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Hamilton, Alvin (1912–2004)

Alvin Hamilton speaking at the opening of the 4th Provincial Boy Scout Jamboree, 1960.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A16167

Francis Alvin George Hamilton, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in Saskatchewan from 1949 to 1957 and Cabinet Minister in the Diefenbaker government, was born in Kenora, Ontario, on March 30, 1912. Orphaned at the age of 15, he was taken in by his father’s family in Delisle, where he completed his high school education. He attended the University of Saskatchewan from 1934 to 1938, graduating with degrees in both Arts and Education. He taught at Nutana Collegiate in Saskatoon until 1941, when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He served as a navigator in Canada, Britain and the Far East, and after the war returned to teaching for three years until he accepted the position of Director of Organization for the national Progressive Conservative Party in Saskatchewan in 1948. A year later the provincial party elected him leader, and he continued in this dual capacity for eight years. As head of what had become a “third” party in a very competitive two-party province, Hamilton faced enormous difficulties during his leadership; but he managed to keep the Conservatives alive through two elections, and laid the groundwork for the eventual success of the party a generation later.

Hamilton’s victory in Qu’Appelle at the federal election of 1957 took him to Ottawa and to the position of Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources in the first Diefenbaker government. His early work there produced the “New National Policy,” a development program designed to foster economic prosperity and social justice in all regions of the country. This became the “Vision” of Canada which Diefenbaker used to obtain his huge majority in the l958 election. Under its auspices the government constructed “roads to resources”; built the South Saskatchewan River Dam and a regional power grid in the Atlantic provinces; initiated programs which opened the north to Mining and oil and gas exploration; created Canada’s first Department of Forestry; passed the Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Act (ARDA) and the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act (PFRA); and hosted the Resources for Tomorrow Conference which established the Canadian Council of Resource and Environmental Ministers—an intergovernmental policy coordination mechanism which remains important today.

In 1960 Diefenbaker moved Hamilton to the Department of Agriculture to tackle the manifold problems of Canada’s farm population and to restore the Conservative party’s fortunes among the rural electorate. The massive grain sales to China which followed quickly on his appointment, and increased exports to other Communist countries despite the opposition of the United States, made his task on the Prairies relatively easy. ARDA addressed the difficulties of the farm population on a national scale, and as Hamilton’s personal popularity rose, especially in the west, so did that of his party. Known as “the best Minister of Agriculture in Canadian history,” he left a legacy of support for the Progressive Conservative party in rural Canada which lasted for three decades, as well as the window to China which he helped open in the early 1960s and which remains open to Canadian business today.

Hamilton remained active in national politics for another quarter of a century after the defeat of the Diefenbaker government in 1963. He served as Opposition critic for agriculture, then finance, in the mid-1960s as well as chairman of the Caucus Policy-Making Committee. He ran for the leadership of the party in 1967, but lost to Robert Stanfield. He also lost his parliamentary seat to “Trudeaumania” in 1968, but returned to the House in 1972 and remained the member for Qu’Appelle-Moose Mountain through three more elections until he decided to retire prior to the election of 1988. During these sixteen years he acted as his party’s energy critic, continued to pave the way for Canadian business through his contacts in China, and supported a former assistant, Brian Mulroney, in his attempt to replace Joe Clark as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. Hamilton did not receive a post in Mulroney’s first Cabinet, but used his status as mentor and friend to advance his views on the proper direction of national policy in a host of areas. Alvin Hamilton was a “career” politician: he spent six years in the federal Cabinet, twenty-seven years as a member of Parliament, and more than forty years in the service of his party at both the provincial and national levels. He died on June 29, 2004.

Patrick Kyba

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Further Reading

Kyba, P. 1989. Alvin: A Biography of the Hon. Alvin Hamilton, P.C. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center; Smith, D. 1995. Rogue Tory. Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross.
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