Gerald Grattan McGeer (6 January 1888 – 11 August 1947) was a lawyer, populist politician, and monetary reform advocate in the Canadian province of British Columbia. He served as the 22nd Mayor of Vancouver, a Member of the Legislative Assembly in BC, Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party of Canada, and in the Canadian Senate.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, McGeer moved with his family as a young child to Vancouver. He grew up in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. As a young adult, he worked in an iron foundry and was an active member in his union. Eventually he went to Dalhousie University to study law. Back in Vancouver, he married Charlotte Spencer, of the department store family.
Freight rate fight
McGeer first attained renown in the 1920s as a lawyer representing the British Columbia government in its case to reduce freight rate differentials on goods shipped through the Rocky Mountains by rail. He worked for years on this case and achieved considerable success. The outcome proved a windfall for the BC economy, earning McGeer a reputation as "the man who flattened the Rockies." Reductions in discriminatory freight rates made it economically feasible for prairie grain to come west and be exported through Vancouver's port rather than seaports in eastern Canada and the United States.
McGeer was elected to the British Columbia Legislature as candidate for the Liberal government of Duff Pattullo in 1933. He was soon considered a maverick in his own party after McGeer became critical of the government because Pattullo did not appoint him to cabinet. According to McGeer, Pattullo led him to believe he would become the province's Attorney-General.
McGeer's most indelible mark in BC was made during his time as Mayor of Vancouver. He won the 1934 election against incumbent L. D. Taylor with the biggest margin of victory in Vancouver's civic history. He established himself in his campaign as a populist reformer, painting his opponent as outdated and corrupt, with police and monetary reform the two main pillars of his campaign. As mayor, he would not have power to implement his monetary policies, which he believed could end the depression. He was, however, able to reform the police department and the civic government, but it was his battles against communism that garnered him the most publicity, at least in his first year in office. Unemployed men in the federal relief camps had been organized by Communist agitators into the Relief Camp Workers' Union. They struck on 4 April 1935 and arrived in Vancouver on boxcars shortly thereafter. The men stayed in Vancouver for two months, marching daily in protest of relief camp conditions.
On one occasion, they entered the Hudson's Bay Company Department Store to publicize their grievances to shoppers. The police came to evict the men, and a bloody clash ensued. After that incident, the unemployed congregated at Victory Square Park, where McGeer came and read the Riot Act. The camp strikers left the city after two months to begin the On-to-Ottawa Trek. They felt they accomplished all they could in Vancouver and voted to take their grievances directly to Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. Shortly before the trekkers left, another Communist-led strike broke out on the waterfront, culminating with another bloody clash that became known as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. Gerry McGeer treated these protests not as strikes, but as an attempted Bolshevik uprising. Although he came from a background as an iron molder and union representative, he came to be seen as an enemy of organized labour because of these events.
McGeer organized elaborate celebrations to mark Vancouver's golden jubilee in 1936, which was controversial in the midst of the depression. While some applauded his efforts to boost civic pride as a positive step towards bringing back prosperity, others denounced extravagances such as a $35,000 fountain for Stanley Park's Lost Lagoon while the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. McGeer is also credited with the construction of Vancouver City Hall, a landmark Art Deco building funded in part by a baby bond scheme conceived by McGeer.
In the early part of the Great Depression, McGeer became a zealous student of economics and soon became obsessed with monetary reform as the answer to the economic crisis. He eventually came up with his own theories, which he cobbled together from the work of John Maynard Keynes, Abraham Lincoln, and the Bible. (Williams, 312) On one occasion, he hypothesized that international "money power" was financing Communists activities in Vancouver. Another time he testified before the government that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by international bankers opposed to the introduction of "Greenbacks." McGeer's lifelong mission was to attain a position where he could implement his reform ideas, but his flamboyant, aggressive, and eccentric style and theories alienated the powerbrokers in his own party.
While still mayor, McGeer ran as a Liberal Party candidate in the 1935 federal election and won in the riding of Vancouver—Burrard by a thin margin. In previous attempts, McGeer suffered defeats in the federal elections of 1925, 1926, and 1930. He was re-elected in 1940 and appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Mackenzie King on 9 June 1945.
Although he attained his goal of becoming elected to the federal government, McGeer was once again relegated to the back benches of Mackenzie King's government. He had a warm relationship with King through much of his political career, but King did not embrace McGeer's monetary schemes but eventually saw things his way. Despite the reservations of the political elite, McGeer was immensely popular outside those circles because of his fiery oration skills. His tirades against bankers and the banking system proved especially popular during the Great Depression, and he regularly lectured to packed houses across the country.
McGeer returned to civic politics with another landslide election victory in 1946, this time on a Non-Partisan Association slate. Again he ran on a campaign to rid the city of vice and police corruption. Ill-health made him less exuberant than his earlier mayoral term, but he nonetheless persisted with his reforms. Twenty-six men on the police force were demoted or dismissed and the chief constable was replaced by Walter Mulligan, who was the youngest chief in Vancouver to date. McGeer died in office in 1947 and therefore did not see the fruits of his latest reform drive. In 1955, revelations surfaced that McGeer's chosen police chief had instituted a pay-off system in Vancouver, resulting in an extensive police inquiry. Mulligan fled the country, one high-ranking member of the force committed suicide, and another attempted suicide. Meanwhile, a Superintendent from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took over as the new chief.
McGeer's monetary reform ideas were certainly his greatest passion and achievement. His was one of the most forceful voices in Canada advocating government intervention in the British Usery/monetary system and nationalizing the Bank of Canada.
Gerald Gratton McGeer's economic ideas are most fully elaborated in his 1935 book, "The Conquest of Poverty".
- Brown, Lorne (1987). When Freedom was Lost: The Unemployed, the Agitator, and the State. Montreal: Black Rose. ISBN 0-920057-77-2.
- Macdonald, Ian; Betty O'Keefe (1997). The Mulligan Affair: Top Cop on the Take. Vancouver: Heritage House. ISBN 1-895811-45-7.
- David Ricardo Williams, Mayor Gerry: The Remarkable Gerald Grattan McGeer. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1986. ISBN 0-88894-504-3
|Parliament of Canada|
|Member of Parliament for Vancouver—Burrard