DOUGLAS, JAMES MOFFAT (baptized James), Presbyterian clergyman, office holder, farmer, and politician; b. probably 26 May 1839 in Linton Bankhead (Linton), Scotland, son of John Douglas and Euphemia Moffat; m. 6 Aug. 1861 Jane Smith of Darlington Township, Upper Canada, and they had four sons and three daughters; d. 19 Aug. 1920 in Tantallon, Sask.
The son of a Roxburgh agricultural labourer, James Moffat Douglas immigrated with his family to Upper Canada in 1851 and settled near Cambray, Victoria County. He later studied at Knox College, Toronto, and Princeton Theological Seminary. After ordination in 1867 as a minister in the Canada Presbyterian Church, he preached at Uxbridge and Cobourg, Ont., and also served as inspector of the common schools in Uxbridge Township and chairman of the high school board at Cobourg. During this period as well he was a member of the provincial Council of Public Instruction and president of the Dominion Evangelical Alliance.
In 1876, following a short course in medicine at Trinity College, Douglas went to Indore, in central India, as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada; he was also chaplain to the troops at nearby Mhow. On his return to Canada in 1882, he briefly ministered at Morris, Man., before assuming a five-year position at Brandon. In 1887 Douglas resigned his Brandon charge to take up a homestead, adjacent to the farms of two of his sons, at Tantallon in the North-West Territories. Two years later he returned to the church, becoming the Presbyterian minister at Moosomin. Combining his clerical duties with farming, he was an active officer of the Presbytery of Regina before retiring from the ministry in 1893 to begin a new career as a full-time farmer and rancher.
Once freed from the enforced neutrality of the pulpit, Douglas also pursued his political ambitions. By 1894 he had apparently been nominated as a candidate of the Patrons of Industry in the next federal general election. An American agrarian political movement that appeared in Ontario in the late 1880s [see George Weston Wrigley*], the Patrons had formed more than 300 local chapters on the prairies by 1895. Their policies of eliminating tariff barriers and promoting greater competition among railway companies found a receptive audience in the west, where farmers were experiencing a depression in grain prices and felt victimized both by the federal government’s high-tariff policy and by the dominating position of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In one of his earliest recorded speeches, delivered in Saltcoats in 1895, Douglas described himself as “absolutely non-partizan,” adding that “we cannot see that either Grit or Tory has done anything for us in the Northwest.” Despite his expressed scepticism of the old-line parties, Douglas sought and obtained the backing of the Liberal party, which had appropriated several of the free-trade positions articulated in the Patrons’ platform. For Douglas, it proved a successful alliance. In the general election of June 1896, running as a Patron-Liberal candidate, he won the riding of Assiniboia East by more than 1,000 votes.
In the House of Commons, Douglas showed himself to be an able spokesperson for his agrarian constituents, especially the emerging class of relatively prosperous settlers along the CPR main line. To address the issues on which he had been elected, he soon convened an informal meeting of western and other mps to develop policies for relieving the distress of farmers. This working group proposed a series of reductions in the tariff and freight rates as well as the introduction of a cold-storage system. On various issues he made common cause with other western mps, regardless of party affiliation. For example, in 1897, with the support of Nicholas Flood Davin*, Conservative member for Assiniboia West, Douglas successfully introduced legislation to waive the residence requirements for recipients of second homesteads, consolidating a windfall of “free” lands for the earliest settlers on the prairies.
The larger, structural issues raised by the National Policy proved more difficult to address. Although Douglas belonged to the caucus of the governing Liberals, most of his colleagues represented central Canadian constituencies and supported the broad outlines of the National Policy. A case in point was the tariff issue. Despite their stated support of free trade, Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals showed a reluctance to alienate central Canadian manufacturers who benefited from continued tariffs. Douglas criticized what he considered to be the tepid efforts to reduce duties. Expressing the view that the government had “only administered a homeopathic dose to the manufacturers of the country,” he argued that it should have significantly reduced the levy on agricultural implements.
Douglas encountered similar problems when promoting the legislation for which he is best known, a bill to regulate perceived monopolistic abuses in the grain trade. He first introduced this measure in 1898. Among other provisions, the bill called for the appointment of a general inspector of the grain trade and would have required all railway companies operating in the west to provide loading platforms for farmers. Such platforms offered farmers their only opportunity to avoid selling to the elevator companies, which, in their eyes, were often guilty of underestimating the weight of grain shipments, excessive storage charges, and other exploitative practices. In the face of strong opposition from the grain companies and the CPR, the 1898 bill was referred to committee, where the government allowed it to die. The following year, Douglas reintroduced his bill and was again greeted by the opposition of the grain interests. Clifford Sifton*, minister of the interior, arranged for the bill to be referred once more to committee, where, bowing to a “heavy aggregation of grain dealers, elevator owners, bank managers, and C.P.R. representatives,” the non-western members watered down the measure so substantially that Douglas refused to proceed with it. This time, however, matters did not rest there. Perhaps because it was embarrassed by Douglas’s charge that the 1899 bill had fallen victim to Sifton’s “cold steel” and “mischievous scheming,” the government created a royal commission to study the problems of western farmers, and the recommendations of this body became the basis of the Manitoba Grain Act of 1900. Despite the efforts of Douglas and other prairie mps, notably Robert Lorne Richardson* and Frank Oliver*, this government measure was also diluted as it proceeded through the house. Nevertheless, the 1900 act and succeeding amendments have been considered the first major parliamentary reform of the western Canadian grain trade. Douglas’s private member’s bills had functioned as catalysts of eventual improvements in the grain-handling system.
Running for re-election in 1900 as an Independent Liberal, Douglas was returned to parliament by a narrow margin. During his second term, he persistently raised the grievances of his agrarian constituents, who continued to be thwarted in grain marketing by the CPR and the elevator companies. In 1902 he introduced a resolution dealing with the so-called “grain blockade,” which had resulted from the CPR’s inability, especially in the District of Assiniboia, to handle the shipment of a record crop. The ensuing debate resulted in further amendments to the Manitoba Grain Act to address the demands of the Territorial Grain Growers’ Association.
While defending farmers in their struggle with the grain monopolies, Douglas sided with the more prosperous producers on issues where their interests diverged from those of their poorer counterparts. In 1903 he opposed a proposal by Thomas Osborne Davis, the Liberal member for the riding of Saskatchewan, to permit small producers to apply collectively for a grain car. Representing a constituency of more recent settlers, Davis was trying to help them avoid excessive elevator-storage costs. By rejecting the proposal, Douglas and other prairie members ensured that the established farmers would continue to benefit the most from the car-distribution clauses of the Manitoba Grain Act.
Douglas did not run again in the election of 1904, but he was soon returned to parliament in another capacity. While campaigning as a Patron candidate in 1895 he had described Canada’s Senate as “another useless expense, a thousand dollars a year for life to a number of shelved politicians, political fossils who have had their day.” Eleven years later, on 8 March 1906, he accepted appointment to the upper house, where he served until his death in 1920.
In the Senate, Douglas took an active part in the debates, especially on familiar matters such as grain legislation; he also served as chairman of the Senate’s standing committee on agriculture. Perhaps recalling the bitter experience of the derailment of his grain legislation by House of Commons committees, he protested what he considered to be an unfair apportionment of senators from the older provinces to the Senate railway committee. Later, Douglas and fellow senator Thomas Osborne Davis resisted efforts by the Conservative government of Sir Robert Laird Borden* to remove some of the key protections for farmers for which they had laboured years earlier.
Douglas adopted progressive positions on a range of other issues. In 1908, drawing on his experiences in India, he opposed attempts by Conservative members to restrict immigration from that country, and in 1913 he supported the right of Sikh newcomers to sponsor the immigration of family members [see Harnam Kaur]. In 1914 Douglas spoke out against the Conservative government’s legislation to increase the qualifying period of residence for immigrants seeking naturalization; he noted that such legislation denied the rights of many contributing members of prairie society. Douglas also resisted efforts by Senate Conservatives to place greater restrictions on divorce, arguing that it was a “grave error” to try to legislate morality. On civil liberties issues generally, he was in the mainstream of Laurier liberalism.
An “able and fluent speaker,” Douglas applied his skills to the advocacy of western interests in the region’s formative period of agricultural settlement. He was the first third-party candidate from the prairies to win election to parliament, presaging by 25 years the Progressive party’s western sweep of 1921. In running first under the twin banners of the Patrons and the Liberals and later as an Independent Liberal, he combined the rhetoric of agrarian radicalism with the pragmatism of the Liberal party – a pattern later followed by the Progressives. If his endeavours to redress his constituents’ grievances met with mixed success, he nevertheless gave eloquent voice to the aspirations of western Canadians for fairer treatment within confederation.
[Primary and secondary sources give three different birth dates for Douglas. An 1841 entry in the register of births and baptisms for Linton, held by the General Register Office for Scotland (Edinburgh), indicates that John Douglas of Linton Bankhead and Euphemia Moffat had a son named James on 1 June 1836. Another date, 26 May 1838, is given in the CPG for 1897 and in a profile of Douglas that appeared in the Vidette (Indian Head and Fort Qu’Appelle, [Sask.]) on 5 May 1897. The third date, 26 May 1839, appears in the CPG for 1903, an obituary notice that was published in the Regina Morning Leader on 20 Aug. 1920, the 1898 and 1912 editions of Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan), and many other sources. The author regards the date 26 May 1839 as the most likely; the General Register Office entry may simply mean that John Douglas and Euphemia Moffat had two sons named James, the first of whom died as a child. Most of the evidence suggests that James Moffat Douglas himself regarded 26 May 1839 as his date of birth. l.d.]
AO, RG 80-27-2, 42: 15. Saskatchewan Arch. Board (Regina), R-E 223 (brief hist. of the Douglas family and the Tantallon farm); R-E 3571 (nomination paper for J. M. Douglas, 16 June 1896). Saskatchewan Arch. Board (Saskatoon), Homestead files, 623415, 678027. Qu’Appelle Progress (Qu’Appelle, later called Qu’Appelle Station [Qu’Appelle, Sask.]), 1889–22 Dec. 1898, continued as Progress (Qu’Appelle Station), 29 Dec. 1898–1900. Qu’Appelle Vidette (Fort Qu’Appelle), 1889–27 Feb. 1896, continued as Vidette (Fort Qu’Appelle and Indian Head; Indian Head), 5 March 1896–1899, 1905–6. Regina Leader, 1903–6. Regina Standard, 1903–5. Winnipeg Tribune, 1898–1903. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1896–1904; Senate, Debates, 1906–20. Lyle Dick, Farmers “making good”: the development of Abernethy District, Saskatchewan, 1880–1920 (Ottawa, 1989). “Documents of western history: the agrarian movement in the 1890’s,” Sask. Hist., 7 (1954): 51–55. V. C. Fowke, The National Policy and the wheat economy (Toronto, 1957). D. J. Hall, “The Manitoba Grain Act: an ‘agrarian Magna Charta’?” Prairie Forum (Regina), 4 (1979): 105–20. Gilbert Johnson, “James Moffat Douglas,” Sask. Hist., 7: 47–50. B. R. McCutcheon, “The Patrons of Industry in Manitoba, 1890–1898,” Man., Hist. and Scientific Soc., Trans. (Winnipeg), ser.3, no.22 (1965–66): 7–25. H. S. Patton, Grain growers’ cooperation in western Canada (Cambridge, Mass., 1928). L. A. Wood, A history of farmers’ movements in Canada (Toronto, 1924; repr., intro. F. J. K. Griezic, Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1975).
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Cite This Article
Lyle Dick, “DOUGLAS, JAMES MOFFAT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/douglas_james_moffat_14E.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:||Lyle Dick|
|Title of Article:||DOUGLAS, JAMES MOFFAT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1998|
|Year of revision:||1998|
|Access Date:||June 2, 2023|