Manitoba Historical Society
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Harry Cater: The Personification of the Successful Municipal Politician?

by Dr. Leland Clark
Brandon, Manitoba

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 35, 1978-79 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Harry William Cater - pioneer and long-time resident of Brandon; prominent community worker; active lay minister in the Congregational church; candidate for municipal office on innumerable occasions between 1902 and 1939; twice an unsuccessful candidate for election to the Manitoba legislature; and mayor of his adopted community for an unprecedented eighteen years. Perhaps an examination of Cater's political career - which spanned four decades of Brandon's early history-will explain his unequalled success as a municipal politician and, as an aside, provide some understanding as to why his "Dominion Wide" record [1] did not lead to local acclaim.

Born in Whittingdon, Norfolk, England on December 4, 1869, young Harry Cater emigrated to St. Thomas, Ontario at age eighteen. From there he moved to Brandon in 1889, where, within four years, he began to establish a pump manufacturing business, an association which he maintained until his death. In 1907, he married Miss E. J. Heal, a union which subsequently produced two sons and three daughters. While his family was obviously an important part of his life (as evidenced by the fact that time spent at home was strictly "family time"), Cater's family and his political world were apparently kept quite distinct. [2] It is the public Harry Cater that is now of historical interest.

Cater's early community involvement was probably not atypical of his fellow businessmen. Certainly he was an active member of the Congregational Church: his diary entries record that Sunday was reserved for church attendance (twice, perhaps three times a day) where he frequently, as lay minister, conducted the service and delivered the sermon. In later years, he was active both in the Red Cross and the Returned Soldiers Association. In addition, his name was frequently mentioned as a participant in the affairs of the local Liberal association [3] - at least until the war years when his party affiliation became somewhat obscured. Finally, he - like many of his fellow businessmen - displayed an interest in municipal politics. [4]

While Harry Cater's political record was surely "unexceptional" by most criteria in 1913 - the year in which he first stood for the mayoralty, [5] this small businessman (his staff numbered only four to five employees) was somewhat unique in that he was emerging as a self-styled voice of the workingman. For example, he strongly criticized the decision of the council to reduce the wages of 300 city-employed labourers, arguing that the burden of the 1913 recession was being disproportionately placed upon the shoulders of the working man. Furthermore, he, as a mayoralty candidate, advocated "open government," [6] a "fair wage" clause in civic contracts, [7] public ownership as a principle, [8] and a five and one-half day work week. [9] However, the principal issue in this particular mayoralty election was the doubling of local taxes which had occurred within the year. As a result, Brandon had the "highest rate [of property taxes] of any municipality in Western Canada." [10] Consequently, Brandon voters had to choose between Cater - the self-proclaimed friend of the working class and Alderman Hughes - one of the city's largest businessmen (with one hundred employees), a major taxpayer and an advocate of reduced taxation. Although Cater won in the working class sector, he trailed badly in the central "business" sector and, thus, lost the election. [11]

Whereas many (if not most) municipal politicians might have abandoned the field after their third electoral defeat, Harry Cater seemingly never questioned his commitment to public life. When the annual mayoralty election occurred again late in 1914, he once more stood for office, his fifth election in six years. On this, his second bid for the mayoralty, he succeeded or, to be more precise, the other candidate lost! While Mayor Hughes, the victor of the 1913 mayoralty campaign, did not seek re-election in 1914, Alderman McDonald the chairman of the finance committee did and McDonald was seemingly held accountable for the alleged misdeeds of the year. Thus, while Hughes had campaigned on a policy of economy in 1913, taxes had, in fact, been raised rather than reduced. The mayor and council had also authorized a "civic survey" at an expense of $6,872, the results of which were subsequently described as "a huge and costly joke." [12] Several hundred electors had been disenfranchised due to a costly "mix-up in the voters' list" [13] and finally, there was the continuing disappointment that the recently inaugurated street railway system had continually incurred an operating deficit since its inception. Mayoralty candidate Cater could, of course, absolve himself of responsibility for most of these contentious decisions (as he had not been in office) and he seized every opportunity to remind the electors that he alone had opposed the civic survey when he was an alderman. [14] Consequently, the Brandon Sun (which had opposed Cater, the "working class" candidate in 1913) now applauded the ex-alderman as "a diligent worker" with "sound business reasoning." [15] While Cater was obviously amenable to such endorsations, he (the self-designed "people's candidate") pointedly reminded the electors that he was not "a Rosser Avenue candidate" but he would give the business sector "its fair share." [16] Having thus broadened his political appeal beyond that of the working class to include an appeal to civic economy and sound business judgment, Harry Cater increased his vote by 46.5% and, in doing so, won a decisive victory. [17]

The years 1914-1918 proved to be what could be described as the first "Cater era" in Brandon's municipal history as the new mayor served for an unprecedented four successive years. Significantly, the new mayor (presumably on the eve of his accession to office) described on the front cover of his diary for 1915 what he entitled the "qualification for Public [sic] office. [18] Those qualities, in the order in which he listed them, were "1. Honesty 2. Capacity 3. Experience 4. Tact." [19] Whether Cater could personally fulfill these qualifications and whether they would lead to success remained to be determined.

Cater's first era of personal domination coincided with the war years and that war contributed significantly to his political success. For example, Cater had co-opted the policies of civic economy and retrenchment as an integral part of his platform and when he warned that such measures would be necessary "while the war lasted," [20] it was difficult (if not impossible) for the patriotic to oppose him. Furthermore, while the Sun commended the mayor and aldermen for their "good government," [21] one suspects that the uncontested 1915 municipal election was due, at least in part, to a war-induced sense of unity. However, the harmony which had prevailed during Cater's first year in office was seriously threatened in 1916 by the two unrelated issues of Daylight Savings Time and a proposal to have the city relieve the local Y.M.C.A. of its heavy debt load. In both cases, the issues somewhat divided the city along class lines. For example, the Y.M.C.A. proposal was supported by the Sun and the city's most prominent businessmen [22] while Cater and the working class opposed the scheme which, in the words of the mayor, was designed "to save A. E. Mackenzie and a few of his friends." [23] On the other hand, 80% of the labouring class allegedly supported D.S.T., whereas local businessmen and Mayor Cater did not. [24] Consequently, this small businessman was subsequently accused of being "one of the greatest friends of corporations in the city [although] he had been elected by the votes of the working men." [25] However, there arose a new war related issue in the latter stages of the 1916 mayoralty election campaign which distracted the electors' attention from such divisive and dangerous (for Cater) topics. At an east end ward one electors' meeting, mayoralty hopeful Alderman Fisher was asked how much money he had donated to the Patriotic Fund [26] and to the Returned Soldiers Fund. Although Fisher angrily charged that the mayor had "planted" someone to ask this "contemptible" question in a deplorable attempt "to exploit the war in the present election," [27] the alderman's heated assertion that his family had sacrificed as much as any other (despite the fact that he had not contributed to the charities in question) was apparently inadequate. Certainly Mayor Cater kept the issue alive by asking the electorate to speculate on local recruitment results "if all citizens had acted similarly toward the Patriotic Fund as Ald [sic] Fisher had." [28] One suspects that those who might have been inclined to vote against the mayor for either of his controversial stands earlier in the year were now distracted by this election-eve loyalty issue. Surely the war contributed - at least in part - to Mayor Cater's one-sided victory. [29]

Without doubt, the conscription crisis, the formation of the Unionist government and the wartime election were the principal concerns of most Canadians in 1917 and this was equally true in Brandon. In fact, municipal politics was seemingly of little interest as a result. Nevertheless, local politicians, such as Mayor Cater, could be affected by these developments. First of all, a mayor is conceived to be a person of some political consequence and he could logically be considered as a potential candidate for "higher" political office. [30] However, the fact that Cater polled only 6 of the 168 votes cast on the first ballot at the Unionist nominating convention in Brandon suggests that he was only a token candidate. That meeting failed, however, to reach agreement [31] and Cater was subsequently urged by many citizens to convene a non-partisan convention. As a result, Harry Cater as mayor of the dominant community within the federal constituency of Brandon did call a meeting of all mayors and reeves within the constituency and they, in turn, planned and conducted a "win the war" nominating convention which subsequently selected Dr. H. P. Whidden of Brandon College to be the Unionist candidate. [32] Thus, Brandon's mayor had played a prominent role in the local "win the war" movement and when he suggested that the "wartime crisis" made a contested municipal election undesirable, [33] Brandon electors apparently concurred. [34]

However, economic and political conditions changed dramatically in the last year of the war. Labour unrest became more pronounced as Brandon letter carriers went on strike briefly in mid-year, despite the wishes of their national executive. [35] Proposals to ban locally the sale of land for tax arrears in 1918 were angrily rejected as a "Bolsheviski ideal." [36] Relations between aldermen and the mayor had deteriorated to such an extent that the Sun concluded that "the Mayor's attitude towards civic business is the chief hindrance [sic] under which the city struggles." [37] The mayoralty election was also fought with an uncharacteristic ferocity, [38] as if the termination of the war meant equally the abandonment of a war-induced political lull. The fact that Cater's opponents selected A. R. McDiarmid a member of an established family, [39] a major businessman [40] and the current president of the Board of Trade - suggests that the business community no longer found Harry Cater to be "a diligent worker ... with sound business reasoning" [41] as it had in 1914! The fact that Cater was defeated 961 to 755 by the business vote [42] suggests that Cater, the former unity candidate, was - by 1918 - more narrowly perceived as the voice of the working class-and, as such, he would be unsuccessful. [43] The era of the Great War had ended. Had the era of Harry Cater likewise ended?

If any of Harry Cater's critics had hoped that the forty-nine year old ex-mayor would retire after this defeat, they were to be severely disappointed. Rather than defer to the will of the electorate, Harry Cater stood for the mayoralty in 1919 and although he lost, he ran again, and won, in 1921. Harry Cater's political perseverance was becoming his most predominant characteristic and that characteristic in itself explains much of this politician's extraordinary record.

The 1919 mayoralty election in which Cater lost to fellow businessman George Dinsdale was significant due to the manner in which the Brandon community was divided on economic issues. The four-year war was over and many city promoters - including the Sun - looked to the future and the growth that it would bring. Labour, on the other hand, clearly perceived itself as a principal victim of the war and, as a result, Western Canada, Brandon included, had experienced the painful division of the general strikes. Curiously, although labour had suffered a severe setback in the city's two "general strikes," working class consciousness had obviously been intensified as a result of the strikes. Consequently, both of the mayoralty candidates made a sustained bid for labour support. For example, Alderman Dinsdale (who had been on council in 1919 but who, presumably for business reasons, had missed many of the contentious meetings in the more difficult days of the strike) advertised himself to be a "labor man"-although he qualified that assertion by noting that he had opposed the second general strike as strongly as he had supported the first. [44] However, labourites such as the Rev. A. E. Smith [45] and railway employee (and ex-Conservative) Robert Crawford contended that Dinsdale was, in reality, the "candidate of the Board of Trade and the Brandon Sun." [46] Certainly Dinsdale was the choice of those who sought the city's growth as the Sun bitterly criticized Cater's pre-occupation with civic economy (which the Sun described as his "cheese-paring tendencies" [47]) as it "unfit him [Cater] for leadership in a period of [anticipated postwar] expansion and development." [48] The results indicate that Cater was, in fact, the labour candidate but that that support, in itself, was insufficient as Dinsdale - who polled the "development" vote triumphed in this post-war election. [49]

However, economic conditions and, thus, political considerations had been altered by 1921. Taxes had risen sharply - even exorbitantly - during Dinsdale's two year term [50] and the growth in the city's bank overdraft (due to the declining percentage of tax collections) was a matter of considerable civic concern. [51] The fact that Cater did substantially better in the pro-business central sector of the city in 1921 [52] than he had in 1919 suggests that development had proved to be too costly! The need for "civic economy and retrenchment" had returned (as in 1914)!

Harry Cater's victory in 1921 constituted the beginning of the second stage in the saga of Brandon's most successful municipal politician. Having repeatedly refused to be deterred by defeat, Cater was back in office for what proved to be a decade of uninterrupted civic power. It was during this decade that Mayor Cater established himself as a political institution, the man who was seemingly unbeatable. Wherein lay the explanation for this success: in his policies, in his personal characteristics, in his political skills, in the prosperity of the era, or in a combination thereof?

Certainly the political significance of his repeated emphasis on civic economy and reduced taxation has been noted and these policies were important in the aftermath of the post-war boom. Mayor Cater set the tone for his new administration by immediately announcing that he would not accept the Mayor's salary (of $1,200) due to the crisis. [53] Some civic positions were abolished while other departments suffered cutbacks in personnel; [54] a general 12½% reduction in civic salaries was implemented; [55] - a proposal to return the street cars to "the barns" was considered; [56] and the current school board budget was suddenly slashed by a total of $42,000. [57] Although this sudden reduction in the school board budget necessitated an immediate 25% reduction in teachers' salaries which in turn led to "the 1922 teachers' strike," Harry Cater succeeded in remaining above the fray. In fact, he assumed the role of arbitrator between the teachers and the school board. [58] When the 1922 municipal elections occurred, Mayor Cater - now enjoying the endorsation of both the Brandon Sun and a pro-business Citizens' Committee - swept all the city's polls except the city's north and ethnic area (which George Dinsdale captured). [59] In the words of one of Cater's subsequent opponents, much of Cater's political appeal could be explained by the presence in the city of many "retired farmers [who were for] keeping down taxes, there was your railroad men [who were for] keeping down taxes, and I suspect there was a few damned tight businessmen on Rosser Avenue that did the same thing and he [Cater] wasn't beatable really." [60] As high taxes were largely identified with civic development rather than social services in this pre-Depression decade and as few were concerned with the implications of a growing civic indebtedness [61] Cater's pre-occupation with civic economy may indeed have had the broad appeal which ex-Alderman J. H. Donnelly suggested. [62]

Another principal characteristic of Cater's mayoralty (and one which contributed to his success) was his pronounced tendency to perceive himself and to be seen as the "tribune" of the people. For example, the electorate in 1922 had approved the city manager system of administration by such a slight margin (1,753 to 1,559) that critics of the proposal continued their campaign in the hope that council could be persuaded that the expense could not be justified. Cater, who had been a rather lukewarm convert to the proposal as long as "a suitable man is secured to fill the position," [63] was, however, adamant that he must act in accordance with the electorate's decision; if he did not, "I would be taking a step detrimental to responsible government." [64]

Perhaps the most publicized example of the mayor's inclination to side with the individual was "the Chalmers case." Although the details of this dispute, which simmered throughout the late 1920s, may well have eluded many of the electorate, the fact that Mayor Cater fought a campaign of several years duration on behalf of an alleged victim of bureaucratic injustice against a united council was clearly evident. Chalmers, having been in a recurring dispute with the city over the amount of taxes levied against his farm property which was located within city boundaries, sought to have his property transferred to the neighbouring R.M. of Cornwallis. The facts were indeed confusing (as the dispute extended back in time to 1905) but Mayor Cater was obviously convinced of the merits of Chalmers appeal - so convinced, in fact, that a committee of the provincial legislature was subjected to the surely confusing spectacle of the City of Brandon being represented before it by two opposing groups - a delegation of aldermen and the city manager purportedly presenting the city's official position versus the mayor who was in total disagreement. [65] The results of that dispute are not as significant as the imagery which was projected that of Mayor Cater who stood on behalf of the individual (or his widow after Chalmers died) versus all officialdom. Harry Cater surely, in the eyes of many, stood on the side of "good" in contest with "evil."

An immense amount of Cater's political strength was due to an exceedingly strong sense of conviction: in the words of one member of his family, "If he had made up his mind that anything was right he never moved, you just couldn't argue with him." [66] While there were numerous instances in which the mayor declared council motions "out of order" or exercised his power of veto whenever he and the aldermen were not of like mind, the contentious and lingering dispute between the mayor and the Salvation Army illustrates his determination to maintain his position to the last possible moment. In 1918, during Cater's earlier administration, council had agreed to pay $100 per month to the Salvation Army to act as the City's "relief agent." [67] In 1926 the city solicitor had questioned whether council had the authority (under the terms of the municipal act) to make financial grants to such civic organizations. Although the aldermen were unanimous in their desire to continue this arrangement on an interim basis pending receipt of the legal opinion of the relevant provincial authorities, Mayor Cater employed every tactic available to him to prevent the payment of such funds. On one occasion after his veto had been unanimously over-ruled-he withdrew to the spectators' gallery from which position he frequently interrupted proceedings. [68] In other instances, turbulent meetings were abruptly adjourned. When the city solicitor's legal opinion was not in the mayor's favour, Cater attempted (in vain) to secure his dismissal. [69] Although the mayor did authorize such payments in late December 1927, in anticipation of a court ruling requiring him to do so, [70] he, with the occasional support of one or two aldermen, had successfully thwarted council for over a year.

Mayor Cater demonstrated a comparable sense of conviction (or stubbornness depending on one's choice of words) in his relationship with City Manager Fawkes. Ironically the mayor had supported the appointment of such an administrator and he had even been anxious that his authority should be extended to include the right of appointment and dismissal of civic employees. [71] Within a relatively short period of time, however, mayor and city manager were in conflict with each other. The differences were numerous. Mayor Cater, who had been appointed to the Manitoba Power Commission in mid 1924, [72] was a committed advocate of the provincially-owned system and a constant critic of the American-owned Canada Gas and Electric Company that had been servicing the Brandon community. The investor-owned local company had offered to buy and operate the city-owned street railway system (an offer which was obviously designed to further the company's bid for a renewed power contract with the city) but Mayor Cater vehemently criticized the company's assessment of the street railway system's "salvage" value, an assessment which the city manager believed to be generous. [73] These two officials also differed on the merits of the competing bids by the publicly-owned Manitoba "Hydro" system and the local - but American - owned company. The proffered agreements and the ensuing debate were of such a nature that it is difficult, in retrospect, to determine conclusively which arrangement would have been moss profitable to the community but the fact that the city was deeply divided on this issue (with the mayor and "labour" being strenuously opposed by the Sun and many of the city's leading businessmen) is clearly evident. At the request of council, City Manager Fawkes publicly expressed his preference for the local company's proposal and, by doing so, widened the gap between himself and the mayor.

As the city manager was on occasion extremely indiscreet in his remarks (as when he publicly referred to the mayor's "puny knowledge" [74]), the conflict could not be easily resolved. While the Mayor's frequent threats to abolish the very position of city manager [75] went unfulfilled, Cater ultimately triumphed in late 1928 when Fawkes resigned to accept a position as city commissioner in Moose Jaw. Harry Cater had found the city manager to be a rival for both civic power and for public acclaim. [76] But Brandon's veteran mayor had outlasted his opponent and, by doing so, he had again demonstrated the political significance of his unwavering determination to persevere.

The strength which Cater enjoyed as a result of his sense of conviction was reinforced by his powers of office. As mayor he enjoyed the tactical advantage of being able to postpone or prolong the decision-making process whenever it was to his advantage. City Manager Fawkes having resigned, several aldermen urged that the vacancy be immediately advertised. With the assistance of the Independent Labor Party (I.L.P.) aldermen, Cater succeeded in securing an agreement that the city manager's job description should again be debated and a plebiscite conducted to re-determine public opinion. Although it was agreed that this plebiscite would be conducted in late March, this plan was postponed until the legislature approved certain amendments that would facilitate a debenture vote being conducted at the same time. [77] A further delay resulted when the mayor suggested that the divisive question of the most appropriate stand pipe for the city water works system could be resolved by the same plebiscite. [78] When it was agreed to postpone the stand pipe issue until the regular fall election, the mayor proposed that the as yet unresolved power question be placed on the ballot; however, the need for more information on the Power Commission's latest proposal meant a necessary postponement of the previously established August 2 date. [79] Then, surely to the consternation of his critics, Mayor Cater concluded - in late 1929 - that the decision on the re-appointment of a city manager was solely council's responsibility and, hence, there should be no plebiscite after all. [80] When council did support the system by a 6-3 vote (after a duration of almost one year since word of Fawkes's resignation had been received), Mayor Cater vetoed that decision on the grounds that the proposed expenditure could no longer be justified. [81] When council nullified Mayor Cater's veto, an I.L.P. organized petition bearing the names of 940 Brandonites who were in opposition to the city manager system was presented to the suddenly hesitant council. Then there arose a new and time-occupying question of whether the city could legally conduct plebiscites, an issue that required a referral to the legislature. [82] When it was determined that ratepayers alone were entitled to vote on plebiscites which could lead to the expenditure of funds, [83] plans were made for an autumn 1930 plebiscite - a proposal which Mayor Cater attempted (this time in vain) to postpone at the last moment on the grounds that the voters were going to be confused by the numerous (i.e., five) questions on the ballot. [84] Finally, some two years after Fawkes's resignation and at a moment of growing economic concern in late 1930, the city manager proposal was brought before the electorate and rejected. [85] Perhaps Mayor Cater's delaying tactics had been unnecessarily extended, but he had clearly succeeded.

While Mayor Cater was frequently in conflict with various interest groups in the community during this decade, he was - as subsequent events indicated - very much in step with public opinion on several of these occasions. For example, while he had strenuously opposed the power proposal of the American-owned Canada Gas and Electric Company and, by doing so, the alliance of businessmen, aldermen and the Sun that had supported the local company's proposition, the subsequent vote of local ratepayers (in which the Canada Gas and Electric Company proposal was defeated 861 to 128 [86]) verified that Mayor Cater was obviously expressing the majority view in promoting what he described as "cheap power." Even in the instance of the city manager form of administration, Mayor Cater's increasingly constant criticism of the system was eventually affirmed by the electorate. Furthermore, it is interesting that he was re-elected by acclamation in 1925 shortly after the Canada Gas and Electric Company vote and that he won handily in 1930, the election which marked the demise of the controversial city manager system. [87] Thus, Mayor Cater was seemingly the political beneficiary of his outspoken and unequivocal association with these contentious - but popular - issues. [88]

This second Cater era did not end until 1931 when the first real impact of the Depression became evident in municipal politics. Curiously, although there were signs of economic difficulties as early as late 1929 in terms of increasing unemployment and relief costs, [89] the political impact of the Depression in Brandon does not seem to have been pronounced at first. Certainly the Sun had repeatedly publicized what it regarded as the worrisome pattern of the annual overdrafts that allegedly had increased every year in which "the mayor is the dictator to the council." [90] Furthermore, Cater's 1930 mayoralty opponent - Alderman F. R. Longworth - loudly proclaimed that the mayor's recalcitrant refusal to pay the newly established municipal commissioner's levy in full [91] was costing the city dearly as the Bracken government was reducing its relief payments to Brandon proportionally. Yet there seemed to be little evidence to indicate that these cries of alarm were being seriously regarded. [92] For example, city ratepayers voted to continue operating the street railway system (even though its estimated deficit for 1930 was $51,000 [93]) and there was no evident public reaction to council's decision to re-establish annual salaries for themselves, a practice that had been abandoned in 1922. [94] In fact, the 1930 mayoralty election in which Mayor Cater easily defeated Alderman Longworth suggests that nothing had yet changed in Brandon. The voters obviously had accepted Cater's assertion that "Brandon is financially strong ..." [95]

What, then, happened in 1931 to end Mayor Cater's unprecedented record of successful mayoralty elections? First of all, the Depression had arrived in Brandon as demonstrated by a 871% increase in the number of families on relief in August 1931 as contrasted with one year previous. [96] Furthermore, Mayor Cater's campaign (as council was at best a reluctant and fearful ally) against the municipal commissioner's levy had ended in failure when Brandon had lost its case before the Manitoba Court of Appeal in 1931. [97] It was, it would appear, an embarrassing moment for many Brandonites.

In addition, the city's over-all financial position seemed much more disturbing by 1931. The results for the previous year indicated that the deficit of $384,770 had proven to be much larger than anticipated - due, it would appear, to an excessively optimistic estimation of tax revenues. [98] When Brandon sought authorization to refund a portion of the long-term debt that was due in 1931, provincial officials strongly suggested consideration again be given to the termination of the street railway system. Although Mayor Cater supported the discontinuation of this service (as the ratepayers subsequently proved that they did as well [99]), he could no longer claim, as he had just a few months before, that "Brandon is financially sound." [100]

The unprecedented interest in municipal politics which was evident in 1931 - both in the fact that some six hundred people had attended the organizational meeting of the "anti-Cater" Brandon Progress Association and in the unprecedented number (i.e., 6391, an increase of 56.6% over the 1930 total [101]) of ballots cast was presumably a direct response to these changed conditions. The 4,003 voters who went to the polls to support Ed Fotheringham, an ex-alderman and a prominent businessman, were undoubtedly convinced that a change was necessary, that "a man of municipal experience who will have the respect and co-operation of his colleagues" was needed. [102] However, while the sharp increase in the anti-Cater vote of 151.4% (over 1930 or 115.6% greater than 1927, the year of its previous crest) was more than sufficient to defeat Brandon's veteran mayor in this election, Cater's own support - despite the Depression - had remained remarkably constant (as his 2,358 votes were a reduction of only 5.3% from his 1930 total).

That Harry Cater was able to recover the mayoralty in Brandon in late 1933 (to what was as of this election - a two year term) and, subsequently, to win re-election in 1935, is surprising and somewhat puzzling. But it must be remembered that the combination of Cater's unswerving perseverance and the demonstrated loyalty of his core strength (i.e., those 2,000 to 2,400 voters who had supported him throughout the decade [103]) seemingly meant that he was a strong contender, if not a likely winner, in any mayoralty election he contested unless those who opposed him were capable of polling an extraordinarily large anti-Cater vote. However, by 1933 the controversial dispute with the Bracken government over the municipal commissioner's levy was "past history" [104] and, thus, much of the impetus which had generated the unprecedented electoral interest in 1931 was diminished. Furthermore, Mayor Fotheringham had declined to stand again (having agreed to a second term in 1932 only under considerable pressure [105]). Thus the mantle fell, by default, to Alderman F. H. Young, a weaker candidate, whom Cater had already defeated rather handily five years before. As the Depression continued unabated (a fact that surely absolved Cater, the perennial candidate, of particular responsibility for the depressed economic conditions), the choice in 1933 (as it had been in 1928) essentially was between the veteran Cater and his challenger F. H. Young and the voters responded as they had done before - and in almost the exact proportion. [106]

The mid years of the 1930s spelled doom for several prominent Canadian politicians. Why, therefore, was Brandon's Mayor Cater able to escape the wrath of the voters in 1935 - on the eve of the city's financial collapse? First of all, much of the political flak which inevitably resulted in this Depression era was seemingly focused on that unfortunate alderman who became the chairman of the city's relief committee. Thus, in 1934, Alderman James Gidding, the ill-fated chairman of the moment, finished last in a field of seven, [107] while Alderman Grant, who had had the dubious honour of being selected to replace Giddings as chairman, was similarly punished when he came before the electorate in 1936. [108] Secondly, Mayor Cater had continued to advocate the policies of civic economy and reduced taxation (i.e., the tax rate had been reduced by one mill since Cater had been returned to office in 1933) that had been his benchmark since the war years. In fact, he was part of a two-man special committee that recommended (on the eve of the 1935 election) rather severe civic staff cut-backs and a reduction in staff salaries [109] - a proposal that could have been politically significant to struggling taxpayers in that financially troubled election year. Furthermore, council had already seriously considered seeking the appointment of a provincially appointed financial administrator who would assume all the responsibilities of local government. [110] Under these circumstances, the 1935 mayoralty election would be of minor significance and the fact that only the rather hapless ex-Alderman Giddings opposed Cater may well have been perceived to be inconsequential. [111]

The city's financial crisis reached a climax in early 1936 and the beleaguered council appealed to the provincial government for the appointment of a provincial administrator (who would, in fact, replace the mayor and aldermen). [112] As the Bracken government (once the 1936 provincial election was safely concluded) chose to appoint the province's former treasurer E. A. McPherson as a financial supervisor rather than as financial administrator, mayor and council continued in office, albeit with limited spending responsibilities. Although even more stringent fiscal policies were enforced, the city was unable to meet its financial obligations in 1937. Consequently, the city was obliged to default on the interest payable to its creditors and to delete the annual sinking fund payment. [113]

Mayor Cater's political career was nearing its end. He who had occupied the mayoralty for all but two of the last sixteen years could hardly escape responsibility for the end result - although his constant critic during the last decade (the pro-development Sun) implied that the democratic process should share in the blame as "the dictator of ruinous policies in the past decade or more was warmly supported at the polls ..." [114] The Harry Cater of previous election campaigns would have directly attacked the local newspaper and its claim that his economic policies, rather than the Depression, was largely responsible for the crisis. Instead, in a desperate attempt to divert the electorate's attention, the sixty-eight year old veteran politician (who had been uncharacteristically absent from his office due to illness [115]) launched a well-publicized but futile "anti-Red" campaign against the Communists who were allegedly seeking control of Brandon's local government. [116] Similar tactics had worked before, as in 1927 when he had described the election as a campaign between himself and the Brandon Sun. [117] But preaching civic economy and attacking "the interests" (i.e., those who advocated "costly" civic development allegedly for selfish reasons) no longer worked. Sadly, many of the faithful had even become doubters, as demonstrated by the fact that his support in 1937 declined sharply to 1,300 votes. Ironically, Mayor Cater had been defeated by the same Alderman F. H. Young whose challenges Cater had so easily turned aside in 1928 and 1933. [118]

Harry Cater had, of course, suffered defeat on numerous other occasions but he, ever persevering, had repeatedly stood again until he had been rewarded by success. In keeping with his character, Cater twice more stood for office as an aldermanic candidate in 1938 [119] and as a mayoralty candidate in 1939. [120] However, the defeat of 1937 proved to be enduring: it could not be overcome by perseverance alone.

Harry Cater the personification of the successful municipal politician? Certainly his unprecedented record of years in office suggests that Mayor Cater had discovered the formula for political success. As a successful businessman, an active member of his community and of his church, Harry Cater personified the typical municipal politician in the pre-war era. While his emphasis on civic economy and retrenchment was misguided according to those who saw the city's future in growth and development, Harry Cater found a ready audience in the aftermath of the 1913 recession and in the wake of the post-war boom. In addition, his preoccupation with low taxation was applauded by many Brandonites - such as the retired farmers, small businessmen and wage earners who did not perceive themselves to be the beneficiaries of costly tax-supported "progress." Furthermore, Harry Cater-as had many of his fellow-citizens had come west as a young emigrant without the benefit of formal education, wealth or connections and he, as a result of his labour and his diligence, had become a successful member of his adopted community but not of its so-called "elite." Thus, when Harry Cater championed the cause of the working man or the little guy as in the Chalmers case, many electors were able to identify with his struggles against the "interests." Consequently, while Mayor Cater's dogmatic and frequently dictatorial ways never lacked critics, those who opposed him and his policies were often perceived to be that same self-interested elite. However, it was Harry Cater's political perseverance that distinguished him so clearly from his contemporaries. Other municipal politicians in Brandon would undoubtedly have enunciated his policies but they lacked the staying power necessary to achieve a record of eighteen years in the mayor's chair.

Brandon's veteran mayor was eventually conquered by two forces which he could not control-the city's financial collapse and the passage of time. Ironically, the memory of this most exceptional municipal politician now grows dim as the city's business elite whom he combatted so successfully in the past have apparently ensured that his political career should remain publicly unrecognized. However, honoured or otherwise, the magnitude of Harry Cater's political success cannot be denied.


1. Winnipeg Free Press, April 3, 1945

2. Interview with Mrs. Ruth Tester, June 14, 1978. Mrs. Tester was Harry Cater's oldest daughter.

3. Cater is occasionally mentioned as attending Liberal meetings and he was one of approximately fifty Brandon Liberals who were to attend the 1910 provincial convention which unanimously elected T. C. Norris as party leader. Brandon Daily Sun, April 1, 1910.

4. For example, he reportedly considered standing as a candidate as early as an aldermanic by-election in 1901 (Ibid., March 25, 1901) and he was publicly critical of a proposal to grant local tax concessions to certain new businesses. Ibid., December 16, 1901

5. In 1902, Cater lost his initial aldermanic contest but his by-election victory (over James Giddings) in 1908 provided him - in essence - with an introductory three-year term as all candidates were re-elected by acclamation the following year. However, Cater was forced by a new "residence" requirement to vacate his ward five seat and, subsequently, he was defeated in his "new" constituency of ward two in 1911. Ward five had consisted of that portion of the city south of Victoria Avenue. Ward two constituted the area lying between 6th and 9th streets and to the north of Victoria Avenue. This ward, while lightly populated (with 684 electors), did, in conjunction with Ward three, "take in the entire business area of the city, and therefore the heaviest taxpayers ..." Ibid., November 19, 1912

6. Some council committee meetings had recently been closed to the press. Ibid., October 10, 1913

7. Alderman Hughes, Cater's opponent, was in agreement.

8. The issue of municipal ownership of the city's proposed street railway system had been a matter of much debate in 1911-1912. Cater's 1913 opponent (Alderman Hughes) had been a consistent advocate of municipal ownership, a principle strongly endorsed by the Trades and Labour Council and, ultimately, by the council and the electorate. The latter voted 716 to 44 in favour of municipal ownership. Brandon Daily Sun, June 14, 1912

9. Hughes did not feel that this proposal was yet practical. Brandon Weekly Sun, November 27, 1913

10. Ibid., November 27, 1913

11. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Cater narrowly won both ward one (the socalled working class area east of 6th street [and north of Victoria]) and ward five (where the city's travellers mostly resided [Ibid., December 18, 1912]) whereas he lost the three central wards (and primarily ward three, Hughes own ward, which reportedly "has a large number of business men within its bounds" [Ibid., September 21, 1912] by a combined vote of 630 to 406. Consequently, Hughes achieved his victory (by a vote of 1243 to 1085) in the central area of the city. Ibid., December 25, 1913. Due to "plural voting" which remained in effect until the abolition of the ward system in 1922, "working class" candidates were at a distinct disadvantage.

12. Ibid., December 8, 1914

13. A new electoral list had been prepared at considerable expense under Alderman McDonald's direction. However, the list was subsequently declared to be invalid due to a failure to publish it sufficiently in advance of polling day. As a result, a previous (and out-dated) list was of necessity used. Ibid.

14. Ibid., December 10, 1914

15. Ibid., December 5, 1914

16. Ibid.

17. Cater polled 1,590 votes to Alderman McDonald's 860. Ibid., December 16, 1914

18. H. W. Cater Diary, 1915

19. Ibid.

20. Brandon Daily Sun, December 11, 1915

21. The Sun editorialized that "Brandon City has been on the whole well governed ..." Ibid., December 15, 1915

22. Ibid., February 22, 1916

23. Ibid., February 22, 1916. Cater, in turn, was accused of attempting "to set class against class." Ibid.

24. Ibid., June 20, 1916

25. Ibid., December 12, 1916

26. The Patriotic Fund was established in 1914 to support the families who were in need as a result of their breadwinners having enlisted.

27. Brandon Daily Sun, December 19, 1916

28. Ibid.

29. Cater polled 1,131 votes to Alderman Fisher's 481. Ibid., December 20, 1916

30. Cater, who failed to secure nomination as a Dominion Labor Party candidate in 1920, did seek election to the Manitoba legislature in both 1927 (as a self designated Brackenite) and 1932 (as an independent) and - according to rumour - he considered standing for labour in the 1921 federal election (Ibid., October 21, 1921) and in opposition to T. A. Crerar in the 1930 federal by-election in Brandon as an "unofficial Conservative." Queens University Archives, T. A. Crerar Papers, Set. 11, Box 81, T. A. Crerar to T. Wayling, January 9, 1930.

31. Liberals and Conservatives were essentially equally divided between the Hon. T. A. Crerar and Sir Augustus Nanton. After fourteen ballots, the meeting was adjourned. Brandon Daily Sun, October 24, 1917

32. Mayor Cater was chairman of the committee of local municipal leaders and he was intensely involved in many of the polling district meetings which were held to select the three voting delegates to which each polling district was entitled. Ibid., November 7, 1917

33. Ibid., November 14, 1917

34. Cater and two veteran aldermen were elected by acclamation - J. B. Curran in ward two and Murdoch McKenzie in ward three. Ibid., December 1, 1917

35. The Board of Trade, in great alarm, telegraphed Ottawa for aid, including the utilization of the military if necessary. Ibid., July 26, 1918

36. Ibid., September 17, 1918

37. Ibid., April 16, 1918

38. The Sun published a page one "notice" in which one "Khater" (a play on the word Kaiser?) proclaimed for himself "all rights and privileges of homestead and pre-emption, including squatter rights to the position of Mayor of the City of Brandon ..." Ibid., November 22, 1918

39. Dr. John McDiarmid, his father, had been mayor of Brandon for five years, 1892-94 and 1899-1900.

40. A. R. "Reg" McDiarmid was a partner with John Clark in a major manufacturing and lumber business. Brandon Daily Sun. July 20, 1907

41. Ibid., December 5, 1914

42. Ward one (i.e., the railway vote [Ibid., November 16, 1918] voted for Cater by 205 to 78. Wards two and three - traditionally viewed as the businessmen's sector - voted (in total) for McDiarmid by 540 to 285. Ibid., November 30, 1918

43. One unusual feature of the 1918 municipal election was the fact that it occurred in the midst of the infamous Spanish flu epidemic. Meetings had been banned and those under quarantine were denied their vote. Ibid., November 28, 1918. Under those circumstances the fact that McDiarmid had a strong "get out the vote" organization while Cater reportedly had none may have been quite consequential. Ibid., November 29, 1918

44. Ibid., November 5, 1919

45. Ibid., November 27, 1919

46. Ibid., November 5, 1919

47. Ibid., November 22, 1919

48. Ibid.

49. Cater won the ward one poll by a vote of 245 to 106, whereas he lost ward two by 272 to 179 and ward three by 254 to 136. Wards four and five were divided exactly equally. Ibid., November 29, 1919

50. The tax rate in 1918 - the last year of Cater's mayoralty - was 25 mills; it was increased to 30 mills for 1919; to 35 mills for 1920; and to 40 mills for 1921. Ibid., March 22, 1949

51. Thus, the city's overdraft with its bank totalled $302,000 by early 1922 - and that same bank was becoming more stringent with its cash advances. Ibid., January 4, 1922

52. Cater won the election by a vote of 1,711 to 1,638. Ibid., November 28, 1921

53. Ibid., February 3, 1922

54. For example, the post of city engineer was abolished (Ibid., February 22, 1922) and two city firemen were dismissed. Ibid., March 16, 1922

55. Ibid., February 22, 1922

56. Ibid., March 18, 1922

57. Ibid., April 22, 1922

58. Ibid., May 19, 1922

59. Ibid., November 25, 1922. Cater had promised, during the campaign that "if I am elected mayor ... your taxes will not go up." Ibid., November 22, 1922

60. Interview with J. H. Donnelly, September 24, 1973. J. H. Donnelly as an alderman in the late 1920s was in constant conflict with Mayor Cater.

61. The Sun noted the increases in the overdrafts which occurred during Cater's administration but there is no evidence of significant public concern, Brandon Daily Sun, September 17, 1930

62. As an example, a principal issue in the 1926 election was whether Cater or the city manager should receive credit for the "good times." Ibid., November 5, 1926

63. Ibid., January 2, 1923

64. Ibid., January 22, 1924

65. Ibid., March 24, 1926. Mayor Cater, who had completed only three years of formal education, was a dedicated and knowledgeable student of municipal law.

66. Interview with Mrs. Ruth Tester, June 14, 1978

67. Brandon Daily Sun, September 9, 1926

68. The Sun, which described this action as that of a "peevish boy," was hereafter a constant critic. Ibid., October 27, 1926

69. Ibid., October 5, 1927

70. Ibid., December 22, 1927

71. Ibid., August 21, 1923

72. Ibid., August 21, 1924

73. The Canada Gas and Electric Company had offered $50,000 whereas Cater contended that the system, which had cost $440,000, was worth $185,000. Ibid., February 12, 1925. After several months debate, the local power company withdrew its offer and many subsequently blamed Mayor Cater for the fact the deficit-ridden street railway system thus remained as a civic liability. Ibid.

74. Ibid., February 12, 1925

75. Ibid., March 23, 1926

76. The Sun, for example, attributed the city's improved financial position at year end in 1924 due to the city manager form of administration. Ibid., December 20, 1924

77. Ibid., April l3, 1929

78. Ibid., May 22, 1929

79. Ibid., July 16, 1929

80. Ibid., October 22, 1929

81. Ibid., November 30, 1929

82. Ibid., March 31, 1930

83. Ibid., April 2, 1930

84. Ibid., October 7, 1930

85. The ratepayers voted 1,341 to 799 against this system of government. Ibid., October 29, 1930

86. Ibid., August 12, 1925

87. Cater defeated Alderman Longworth, an advocate of the city manager system, by a vote of 2,490 to 1,592. Ibid., October 29, 1930

88. The only "public" issue in which Cater was on the losing side during this decade was a 1928 temperance referendum. However, while he committed himself wholeheartedly to this campaign, he maintained a significantly lower profile on this issue and, as a result, he stood "to lose" less as a result.

89. One hundred families were seeking relief assistance in early December, 1929. Furthermore, relief costs for November 1929 totalled $600.65, a marked increased from $263.25 for the same month in 1928. Brandon Daily Sun, December 14, 1929

90. The overdraft for 1923 (i.e., before the city manager system) was $308,000 but it had been reduced substantially thereafter. However, the overdraft for 1929 of $293,000 was again an increase over the 1928 total of $260,000 (i.e., the last year of the city manager system). Ibid., September 17, 1930

91. The province had doubled this charge upon the municipalities in an apparent effort to "pass on" the increased costs of old age pensions. Cater argued that the constitutionality of this decision should be determined by the provincial government prior to the collection of the levy. Ibid., June 29, 1929

92. Perhaps many believed - as Mayor Cater contended - that immigration was the chief cause of current unemployment. Ibid., July 15, 1930

93. The margin in favour of continuation was quite decisive (i.e., 1,319 to 794). Ibid., September 24, 1930

94. Mayor Cater would receive $1,200 per annum, the aldermen $300 each. Ibid., July 22, 1930

95. Ibid., October 27, 1930

96. In August 1931, there were 272 families on relief in Brandon whereas only 28 families had been so supported in August, 1930. Ibid., September 5, 1931

97. Ibid., September 28, 1931

98. Ibid., January 31, 1931

99. Ratepayers by a vote of 1,421 to 791 decided to put the street cars "in the barns." Ibid., June 3, 1931. However, this decision was subsequently reversed by council.

100. Ibid., October 27, 1930

101. Ibid., October 28, 1931

102. Ibid., October 10, 1931

103. The only exception was the 1921 election which Cater won with only 1,711 votes.

104. The city had quietly agreed to pay the levy soon after Mayor Fotheringham had acceded to office. Brandon Daily Sun, February 13, 1932

105. The Sun had campaigned strenuously for the re-election of Mayor Fotheringham and council by acclamation in 1932 in order to realize a financial saving of several hundred dollars. Cater subsequently argued that he had stepped aside on the understanding that he would then be permitted to stand unopposed in 1933. Ibid., November 14, 1933. The Brandon Progress Association denied that there had been such a "deal." Ibid., November 15, 1933

106. In 1933, Cater polled 55.6% of the votes as he defeated Young 3,124 to 2,491 (Ibid., November 29, 1933) whereas he had won in 1928 with 57.3% of the total vote. Ibid., November 28, 1928

107. Ibid., November 28, 1934

108. Alderman Grant also placed last in a field of seven, trailing even the seemingly hapless Giddings who attempted (in vain) to recover an aldermanic post. Ibid., November 20, 1936

109. Ibid., November 1, 1935

110. The Hon. E. A. McPherson, the provincial treasurer, remained hopeful that council could cope with its growing financial crisis (although tax revenues were markedly lower while relief costs continued to accelerate.) Ibid., August 13, 1935

111. Cater polled 2,369 votes to Giddings' 829. Ibid., November 27, 1935

112. Ibid., June 2, 1936. There was, however, a rumour - which Cater refused to deny - that Brandon's mayor was seeking the position of administrator! Ibid., August 1, 1936

113. Ibid., February 27, 1937

114. Ibid., May 11, 1936

115. Ibid., November 2, 1937

116. School board candidate S. Forkin was an avowed Communist but whether fellow candidate D. L. Johnson was, at that date, a Communist is not known.

117. Brandon Daily Sun, November 14, 1927

118. Young, with 2,095 votes, polled 50.4% of the total. Cater, with 1,300 votes, was second while Alderman Dr. P. C. Hughes (with 765 votes) was third. Ibid., December 1, 1937

119. Cater placed seventh with 1,290 votes as an aldermanic candidate (which was 10 less than his mayoralty vote in 1937). Ibid., November 30, 1938

120. The incumbent Mayor Young easily won re-election with 3,145 votes while his principal challenger James Kirkcaldy polled 1,373 votes. Harry Cater was a weak third with 645 votes. Ibid., November 29, 1939.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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