Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
George McCullagh created Canada’s premier newspaper, the Globe and Mail during the Great Depression and became a major player in Ontario and Canadian national politics during the war years and after. He might well have become Prime Minister had he lived longer. But he died young, at 47, probably by suicide, and he has largely been forgotten. Now, thanks to nearly two decades of writing and research by author Mark Bourrie, we have this dynamic yet troubled man’s story.
McCullagh, born in London, Ontario, in 1905, came from a poor background and never finished high school. Starting by hawking the old Globe newspaper in rural communities, he later became a cub reporter for it in Toronto. Fired from there, most likely due to drunkenness (the owner of the Globe was a staunch Prohibitionist), McCullagh joined an investment banking firm. This was in early 1929. Six months later, the U.S stock markets crashed, ushering in the Great Depression.
The timing should have been bad for McCullagh, but it wasn’t. Silver and gold mining was taking off in northern Ontario, and McCullagh had developed a specialty in mining stocks. So, while most of the country was suffering, McCullagh became rich by his late twenties. Lucky in his timing and in his mentors, McCullagh rose in Toronto society and soon became involved in provincial politics. In 1934, he helped finance the campaign of Mitch Hepburn, a friend and drinking buddy, who ran successfully for the premiership of Ontario.
From then on, McCullagh had close access to the halls of power, first in Toronto, and later in Ottawa. Two years after Hepburn’s election, McCullagh bought the Globe in partnership with William Wright, a former prospector who had made millions through mining and with whom McCullagh shared a passion for horse racing. These same two bought the Mail and Empire newspaper shortly afterward, merging the two into what became the Globe and Mail.
Using the Globe and Mail as his pulpit, McCullagh spent the next decade and a half, until his death, trying to influence Canadian politics. Bourrie chronicles this thoroughly and gives the reader a vivid look at the rough and tumble world that political decision-makers inhabited during those tumultuous years. It was a time of great upheaval. Unions were on the rise, often aided by Communist sympathizers. Many in business admired the fascist movement in Europe. The traditional parties were scrambling for dear life to maintain the values they stood for, among them the sense of “Britishness” that the Canadian establishment had nurtured. And McCullagh was in the thick of this, first as a Liberal, during his years of support for Hepburn, later as a Conservative, battling it out with the entrenched Liberal government in Ottawa.
McCullagh at one point advocated for a quasi-fascist form of government to replace Canada’s parliamentary democracy and used his newspapers, especially the Telegram, which he had bought in 1946, in his long-standing ideological warfare with left-leaning “Holy Joe” Atkinson, owner and editor of the Toronto Star.
Bourrie gives special attention to the ups and downs of McCullagh’s relationship with Hepburn, his close friendship with later Conservative Ontario premier George Drew, and his years-long feud with Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.
The picture of McCullagh that comes through is complicated. McCullagh was a fearsome workaholic, and a demanding boss, yet he loved to hang out in the newsroom and chat with his reporters. His politics were motivated by a sense that the country should be governed by the most able, and he cultivated elite society, but he could be very generous to those of lesser means.
Bourrie makes clear early on that McCullagh had mental health issues—periods of hyperactivity punctuated with bouts of severe depression—and suggests that McCullagh may have been bipolar. The truth can never be known. During his up periods, he achieved much success. During his low periods, which increased as he aged, he would retreat from work and visit a psychiatrist in New York City, who unfortunately viewed mental illness as curable through electrotherapy and other since debunked treatments.
His erasure from the public’s memory was perhaps predictable. After his death, the new owners quickly put the portrait of McCullagh that had hung in the paper’s offices into storage and had his name removed from the masthead, most likely to distance the paper and themselves from McCullagh’s politicized reign as a press baron and set about nurturing the Globe and Mail’s image as a newspaper that was above politics.
For historians, one complicating fact has been that McCullagh’s wife destroyed his papers not long after he died. This makes Bourrie’s achievement all the more impressive. And not only does he give us a portrait of a man who was central to a critical period in Canadian history, he illuminates the complexities of those years as well, in the process pulling back the rosy curtain of forgetfulness and nostalgia that has slowly descended over us in the years since to remind us of how fraught our politics and society were then. A truly great accomplishment!
Big Men Fear Me is published by Biblioasis.