In his article, "The
Great McGeer" (Maclean's, April 15, 1947) Clyde Gilmour
notes that Gerald Grattan McGeer's more than thirty razzle-dazzle
years in public life are perhaps unique in Canadian history. He held
a succession of titles: MLA; MLA-mayor; mayor-MP; senator;
senator-mayor. He prepared for these posts with 3 months in high
school, which he quit, denouncing the system as
"medieval." He then apprenticed for 5 years as an iron
molder. On a sudden decision, Gilmour says, 19-year-old Gerry
crammed and breezed his way through law school, becoming the No.1
orator of the Law Students' Society. He studied constitutional and
commercial law at Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, and at age 27 was
admitted to the bar of B.C. The following year, l9l6, he was elected
Liberal member for Richmond in the B.C. legislature.
McGeer began his public
record with a bang. He crusaded for reduced west-coast freight rates
on prairie grain - which at that time flowed mainly to Fort William.
The railways employed some of the most expensive counsel in Canada
in the ensuing battle, but McGeer won. Vancouver's waterfront
doubled and redoubled itself almost overnight. After unsuccessfully
contesting Vancouver Center (1925), Vancouver North (1926), and
Fraser Valley (1830), at the Federal level, the indefatigable McGeer
won the Vancouver-Burrard seat to the provincial assembly in 1933.
He then proceeded to form some views on banking and currency. A year
later, summoned to Ottawa by the Commons Banking Committee, he
lectured - and reduced to but a few respectful questions - some of
the chief bankers, economists and parliamentarians in the country.
Ultimately, Canada got the McGeer-proposed central bank.
Soon after this Gerry won
the mayor's race in Vancouver with 25,000 votes cast out of 35,000
cast. He plunged into the job, firing the police chief and two
magistrates, declaring war on gambling, confiscating a thousand slot
machines and issuing one and a half million dollars worth of
low-interest "baby bonds" to materialize his dream of a
glittering white sandstone City Hall in Strathcona Park, at West
12th Avenue and Cambie Street.
The year 1936 marked
Vancouver's fiftieth birthday. Showman Gerry stamped its memory on
the town by inviting the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Percy Vincent, to
help lay the City Hall cornerstone. The Lord Mayor arrived with a
gift for Vancouver - a great 5-foot silver-and-gold replica
ofLondon's civic mace. Gerry met the Lord Mayor decked out in a
$1500 mayoral gold chain and his cusom-designed $527 outfit of black
silk cape lined with purple and gold, and a cocked hat to top it
Gerry carried on his
crusade for monetary reform both in and out of Parliament. He found
time to appear as a lay preacher, discussing "Christian
economics," and to write a 359-page book, The
Conquest of Poverty,
(1935), the final chapter of which was an imaginary dialogue between
Abe Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Gerry's harangues and
barbed remarks never got him in serious trouble. He was widely
quoted, amid chuckles, for having called City Hall "a
sarcophagus of embalmed mediocrity", and the Vancouver Board of
Trade of the time "a museum of congealed plutocracy."
McGeer was in the very act of campaigning for Mackenzie King in 1945
when that gentleman appointed him to the senate. In 1947, he ran
again for mayor, doing so in true McGeer style. Part way through his
campaign he checked into hospital for a peritonitis operation. Two
days out of surgery he was barking orders into the bedside telephone
and posing for photographs with pretty nurses. Twice-daily bulletins
on his condition were issued. Naturally he received more newspaper
space than his 2 opponents put together. He polled 29,000 out of
58,000 ballots cast, 12,000 ahead of his nearest rival.
At city hall, McGeer was
known as an excellent chairman. He kept things moving briskly, and
he knew how to cut corners without any sacrifice of parliamentary
dignity. In private life, he jogged in baggy pants and old sweat
shirts. He drank very little, but said he smoked too much. His
basement den contained more than a thousand books, half of them
dealing with Abraham Lincoln, Gerry's idol since boyhood.
Senator-Mayor McGeer died
while back in the mayor's office but a few months. His decease was
typical. Doctors and aldermen were urging him to take it easy. With
his usual savvy, he remarked, 2 weeks before it came true:
"Say, one of these days you'll see the goldarndest funeral this
town's ever had." ___Paddy Rees, 1976