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KEEFER, FRANCIS HENRY, lawyer, politician, and office holder; b. 24 July 1860 in Strathroy, Upper Canada, son of James Keefer, a merchant and village reeve, and Maria Cook; m. first January 1884 Annie Frances Daby (Daley, Davey) (d. 1915), and they had two daughters, one of whom died young, and two sons; m. secondly 15 Aug. 1917 Margaret Wilhemina Keefer in Toronto; d. there 4 Dec. 1928.

Frank Keefer received his early education at Strathroy Grammar School and Upper Canada College before attending the University of Toronto (ba 1881; ma, llb 1882). In 1883 he moved to Prince Arthur’s Landing (Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay), where the Weekly Herald and Lake Superior Mining Journal described him as a metallurgist. After his call to the bar in 1884 he joined the law practice there of his brother Thomas Alexander Keefer and Edward Robert Cameron, who soon left. The brothers combined their legal work with an interest in mining. In 1889 Frank also assumed the responsibilities of solicitor for Port Arthur, a position he would hold until 1910. Named a federal qc in 1897 and a provincial kc in 1907, he was socially active as a member of the Foresters, the Oddfellows, and the Port Arthur Club, and was a delegate to the General Synod of the Church of England in Canada.

An able advocate, Keefer acquired a continental perspective on questions relating to transportation and natural resources. His passionate interest in shipping and waterways was refined through his work as counsel before the International Waterways Commission [see Sir George Christie Gibbons*] for both the federal and the Ontario governments. His interest stemmed too from family linkages: he was a grandson of George Keefer*, the first president of the Welland Canal Company and founder of Thorold, Ont.

After settling in Port Arthur, Keefer had also immersed himself in politics. As secretary of the Liberal-Conservative Association of West Algoma, for example, he advised Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald* in 1891 that feelings were against the renomination of Simon James Dawson*. Seeking election himself in 1908, he was defeated by James Conmee*. He eventually sat as the Unionist-Conservative mp for Port Arthur and Kenora from 1917 to 1921.

While in Ottawa, Keefer acted as counsel and adviser to the federal Food Board and, from 1918 to 1920, he was parliamentary under-secretary of state for external affairs. During the House of Commons’ consideration of margarine as a wartime substitute for butter, Keefer, reflecting perhaps an understanding acquired at the Food Board, advanced the strongest pro-margarine position against the protests of the dairy industry. The representative of a riding that accommodated three transcontinental railways and nine railway divisional points, he also championed the adoption by the government railways of workers’ compensation provisions equivalent to those in effect on private lines. As well, he promoted voting mechanisms to ensure that railwaymen would not be disenfranchised if work took them away before polls opened.

Keefer’s most extended interventions were made on behalf of international trade with the West Indies and the improvement of the Great Lakes-St Lawrence waterways. He viewed deeper shipping channels as an important means to lower the costs of transporting wheat and minerals, and to reduce Canadian dependency on American coal. In a circumstance that he described in 1921 as most unenviable, he found himself at odds with his government in connection with the statutory creation of the Lake of the Woods Control Board, a water and power regulatory body that seemed to favour the needs of Winnipeg. He considered the measure ill-advised and asserted northwestern Ontario’s interests accordingly. Winnipeg is a very big city, he acknowledged, but I do not think it should have the right, by way of legislation or otherwise, to take away the rights of the little town of Kenora without either consultation, negotiation or compensation.

As early as November 1920 Keefer was openly advocating the formation of a new northwestern province, Superior. It may have been his willingness to defend northern interests against his own government’s policy that attracted the attention of Ontario Conservative leader George Howard Ferguson*, who recruited the former mp for the provincial election of June 1923, which the Tories swept. Returned in Port Arthur, Keefer would represent the riding until his defeat in 1926. A month after the contest he was made legislative secretary for northern Ontario, and he eventually succeeded in having Port Arthur made the northwest headquarters of the Department of Lands and Forests. These achievements no doubt provided some satisfaction to a man who had once remarked that we in the North country are fighting against the difficulties of nature, and I feel that in this matter we should receive the most sympathetic consideration.

Keefer acted as a watchdog for Ontario on matters connected with the St Lawrence. This responsibility, though consistent with his commitment to a deep waterway system, produced some friction with Premier Ferguson, who did not wish to see Ontario’s hydroelectric plans encumbered by a canal proposal. Attention to the St Lawrence also saw Keefer continue his efforts against the Chicago steal  the unauthorized diversion of Lake Michigan waters to the Gulf of Mexico. He monitored Chicago’s machinations with particular reference to the interests of the Great Lakes Harbours Association of Canada and the United States, and repeatedly advised senior political figures in Ottawa that the development of the St Lawrence was the key to creating Canadian-American alliances capable of resolving the Chicago situation. In 1927 Keefer recognized the opportunity to tie the waterways issue to the historical canal interest of his family and that of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King*: Exactly one hundred years ago your grandfather, [William Lyon Mackenzie*], and mine were directors of the Welland Canal Company and opened that Canal for traffic. . . . It has just struck me how befitting it would be, if his grandson, and as Prime Minister of Canada, could bring to pass . . . the understanding with the government of the United States to do the same thing with the St. Lawrence.

Appointed public trustee for the province of Ontario in May 1928, Keefer had just begun to make his influence felt in this position when he died of a heart attack at his Toronto home in December. He was buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Thorold, where a son lived and where he had long held an interest in local history and St John’s Anglican Church.

Jamie Benidickson

Francis Henry Keefer is the author of Beaverdams (Thorold, Ont., 1914).

AO, RG 80-5-0-917, no.4133. LAC, MG 26, I. Thorold Post, 6, 13, 27 Dec. 1928. Toronto Daily Star, 5 Dec. 1928. Weekly Herald and Lake Superior Mining Journal (Port Arthur [Thunder Bay], Ont.), 3 April 1884, 24 Jan. 1885. Christopher Armstrong, The politics of federalism: Ontario’s relations with the federal government, 1867-1942 (Toronto, 1981). Can., House of Commons, Debates, 2 April 1919: 1083-85; 31 May 1921: 4184-98. Canada Law Journal (Toronto), 20 (1884): 356, 391. Canadian annual rev., 1917-27/28. Canadian directory of parl. (Johnson). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). E. M. Chadwick, Ontarian families: genealogies of United-Empire-Loyalist and other pioneer families of Upper Canada (2v., Toronto, 1894-98; repr., 2v. in 1, Lambertville, N.J., [1970]), 2. Alexander Fraser, A history of Ontario: its resources and development (2v., Toronto, 1907), 2: 796-98. W. H. Heick, A propensity to protect: butter, margarine and the rise of urban culture in Canada (Waterloo, Ont., 1991). John Hilliker and Donald Barry, Canada’s Department of External Affairs (2v., Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1990-95), 1. Peter Oliver, G. Howard Ferguson: Ontario Tory (Toronto, 1977). Who’s who in Canada, 1925/26.

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Cite This Article

Jamie Benidickson, “KEEFER, FRANCIS HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/keefer_francis_henry_15E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/keefer_francis_henry_15E.html
Author of Article:   Jamie Benidickson
Title of Article:   KEEFER, FRANCIS HENRY
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   October 4, 2023