BORN: Peterborough, Canada West • 15 February 1858
DIED: Palm Beach, Florida • 7 March 1939
I N HIS DAY HE WAS CANADA’S GREAT CAPITALIST success story. Joe Flaveile, a poor boy from Peterborough, came to Toronto to seek his fortune in 1887. He found it in butter, eggs, but most of all bacon, and by 1900 was the head of the biggest pork¬ packing operation in the British Empire.
A rich but also a deeply religious man, he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to worthy charitable causes. His manner was suitably reserved and his tastes temperate, and Flaveile happily served his country during the Great War—he had the biggest job and was the biggest success.
Some said he could have been prime minister, if only he had the requisite ambition. For Flaveile, it must all have seemed too good to be true. As it turned out, it was. By the time he died in 1939, Sir Joseph Flaveile was no longer regarded as a model by anyone.Flavelle’s life and career were made—and unmade—during the First World War.
As the presi¬ dent of the William Davies Co., he had more than enough work to do. The slaughterhouse and associ¬ ated bacon exporting operation had earned Toronto its “Hogtown” label and made Flaveile rich. And as Britain and its colonies prepared to send millions of men onto the field of battle, the market for pork products was booming.
Additional responsibilities as chairman of the Bank of Commerce, National Trust, and Simpson’s made Flavelle one of the busiest capitalists in the empire. Still, when the British government asked him to take over the procurement and manufacture of munitions in Canada in late 1915, Flavelle was ready to serve.
Everyone else had made a mess of the job up to then. A loosely organized Canadian Shell Committee had overspent, filled few orders, and turned the dominion’s professed commitment to aid the British war effort into a national shame.
But Flavelle quickly turned things around when he imposed strict procurement and profit rules and made what he could not buy in government factories. Old factories were refitted, and new ones built; in a little over a year, Flavelle was over¬ seeing 600 plants and 250,000 workers. Combined, they were spending $50 million per month and churning out 100,000 shells per day.
His Imperial Munitions Board was the largest enterprise that had ever existed in Canada. And, except for the sacrifice of the 230,000 Canadians killed or wounded, the IMB represented Canada’s most important contribution to the eventual Allied victory.The British rewarded Flavelle’s efforts with a baronetcy in 1917; from then on, he would be Sir Joseph.
Most Canadians were pleased. Though there was a growing feeling that hereditary titles did not suit Canada’s new world democratic pretensions, there was general agreement that Sir Joseph had earned his title.That changed quickly in July 1917 when questions were publicly raised about the extent to which Flavelle and others had profited from the wartime emergency.
It was an issue that had simmered throughout the war, but, up to then, no one had been able to put a face to the rumours about who was making money on all the sacrifice and death. But now, according to the screaming headlines, all was clear: Sir Joseph, while seemingly a national hero for delivering shells to the Allies, had been making windfall profits on the bacon trade.
A leaked government report about profit margins that started the story was widely misinterpreted, and Flavelle eventually was able to prove he had done nothing wrong. Quite simply, bacon prices had gone up and his company was the best posi¬ tioned to take advantage.
But no worker in a shell factory, no mother who had lost a son on the Somme, no farmer’s son facing conscription into the service could see beyond the reported profit figures that Flavelle admitted were true: his William Davies Co. made returns on capital of 43 per cent,80 per cent, and 57 per cent in the first three years of the war.
A nation weary of sacrifice had at last found the ugly face of capitalism, and Flavelle’s good name was in ruins.Flavelle—now scorned as the Baron of Bacon—could do nothing to repair the reputation he acquired during a few fateful months in wartime. He continued as a major figure in Canadian business and, as before, was a national leader in charitable giving.
But the public could not forgive him for apparently making the wrong kind of killing on the war.Somehow, this fall from grace marked a tangible change in the personality of the nation. Large-scale capitalism was still a new thing in the early years of the century, and the rise and fall of Joseph Flavelle proved to Canadians that business needed to be closely watched.
Gradually, taxes and regula¬ tions were created that made sure there could never be such war profiteering again. And the most visible symbol of Flavelle’s success was publicly discredited: never again would a Canadian living in Canada receive a hereditary title.
Joseph Flavelle was a good man by all accounts. He was certainly generous to a fault. But he was also a symbol of an age when one class making millions off the labour of others would no longer be acceptable in Canada. At least, no one would be caught in his position again.