DAWSON, ARTHUR OSBORNE, industrialist, philanthropist, and lay preacher; b. 28 March 1864 at New Bandon, Gloucester County, N.B., son of Richard Dawson and Mary Lockhart; m. 30 June 1893 Mary Agnes Le Rossignol in Toronto, and they had two sons and five daughters; d. there 10 Jan. 1940 and was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in Outremont (Montreal).
Arthur Osborne’s father, Richard, who had emigrated as an infant with his family from Bandon, County Cork (Republic of Ireland), to New Bandon, served as a justice of the peace and a leader in the community’s Wesleyan Methodist church. Richard’s several failed business ventures contrast with his son Arthur’s remarkable entrepreneurial success.
Arthur was educated at New Bandon’s primary school and Campbellton’s high school. Although he wished to study medicine like his older brothers, his family’s finances did not permit him to do so. From 1878 to 1880 he apprenticed with William Murray, a Bathurst merchant provisioning small ships, and then worked for about two years for J. A. Windsor at New Mills. In December 1881 Arthur moved to Montreal to take a five-month course at the Montreal Business College.
Family, fortune, industry, and ability facilitated Dawson’s subsequent entrepreneurial success. In Montreal he boarded on Plateau Avenue with his cousin Caroline Marriage and niece Clara Dawson for $3 a week. Having arrived in the city with only $80, he immediately looked for paid work he could do while pursuing his studies. He obtained a position with J. Widmer Nelles and Brother, a manufacturer’s agent for European textile companies, where he was variously a bookkeeper, cashier, customs expert, and floor sweeper, earning $25 a month. In August 1883 Dawson joined David Morrice’s wholesale supply and textile manufacturing business, D. Morrice and Company (renamed D. Morrice, Sons and Company not long after), as a junior clerk with an annual salary of $500.
Optimistic, energetic, and entrepreneurial, Dawson was a man of medium height with blue eyes, a fair complexion, and flaxen hair (before going bald). In 1886 he and D. C. Firth, a commercial traveller and friend from Campbellton, purchased two building lots on Park Avenue (86 and 88) and constructed a two-storey, four-bedroom stone tenement house on each. Dawson and his parents, who had moved to Montreal from Florida after a failed commercial venture, occupied number 88 along with Firth; they rented the other unit for $300 a year. Dawson financed this venture with three-year loans from family members, at six per cent interest, and short-term bank loans. By 1890 Dawson owned the entire property, then valued at $8,000. He continued to invest and loan money, and to borrow funds from family for purchasing equity in D. Morrice, Sons and Company, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, and the City and District Savings Bank, among others. By 1900 most of Dawson’s $8,868 liabilities were held by family members, and all but $1,000 was covered by his assets. His subsequent purchase of houses on Argyle (1900), Bellevue (1912), and Roslyn (1915) avenues in Westmount, as well as one on Marlowe Avenue (1920) in Montreal, increased his rental holdings and his income, as did his active henhouse, from which he sold eggs and supplied his large family.
While Dawson profited from his property investments, his employer, D. Morrice, Sons and Company, reaped handsome returns thanks to the National Policy’s generous tariff protection of the textile industry. To monopolize the market, in the 1890s Morrice joined Canada’s “Cotton King,” Andrew Frederick Gault*, to amalgamate their several textile mills as the Dominion Cotton Mills Company Limited, which specialized in non-dyed cottons, and the Canadian Colored Cotton Mills Company Limited, which produced dyed textiles. D. Morrice, Sons and Company became the sole distributor for these enterprises and by 1903 claimed to be the top dry-goods wholesaler and exporter in Canada, with an extensive international market.
Dawson was an ambitious, imaginative manager, and his career grew with the industry and his employer’s fortunes. In 1907 Morrice placed Dawson on the board of Canadian Colored Cotton with a mandate to reorganize its five cotton mills – one in Milltown (St Stephen–Milltown), N.B., three in Cornwall, Ont., and another in Hamilton – and to coordinate their production to align more closely with D. Morrice, Sons and Company’s sales mission, which after 1898 included supplying retailers. In 1910 Canadian Colored Cotton acquired Alexander Gibson*’s large, competitive, and often recalcitrant cotton mill in Marysville (Fredericton) as well as the Mount Royal Spinning Company Limited. The expanded enterprise recapitalized from $5 million to $8 million and was renamed Canadian Cottons Limited. Dawson became managing director and, in January 1915, vice-president of the firm (which soon afterwards absorbed D. Morrice, Sons and Company), a position he held until he became president in 1927. Under his direction Canadian Cottons was Canada’s primary manufacturer and wholesaler of stock-dyed fabrics.
In 1911 David Morrice appointed Dawson president of the Montreal-based Belding, Paul, and Corticelli Silk Company Limited, with a mandate to consolidate its Oriental Silk Company in Montreal, its Corticelli Silk Company in Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), and the Cascade Narrow Fabric Company Limited in Coaticook. In addition to its factories, the new entity possessed branch warehouses and offices in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. By 1935 Belding had become Canada’s largest manufacturer of silk and Dawson one of its principal shareholders.
An experienced consolidator, in 1919 Dawson became president of Canadian Woollens Limited in Peterborough, Ont., which acquired the Auburn Woollen Mills and the Bonner Worth Company Limited in that city, as well as the Standard Woollen Mills in Toronto. By 1928 he controlled the country’s woollen production, having merged Canadian Woollens with the R. Forbes Company Limited in Hespeler (Cambridge), Milton Spinners Limited, Otonabee Mills Limited in Peterborough, and the Orillia Worsted Company to form Dominion Woollens and Worsteds Limited, the largest producer of its kind in Canada.
Dawson’s entrepreneurial success led to a number of presidencies and directorships. In 1915 he was named president of the Interprovincial Brick Company in Ontario and the Manitoba Land and Timber Company Limited. Four years later he became vice-president of Montreal’s Gowlland Optical Company Limited. In 1923 he joined the boards of the Crown Trust Company and Molsons Bank, and in 1929 the Bank of Montreal’s board. Other directorships included Cornwall and York Cotton Mills Limited, Montreal’s Anglin Norcross Limited and the Royal Trust Company, and insurance companies in Boston and Providence, R.I.
No business associations were of greater interest to Dawson than boards of trade and chambers of commerce. Elected in 1922 to the council of the Montreal Board of Trade, in 1925 he became its president and used his position to press for a national chamber of commerce. Established in 1925, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce set up its head office in Montreal and two years later launched its official journal, Commerce of the Nation (renamed Canadian Business in 1933). Elected chairman of the chamber’s national board in 1931, Dawson was named its president three years later. A partisan Conservative, he became a persistent advocate of beleaguered Canadian businesses.
Like Gault and Morrice, Dawson was an active churchman, licensed lay preacher, and exhorter. Upon his arrival in Montreal, he had joined St James Street Methodist Church. The congregation’s 1887 decision to replace its church on Great St James Street (Rue Saint-Jacques Ouest) with a new building on Rue Sainte-Catherine, described in The book of Montreal … ([Montreal, 1903]) as “one of the finest church edifices on the continent,” left its socially mixed congregation with a continuing budget shortfall that Dawson attempted to remedy through example, influence, and acumen. He solicited contributions from the congregation’s wealthy members and donated some $2,500 annually to the operating fund. He taught Sunday school, preached at the mission-church, and held the offices of elder, trustee, treasurer, recording steward, and secretary of the board of management. During visits to Canadian Cottons’ mills in Cornwall, Ont., Dawson preached at St Paul’s United Church, to which he sent $1,000 annually for upkeep, and he occasionally lectured at a local high school. When the Quebec Prohibition Federation was formed in 1923, Dawson was chosen president. A signatory to church union [see Clarence Dunlop Mackinnon; Ephraim Scott] in 1925, he represented the congregation at the General Council of the Methodist Church and its successor, the General Council of the United Church of Canada. His 1926 project to lease space surrounding St James (now United) Church for commercial shops, and to lobby urban politicians for a favourable tax on these properties, stirred up some controversy. Eight years after his death, St James would name its large auditorium in his honour.
Dawson met his future wife at St James. Mary Le Rossignol was the stepdaughter of the renowned Reverend James Henderson, who twice served the congregation as minister and who married the couple in Toronto in 1893. Mary was among the first generation of women to attend McGill University [see Donald Alexander Smith*] and was an accomplished amateur artist and avid gardener. She was not an active church worker, however, preferring instead the Art Association of Montreal and women’s clubs. Two of their seven children did not survive to adulthood; one son died of pneumonia and a daughter of polio.
Dawson was also an active, generous community worker. A member of the board of directors for the Young Men’s Christian Association of Montreal, in 1920 he became its president. Six years later he helped establish Sir George Williams College (a precursor of Concordia University) and became a board member. He sat on the board of Stanstead Wesleyan College in Quebec’s Eastern Townships and chaired the board of the Montreal Technical Institute. In addition, Dawson served on the senate of Montreal’s Wesleyan Theological College and chaired the board of its successor, the United Theological College, to which he donated $1,000 annually. He contributed generously to the United Church’s University of Mount Allison College and to the University of New Brunswick, where in 1926 he delivered the convocation address and received an honorary lld.
Dawson practised a paternal, voluntary form of Christian charity. A director and board chairman of the Welcome Hall Mission, he solicited donations for the Financial Federation of the Montreal Council of Social Agencies and contributed regularly to city hospitals, the Lord’s Day Alliance, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and Frontier College [see Alfred Fitzpatrick], among other institutions. He provided his physician son with a well-appointed house in Westmount and another at Lac Manitou, near Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, on the understanding that he would always aid those who could not afford medical care. Apart from immersing himself in charitable causes, he was the centre of an extended family social network, providing employment, contracts, hospitality, and material assistance.
The duration and human cost of the depression challenged Dawson’s social, economic, and political world. Faced with declining profits, his controversial 1930 decision to close Canadian Cottons’ mills in Saint John and concentrate production in Marysville aroused labour discontent and criticism of the textile industry’s generous tariff protection. More discouraging was his political party’s growing critique of capitalism, Henry Herbert Stevens*’s royal commission on price spreads in 1934–35, and Richard Bedford Bennett*’s 1935 New Deal of government intervention and regulation. The timing of Bennett’s New Deal made it appear to be a public repudiation of Dawson’s speech on “What’s wrong with business,” which he delivered to the Chamber of Commerce of the United States at its annual convention in Washington in April 1935. In his address Dawson condemned over-governing, over-taxing and over-spending, and he warned Canadians against borrowing the failed bureaucratic experiments of other countries and the schemes of “reds and pink professors.” The solution to the depression, in his view, was “brains and hard work.” He felt that Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King*’s return to power in 1935 entailed a loss of political influence and a threat to the textile industry’s protective privileges. Dawson’s concern was slightly relieved by King’s royal commission on dominion–provincial relations [see Newton Wesley Rowell*; Joseph Sirois*], which Dawson saw as an opportunity for chambers of commerce to reshape the future of Canada, avoid inflation, and provide a new business plan for government.
Meanwhile, an immediate and personal crisis threatened Dawson’s reputation as a businessman, churchman, and citizen. Sir Charles Blair Gordon’s temporary closure of the Dominion Textile Company’s factory at Sherbrooke, Que., in January 1936 – an ill-advised and poorly timed protest against the government’s lowering of tariffs on Japanese textiles – put some 400 workers on municipal relief and provoked a revived trade-union movement critical of the industry’s failure to provide reasonable wages and working conditions. The government called Gordon’s bluff by appointing William Ferdinand Alphonse Turgeon* to investigate. After 135 days of meetings across Canada, begun in March 1936, the royal commission on the textile industry dismissed the textile industry’s complaints. Instead, it documented low wages, poor working conditions, and hostility to unions. It also noted the pay gap between men and women and between workers in Ontario and Quebec, and uncovered tax evasion that allegedly deprived the federal treasury of some $2,000,000. Seven companies, including Canadian Cottons, were named and prosecuted. The morality of those responsible and their appropriate punishment was widely discussed in the press. When Dawson appeared before the commission in June, his family left town, fearing an unfavourable outcome. Questioned closely by the commission’s counsel on his companies’ calculation of capital expenses for the purpose of excise tax, Dawson was ably defended by Aimé-Sydney Bruneau, his son-in-law, who employed his mathematical and legal acumen to undermine the counsel’s argument and avoid further litigation. Shaken by the process, Dawson may have suffered a heart attack during the proceeding.
Increasingly overwhelmed and distracted by the demands on his time, Dawson seemed never to have recovered from the court case. In 1937 strikes at Dominion Woollens in Peterborough and Canadian Cottons in Cornwall over union recognition and wages required Dawson’s full attention and provoked the intervention of the Ontario government. The numerous demands on his health, time, and material resources obliged him to husband his charitable donations and limit requests for public service. Nevertheless, he maintained a frantic schedule of speeches, correspondence, and travel to board meetings across the continent and abroad, including a six-week European tour in the summer of 1939 as part of a delegation of Canadians attending the meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce in Copenhagen, altogether a strenuous routine for a man of 75.
While deeply preoccupied with the advent of war, Dawson also worried about what he perceived as regional, linguistic, and religious threats to “Canadianism” by politicians such as William Aberhart* and Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis*. Fearing a possible alliance between the two to dismantle the country, Dawson called for a renewed national vision, understanding, and compromise to fulfil, in his view, the dreams of the fathers of confederation. Dawson’s travel, work, declining health, and worries left little time for his favourite recreational activities – fishing, tennis, golf, swimming, and boating – or for the effective oversight of his business.
In 1935 a group of dissatisfied Dominion Woollens bond holders persuaded the Bank of Montreal to commission a report that was critical of the company’s performance, management, and manager. More disturbing still was the information that Dawson received just before his death: Edward Carey Fox, a wealthy Toronto businessman, had purchased 4,000 Canadian Cottons shares at bargain prices and now possessed 9,000 (a third) of the company’s shares (Dawson held only 1,700); he planned to reorganize the company.
On 10 Jan. 1940 Dawson was found dead (having suffered a heart attack) on a train that arrived in Toronto from Boston, where he had attended a board meeting. As was his wish, he had died in harness. His estate, worth $566,562, made generous provision for his wife and five surviving children. It included his large principal residence ($33,200), but not the assets distributed to his family before his death or his wife’s inheritance of his annual pension from Canadian Cottons ($10,000). The press regretted the loss of a devoted churchman, generous philanthropist, “good Canadian,” and “great executive.” Percy Laurin, president of the Cornwall local of the Cotton Workers’ Union, described him as a “good friend” of “the mill people.” There were no empty pews at his funeral in Montreal’s St James Church. Seven clergy, including the moderator of the United Church of Canada, presided, and eight prominent gentlemen read eulogies to a congregation of friends and representatives of educational, civic, and charitable institutions. As the funeral cortège proceeded along the Chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges, a naval salute testified to Dawson’s public prominence.
Ancestry.com, “Ontario, Canada, marriages, 1826–1938,” A. O. Dawson and M. A. Le Rossignol: www.ancestry.ca (consulted 9 July 2020). Find a Grave, “Memorial no.108912141”: www.findagrave.com (consulted 9 July 2020). MUA, MG 3072 (Carman Irwin Miller fonds). Wellington Jeffers, “Arthur O. Dawson, tireless worker,” National Post (Toronto), 15 Sept. 1934. Montreal Star, 12 Jan. 1940. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1909, no.39 (report of the royal commission to inquire into industrial disputes in the cotton factories of the province of Quebec, ); Royal commission on the textile industry, Report (Ottawa, 1938). Carl Bergithon, The stock exchange: with special reference to the Montreal Stock Exchange and the Montreal Curb Market (Montreal, 1940). S. G. Bland, James Henderson, d.d. (Toronto, 1926). Canadian annual rev., 1901–37/38. H. C. Cross, One hundred years of service with youth: the story of the Montreal YMCA (Montreal, 1951). Cyclopedia of Canadian biog. (Charlesworth), vol.3. Merrill Denison, The barley and the stream: the Molson story, a footnote to Canadian history (Toronto, 1955); Canada’s first bank: a history of the Bank of Montreal (2v., Toronto and Montreal, 1966–67). S. J. Le Rossignol, A record of the “Le Rossignol” family, 1500–1917 (Trowbridge, Eng., 1917). N. H. Mair, The people of St. James, Montreal, 1803–1984 ([Montreal, 1984]). Jacques Rouillard, Les travailleurs du coton au Québec, 1900–1915 (Montréal, 1974). T. P. Socknat, Witness against war: pacifism in Canada, 1900–1945 (Toronto, 1987). Alan Wilson, John Northway: a blue serge Canadian (Toronto, 1965).
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Cite This Article
Carman Miller, “DAWSON, ARTHUR OSBORNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dawson_arthur_osborne_16E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Carman Miller|
|Title of Article:||DAWSON, ARTHUR OSBORNE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2023|
|Year of revision:||2023|
|Access Date:||March 29, 2023|