Alexander James McPhail was a key figure in the development of Canada’s collective grain marketing system, showing tenacious commitment to an organization that he believed would protect prairie farmers from the robber barons of the grain trade.
Through his tumultuous career, which began as president of the Saskatchewan Wheat Producers’ Co-operative Ltd. in 1924 until his death in 1931, McPhail was known by his peers for being a “practical idealist” with “rock-ribbed integrity.”
He was born in 1883 in Ontario, the eldest of nine children, and moved to Manitoba with his family. At 19, both parents died, leaving him the head of a “plain-living and high-thinking” household that devoted much time to studying the Bible, Shakespeare and Scottish poet Robert Burns, according to Garry Fairbairn’s book From Prairie Roots.
In 1906, the family moved to Saskatchewan, settling near Elfros.
Guided by a strong sense of propriety, the young man whom an acquaintance described as “sort of the last Puritan” once swallowed the plug of tobacco he was chewing rather than spit in the presence of
Famous also for his stinginess, he opposed the call for high salaries for top managers at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, which is what the wheat producers’
co-operative came to
“Seven thousand a year should be enough for any man if his heart is in the work,” he said.
McPhail put his money where his mouth was, taking home a salary of $4,000 a year, comparable to what he could have earned farming.
McPhail rode the crest of a wave that reached its peak in 1930 when the three prairie pools oversaw the voluntary marketing of more than half the grain produced in the western provinces.
But talk of $2 a bushel wheat in 1929, which led Sask Pool to authorize $1 initial payments to farmers, soon brought disaster to the organization.
The effects of Black Tuesday on Oct. 29, 1929, began rippling through the global financial system and left the organization in a severe crisis as the price of wheat fell from $1.39 to a little more than 53 cents by 1930.
In a bid to prop up the system, the Pool succeeded in lobbying the Saskatchewan government for compulsory 100 percent farmer participation, a move McPhail opposed. The legislation was later struck down.
“You would have a much stronger organization in any line of 10 men who were free, voluntary and enthusiastic members … than if you increased that 10 to 15 by forcing the last five,” he once wrote.
By August 1931, deep in debt, all three provincial pools pulled out of McPhail’s Central Selling Agency.
Ian MacPherson, director of the University of Victoria’s Institute for Co-operative Studies who researched McPhail’s entry for the Canadian Encyclopedia, said all accounts suggest that McPhail was a man who saw himself as a servant of an organization that was ultimately responsible to the farmers.
“In the context of the rough and tumble farm politics of those days, I think that really made him stand out,” he said.
“Most of them were really powerful characters and personalities. It was a tough world in many ways.”
Accounts vary of his final days, but some argue that the catastrophic events of the time contributed to his premature death. Worn out by overwork and anxiety in his bid to save the organization, he became ill and died after an operation in Regina at the age of 47.
MacPherson noted that a fellow farm activist, Ed Partridge, committed suicide the same year.
“I have no doubt at all that it would have produced huge strain on him, but whether it clinically killed him, I don’t know.”