Adam Beck

Adam Beck

BORN: Baden, Canada West • 20 June 1857

DIED: London, Ontario • 15 August 1925

In this century of the bureaucrat, when more and bigger governments have regulated and reordered our lives in countless ways, Adam Beck might properly be called one of the most important civil servants in Canadian history. Yet the description hardly begins to do him justice.

For Beck so dominated his age far more influential and better known than his political masters that calling him a civil servant is a little like calling Mount Everest an ant-hill. By the time he died in 1925, Beck had revolutionized industrial production in Ontario, delivered cheap electricity to millions, and, perhaps most significantly, changed forever the way Canadians thought about what their governments could do and ought to do.

None of it came without a bitter fight. In fact, from his earliest years in public life, Beck seemed to rise to the occasion when a battle loomed on the horizon. The son of a German immigrant, he was a successful cigar-box maker in London, Ontario, and mayor of the city in 1903 when he first became fascinated with the problems and possibilities of hydroelectricity.

It had been known for years that power could be harnessed from Ontario’s fast-moving rivers and waterfalls. The problem was getting electricity from the water to the factories where it was needed.Beck took over the fledging hydro movement and imme¬ diately made two key strategic decisions: Niagara Falls was the best place to harvest electricity in Ontario, and a publicly owned utility was best to do the harvesting.

This approach instantly made him powerful enemies, since the province’s burgeoning private companies were also eyeing the falls and the potentially limitless profits that a power-hungry province would deliver.Beck was not only unfazed by the opposition but the resistance only made him more committed to public power.

Embracing the cause with startling zeal, he trekked across the province promoting the cause of cheap electricity for everyone who wanted it. For factory-owners and farmers it was an easy sell, and Beck won a political following within months. In 1905 the incumbent Liberals foolishly gambled on pleasing private power concerns, and the long-dead Conservatives were swept into office promising public hydro.

The new premier brought the province’s political star into his Cabinet, but Beck was not interested in politics— except when it had to do with a public electrical utility.In 1906 the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario was created with Beck as chairman. The commission sold its first power four years later, and the war with the private sellers was on.

The outcome was by no means assured. Politics in Canada was dominated by men who had made their fortunes by privately developing natural resources, and in an era when government actually did very little, it seemed impossible that a crown corporation could serve the province’s vast market for power.

But Beck never once let up on his crusade. When his own government baulked at allowing him to spend millions buying up his competitors, he went straight to the people with a simple message: their own natural resources, their birthright, was in jeopardy. When attacked by the private power magnates, he painted them as corrupt millionaires.

Backed, though often reluctantly, by his own govern¬ ment, Beck lost some battles but won the war. By 1917 “the Hydro” was the biggest electric company in the world. More Ontarians had access to power every year, and the rates were among the cheapest anywhere.

Public ownership, under the firm hand of Adam Beck, was a runaway success.In hindsight it all sounds very heroic: here, to all appear¬ ances, was the triumph of the little guy over the capitalist power barons. The reality was a shade more complicated.

For though Beck knew that his votes came from the people, his cause lived or died because of the small businessmen who relied on cheap, reliable power to keep their factories humming. Ironically, capitalists gave-Beck the support he needed to build his public monolith. But it was Beck who pushed, cajoled, and badgered to create the coalition that won public power for his province.

His efforts were enduring. By the time he died, Beck had driven most of his competitors out of business and had guar¬ anteed a public future for Ontario Hydro. The commission would be the engine for the province’s mid-century economic boom, and it brought power quickly and cheaply to most of the province.

Beck’s life work was also the foundation of a tradition of public ownership of monopolies in Canada. In giant sectors like transportation, telephones, and power, government regulation and control has often been demanded by the Canadian public. What Canadian governments do, and how they do it, was shaped by Adam Beck.