting of the Federation of Agriculture that year but I did go up when I learned that there was going to be a meeting held to set up the Manitoba farmers’ section of the C.C.F. So I drove up and took a number of my neighbours with me. It was a very good meeting. J. S. (Woodsworth) was there of course and so was S. J. Farmer and John Queen and several others from the city. The meeting went on and it came finally to the election of a president. There were three names placed in nomination. Mine was one of them. I asked to with-draw because I had too much on my plate already at home and J. S. whom I had never met before, he came down and told me if I didn’t take the nomination that the movement would never get off the ground in Manitoba. So I had no choice but to agree to stand.

Q. You then did a good deal of political speaking. What was your message?

... It was more of a moral appeal ... What else could a person say at that time—that capitalism had resulted in the whole economy breaking down, factory doors closed, people suffering shortages in the midst of plenty, when the potential plenty was there ... you know it is very difficult to give a convincing argument in favour of socialism or tell them what you would do to implement socialism other than referring them to the [Regina] Manifesto. The Manifesto was there. It was a socialist document, in my opinion. Pretty sound, and it still stands, still is sound ... What I, even then and more strongly now object to in socialist propaganda is the emphasis always on economics. That’s an appeal to the same feeling, that is, of selfishness, as the capitalist appeal is. If you want to improve your condition, the working classy you must join together, take over control of the means of production and improve yourself.

Q. When did you leave the CCF?

After the declaration of war [September 1939] ... I never was a pacifist ... [but] the demotion of J. S. [Woodsworth] was a surrender to a pretty weak kind of social democracy ... land represented al drift away from the [Regina] Manifesto. I can remember in the discussion—the council meeting was held after an annual meeting here in Winnipeg in the Royal Alex—we were in one of the rooms upstairs on the second floor in the Royal Alex and Coldwell of course was there and Angus McInnis. All the rest of the MPs were there and representatives of the different provinces. But there was complete unanimity with the idea that J. S. was a brake on the growth of party; that is, his pacifist position, at a time when the patriotic fervour was being aroused, meant that everyone was going to lose votes. And, of course, by that time, the C.C.F. had got to a position where the votes came first. You talk about economism. This is a variety of it. It all took place one evening. This thing was all settled, really, essentially before this meeting was held, just in the conversations held amongst half of them.

Q. No one spoke to you?

No, I don’t think I said a word. You see there was no point, no point at all.

Q. What did you like about Woodsworth and Farmer?

Well, Farmer had read more than Woodsworth and had a better understanding. Woodsworth, of course, was a minister, preacher, until the day he died. He was quite irritable, easily annoyed, impatient, a bit vain but certainly a man of high principle and who stuck with his principles to the very last. Not a man who would be loved, not a warm man. Farmer was a very warm man. John Queen, of course, he was a Glasgow fellow—he was a cooper by trade—good trade, making barrels—and he had read relatively little.

Q. Why did you choose the C.C.F. over the Communist Party?

Because the C.C.F. manifesto was a more sensible document. It was a more sensible approach to the situation ... I could see no hope, even then, of the Communist Party making any significant inroads in the Canadian political scene.

No, I never did join the Communist Party, never, although they all believed I was a “card-carrying member.” I had serious doubts about its programme, about its potential for the spreading of socialist understanding ... It is the demand for discipline that never rang right in my head. When you’ve run your own show and gone your own way, it galls you to take orders from anyone ...

Q. You then became involved with CCIL?

Way back in the early ‘30s after I had read Stuart Chase, and his Tragedy of Waste, I gave a lot of thought to what other work could be done in the way of encouraging farmer cooperation. It was very obvious to me that the farm machinery field was the next field that should be tackled. That is, we had established the pools, saved the farmers a great deal of money by so doing. We had established local cooperatives, (we had established one in Cartwright), and established wholesale cooperatives ... I could see quite clearly then, in the early thirties, that the way to reduce the expense of providing oneself with machines on the farm was to cut out the unnecessary waste of selling expenses. Stuart Chase points out that half the labour exerted in the United States was of no social use whatsoever ... And it’s a great deal worse than that now. Look at this whole city. What is being produced here? Now we’re shoving papers around, taking in one another’s washing,—at tremendous cost. Who are getting the big salaries? The good merchandisers. How do they merchandise? What a cheap-jack performance it all is. For farmers had always complained bitterly about the price of machines. So, eight years before CCIL ever was thought of, I had a fairly clear idea of just exactly how a farmers’ machinery cooperative could function over the whole of Western Canada. You couldn’t do it in less than that scope. You had to start in a fairly big way to give it a chance. Anyway, what happened was that in 1936, when the Liberals got into power again, they appointed a Committee of the House to enquire into farm machine prices to see what they could do about satisfying the farmers’ continual complaint about paying too much for machines. It was a Select Committee and later the Committee on Agriculture undertook the inquiry [in the House of Commons]. The inquiry was under the chairmanship of Roy Graham of Swift Current and the auditor for the inquiry was Walter McDonald of Winnipeg—accountants. He comes from Stirling, not far from where I come from, and 1 had known him since the early ‘twenties. No one at that time questioned—they just accepted these wasteful distributive practices as being inevitable. What Walter was able to demonstrate was that the manufacturing costs were only about half the price the farmer paid for the machine. I was in Winnipeg in ‘37. The extensive hearings were over. I met Walter McDonald, just after the hearings were over, and asked him what sort of recommendations were they going to make? Walter gave me an outline ... I pointed out to him that it missed the essential matter in the whole affair, that is, that as auditor for the various cooperative organizations in Manitoba, he should realize that the only way to reduce farm machinery prices was through cooperative action on the part of the farmers, the buyers of the machines, by these buyers acting as their own salesmen. That is, by buying machines free of selling pressures, they could save themselves very considerably in their purchases. And I suggested to Walter this was the significant thing that they should recommend, that the machine companies should mend their ways, cut down on their selling expenses and if they didn’t do that, the farmers should be encouraged to form a machinery cooperative and the farmers do it themselves. Well to cut a long story short, we did succeed, starting with nothing, in raising over $860,000 at a time (1941-44) when farmers had very little money, an average of $18.00 a head was what we got from them. We carried on the work, got a little factory here in Winnipeg, made a deal with Cockshutt, which everyone said couldn’t be done, and we operated within the limits set by the money that we were able to save and retain and crediting it all of course to the individuals who had bought the machines.

The thing of great importance was where could you possibly get a supply of decent machinery. What reputable manufacturer would endanger his whole western organizational setup in order to provide some machines to our struggling little farmers’ organization. The plan that I had was to persuade the only company that you had any chance of persuading to give you a supply of machinery—Cockshutt, the smallest, entirely Canadian, who had sold machines in South America and in the States as well. And it was obvious that that would be a tremendous job; to persuade Cockshutt to hand over its western distribution of machines to us, to this organization that was just in my head. But that was what had to be done, if we were ever going to make any headway. Obviously if we couldn’t make a deal with Cockshutt, the whole thing couldn’t succeed because you couldn’t manufacture these machines. Where could you ever get the money to do it? Or the time? It takes years to get a single machine designed and built at a reasonable price.

Q. When did you contact Cockshutt?

... about 1942, when Harry Fowler. Walter Macdonald and I visited old Colonel Cockshutt. He had finished a term as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario ... Harry Fowler, at that meeting—Walter Macdonald and I had gone out to the lavatory—asked the old Colonel “How much for the whole works?” (Ha, ha) I remember Walter referring to the whole thing in biblical terms. He had been taken up to the top of the mountainand shown the whole world. How much for the works? You see that was the way Harry was. He was far closer in tune with the thinking of farmers in general than I was for example, because that was the way they thought too.

Q. How did Colonel Cockshutt react to your offer to buy them out in ‘42?

Hah! He didn’t say anything. He was speechless, that is what he was.

Q. How did Cockshutt react to the business proposition of merchandising his product in western Canada?

Not at all favourably. I knew it couldn’t be favourable at that time. He wouldn’t do that. It was too big a risk.

Q. You acquired greater leverage in these negotiations within two years. What happened?

Cockshutt had been engaged during the war in building Mosquito fuselages and they put up a big building for that, an addition to the factory. [Now,] Cockshutt had to make the jump into the tractor and combine business. That constitutes 70% of the total sales of machinery all those years since. In order to justify the engineering and tooling up for a combine and for the bigger sizes of tractor, they were going to use this Mosquito fuselage factory. They would need a bigger market than that offered in Canada because they would only have their share of the Canadian market. It wasn’t enough to justify their entering into these two big developments. And, at this time. we had enough influence with the United States Cooperative, National Farm Machinery, to get Cockshutt into the American market through the twelve great regional co-ops. The only person that could have any influence with them was myself. We had a good deal of power ...

[But] it took the nearly one million dollars we had raised, the strong support of two provincial governments, and weak support from the third. [Alberta], the support of the already quite powerful Pool organizations and of the whole co-operative setup. It took all that plus, the opening to Cockshutt of a market in the south through National, to persuade Cockshutt to enter into a contract with us, which was only a contract to sell, to handle tractors, combines, swathers, oneways, nothing more. That was all we needed. These four were enough.

Q. Do you still see the cooperative movement as the basis or building block in creating a new society?

All I’ve got to say is that two of the great pillars of capitalism in Europe as well as here are the trade unions and the cooperative movements. It started all right. There were men like Robert Owen, Thomas Hughes, Keir Hardy later on ... There was a lot of good men spent a lot of time on it but inevitably, as the years go by, the individuals in leadership begin to change course until finally you get to the point where it is just another way of doing business—as far as the cooperatives were concerned. As far as the trade unions are concerned of course the leaders got out of the level at which they started the union. They deal with the masters on a level footing. As time goes on, they get ever bigger and better salaries and of course there it is—corruption has set in. It’s inevitable. How can you avoid that?

I think you can avoid it, in some degree at least. by basing socialist propaganda on a moral issue and not appealing to people to join trade unions and cooperatives and socialist political parties on the grounds that it will pay them personally better; the only hope I can see is to change the appeal—not to individual self-centredness, not to become a socialist because it will be better for you personally but because it will give you the opportunity of making things better for everyone. Improvement will flow from that, from putting first the cause of justice for all.

Q. You say that you had become disillusioned with CCIL and the path of compromise you had to follow. What would you have rather done?

Rather? Stayed on the farm. And, if only the CCF had stayed what it was in the beginning, I’d have stayed with it. But it would have to have remained true to its manifesto.

Q. Committed to socialism?

Oh, definitely. This NDP, you know, it’s only a joke.

Page revised: 23 April 2010

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