The journey of Robert Weir - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
It’s a long way from a small Huron County farm to being the federal Minister of Agriculture, but that was the journey that Robert Weir took.
He was born on Feb. 5, 1882 in Turnberry Township to Robert and Jane Weir as the second youngest of seven children. After attending Powell’s school, he enrolled in the Clinton Model School. This was a hybrid institution that instructed future teachers in the best teaching practices, while working with the children that attended that school.
Robert’s first teaching positions were at Harlock, in 1900, and Constance (Kinburn) schools, both in Hullett Township. After that, he taught for four years at Marmora, near Peterborough. All this time he was saving money for a university education. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1911 with a degree in mathematics and used his education in a career as an actuary with the Confederation Life Insurance Company in Toronto.
Unfortunately, his health became a concern, as it did several other times in his life, and he was advised to move west. In 1912, he went to Saskatchewan to take a position as a mathematics teacher at the Regina Collegiate Institute. It was while there, in 1915, that he enlisted in the 195th Overseas Battalion. By 1916, he had been promoted to the rank of major. October, 1917 saw him serving at Passchendaele, where he suffered many shrapnel wounds. While recovering in hospital, he organized the
Correspondence Department of the Khaki College that allowed disabled veterans the opportunity for education.
Upon his return to Saskatchewan, he petitioned Premier Martin to create an immigration office in London, England for the province with Weir himself in charge. The premier instead made Weir the school inspector for a district west of Saskatoon, where there were many non-English-speaking immigrants with whose education the premier was concerned.
Weir continued with this job that involved extensive travel for two years until doctors recommended that he find a less stressful occupation. His next venture was to purchase a quarter-section of farmland between Melfort and Prince Albert. Here, his hard work and scientific mind helped grow his farm to include purebred herds of Hereford cattle, Percheron horses, Shropshire sheep, Berkshire swine and a flock of registered Plymouth Rock poultry. Many were the prizes that his livestock was awarded at fairs and expositions.
All of his experiences and successes led him to be singled out by delegations urging him to run for election as a representative of the Conservative Party, even though he had no political experience. In May of 1930, R.B. Bennett’s Conservative Party won the federal election and the prime minister asked Robert Weir to become the Minister of Agriculture, a post which he hesitated to take, as he had no political experience.
Once he accepted, he assumed the role of a “farmer speaking to farmers” and stated that he considered that his farm now had boundaries that extended across the whole of Canada.
This was a very difficult time for Canada, especially the prairie provinces. Not only were they feeling the effects of the Great Depression with great rates of unemployment, but also there were historic low prices for wheat. Wheat was the main product of the prairie provinces, earning them the title of the bread basket of Canada. Robert, with his background in mixed farming, at first advocated diversifying the farming practices by increasing the numbers of livestock raised there in order that the number two grain produced could be fed to the livestock. Measures proposed by Minister Weir included importation of cattle from eastern Canada, reduction in freight rates and relief payments. He also advocated for farmers to benefit more from the Dominion Experimental Farms Services (DEFS) by learning about the latest methods, such as soil testing.
Robert Weir’s policies were heavily criticized especially by the Liberals. Coupled with such resistance was the occurrence of a severe drought in the Palliser Triangle, a huge swath of land that encompassed parts of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The soil in these lands had historically been protected and preserved by native plants. Once these lands were cultivated year after year, there was little retention of moisture in the soil. When drought coupled with windstorms occurred in successive years, the fragile soil literally blew away. Farmers had not heeded the advice to practise summer fallowing or to create dugouts to retain precipitation. All of these factors created a very difficult era for Robert Weir to be the Minister of Agriculture.
By April of 1935, Weir was concentrating his efforts on getting the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act through Parliament. This plan would infuse $4.75 million into strategies to alleviate severe soil erosion and to develop surface water resources for the southern prairies. The Dominion Experimental Farms were to be reorganized to better serve the farming community. However, in October of that year, the Conservatives were defeated in the federal election and Robert Weir lost his seat to the Liberal candidate. James Gardiner, former Saskatchewan Premier, became the new federal Minister of Agriculture and soon after took credit for Weir’s Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act.
Robert Weir returned to his beloved “Hereford Park Farm”. Unfortunately, his time there was short as he died in a freak accident in March of 1939 when he and his wife’s step-father were transporting a load of bags of barley by horse and sleigh. The sleigh toppled when it hit a snowdrift and Robert Weir, aged 58, was crushed under the sacks of barley. Medical help was summoned but he died of internal injuries before it arrived. Left to mourn were his wife, Dorathy, whom he had married in 1922 and their two children, Dorathy, born 1928, and Robert Bennett, born 1934.
Robert Weir was born on a farm and grew up to be a teacher. Throughout his life, these two factors led him on a remarkable journey that never strayed too far away from these influences.
To learn more of the political career of this remarkable Huron County native, refer to the work of Gregory P. Marchildon and Carl Anderson at https://www.researchgate.net.