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Manitoba History: An Interview with Graham Spry, 1972

by Michael Dupuis
Peterborough, Ontario

Number 51, February 2006

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.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Graham Spry, July 1971.
Source: University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune Collection.

One of the most important intellectual activists of the twentieth century, Graham Spry was born in St. Thomas, Ontario on 20 February 1900. Raised in a military family, Spry would eventually work as an editor, reporter, war correspondent, newspaper publisher, author, lobbyist, diplomat, and corporate executive in Canada, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

After serving in the last year of the Great War as a private, he returned to Canada in 1919. In Winnipeg, he attended the University of Manitoba, where he graduated in 1922 with a BA. There he became editor of the university paper, The Manitoban. During May and June 1919 he participated in the Winnipeg General Strike as a special constable. He later explained that he and many other ex-servicemen took this job because the daily pay of $6.00 was twice the normal wages.

In 1920, through the influence of the great Western Canadian editor, John W. Dafoe, Spry obtained a job as a reporter with the Manitoba Free Press. He remained a Free Press reporter while completing his studies at the University of Manitoba. With the support once again of Dafoe, Spry was accepted into Oxford University as Manitoba’s Rhodes Scholar in history in 1922. At Oxford University he received a BA (1924) and an MA (1938). From 1932 to 1937, he was deeply involved at the grass roots level in the organization of the newly forming and moderately socialist party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (C.C.F.). From 1934 to 1936, he was the Chairman of the Ontario C.C.F. Also, between 1932 and 1934, Spry published The Farmer’s Sun later renamed The New Commonwealth. In June 1938 he married Irene Bliss. They had three children.

In 1930 Spry, along with another young activist, Alan Plaunt, established the Canadian Radio League. From that point Spry began over 40 years as a volunteer lobbyist and supporter for public broadcasting in Canada. He was the principal force behind the creation of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission in 1932, which evolved into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the CBC, in 1936. Some have even called Spry the father of the CBC.

After 1937 his work as a diplomat and corporate executive took him abroad for many years. During the Second World War Spry was a sergeant in the Home Guard in England. Between 1942 and 1945 he was also personal assistant to Sir Stafford Cripps of the British War Cabinet. As well he was a war correspondent for both The London Times and The Ottawa Citizen.

Between 1947 and 1967 Spry was the agent general for Saskatchewan in the United Kingdom, Europe and the Near East. In Saskatchewan in 1962 he helped the provincial government neutralize the doctors’ strike against medicare. In 1968 he retired to Rockliffe, an Ottawa enclave.

In the nation’s capital Spry remained active as a supporter of public broadcasting in radio and television. Between 1968 and 1972 he submitted frequent briefs to the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (the CRTC). From 1968 to 1973, he was the Chairman of the Canadian Broadcasting League.

In 1972, at the ACTRA ceremonies, Spry was the recipient of the John Draine Award for his distinguished contribution to broadcasting. Spry was also awarded an honourary doctorate (LLD) from Brock University in 1968. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS) and the Royal Anthropologic Institute (FRAI). Graham Spry died on 24 November 1983.

Introduction

I interviewed Graham Spry in January 1972 at his home in Rockliffe Park in Ottawa. At the time Mr. Spry was 72 and retired. I was completing my Masters thesis at Ottawa University on how Canada’s daily press reported the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. The purpose of the interview was to obtain background information about the owners, editors, and business managers of the three Winnipeg dailies, the Manitoba Free Press, Tribune and Telegram, as well as The Western Labor News, the official paper of the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council and the voice of the workers during the general strike. Mr. Spry was gracious, knowledgeable, and very helpful. He had an engaging manner and a wry sense of humour. To make Mr. Spry’s answers and my questions more readable some grammatical corrections and removal of extraneous material has been made.

Perhaps you can tell me a little bit about your journalistic background.

Well, I’ve really never been a journalist. I’ve worked on newspapers and published newspapers but always for some other purpose than being a newspaperman myself. I edited The Manitoban in Winnipeg at university. At first it was a monthly, and then we turned it into weekly. Then there was trouble between the newsprint manufacturers and the three dailies so we turned our weekly into a daily and sold it on the corner. It was a result of this newspaper that I got a job as a reporter in Winnipeg for the Manitoba Free Press. For the summers and in fact throughout my university years I worked for the Free Press. It was very satisfactory. I was always employed by the Free Press for $25 a week, which was an enormous sum in those days. Then one summer I edited The Morning Albertan in Calgary. I worked two summers on The Daily Express in London, England for summer holidays when I was in university in England. During the last war I first of all was war correspondent for the Canadian Army in Italy for The London Times. That was just a cook’s tour because I wanted to see the war and managed to get that job. Then I became similarly an unpaid war correspondent with the Canadian Army on behalf of The Ottawa Citizen.

How long did you work at the Free Press?

I worked at the Free Press two or three years. While I was at university.

Were you a reporter?

Yes, I was a reporter. The Free Press used to have what it called a bull dog edition, which was the previous evening’s paper with a new front page with whatever the exciting headline in the morning was. So you got your morning paper and in it there was something very exciting. This meant really sub-editing the front page and re-writing the headline.

I understand that you also were involved in the Winnipeg strike.

Yes, but not as a Free Press reporter. I didn’t cover the strike trials either but after the Winnipeg strike I became the labour reporter in Manitoba and got to know the labour people very well.

I understand you knew the top people at the Free Press.

Mr. E. H. Macklin was on the business side. I don’t remember him very well. He was the chief. A very distinguished man, not tall, with a little white Van Dyke beard. At times I saw him on the elevator. He was a very pleasant man to me as a junior reporter. Sir Clifford Sifton was the owner. I never saw him during the time I was there in the old building (on Carlton Street). I saw him a number of times in Ottawa but not to my memory in Winnipeg. Mr. John W. Dafoe was the big figure. He was not only a great editor but had clear, strong views on policy. He was well known as a splendid human being, a big man, rusty hair.

His hair was always disheveled I understand.

Oh yes. His hair was wild and flowing. A French Canadian journalist in the Ottawa press gallery once described Mr. Dafoe as “a Viking with hair wild and flowing as he fought with a huge sword defending the ramparts against the invader.”

How did you get the job at the Free Press?

I got my job with Mr. Dafoe through this paper that the students turned out. It was a daily. I was the editor. We had a club which brought back people not only from Manitoba University but from other universities and it was called the Associated Universities Club. We’d have dinner and a speaker in one of the hotels and during the period when the daily papers were not appearing, Mr. Dafoe was the speaker talking on Canadian independence. I reported him as the editor of a newspaper “formerly” published in Winnipeg. When I was finished my school term I went to see the Free Press news editor, Wilson Blue, and he said, “Spry, Spry. I’ve got a note about you from the Chief.” He fiddled around in his lower drawer and pulled out a piece of copy paper and there written on it was “Chief wishes to see Spry who is bound to come around looking for a job this summer”, or words to that effect. So Blue said, “you may not enjoy this. It’s something you wrote about.” So I was taken in. Dafoe, his bronze hair drooped down over his left forehead and eye, looked at me and said, “are you the person who wrote that story about me in The Manitoban?”

“Yes Sir.”

“You’re looking for a job?”

“Yes Sir.”

“This Summer?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Now?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Go tell Wilson Blue that you employed at $25 a week.” This was huge. It was terrific. Other reporters had been there for years and didn’t get much more than $15. So here I was starting off at the aristocratic pay at $25. They kept me on all the time I was at Manitoba University. I did a little for them every day but when exams came along they would just say, “well run off and you’ll get paid, but you go and write your exams.” They were extremely kind and marvelous people in the Free Press. Mr. Dafoe was the greatest. Then there was Wilson Blue who was a splendid old time, rather gentlemanly newspaperman. There was Mr. Dafoe’s brother, Rance. There was an elderly man who was the Features Editor, I think it was Walter Kane. He was a charming person. I used to write bits on Manitoba history for his weekly sections. I wrote on the Battle of Seven Oaks where the Selkirk settlers were attacked by Indians and Métis under Cuthbert Grant. Several were killed.

Do you remember John Conklin at the Free Press? He was also a stringer for out-of-town papers.

I do, yes. I remember him. He was certainly older than I was by a long shot. He was around. There was a photographer named Harry Steele. There was a sports editor who was a Scotsman, a very good golfer. I wrote about a university hockey team. Some class team won over another class team. I was very excited about the great victory and I put it all in the historic present. This Scotsman later was the clerk of the legislature in Regina. He wrote me a savage note about writing so excitedly about a mere hockey game.

Let me ask you about the Winnipeg Tribune. Its owner was R. L. Richardson and its editor was John Moncrief.

Yes, I remember Mr. Moncrief very well. Southams bought out the Tribune in 1920. At one time it brought up an American editor. Then the Free Press did the same … brought up two very violent men. They wrote big headlines. They sat in their office, chewed cigars, swore loudly and we didn’t like them at all. The Tribune had a much smaller educated American editor. The Tribune wanted a cooler, saner type of journalism. This was all competition for circulation. But the Free Press editors were headline editors, not editorial writers. They always sat around with their hats on, chewing cigars and cursing, as I said, very loudly. I can’t remember their names at all. They were also quite healthy drinkers and came in with strong breath any time during the day. The headlines all became very sensational.

When the Southams took over the Tribune, which must have been around 1920, Mr. Wesley McCurdy came. His brother was a policeman, a superintendent or inspector. One day in a very dark and early hour I got a phone call from the Free Press morning city editor, Abby Cwo, to meet him at the corner of Portage and Main because there had been a murder at the Stockyards Hotel. Harry Steele, Abby and myself got there and it was pitch dark, a very cold morning. We got into the hotel went up to the first floor and in the back bedroom Wesley McCurdy’s brother, who was with the police, had gone in to arrest a famous American gangster. The Stockyards’ Hotel was in fact a house of prostitution and when the police rushed in the gangster was in bed with a woman. When McCurdy forced the door open and went in, the criminal pulled a revolver from under his pillow and shot McCurdy many times. McCurdy fell over the radiator and the criminal escaped. So when we got there, there was nothing but a mass of frozen blood on the floor and on the radiator. I remember being very upset by it. So I came downstairs and the others photographed things. Abby Cwo went back to the Free Press to put the bulldog issue out. We also phoned some stuff in. Abby told me to stay by the phone. The Winnipeg Tribune telephoned and I answered and said there was nothing I could say. This was a rival newspaper and every time they phoned I told them there was nothing I could say. Then the inspector of the police came along and with language I can’t repeat asked what I was doing there and I said, “I am with the Free Press.”

He said, “get out!” so I was thrown out. That was my great murder story. I’ve forgotten the name of the criminal.

Did they catch him?

They didn’t catch him in Winnipeg. He made his way out to the railway tracks and hitch hiked so to speak back to the United States. He was shot I think in one the railway yards at Chicago a couple of years later. He had a famous name. It was not a name like Dillinger but he was someone very famous … I’m glad I didn’t meet him in the Stockyards Hotel.

There was a third daily, the Winnipeg Telegram. During the big strike a fellow named Knox Magee was the editor.

Yes. There was also a person we always knew as Major Moore. He was an Irishman, a very charming man with a splendid style. He was with the Telegram until it shut down and then I believe he moved over to the Free Press.

Was he an editor?

I think he was a contributing editor. He wrote for the editorial page. He may have also written editorials.

The Telegram was conservative.

Very much a conservative paper.

The Free Press was a liberal paper.

Yes, it was.

The Tribune. How would you describe it?

The Tribune on the whole tended to be conservative. It was in the middle of the road.

What about the rivalry between the three papers? Was it mainly between the Free Press and the Tribune, with the Telegram sort of third?

The Free Press dominated the papers and still does. It very much was the voice of the prairies and Dafoe was its great spokesman. It had an influence quite unmatched by any other paper certainly in the West and I would think almost in Canada. It had very clear editorial columns. It said what it meant very clearly. Didn’t ride both sides. In a sense it was one of the last journals of opinion and Dafoe was its accepted voice … in the election of 1911 when the owner of the paper, Sir Clifford Sifton, was in favour of Reciprocity, Dafoe ran the Free Press. Dafoe was a great free trader but … he and Sifton were on opposite poles (of this issue and Dafoe had his way) which speaks well for the independence and measure of strength that Dafoe had as editor.

How about Macklin’s political leaning?

I don’t know but I would have thought they were very much Liberal.

In Winnipeg, the Canadian Press had a small operation.

In my time, some three years, you made a duplicate of every story. If you wrote a story about the Stockyards’ murder you put your piece of carbon paper in and the copy was taken into the next room where the Canadian Press lad was. He would cut it down to what was appropriate for the different Canadian Press services and it would be sent over the wire.

Mr. Fred Livesay was the CP manager in the west in Winnipeg.

Yes. He became head of the Canadian Press. His office was then in Toronto. He was a very fine person, a very good newspaperman, and a very pleasant human being … and he would be around Winnipeg in my time.

Speaking of CP, during the Winnipeg strike newspapers weren’t functioning for four, five to six days … yet news was getting out under the Canadian Press byline. Would the CP have its own reporters there?

Well, I wasn’t on the Free Press during the strike but I presume the reporters were there and being paid and they would feed the stories to the Canadian Press which would go on the Canadian Press line.

Do you remember M. E. Nichols of the Tribune?

Yes.

Was he a deep Tory?

Oh yes, very much so. The line for a newspaper like the Tribune was to put the point of view that the Free Press did not.

How about William Ivens, the editor of the strikers’ paper during the Winnipeg strike?

You mean The Western Labor News.

Yes. Did you know him?

I remember him. I did not meet him during the strike but got to know him in the summer after the strike.

Was he a man given to wild rhetoric?

No. He was a sensible man. Not flamboyant … he gave me the impression that he thought over what he would say.

Do you know why he was removed as the editor of The Western Labor News?

No … but I remember that James S. Woodsworth wrote for The Western Labor News.

How about John Queen? He was business manager for The Western Labor News.

I didn’t know that. He became Mayor of Winnipeg. He was a good man, very sensible … a good speaker. As well as F. J. Dixon …

Fred Dixon also wrote for The Western Labor News.

… and also became Mayor of Winnipeg. [Fred Dixon was never Mayor of Winnipeg though he and John Queen were both elected to the Manitoba Legislature in 1920. Queen was Mayor of Winnipeg from 1935-1936 and from 1938-1942.]

Page revised: 24 April 2011

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