FLEMMING, JAMES KIDD, schoolteacher, businessman, and politician; b. 27 April 1868 in Lower Woodstock, N.B., son of Thomas Flemming and Sarah Kerr; m. 24 Dec. 1890 Sarah Helena Flemming (d. 1949) in McKenzie Corner, N.B., and they had three sons, including Hugh John*, and two daughters; d. 10 Feb. 1927 in Woodstock.
After teaching school for two years, James Kidd Flemming became a travelling salesman for a Saint John wholesaling firm, work that made him widely known throughout New Brunswick. He later opened a grocery and farm produce business in Woodstock in partnership with his brother Thomas, but this business was dissolved in 1895. The brothers then bought out the C. A. Harmon general mercantile business in nearby Peel. They also operated a small sawmill in Hartland. When their store went bankrupt, Flemming paid back their creditors a hundred cents on the dollar, though there was no legal requirement for him to do so.
He was defeated in his first two attempts at a seat in the provincial legislature for Carleton in 1895 and 1899, but the following year he won a by-election, and he was re-elected in 1903 and 1908. A tall, strikingly handsome man and a gifted orator, he was at first extremely popular, and many people found his natural charm appealing. After the Conservatives under John Douglas Hazen* came to power in 1908, Flemming was appointed provincial secretary and receiver general. Three years later, on 16 Oct. 1911, he became premier when Hazen entered the federal cabinet of Robert Laird Borden*. He also assumed responsibility for the province’s extensive crown lands as surveyor general and for its railways. In June the following year he led the Conservative party to its greatest electoral victory in the history of New Brunswick – 42 of 46 seats in the legislature, in addition to two independent Conservative seats.
Flemming held moderate political views. Although not in favour of government ownership of telephones, he promised to encourage the extension of private lines in rural areas. He supported immigration to repopulate deserted farms and improved roads to enhance the value of farm property. During the 1912 session workmen’s compensation was extended to granite workers and stonecutters, and the factories act strengthened to prevent employment of children under 16. A railway along the west side of the Saint John River valley had long been a dream of the premier’s, and it had considerable local support. To assist its construction by the Saint John and Quebec Railway Company, the government introduced legislation guaranteeing $4 million in bonds.
Only two years later the premier faced political ruin. His downfall began in April 1914 when Louis-Auguste Dugal, the Liberal mla for Madawaska, introduced two motions. The first claimed that in 1913 Flemming, through the agency of William H. Berry, an official in the Crown Land Department and thus under Flemming’s direct control, “did unlawfully extort from divers large lessees of Crown Timber Limits within this province, a sum of fifteen dollars per square mile of their said timber limits, over and above the amount of bonus paid by them respectively,” as set out in the department’s annual report. Dugal charged the premier with acquiring, through Berry, some $100,000 in this way. Before 1913, lumbermen had been able to cut timber on crown-leased limits on the basis of public tendering, paying stumpage for the harvest and eight dollars per square mile. But changes to the legislation introduced that year provided for the fees to be set by the surveyor general, one of the portfolios held by Flemming.
Dugal’s second motion contended that the Saint John and Quebec Railway Company contractors had been compelled “to pay and did pay large sums of money to the members of the Government in the year 1912, before they obtained their contracts.” Flemming, with responsibility for railways, had personally conducted negotiations with Maine businessman Arthur Robinson Gould, the chief promoter of the railway. Dugal believed he could prove that $10,000 was paid to Flemming and $1,500 to Harry Fulton McLeod, a former provincial secretary. When the mla addressed the legislature on 9 April regarding these allegations, he requested permission to speak in French. The speaker ruled that he could do so only with the permission of the house. This was readily given, and it marked the first time that French was used in the New Brunswick legislature.
The charges against Flemming had been put together by a powerful group of back-room Liberals known as the “Dark Lantern Brigade” and made up of party organizers Edward S. Carter and Peter John Veniot* and lawyer and mp Frank Broadstreet Carvell, who had been an mla for Carleton, the riding represented by Flemming. The trio provided ammunition for the two inexperienced opposition members, both Acadians with only a limited command of English. A “man of ruthless tenacity,” Carvell proved to be Flemming’s nemesis. As lawyer for the estate of Timothy Lynch, a prominent New Brunswick lumberman, he had discovered that the Lynch company, in renewing a crown lease in 1913, had paid $1,830 to a Conservative political fund.
After Dugal introduced his first motion, Flemming became violently ill, and he did not return to the legislature for the debate, though he was present to introduce legislation that increased the province’s guarantee for the railway bonds from $25,000 to $35,000 per mile. George Johnson Clarke became acting premier, and Flemming was given a leave of absence until the charges were disposed of. On 24 April he told the St. John Standard, “I have never received one dollar or the equivalent of a dollar directly or indirectly from any limit-holder in the Province of New Brunswick since I have been Minister of Lands and Mines.” He was prepared to resign his seat while remaining premier if Carvell would enter the ensuing contest in Carleton, leaving the electors “to judge the case and pronounce their verdict upon it at the ballot box.”
The allegations rocked the New Brunswick Conservatives. In an attempt to control the damage, they settled on two royal commissions to inquire into Dugal’s charges. The commissions, both chaired by Supreme Court judge Harrison Andrew McKeown*, were established by Lieutenant Governor Josiah Wood in May. Mariner George Teed led Flemming’s defence, and Carvell represented Dugal. Testimony before the timber limits commission was highly damaging to the government. It revealed that Berry had indeed approached crown land lessees to contribute to the Conservative party on the basis of $15 per square mile of timber limits, and a total of $71,000 had been collected from large operators such as John Percival Burchill. Berry, a key witness, had fled to the United States before he could be served with a summons, telling friends that he did not intend “to be made a goat” for the Conservatives. Flemming testified before the commission that Berry had told him the lessees “were desirous of making a contribution to the [Conservative] funds” and that he had said any contributions must be “absolutely voluntary.” After the “second or third time” they had discussed the matter, he had told Berry that neither of them should have anything to do with the money and that contributions should go directly to the Conservative party treasurer.
On this charge the commission found “That the money was in fact extorted by Berry is fully proved. That the Premier was well aware that moneys were being collected for a purpose unquestionably improper, is also amply shown. It is also manifest that he directed the disposition of such moneys when collected, also that he acquiesced in the collection of such moneys at a time and from a source highly and grievously improper.” The inquiry noted that Flemming could not have been ignorant of Berry’s activities, but it did not find extortion in his case, stating, “There is a great deal to support such a view, but, in our opinion, it stops short of such sufficiency of proof as would justify the Commission in declaring the charge of directing the extortion proved.”
Far worse for Flemming were revelations concerning the Saint John and Quebec Railway Company. John Kennedy, a railway contractor, testified that in 1912 he had paid Flemming $2,000, after the premier told him that there was an election on, and “you ought to help us along with some money.” The premier admitted receiving the money for the Conservative party campaign, but he insisted that no compulsion was involved. Nevertheless, the commission observed that, “while there was no threat or menace in the conversation, we have no hesitation in concluding that compulsion undoubtedly existed . . . we think and find that Hon. Mr. Flemming is guilty of this act of compulsion which has been charged against him.”
The commissions’ reports were presented to the lieutenant governor in early October but were not made public until 19 November. In the meantime Wood shared their findings with a number of prominent Conservatives, including Hazen and Flemming. On 29 October he sent a letter described as secret to Hazen, saying that he had met with Flemming, who thought he should retain the premiership. Wood wrote, “The report of the Commission, whether right or wrong, I feel we are bound to accept and act upon. It appears to me therefore, my clear duty is not to retain him as Premier . . . he should voluntarily retire.” The lieutenant governor added that there could be no objection to Flemming resigning as premier but keeping his seat in the legislature.
Following the release of the commissions’ findings, the premier published a lengthy response to the electors of New Brunswick. The inquiries, he argued, had found he had knowledge that a fund was being contributed to, but not that the donations were not entirely voluntary. He did not believe “the extortion was of a very strong character.” While he exercised no control over the money, he hoped the party treasurer would return it to the lumbermen. With respect to the railway, Flemming claimed that the allegations were “cruel and unjust.” He noted that Kennedy had received a first contract before the money was paid and a second contract not until 15 months after. Once again he challenged Carvell to run against him in Carleton, saying that he had the strongest faith in the justice of the people and he had given them honest and faithful service.
There was widespread public condemnation of the premier. Some of the harshest attacks came from the Protestant clergy. A Congregational minister in Saint John, observing that “God said, thou shall not steal,” accused Flemming, a former Sunday school teacher, of “brazen impudence.” Even newspapers that normally supported the Conservative party, such as the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto World, were highly critical. Senior Conservatives felt that he must resign both the premiership and his seat. A week after the commission reports were released, newspaperman James Harvie Crocket, a confidant of Hazen, was sent to Woodstock to meet with local Conservatives. That Lieutenant Governor Wood might dismiss the premier had aroused considerable fear in party circles. The strategy was to get Flemming to step down and for him to challenge Carvell as Conservative candidate in Victoria and Carleton in the next federal election. Initially, Crocket received little support for his plan. “The boys, however, finally agreed with me, that the logical way out of the difficulty was for Flemming to also resign his seat, and Flemming after remarking ‘Then I am to become a complete victum [sic],’ practically consented to do this.”
The premier resigned on 6 December and was replaced by Clarke. He expected a federal election to be called within two to three years, but he had to wait eleven years before facing the electorate again. In the 1917 federal election, Sir Robert Borden asked Carvell, now a Liberal Unionist, to help organize support for his Union government in New Brunswick. No Unionist member was to be challenged by a Conservative. There followed one of the most dramatic episodes in New Brunswick politics. Flemming’s supporters wanted him to run as a Conservative, but he entered the nomination meeting arm in arm with Carvell, his bitterest enemy, and in the speech of his career, he announced that he was withdrawing as official candidate and urged Conservatives to accept Carvell instead.
Because of ill health, Flemming was unable to run in the 1921 federal election, but four years later he won the seat in Victoria-Carleton in a landslide victory that, in his view, fully vindicated him; he was re-elected in 1926. As a member of the House of Commons, he did not play an active role because of continuing poor health. He called for increased Maritime trade with Cuba and the British West Indies and urged that Canadian grain be shipped through Canadian ports. He also took considerable interest in the affairs of the Canadian National Railways. In private life, he served as president, general manager, and director of Flemming and Gibson, a lumber business in Juniper, N.B.
The railway affair followed Flemming to his deathbed. In 1915 the company had defaulted on its contractual obligations, and the province took over its stock. Gould sought compensation of $500,000, and in 1916 the claim was subjected to arbitration by McKeown. Under questioning by Carvell, Gould admitted that he had paid Flemming $100,000 before the 1912 election. In his report of March 1918, McKeown found that since most of the money had gone to Flemming personally and Gould had “deliberately set out by payment of this money, to make his position secure and to evade the consequences of future defaults, should any be made by him, by placing the most trusted public man in the Province under his control,” his claim for compensation should be rejected.
When the Liberals, under Walter Edward Foster*, returned to power in New Brunswick in early 1917, they were determined to get to the bottom of the railway controversy. Another commission of inquiry was established, and after commissioner John M. Stevens brought in his report in 1918, the government introduced legislation making the money paid to Flemming and others crown debts. A writ was served on the former premier to recover the $100,000, and technical objections brought by his lawyer were overruled. However, in November 1919 his physician told the court Flemming’s health was so poor that he was incapable of appearing or giving evidence, and the case was held over indefinitely. In the end, no action was taken against him.
The railway scandal also pursued Gould into the United States. After he was elected to the Senate from Maine in 1926, his opponents challenged his right to sit because, they claimed, he had bribed the premier of New Brunswick. In a hearing before the committee on privileges and elections, Gould claimed that the railway company, not he, had paid the money. But Flemming was quoted in the New York Times as stating, “It is not true I was paid $100,000. . . . For my personal use or benefit, neither Mr. Gould or any of his assistants in the Saint John and Quebec Railway Co. ever paid me a single dollar or any larger amount directly or indirectly while the railway was under construction, nor before nor since.” On 25 Jan. 1927 the committee sent Flemming a telegram inviting him to appear before it in Washington, but when the request arrived, he was seriously ill. He died two weeks later.
In 1961 political scientist Hugh G. Thorburn wrote that a common characteristic of all provincial campaigns in New Brunswick was “the attempt by one party to show the other to be either dishonest and corrupt, or irresponsible and wasteful.” This was certainly the case in the early years of the 20th century. Despite having won one of the greatest electoral victories in the province’s history, James Kidd Flemming was driven from office by alleged and proven scandal dredged up by the opposition. Whether the premier benefited personally from Gould’s $100,000 payment, as his enemies alleged, or the money all went to the Conservative party, as he claimed, remains unanswered.
PANB, MC 80/1095; MC 1156. New York Times, 25 Jan. 1927. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1927. Canadian annual rev., 1912–18. A. T. Doyle, Front benches & back rooms: a story of corruption, muckraking, raw partisanship and intrigue in New Brunswick (Toronto, 1976). N.B., Legislative Assembly, Journal, 1918, app., Report of the directors and chief engineer of the St. John and Quebec Railway Company for year ending March 15th., 1918: 33–44 (Interim and final report of commissioner J. M. Stevens, k.c., re Saint John and Quebec Railway Co.); 45–77 (Report re Gould arbitration and finding of Hon. H. A. McKeown, chief justice of the King’s Bench Division); Synoptic report of the proc., 1900–18; Royal commission concerning St. John and Quebec Railway Company charges, Report (Fredericton, 1915); Royal commission concerning timber limit charges, Report (Fredericton, 1915) (both royal commission reports also appear in N.B., Legislative Assembly, Journal, 1915). Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell). H. G. Thorburn, Politics in New Brunswick (Toronto, 1961). U.S., Senate, Senator from Maine; hearings before a subcommittee of the committee on privileges and elections (2v. in 1, Washington, 1927).