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Charles Avery Dunning: The Farmer's Politician

For the week of Monday July 26, 2010

On July 31, 1885, Charles Avery Dunning was born in Croft, England. After immigrating to Canada with his family at the age of 17, Dunning, uneducated and penniless, began working as an agricultural labourer. Yet, against the odds, he became the Premier of Saskatchewan and then the federal Minister of Finance!

Charles Avery Dunning
© University of Saskatchewan Archives
Once settled in Saskatchewan, Dunning established a homestead and eventually entered a farming partnership with his father. However, he quickly began to feel the financial strain and political difficulties affecting many farmers. Problems like an inability to easily attain credit or market one’s goods were all too common. So, Dunning joined the Territorial Grain Growers Association, a farmer-owned co-operative grain marketing system, to help improve the situation of local farmers. In 1911, Dunning became the first general manager of the Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company, a farmer-owned enterprise aimed at building a network of farmer-owned grain elevators. By 1915, thanks to Dunning’s keen business skills, it was the largest grain handling company in the world.

When Dunning entered politics in 1916, farmers began to see him as their leader in the making, someone who had personally experienced and truly understood their plight. They were thrilled with the idea that the Prairies would finally be represented equally on the political stage. When he was elected Premier in 1922, he had further success in rallying farmers’ support for the Liberal Party. He convinced them to avoid political third-parties, such as farmers’ parties, minority socialist groups, and later the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), by showing the strong determination of the Liberal Party to help the province’s discontented and struggling farmers.

Dunning (second from the left) with Prime Minister King and other League of Nations Delegates
© Library and Archives Canada / C-009055
In 1926, Dunning moved to federal politics by joining Prime Minister King’s cabinet as the Minister of Railways and Canals. Three years later, he became Minister of Finance, the position for which he is most recognized. While his party was defeated in the 1930 election, the Liberals took power again in 1935 and Dunning resumed his position as Minister of Finance. His dedication and integrity were particularly important during the economic hardships of the Great Depression.

Dunning retired from politics in 1939 due to ill health and relocated to Montréal. Between 1940 and 1947 he was appointed President and CEO of Ogilvie Flour Mills, after which he became Chairman of the Board. In 1940 he was appointed Chancellor of Queen’s University.

Charles Avery Dunning died on October 2, 1958. He was designated a National Historic Person in 1985.

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