SPEAKMAN, JAMES, farmer, office holder, and president of the United Farmers of Alberta; b. 20 Aug. 1849 in Manchester, England, son of Henry Speakman and Caroline —; m. before 1880 Mary Hannah Farrar, and they had a daughter and three sons; d. 21 Dec. 1915 in Calgary.
James Speakman received part of his education in Kiel (Germany), where his father, an engineer, worked on the Kiel Canal. He could speak six languages fluently and travelled through much of central Europe, becoming well informed on conditions there. For some years he operated a jute mill in Dundee, Scotland, and then he brought his wife and four children to Canada. In 1891, following his wife’s brother John, they homesteaded in the Wavy Lake district, southeast of Penhold (Alta).
Speakman was known for his strong character, geniality, foresight, and convincing oratory. Actively involved in community and public affairs, he offered his home for the first Methodist church service in the district and preached at the Horn Hill Church. He belonged to the Landmark Masonic Lodge and sometime later was president of the Penhold branch of the Bible Society and a vice-president of the provincial branch of the Red Cross Society.
Politically, Speakman was a strong Liberal. In 1898 he was made a justice of the peace and was an unsuccessful candidate for the nomination for the Red Deer constituency in the legislature of the North-West Territories. As well, he later sat on the provincial licence board for several years. His most notable achievements, however, were in the organized farmers’ movement.
Speakman joined the Alberta Farmers’ Association and became president of the Innisfail branch about the time that two rival organizations, the AFA and the Canadian Society of Equity, were vying for members in the growing farmers’ movement. Speakman strongly supported union of the two bodies, believing that there was widespread support for a unified movement. During negotiations between the two organizations in 1909, he introduced the motion for union. When amalgamation was successfully concluded, he was delegated to invite the CSOE to join the AFA in the newly formed United Farmers of Alberta. The following year he was elected to its executive as a director at large and served on the credentials committee. In 1911 he was re-elected and sat on the transportation committee. During Speakman’s terms of office, the directors dealt with a wide range of agrarian concerns, including an agricultural college with farming representatives on its governing board, railway liability for stock losses, a pork-packing industry, improved transportation, terminal elevators, and discriminatory freight rates. Speakman’s particular interest was tariff reduction.
These early years were frustrating ones for the farmers’ movement. Long-standing grievances against protective tariffs and inadequate transportation and storage facilities were no closer to being redressed than in the last century, despite repeated campaign promises by the federal Liberal government. When Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier made a trip west in August 1910, Speakman was among the UFA delegates who addressed him. Speakman was sharply critical of the government, arguing that the tariffs benefited the manufacturing classes at the expense of farmers. The official UFA resolution to the prime minister was no less vehement: the tariffs kept farmers in bondage to support a privileged class. Laurier’s response was disappointing. He admitted his government’s failure to keep its campaign promises, but denied the charges of class preference. On tariffs and other issues he merely promised to give them further consideration and, as he did elsewhere, he invited a delegation to call upon him in Ottawa.
Farmers from across Canada responded. They had already recognized the need for a united voice with the formation of the Canadian Council of Agriculture in 1909. In December 1910 Speakman joined the UFA delegation in the “siege of Ottawa,” in which some 800 angry farmers – reputedly the largest delegation to wait on a Canadian government to that time – met to present the farmers’ platform of resolutions on the tariffs, railways, terminal elevators, the power of banks under the Bank Act, cooperative legislation, and the need for publicly or cooperatively owned facilities for curing and chilling meat. At a prior meeting of the CCA, Speakman had propounded the UFA’s views on the tariffs, urging united support for reciprocity. Early in 1911, partly in response to farmers’ demands, the Laurier government negotiated a reciprocity agreement with the United States that significantly reduced tariffs on implements and other farm necessities. But the Canadian electorate defeated the Liberals in September 1911, and the reciprocity agreement, which the Conservatives had vigorously opposed, was never implemented.
After his two years as a director, Speakman dropped out of the UFA executive for two years. In 1914 he returned as second vice-president. He chaired the transportation committee and sat on the legislative and labour committees and on the CCA. The untimely death of President William John Tregillus at the end of the year resulted in a contest in 1915 between Speakman, Henry Wise Wood*, and James Miner for the presidency. Speakman won on the first ballot.
Speakman became president at an important juncture in the history of the UFA. It was divided over whether to create a farmers’ political party or to continue pressuring the traditional parties. Tregillus had moved it closer to forming its own party. Speakman appears to have been less enthusiastic about such a move, but, unlike Wood, he was not opposed. District conventions to discuss the matter showed general reluctance, due in part to Tregillus’s death and the outbreak of war in Europe. With the election of Wood after Speakman’s death, attempts at direct political action would be suspended.
Since its inception the UFA had grown rapidly. With the creation under its auspices of the Alberta Farmers Co-operative Elevator Company and the move into agricultural sales in 1913 [see Edwin Carswell], some administrative adjustments became necessary. During Speakman’s presidency, the office was made a full-time position. In March 1915 Speakman was asked to move to the new central headquarters in Calgary and devote his time to executive business. Consequently he and his family took up residence there that year. He received a grant of $75 per month, which was later raised to $125 when the location was made permanent. As president, he engaged in a range of activities, including organizational work throughout the province, writing for the Grain Growers’ Guide (Winnipeg), attending conventions of the CCA and the Manitoba and Saskatchewan grain growers’ associations [see Frederick William Green], and appearing before the federal Board of Railway Commissioners. When the federal government proposed taking over the entire grain crop of 1915, he urged instead a system of financing farmers to enable them to retain control over their crops. He was a strong supporter of cooperative farm credit, and wrote a number of circulars to educate UFA members.
Speakman was president during a significant year for social reform in Alberta. Women had been entitled to full membership in the UFA since 1913, and at the convention that elected Speakman two years later, they formed an auxiliary, with Mary Irene Parlby [Marryat*] as first president. The UFA was already on record in support of women’s suffrage, and Speakman joined Nellie Letitia McClung [Mooney*] in a vigorous campaign. In a letter to Speakman published in the Grain Growers’ Guide for September 1915, Premier Arthur Lewis Sifton* agreed to introduce a suffrage bill at the next session of the legislature. Prohibition was another concern of the UFA, which had passed resolutions supporting it in 1913 and 1914. During the prohibition referendum in Alberta, Speakman campaigned energetically for the dry vote, which prevailed in July 1915. Bills for both temperance and women’s suffrage would be passed the following year.
James Speakman remained active in UFA work until he was struck with pneumonia. After a brief illness, he died on 21 Dec. 1915 and was buried in Horn Hill Cemetery in Penhold. His tradition of serving Alberta’s farmers was continued by his son Alfred, a Red Deer farmer who was first elected to the House of Commons for the UFA in 1921.
GA, BR, minutes of executive and board meetings, 1913–15 (mfm.); M1745, minutes of conventions and directors’ meetings, 1906–7; M1749, files 3, 13, 47. Red Deer and District Arch. (Red Deer, Alta), S-II-3-5 (E. L. Meeres fonds), “Pioneers of central Alberta” (1991), 24.9. Edmonton Bulletin, 1906–16. Grain Growers’ Guide, June 1908–March 1916. G. C. Carlson, Farm voices: a brief history and reference guide of prairie farm organizations and their leaders, 1870 to 1980 (Regina, 1981). D. G. Embree, “The rise of the United Farmers of Alberta”