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Norris, Tobias Crawford, labourer, farmer, livery-stable owner, auctioneer, politician, and office holder; b. 5 Sept. 1861 in Peel County, near Brampton, Upper Canada, son of Arthur Norris and Phoebe Crawford; d. unmarried 29 Oct. 1936 in Toronto.
Tobias Crawford Norris was the third of six children born to Irish Methodists who farmed in Chinguacousy Township, Upper Canada. He attended local schools and as a teenager he worked on his parents’ farm, perhaps on other farms nearby, and as a labourer. In the mid 1880s he was employed in the construction of railways in Ontario when he heard of the opportunities available in the Canadian west.
Norris moved to Manitoba, probably during the late 1880s, though perhaps not until the early 1890s. Soon he bought land near Griswold, a small village 26 miles west of Brandon. He would continue to farm or to own farms until the 1920s. From about 1892 to 1898 he was also joint proprietor of a livery stable in Griswold. Then he and his partner left that business and began to concentrate on auctioneering. Norris had begun to call sales in the mid 1890s and by the start of the 20th century he was one of the best auctioneers in the province. His services were in demand across the prairies, especially for livestock sales, and he would remain at least a part-time auctioneer until the 1920s.
Norris was successful as a farmer and small-town businessman for several reasons. His familiarity with the prices of products and services in rural areas helped him in both occupations. Also, he had physical and personal qualities that were assets in his work as well as in politics. He was a handsome man, standing well over six feet tall, and he was slender when young. Moreover, he was unusually affable. He had an excellent sense of humour, and often told jokes that referred to his own shortcomings. He found it easy to adjust his stories or the subjects he discussed to please those with whom he came into contact, whether young or old, rough or respectable, male or female.
Shortly after arriving in Manitoba, Norris had decided that his political leanings were Liberal. The Liberal Party, identified with low tariffs and provincial rights, was supported by rural British Protestants from southern and western Manitoba, so his decision was not surprising. In the provincial election of January 1896 he ran successfully in Lansdowne, the constituency in which he lived, as a follower of Premier Thomas Greenway*. He was re-elected in December 1899, although the Liberals were defeated by Hugh John Macdonald*’s Conservatives. (The Conservatives would remain in office until 1915, mostly under Rodmond Palen Roblin, who succeeded Macdonald as party leader and premier in 1900.) In the general election of July 1903 Norris lost his seat by 16 votes, but he regained it in March 1907.
By this time Norris was well known to many Liberals. In 1909 he was chosen as acting party leader in the assembly in the absence of the official head, Edward Brown of Portage la Prairie, who had failed to win a seat in 1907, and of the house leader from 1907 to 1909, Charles Julius Mickle, who had accepted a judicial appointment. Norris performed admirably, demonstrating, as he had during his earlier years in the Legislative Assembly and at political meetings around the province, that he was a good-humoured but focused and effective speaker. In April 1910, at a provincial convention, he was the only person nominated to replace Brown as party leader and he assumed the position.
In the election of 11 June 1910, held shortly after Norris had become leader, the Liberals took 13 of the 41 seats. Over the next few years, his party became more determined and more popular. It allied itself with promoters of various measures such as women’s suffrage, direct legislation, electoral and tax reforms, Prohibition, compulsory education, and unilingual schooling. The party’s growing strength was revealed in the election of 10 July 1914; it took 21 of the 49 seats.
Less than a month after the election, Canada was at war. A short fall session of the assembly was called in order to give the Conservative government authority to make necessary decisions in the early stages of the conflict. During the session, Walter Humphries Montague, minister of public works, announced in a rather understated manner that the construction of the new legislative building, started in 1913 and supervised by Provincial Architect Victor William Horwood, would cost $1.75 million more than expected. The Liberals had believed for some time that the Roblin administration’s practices and procedures in allocating contracts for public works were shady, if not illegal. Montague’s statement made them quite suspicious.
When the next session opened on 10 Feb. 1915, the Liberals unsuccessfully requested details on the contracts. They persuaded Lieutenant Governor Sir Douglas Colin Cameron that the legislature should not be prorogued until a royal commission had been appointed to look into “all matters” related to the construction. By early May the commission had evidence that contractors had been overpaid by the government and had kicked back large amounts to the Conservative Party. On 12 May Roblin and his colleagues resigned and Norris was asked to form a government. He took office that day, and his cabinet – including Albert Blellock Hudson as attorney general and minister of telephones and telegraphs, Brown as provincial treasurer, Robert Stirton Thornton as minister of education, Thomas Herman Johnson* as minister of public works, Valentine Winkler* as minister of agriculture and immigration, and James William Armstrong* as provincial secretary – was sworn in three days later. Norris soon arranged for an August election. He and his supporters won in 42 of the 49 constituencies, defeating the Conservatives under Sir James Albert Manning Aikins*.
From 1915 to 1920 Norris led one of the most significant provincial administrations in Manitoba’s history. It became synonymous with reform. The Liberals had committed themselves over the previous years to introducing many changes if elected, but there is no doubt that Norris and members of his cabinet also became caught up in the desire to fight for liberty, justice, and democracy at home as well as overseas. This wish for “national regeneration” prevailed throughout western Canada during World War I.
The first important reform, adopted in 1916, was the elimination of restrictions against women voting in provincial elections and being elected to provincial office. Manitoba was the first province in Canada to grant women these privileges. Norris was unmarried, and he quickly saw the humour and the possibilities for stories in an incident that took place shortly after women obtained the right to vote. He, with representatives from Saskatchewan and Alberta, went to Chicago to promote immigration to the Canadian west. Norris mentioned to a stranger that he came from Manitoba. Obviously the stranger had heard about the new suffrage law, because he told Norris that the leader of this Canadian province must be a “henpecked husband.”
By 1920 the Norris government had not only granted women new political rights but had also passed several measures that would improve their quality of life. A mothers’ allowance introduced in 1916 provided financial assistance for those with dependent children who were widows or whose husbands could not provide support. The Dower Act of 1918 protected the property rights of wives and widows. The Minimum Wage Act of the same year was designed specifically for female wage earners.
The government’s reforms in education would have immense consequences. They would improve the standard of education, but would also alienate members of ethnic minority groups. In 1916 attendance at a public or an authorized private school became compulsory for children aged 7 to 14 unless there were exceptional circumstances. The clause of the Public Schools Act of 1897 that provided for instruction according to a “bi-lingual system” was repealed, and English became the only language of instruction. More money was spent on education than ever before – to build new schools, train new teachers, and improve medical- and dental-inspection programs. In 1917 the government increased its financial support for the University of Manitoba, but it also controlled the institution more closely.
Norris was a social drinker. At one political meeting in Oak Lake, just west of Griswold, he mentioned that he had shared a drink with every man in the audience. But he was also a firm believer in democracy, and when Manitobans expressed their desire through a plebiscite in 1916 to forbid the sale (except by druggists) of all but low-percentage alcoholic beverages, he introduced Prohibition. Then in 1920 his administration banned the importation of alcoholic beverages from other provinces. This legislation went into effect only in February 1921, after a second plebiscite had been held to gauge public opinion and after the federal government had amended the Canada Temperance Act to allow the provinces to legislate on the matter.
The most important political reform aside from removing restrictions on women’s political rights was the adoption of two methods of direct legislation through the Initiative and Referendum Act of 1916. The statute provided a specified percentage of ordinary voters with the means (through petition) to introduce legislation and force the legislature to consider it (as an initiative); alternatively, the statute gave voters a chance to pass judgement on a proposed law (either via a general election or a referendum). The statute would be declared ultra vires by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1919, but while it moved through the courts, the government tried to act as if it were law, knowing that most Manitobans favoured it. Other political reforms were the creation in 1918 of the Civil Service Commission to hire and promote civil servants on the basis of competence rather than party allegiance, changes to laws concerning the financing of electoral campaigns, and the establishment of a system of preferential voting for candidates seeking the ten Winnipeg seats in the assembly.
Norris was an enthusiastic supporter of Canada’s war effort, so it is not surprising that he sought to help those most directly involved in the fighting overseas. Soldiers and their families were protected from suits for debts and foreclosures on property. Money to assist soldiers’ families was raised through a Patriotic Levy Tax, which was collected by municipalities and was, in effect, an additional tax on land. Returned soldiers were given preference when applying for loans or certain jobs.
Several measures were designed to better conditions for wage earners. The Workmen’s Compensation Act was improved in 1916 and again in later years. More factory inspectors were hired. Annual fair-wage schedules were published, setting the remuneration for various types of workers on publicly funded projects. Hours of work for women and minors were limited. Finally, after the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 [see Mike Sokolowiski*], a Joint Council of Industry was created, with representatives from labour and business, to examine labour disputes and working conditions and to recommend legislation.
The most important sector of the Manitoba economy during Norris’s tenure was agriculture, and his government could not have introduced these reforms if farmers had been opposed to them. A host of other modifications were instituted specifically in the interests of farmers and other rural Manitobans. The Noxious Weeds Act was amended in 1916, 1917, and 1918. Purchasers of farm machinery were given protection from unethical salesmen. Improvements to the province’s public-health system were made, with priorities on better service and facilities in rural areas. Municipalities were granted authority to tax unoccupied lands more heavily and to cooperate in setting up hail-insurance schemes for large districts. Major enhancements of the road system were made. Money was set aside to permit farmers in less affluent districts to purchase livestock. Laws were passed in 1917 to give farmers access to loans at low rates of interest. Nor were the small cities and towns forgotten. Legislation enabled them and the province to work together to provide these municipalities with electric power at the best possible cost.
All of this activity represented an extremely impressive record, and Norris had reason to be proud of it. He also had reason to congratulate himself that his tenure had been scandal free. However, by 1920, the year in which he had to call an election, there was much opposition to his government. Some of it came from those who disagreed with his strong support of the military effort and, after 1917, with his backing of Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden’s Union government and its policy of conscription. Norris had been an early and consistent proponent of the type of coalition government that had emerged in the autumn of 1917. If he had had his way, Borden would not have been its leader, but he campaigned energetically in Manitoba for Union candidates during the federal election of December 1917.
Most Manitobans were enthusiastic supporters of the war effort, but by endorsing the Union government, Norris offended several significant groups. One consisted of diehard Liberals, including Edward James McMurray, who remained loyal to federal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier*. They would never forgive Norris and others whom they considered betrayers. Especially in 1920, but even in later provincial elections, they could be identified as a distinct faction that refused to back Norris.
Others alienated by Norris’s advocacy of the Union government included French Canadians who believed justifiably that the Military Service Act (passed by Borden’s Conservatives but put into effect by the Unionists) had been aimed partly at them. Some minority groups were upset because the Unionists had also continued the Conservatives’ policy of interning enemy aliens and strengthened the earlier restrictions on enemy-language publications. Furthermore, the Union government became closely associated with another law passed just before its formation that had definitely increased its chances of victory in the election of December 1917: the War-time Elections Act. It disenfranchised conscientious objectors, Mennonites, and Doukhobors, as well as those born in enemy countries who had not been naturalized by the end of March 1902 (there were some exceptions). Franco-Manitobans, Germans, Ukrainians, Mennonites, and others therefore resented the Union government and the Norris administration that was associated with it. Numerous members of these groups also despised Norris and his party for establishing English as the only language of instruction in public schools in 1916. Between then and 1920 his government had also implemented other measures to make the public schools more effective promoters of British values, thus offending these same minorities.
The government’s actions during the Winnipeg General Strike had antagonized many. Its record in matters of labour legislation had been favourable, and Norris adopted an officially neutral attitude during the strike. However, after the federal government warned postal workers that they would be dismissed if they did not return to work, Norris followed Borden’s lead and issued a similar message to provincial telephone employees. He also insisted that the strike be called off before he would begin negotiations to prepare legislation that would guarantee collective bargaining. By 1920 the federal government had a poor reputation among organized labourers, and understandably Norris’s Liberals were identified with it.
The Norris government could have survived if it had been opposed only by those who objected to specific measures it had either instituted or supported. However, its detractors also included a growing number of people who refused to adhere to traditional political parties, viewing them as unnecessary at the provincial level and as vehicles by which privileged groups acquired more power over governments. Resistance to parties grew in the west during and just after the war and prevailed especially among farmers. In Manitoba, as elsewhere, many of them believed in “group government,” a system advocated especially by Henry Wise Wood* of Alberta through which governments would be formed not by party leaders but by independent representatives of different occupational groups. In the election of 1920, 68 candidates were neither Liberals nor Conservatives; in the province’s elections during the early 20th century there had been fewer than 10 contenders unaffiliated with these parties. A “children’s” candidate refused to support any party in advance, but promised to vote consistently in the interests of mothers and children. Another aspirant said his platform was the word of God. Independent candidates were also nominated by a host of organizations, but the most significant group comprised farmers’ candidates who were either nominated or endorsed by local chapters of the United Farmers of Manitoba. Some of these candidates represented resentful ethnic minorities, but most had no substantial criticism of the Norris government’s record. They simply opposed parties.
A few days before the election, Norris expressed concern that Manitobans, especially in rural areas, were about to reject a government whose work they applauded. He had reason to be worried. On 29 June the Liberals won 21 seats, the Conservatives 7, farm candidates 12, labour candidates 11, and other independents 4. Together, the Liberals and Conservatives had received just over 50 per cent of the popular vote; in elections since the 1890s they had consistently received combined totals of 85 to 95 per cent. The election of 1920 revealed the degree to which Manitobans had rejected traditional parties.
After the election Norris was asked to form another government. He was the only logical choice, and he accepted. His minority government lasted two years. It increased aid to hospitals and extended benefits to veterans and their families. It also managed to pass the Child Welfare Act, which consolidated and improved on previous legislation dealing with immigrant, orphaned, or other minors “at risk.” However, it did nothing dramatic. There was some truth to the criticism that it lacked energy. By 1921–22 key cabinet ministers had either moved on to other challenges, died, or were suffering from health problems. Norris himself did not feel well in 1922 and 1923, although he would recover somewhat in the mid 1920s. Still, it must be said that in 1921 and 1922 the assembly was so divided into factions that no government could have made tough decisions and received support. When the Liberals fell early in 1922, they were blamed for the recent legislative “stagnation,” but this accusation was unfair.
More justified was the criticism the Norris government received in 1922 for the province’s financial situation. Since 1915 annual revenues and expenditures had approximately doubled. The mothers’ allowance program, the better-trained teachers, the more liberally funded university, the new infrastructure for producing electricity, and other initiatives were expensive, and in the early 1920s Manitoba, like the rest of Canada, was in a post-war depression. The provincial government had incurred deficits in both 1921 and 1922. The Liberals wanted to raise more revenue by bringing in a gasoline tax and a provincial income tax, but other groups in the assembly opposed the schemes. Critics could easily claim that since 1915 the Liberals had passed measures that were desirable but not affordable.
Perhaps even more damaging to the Liberals was Norris’s decision in April 1922 to ally his provincial party and his government more closely to their federal counterparts, led by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King*. At the time, this seemed a good idea. Norris’s minority government had been defeated in the assembly in March, but at the lieutenant governor’s request, the legislature completed essential business before it was dissolved and an election called for July. Meanwhile, the UFM had decided that, unlike the campaign of 1920, in which each chapter had chosen its own strategy, a provincewide campaign would be organized. The UFM was also aware that its platform would receive support from a group of businessmen who would soon call themselves the Winnipeg Progressive Association [see George Fisher Chipman] and who placed a high priority on cheaper administration. Norris concluded, as did key friends and supporters, that his only hope of winning was to reach out to all Liberals in the province. He helped arrange for a party convention in Winnipeg on 25–26 April, and at its conclusion the party was more united than it had been since 1917.
At the convention much was made of Ottawa’s enlightened attitude toward the west, revealed in a recent breakthrough in negotiations for transferring control over Manitoba’s natural resources from the federal to the provincial government. Between the convention and the election of 18 July, however, Manitobans were reminded of how untrustworthy federal Liberals could be on subjects such as tariff reduction, freight rates, and legislation that would distance federal cabinet ministers from private corporations. By the time the election was held, Norris realized that his strategy had backfired. Perhaps he had had no chance of winning, but John Wesley Dafoe*, the well-informed editor of the Manitoba Free Press, believed that the closer alliance with federal Liberals had provided a pretext for farmers who might otherwise have backed Norris now to vote against him.
The 1922 election returned 28 UFM or Progressive candidates, 7 Liberals, 6 Conservatives, 6 labour candidates, and 8 independents. The UFM–Progressives did not yet have a leader, and some felt that Norris should be asked to assume the position, indicating that they had great respect for him. In the end, however, they selected the principal of the Manitoba Agricultural College, John Bracken*, who became premier on 8 August. Part of Bracken’s appeal was that he had no previous ties to political organizations.
After the election of 1922, Norris led the provincial Liberal Party for more than four years. Historians such as Herbert Blair Neatby, John Edward Kendle, and Robert Alexander Wardhaugh have created the impression that during these years he strongly opposed cooperation with the Bracken government and that he worked against King’s efforts at the national level to bring federal Progressives into the Liberal fold. They have overstated the case.
Norris cooperated both with Bracken, whom he personally liked very much, and with King. At the provincial level, his Liberal Party supported many initiatives of the Bracken government, especially its use of plebiscites to determine public opinion before changing provincial liquor laws. Norris also believed that in the economic circumstances of the early to mid 1920s it was appropriate for the Bracken government to make the reduction of expenditures a priority. However, like many others, he felt it was neither wise nor patriotic for provincial Liberals to be absorbed into the UFM–Progressive Party because in the early 1920s the farmers’ parties seemed to represent the interests of only one “class” (occupational group). Furthermore, no matter what Norris did or said, he was an obstacle to reconciliation between Liberals and UFM–Progressives because many of Bracken’s supporters were Ukrainian-Manitobans or Franco-Manitobans who wanted nothing to do with the man so closely associated with the elimination of bilingual education and with the Union government.
At the federal level, Norris cooperated with King in his efforts to bring Progressives “back” to Liberalism. An illustration of this willingness to cooperate, and also of the degree of animosity towards him felt by French Canadians, came in the federal election of October 1925. Norris was invited by local organizers to run in Brandon as a Liberal or even a “fusion” Liberal and Conservative candidate. His opponent would be Robert Forke, the federal Progressive leader. But Norris did not want to divide the Liberal–Progressive vote. He decided to run instead in Winnipeg South against Robert Rogers, a Conservative who had been an important distributor of patronage while he was a provincial and later a federal cabinet minister, and who was the type of candidate that both Liberals and Progressives wanted to defeat. During this campaign, Prime Minister King let it be known that Norris, if elected, would be named to the cabinet. From the telegrams and letters King received from French Canadians in the west and in Quebec, he soon realized that there was intense opposition to such an appointment. The problem disappeared with Norris’s defeat.
Norris had given up his provincial seat to contest the federal election, but was returned to his former riding by acclamation on 9 Dec. 1925. He stepped down as party leader on 25 March 1926, although his resignation was not officially accepted until 13 Jan. 1927 and he was replaced on 30 April. By then virtually all of Manitoba’s Liberals, and even some Franco-Manitobans, felt that he deserved a federal position. In March 1928, after several prominent Liberals had expressed their disappointment at the way in which he was being ignored, he was nominated to the Board of Railway Commissioners for Canada. He resigned his seat in the assembly. As a commissioner, he was considered a voice for western farmers. His term expired when he reached age 75. He died the following month, October 1936, in Toronto of a brain haemorrhage (he also suffered from heart disease). After a service in the A. W. Miles Funeral Chapel in Toronto, he was buried in Park Lawn Cemetery. Three sisters and a brother lived nearby.
Tobias Crawford Norris was one of the most important politicians in the history of Manitoba. He was a member of the Legislative Assembly for more than a quarter century, leader of the provincial Liberal Party for over a decade and a half, and premier for more than seven years. Furthermore, the government he led from 1915 to 1920 initiated reforms that had a lasting impact on life in the province.
AM, MG 13, H1; MG 14, B35. LAC, R10383-0-6 (mfm); R10811-0-X (mfm). Man., Legislative Library (Winnipeg), Biog. scrapbooks, B6. Univ. of Man. Libraries, Dept. of Arch. and Special Coll. (Winnipeg), mss 3. Brandon Daily Sun (Brandon, Man.), 29 Oct. 1936. Grain Growers’ Guide (Winnipeg), 1919–28. Griswold Ledger (Griswold, Man.), 1899–1904. Winnipeg Free Press, 1896–1936. J. M. Bumsted, Dictionary of Manitoba biography (Winnipeg, 1999). Canadian annual rev., 1910–27. Kenneth Coates and Fred McGuinness, Manitoba, the province and the people (Edmonton, 1987). R. MacG. Dawson and H. B. Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King: a political biography (3v., Toronto, 1958–76), 2. L. J. Fisk, “Controversy on the prairies: issues in the general provincial elections of Manitoba, 1870–1969” (phd thesis, Univ. of Alta, Edmonton, 1975). Robert Harvey, Pioneers of Manitoba (Winnipeg, 1970). A. I. Inglis, “Some political factors in the demise of the Roblin government: 1915” (ma thesis, Univ. of Man., 1968). J. A. Jackson, The centennial history of Manitoba ([Toronto], 1970). J. [E.] Kendle, John Bracken: a political biography (Toronto, 1979). W. L. Morton, Manitoba: a history (Toronto, 1957); The Progressive Party in Canada (Toronto, 1950). Lionel Orlikow, “The reform movement in Manitoba, 1910–1915,” in Historical essays on the prairie provinces, ed. Donald Swainson (Toronto and Montreal, 1970), 215–29. J. H. Thompson, The harvests of war: the prairie west, 1914–1918 (Toronto, 1978). R. A. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the prairie west (Toronto, 2000).
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Cite This Article
Morris Mott, “NORRIS, TOBIAS CRAWFORD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/norris_tobias_crawford_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:||Morris Mott|
|Title of Article:||NORRIS, TOBIAS CRAWFORD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2015|
|Year of revision:||2015|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|