When it came time for the Canadian government to meet the emergency of the Second World War, one man (they were all men) within Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s cabinet stood out — C.D. Howe. While that wartime cabinet included many impressive members, a number of whom played instrumental roles in Canada’s mobilization, most historians of the period agree that Howe, the minister of munitions and supply, held a special role. More than any other, Howe (dubbed “Minister of Everything”) is seen as singularly responsible for spearheading Canada’s extraordinary wartime production and overseeing the wholesale transformation of the Canadian economy onto a wartime footing. In short, Howe was a leader who understood the scale and urgency of the challenge.
Today, as we struggle to meet the climate emergency, another transformation of our economy is called for. And that has me wondering: Can Jonathan Wilkinson, our federal minister of environment and climate change, the person charged with overseeing the decarbonization of Canada’s economy and society in the face of a civilizational threat, be our C.D. Howe?
Howe was an engineer by trade. Prior to entering politics, he had made a lot of money in the private sector, mainly by building the grain elevators that came to dot Western Canada in the 1910s and ’20s. In the course of doing so, he developed a strong reputation as someone who could get big and challenging jobs done quickly. When the Depression put an end to his business, he made the leap to politics in 1935, becoming the member of Parliament for what is now Thunder Bay, and was immediately invited into cabinet. After war was declared in late 1939, at age 54, Howe was made minister of munitions and supply.
Canada’s Second World War manufacturing was nothing short of stunning, all the more so because most of the production capacity had to be built from scratch. Historian Jack Granatstein, in a 2005 paper prepared for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (now renamed the Business Council of Canada), drove home the scale of the effort this way: “On June 12, 1943, The Globe and Mail printed a chart showing one week’s production from Canada’s factories. Each week, the newspaper noted, 900,000 Canadian workers, men and women, made at least six vessels, 80 aircraft, 4,000 motor vehicles, 450 armoured fighting vehicles, 940 heavy guns, 13,000 smaller weapons, 525,000 artillery shells, 25 million cartridges, 10,000 tons of explosives, and at least $4 million worth of instruments and communications equipment.” Wow.
This frantic pace of activity didn’t happen immediately. Historians refer to the early months of the Second World War as “The Phoney War.” Mackenzie King was frequently criticized for failing to adequately prosecute the war. Supplies were minimal. Training was slow to come together. From a cost perspective, the Canadian government was hoping to engage in what Granatstein termed a “limited liability” war.
But after the fall of France in June 1940, all that changed, and both the government and the public zeitgeist truly shifted into emergency mode.
When pressed about the 10-fold increase in federal government spending needed to accomplish the extraordinary ramp-up in military production and deployment, Howe famously replied, “If we lose the war, nothing will matter.”
The private sector had a key role to play in wartime production. But critically, it was not allowed to determine the allocation of scarce resources. Rather, private factories were told what to produce, because in an emergency, we don’t leave such important and urgent decisions to the vagaries of the market.
Howe was seized with the task at hand. He was happy to give contracts to the private sector, but he was in a hurry, and any time the private sector couldn’t quickly do what needed doing, he created another public enterprise.
Remarkably, the Canadian government — under the leadership of Howe — established 28 Crown corporations during the war to meet the supply and munitions needs of the war effort. Howe’s department also undertook detailed economic planning, carefully tracking and co-ordinating all the key inputs and supply chains needed, in order to ensure wartime production was prioritized.
Sometimes, in a time of emergency, the leaders we have need to be replaced with new ones ready to meet the moment. And other times, the leaders we have become the people we need them to be, writes columnist @SethDKlein for @NatObserver.
Howe was firmly in charge of his portfolio. As historian Robert Bothwell writes, the Department of Munitions and Supply “looked like nothing else on the bureaucratic map, and it did not function as an ordinary government department.” Unlike in a typical government ministry, Howe created his own executive team of “dollar-a-year men” he recruited from the private sector to help him organize war production. By early 1941, Howe had recruited 107 of these dollar-a-year men to head up the Crown corporations being established, to run various departmental production branches, or to oversee the supply of key inputs. In the face of today’s climate emergency, as one contemplates what leadership — and non-leadership — we have seen thus far from Canada’s corporate sector, it is astonishing to recall how many businessmen were prepared to abandon their private sector posts for the war and contribute their time and talents for nominal pay to help operationalize vital wartime production.
To be clear, Howe was no lefty. Within the awkward coalition of business-types and social progressives that has long been the Liberal Party of Canada, Howe certainly sat on the right flank of the party. Yet paradoxically, during the Second World War, C.D. Howe was, for all intents and purposes, the minister of state economic planning.
In late 1940, while travelling to Britain to co-ordinate wartime production, the ship Howe was on was torpedoed by a Nazi submarine and sank off the coast of Iceland. Those aboard had to scramble to lifeboats, where they spent hours in the rough seas, before being found by a Scottish merchant ship that responded to the SOS issued by Howe’s ship. When told that Howe’s ship had gone down, and still unaware if those aboard had been rescued, Mackenzie King wrote in his diary, “Throughout the day I have been turning in my mind possible men to take his place but I can think of no one” — a clear indication of the esteem Mackenzie King now held for Howe and what he was accomplishing.
Howe would emerge during and after the war as one of the most powerful people in Canada and was widely seen as having a key hand in the direction of the Canadian economy. Yet few would have predicted this prior to 1940. He was an impatient pragmatist, keen to get the job done in whatever way made most sense. Bothwell speculates that perhaps it helped that Howe was an engineer by training and not a lawyer (like so many politicians of the time). He was imaginative, keen about technology and willing to take “well-calculated risks.”
Does any of this sound even remotely like what we have seen from the current federal Liberal government in the face of another existential threat?
In contrast to Howe’s wartime creations, the Trudeau government has established two new Crown corporations during its time in office — the Canada Infrastructure Bank (a vehicle for privatizing infrastructure that has thus far accomplished very little), and the Trans Mountain Corporation (the ill-advised decision that makes all Canadians the owners of a 60-year-old oil pipeline from Alberta to B.C.).
If our government really saw the climate emergency as an emergency, it would, like C.D. Howe did, quickly conduct an inventory of our conversion needs to determine how many heat pumps, solar arrays, wind farms, electric buses, etc., we will need to electrify virtually everything and end our reliance on fossil fuels. Then, it would establish a new generation of public corporations to ensure those items are manufactured and deployed at the requisite scale.
Today, in contrast to those heady Second World War days, and notwithstanding the passage of “climate emergency” resolutions, the language employed feels so clinical and passionless. Today’s leaders do not seem ready to truly lead, and they are not yet inviting us to join in a grand societal undertaking.
Jonathan Wilkinson’s journey does have some interesting similarities to that of Howe. Both demonstrated strong academic success in their youth — Howe at MIT and then as an engineering professor at Dalhousie University in his 20s, Wilkinson went from an undergrad at the University of Saskatchewan to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Both had highly successful careers in the private sector before entering politics — Howe as head of his own large engineering company, Wilkinson as a vice-president and then CEO of large cleantech companies. In both their business careers, they showed a keen appreciation of new technology. Wilkinson is 55 years old, one year older than Howe was when he found himself holding the most important portfolio in government at a moment of generational calling.
But while both men found success and comfort in business, in the face of an emergency, Howe was not prepared to leave matters to the private sector. He knew Canada could not incentivize its way to victory. Yet, for the most part, that is precisely what defines the Trudeau government’s approach to the energy transition required by the climate crisis. Rather than requiring the private sector to produce what is needed, as Howe did, the Trudeau government offers tax incentives and sends price signals.
Oh, and after a stellar 22-year career in government, guess what proved to be Howe’s political undoing? A pipeline. I kid you not. Howe was accused of ramming the TransCanada natural gas pipeline through Parliament in the mid-1950s. The private structure of the company and the degree of American corporate involvement became a source of great controversy. Howe’s championing of the pipeline and the government’s decision to invoke closure in the parliamentary debate over the pipeline contributed to the Liberals’ and Howe’s electoral defeat in 1957. He died three years later.
Sometimes, in a time of emergency, the leaders we have need to be replaced with new ones ready to meet the moment. And other times, the leaders we have become the people we need them to be. In the Second World War, the British Tories determined Chamberlain had to be replaced with Churchill, whereas in Canada, Mackenzie King and C.D. Howe, to the surprise of many, turned out to be the people the crisis demanded. Today, we still find ourselves in the time of our Phoney War, with a government seeking a limited liability engagement. That cannot persist. Mr. Wilkinson, Mr. Trudeau, which kind of leaders will you be?