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Progress or Reaction?

June 25, 1921 — Medicine Hat by-election, Empress Theatre, Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada


I feel honoured . . . to speak to this splendid gathering of men and women, and I feel thrilled to be taking even this small part in your fight for real representation in the government of this country. Many, many years ago I felt something like the same kind of thrill when I stood in the birthplace of the Magna Cara, the great charta of freedom of the British people, the cornerstone of the British Constitution. It is a long, long road from that cave in Surrey, where some of the independent-minded barons of old England met to discuss the thoughts which later led to the drawing up of the Great Charter at Runnymede, to the present time, but we are only continuing the work those men began. We also in this constituency of Medicine Hat are helping to make history, and are fighting for the independence of the people, not as then against the tyrannies of kings, but against the tyranny of the party machine and the government invisible…

This election is showing that the people are no longer content for the old party machine to nominate a representative who has been hand-picked as likely to make the most docile follower of the dictates of the party caucus. It is showing that the people are no longer content to to vote meekly on election day for the man the machine nominates, and then, having by their votes elected hi, send him to Ottawa with their blessing, while they go back to work and forget all about him (unless they are in the need of some patronage) until the next election comes around.

Today, the most mentally indolent of us are beginning to realize, are we not, that what these men down in Ottawa are doing concerns our welfare on the farm and home very closely? And having come to that degree of understanding, awe are coming to the conclusion that the old theory of the virtue and necessity of the strong party government do not interest us at all, but that a government really representative of every section of the people is a matter of very great importance to all of us.

The two-party system has no doubt played a useful and important part in the development of government, but evolution does not stand still in government, any more than in any other phase of life. The old party contests and the old party cries are losing their hold on thinking people. We are watching in this contest a further development of government, the representation in Parliament of an economic group. Our critics say that this development is contrary to, and is a first step in the destruction of the British Constitution. On the contrary, it seems to me to be only another step in that long series of triumphs of the British Constitution, which through its elasticity has, during a long history, shown itself capable of adapting itself to new speech. . .

I notice in the press reports that the Opposition candidate has been showing his knowledge of the problems of the farming industry, by telling the farmers of this constituency that Canada is the only sure market for Canadian farmers. If that is true, God help the farm people — the sooner they get off their farms, the better. Surely there is no member of the electorate so ignorant that he or she can swallow such a statement as that even in an election campaign, when people so often get hysterical enough to swallow anything.

I believe that the farmers of Canada comprise something like 40 percent of the population. You people in the cities would no doubt be able to buy your food for a mere song, but on the other hand, we people on the farms would have no money to buy the products of your labour. This would again react on you.

We see this situation today. The present administration, since they have been in power, have been urging the farmers and other workers to produce, produce, produce, as the only way of salvation for the country.

Today we find the granaries overflowing, the packing houses overpacked, the farms overstocked, industrial plants and warehouses overflowing with unwanted goods, and this situation has been created principally by bankrupt statesmanship and by ignorance of the true principles of economics, by the greed of a few men who really control the destiny of the country. The farm people can hardly sell their produce even below the cost of production. Thousands of other workers cannot work, and yet with all the abundance, a high tariff wall keeps the necessities of life at a level at which the majority of people cannot afford to buy them.

With this situation before them our brilliant representatives, absolutely devoid of any sense of humour, sit at Ottawa solemnly voting large sums for the building of a merchant marine to carry goods to markets which they have done their utmost to destroy, ships which must necessarily sail the ocean on their return voyage with empty bottoms, because the people as patriots are told they must only buy made-in-Canada goods.

You would think a child would have sufficient sense to see through the folly of this combination of high protection — the buying of only Canadian-made goods by the Canadian people — and the development of an expensive merchant marine, which if the two previous policies are carried out, can only idly float in our harbours.

This policy of a protective tariff, although it has enriched a small percentage of the population, and has worked great hardships on may is, however, likely to act as a boomerang in the near future if continued, for in these days there is no getting away fro the fundamental fact of community of interest and a policy which callously destroys the industry of agriculture in a country such as this brings the whole social structure to ruin, for agriculture in debt, its farms mortgaged, its purchasing power destroyed, means closed factories, hungry breadlines for other workers. So, if for no other reason than survival in the fight for existence, all other workers should join forces with the farers in the fight for sending real representatives of their own to Ottawa . . .

The Opposition candidate says again that this is no day for novices to meddle with government. I say that this is no day for reaction to be in the saddle.

The world is staggering blind and maimed from the injuries of the Great War. It needs sympathy and understanding to heal its wounds. It needs imagination to reconstruct its ways. It needs the wide vision of true men and women working not for party and power, but for the welfare of the whole people. And it needs to spirit of tolerance and the loyalty of man to man.

Tolerance, imagination, sympathy with the electorate, breadth of vision, have not been known in the past as attributes of those who hold the political creed of the government now in power, yet if the country is ever to be brought back to health, is ever to fulfill the promises of her youth, all these qualities must be forthcoming in our legislators, and first and last and all the time, they must process breadth of vision, for without vision surely the people shall perish.



Source: “Progress or Reaction?” Parlby, Irene, United Farmers of Alberta, 1921.


Also in Great Canadian Speeches, Ed. Dennis Gurending (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) 2004, pp. 112-114.