‘Violent offensives’: In 1949, the Tories fought the Liberals, and the newspapers fought each other

More than 70 years ago, George Drew was hoping to take down Louis St. Laurent in the federal-election race — and the Telegram was hoping to drive the Star out of business
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Sep 15, 2021
Ad for George Drew and the Progressive Conservatives from the June 23, 1949, edition of the Porcupine Advance.

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Going into the 1949 federal election, George Drew was confident of victory. As the new leader of the Progressive Conservative party, he brought the energy that had carried him through five years as Ontario’s premier to revive a caucus that had slumbered under years of lacklustre leadership. He was poised to face another new leader, Louis St. Laurent, who appeared to be a colourless corporate lawyer. The Liberals had been in power for 14 years — surely the public was tired of them?

Drew had switched to federal politics after having lost his seat to temperance crusader William Temple in the June 1948 provincial election. That October, he won the PC leadership with 67 per cent support on the first ballot. During an all-candidates meeting for a December byelection in the Ottawa-area riding of Carleton, CCF candidate Eugene Forsey chose Temple to introduce him; Temple and Drew began arguing and ended up having to be physically restrained. While Drew easily won the byelection, the incident raised questions about how much of a liability Drew’s temper might be. 

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Drew’s first speech in Parliament was a two-hour attack on the government for disrespecting provincial rights. But any momentum or energy he’d brought to the Tories quickly vanished after a number of ill-advised actions: for example, he made unverified accusations about the political allegiances of civil servants, hinting some had Communist sympathies. When St. Laurent demanded proof to back up these allegations, Drew was unable to provide any. 

Liberal officials had worried that St. Laurent might come off as the stiff, formal corporate lawyer he had been before entering cabinet in 1941. Once campaigning began, however, his demeanour changed. He performed well with small groups, chatting about local matters such as crops and the weather. His speeches became more colloquial and improvised. During an early campaign radio broadcast, he portrayed his upcoming stops as “neighbourly visits,” which was a fitting description. He rarely referred to Drew or to the other party leaders, sticking to a positive message promoting Canada’s prosperity and bright future. Among his few attacks on the PC leader was the comment that Drew was “incapable of believing that anyone can hold a different view than his and still be honest.”

ad titled "Canada's great leader" with a black and white photo of a man
Liberal campaign ad from the June 15, 1949, issue of Maclean's.

He developed a rapport with children. And when he chatted with them, their parents absorbed the message he was trying to convey. “As he saw how well he was being received,” biographer Dale Thomson observed, “he realized that he was actually enjoying politics for the first time.” After watching an early campaign appearance in Field, British Columbia, Toronto Telegram reporter Norman Campbell observed, “I’m afraid Uncle Louis will be hard to beat.” The nickname stuck throughout the remainder of St. Laurent’s political career. 

Focusing on the gentlemanly and statesmanlike qualities of St. Laurent helped distract from the light Liberal platform, which promoted the party’s record of social-welfare measures and its role in the postwar economic boom. The party placed itself firmly in the middle, selling itself as less risky than the social democratic CCF and more humane and progressive than the PCs.

It didn’t hurt that many prominent national journalists, such as Blair Fraser and Bruce Hutchison, held St. Laurent in high esteem. The result, according to historian Paul Litt, was “an echo chamber quality to the development of St. Laurent’s image. Although the leading national affairs journalists seemed to do the initial work of presenting him to the public on their own, their opinions were coloured by their close relations with government insiders.” Also useful was The St. Laurent Story, a documentary shown in cinemas across the country that stressed his dual English-French heritage and his statesmanlike qualities. 

Drew developed little rapport with the public. He was viewed as an aloof, arrogant man whose level of privilege and taste for expensive, well-tailored clothes, disconnected him from everyday life. “He was a good speaker, with a fine, carrying voice, a fluent, effective delivery, and an easy, rather rhetorical style,” observed historian Donald Creighton. “His manner could be very urbane and gracious, but he had an assertive, imperious streak in his nature which sometimes drove him into violent offensives.” 

Another historian, Frank Underhill, compared him to a bull, in that “a bull is both too bellicose and too stupid an animal to be made a model by a man aspiring to the government of a society like ours.” Attempts to make over his image failed miserably — at one event, a supporter told the press, “Why, just last week, George and I were sitting around the swimming pool on my estate.” It was almost too easy for the Liberal campaign to caricature him.

Drew loathed St. Laurent due to an incident during the Second World War. Drew had criticized the federal government of mismanagement after Hong Kong fell to Japan in 1941. Prime Minister Mackenzie King called a royal commission to investigate; Drew accused it of Liberal bias, prompting St. Laurent (then minister of justice) to prosecute Drew under wartime regulations. St. Laurent felt Drew was an obnoxious example of those English Canadians who still identified themselves and the country as ultra-loyal British subjects.

front page of the Ottawa Journal featuring a political cartoon
Front-page cartoon from the  June 28, 1949, issue of the Ottawa Journal.

The PCs struggled to find an issue that resonated with the public. First, they promised to save the country by working with the provinces instead of centralizing power in Ottawa. Then they announced they would curb the “creeping socialism” of the Liberals. Yet, in a May 26 radio broadcast, Drew promised programs that sounded suspiciously like social welfare, included a national health program, old-age pension, family allowances, and extended unemployment insurance. To draw votes in Quebec, they tried to portray St. Laurent, whose mother was Irish Canadian, as being “an Englishman at heart.” In his last radio broadcast, Drew returned to attacking “irresponsible bureaucracy.” Though he personally had a good sense of the value of advertising and media exposure, Drew received lousy advice from his associates, who believed that elections, like legal cases, were won through debate, logical arguments, and persuasion. 

The third-place party, the CCF, had hoped to capitalize on voter fatigue and warned of an impending economic depression. Though the party hoped for a breakthrough in Ontario via the labour vote, it was saddled with an uninspiring platform and a sense that voters might believe a CCF vote would be a wasted one. 

During the campaign, partisan sniping hit new lows among the press. In a post-election analysis published in Maclean’s, writer Sidney Katz said that Toronto’s Conservative Telegram and Liberal Daily Star had given five times as much news coverage to their preferred party than to the other. Both papers were so preoccupied with making the other party look bad, Katz observed, that “there was no way in which the reader could find out what actually happened.” For example, when a Liberal rally in Ottawa attracted 2,000 people, the Telegram focused on the 50 empty seats. When Drew made a train stop at Quebec City, the Star estimated that 400 showed up to greet him; the Telegram estimate was 3,000. They provided contradictory information on everything from the speaking ability of the leaders to whom Bay Street had the most confidence in.

The Star had feuded with Drew for years, especially after he’d teamed up with Premier Mitch Hepburn and Globe and Mail publisher George McCullagh to go after Mackenzie King in the early 1940s. During the 1945 provincial election, the Star ran CCF allegations that Drew, now premier, had established a secret police to spy on labour opponents; the paper then ran an editorial comparing Drew to SS leader Heinrich Himmler.

The Star repeatedly vilified Drew’s alliance with Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, a man whose nationalist antagonism toward the federal government played poorly in English Canada. By extension, they associated Drew and Duplessis with Montreal mayor Camillien Houde, who had been interned by the federal government during the Second World War for urging Quebec residents not to register for military service. Though Houde ran as an independent candidate, the Star alleged he would likely have a cabinet seat in a Drew government. The overall message was that voting for Drew would ensure Quebec’s domination of the country. The paper spent more than $5,000 establishing a special Quebec bureau to track and report on any connections the Tories made with Duplessis or Houde. 

The Telegram’s aggressive defence of Drew and the PCs might have stemmed from its purchase, in late 1948, by McCullagh, who was determined drive the Star out of business using any means necessary. During speeches, Drew delighted in telling audiences that the Star would soon by brought to heel via the Charitable Gifts Act, a legal mechanism McCullagh hoped would achieve his goal. As the campaign ended, McCullagh used both of his papers and a radio broadcast to accuse Star management of dodging the sales tax on its partner publication, Star Weekly, even though it was classified as a magazine and legally exempt from that tax. 

The low point of the battle might have been the front page of the June 25 Star. The headline — in giant 110-point — type, read:

KEEP CANADA BRITISH

DESTROY DREW’S HOUDE

GOD SAVE THE KING

There were two photos below. The first was an unflattering picture of Houde, dominated by his massive belly; it was accompanied by a warning that this “isolationist, ex-internee, foe of Britain” would be “one of the rulers of Canada.” Beside this was a professional headshot of St. Laurent, who was praised as a “world statesman” and “patriot.” The paper declared that his campaign, “contrasting sharply with the unprincipled tactics of foes in his own province, has been [a] model of honesty, dignity, tolerance, sincerity.” Every story on the page slammed the Tories and their allies. Inside the paper were plenty of equally unflattering shots of Houde, many of which had been taken at banquets. 

front page of the Star
The second version of the June 25, 1949, front page of the Star. 

Star solicitor Alexander Stark was so shocked by this front page that he tried to find president Harry Hindmarsh in order to get him to change the headline. He had left for the day, but Stark found chairman of the board J.S. Atkinson, who agreed to change the last line to “VOTE ST. LAURENT” for all later editions of the paper that day. The decision enraged Hindmarsh, who had personally written the headline. 

After the election, management at both papers agreed that, in future campaigns, opinion-driven coverage should be reserved solely for the editorial page. 

By election day, St. Laurent had visited a then-record 190 of 262 constituencies. In his final radio broadcast, on June 24, he promised to give Canadians “the best service of which I am possible.” Three days later, the Liberals won the largest majority government to date. Analyzing the results, The Economist said that the Liberals had earned a landslide because “the electorate in a prosperous economy has no reason to alter a government which has created an adequate amount of social security and material abundance.” The PCs lost 23 seats in Ontario, while their alliances in Quebec earned them only two seats in that province. The CCF picked up York South, in Ontario, but saw its national seat count collapse — fear of a government led by Drew (who had accused CCF candidates of being “crypto-Communists”) had driven some supporters to the Liberals.

A rift developed between the federal and Ontario PCs. Premier Leslie Frost gave a few speeches in support of Drew on the campaign trail, but his heart didn’t appear to be in it, and there was a sense he simply felt a sense of obligation to local candidates. Following the election, Frost worked with St. Laurent to rebuild the relationship between the federal and provincial governments. Frost felt that the poor showing of the federal Tories had confirmed that Ontarians wanted a more harmonious relationship with Ottawa.

The McCullagh papers were sore losers. A June 29 Globe and Mail editorial worried that the welfare state would create a lazy population inclined to support parties that paid them money they didn’t have to work for — and warned that the election had been timed so that it would fall before an inevitable, imminent economic depression (the depression never materialized). 

Drew continued to search unsuccessfully for Communists in the civil service, earning little public support. He lost again to St. Laurent in 1953 after running on a tax-cuts platform that did not indicate where the money to support them would come from. In 1956, doctors treating him for a viral infection told him he would need to quit or risk dying within six months, and he retired as leader. Assessing the Drew-era Tories, Dalton Camp later remarked that the party elite “was essentially made up of amiable and elderly mediocrities.” It would take the man Drew had defeated in the leadership race, John Diefenbaker, to truly revive the party as an electoral force

Sources: Pendulum of Power by J. Murray Beck (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1968); True Patriot: The Life of Brooke Claxton 1898-1960 by David Jay Bercuson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993); The Forked Road: Canada 1939-1957 by Donald Creighton (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976); The Unexpected Louis St. Laurent, Patrice Dutil, editor (Toronto: UBC Press, 2020); Old Man Ontario: Leslie M. Frost by Roger Graham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990); J.E. Atkinson of the Star by Ross Harkness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963); Dynasties and Interludes by Lawrence Leduc, Jon H. Pammett, Judith I. McKenzie, and Andre Turcotte (Toronto: Dundurn, 2010); Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media by Allan Levine (Toronto: Dundurn, 1993); Blue Thunder by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2009); Louis St. Laurent: Canadian by Dale C. Thomson (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1967); the July 2, 1949, edition of The Economist; the June 29, 1949, edition of the Globe and Mail; the August 15, 1949, and January 1, 1955, editions of Maclean’s; the March 1951 edition of Political Science Quarterly; and the June 25, 1949, edition of the Toronto Daily Star.​​​​​​​

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