PURVIS, GEORGE, farmer and agrarian leader; b. 1842 in Scotland; fl. 1867–94.
Nothing is known of George Purvis before he immigrated to British North America in 1867. Shortly after his arrival an English company engaged him to oversee its lumber and farming operations in the Ottawa valley. Active in community affairs at Portage-du-Fort, Que., and later at Arnprior, Ont., he became known locally as a prominent businessman and as a progressive farmer.
In 1881, attracted by the possibilities of the Canadian Prairies, Purvis left for Manitoba with his wife, Hannah, and their two sons, to settle near Brandon. It was not a good time to begin farming in the west. The high cost of agricultural equipment and supplies, coupled with Manitoba’s distance from markets, made it difficult to eke out a living. When a crop failure in 1883 and the collapse of already low farm prices made the situation of Manitoba farmers intolerable, Purvis joined in the founding of an association to protest against the federal government’s railway, land, and tariff policies, popularly believed to be at the root of the difficulties confronting settlers.
In December 1883 he was elected provincial secretary of the Manitoba and North West Farmers’ Union. In office he developed a reputation for moderation and common sense, qualities notably lacking among the union’s other leaders. By the time the association collapsed in April 1884 it had become little more than an extra-parliamentary extension of the provincial Liberal party. Purvis, a Conservative, was one of the few leaders to survive the débâcle. Shortly afterwards he joined the Manitoba and North-West Farmers’ Co-operative and Protective Union, which had been organized at Manitou in December 1883 for the cooperative marketing of grain. In June 1884 he was elected provincial secretary of the organization and within a short time he became its best-known figure.
Under his leadership, the union sold members’ wheat and arranged for the purchase of binder twine in bulk directly from the manufacturer. Purvis also discussed with officials of the Canadian Pacific Railway the question of establishing grain standards that were acceptable to western farmers. On the political front, he urged the federal government to alter its policies of national development so as to benefit the west.
As a result of his strenuous advocacy of the agrarian cause, he came under attack. He was accused of being in favour of Canada’s annexation to the United States, but the charge had little impact at the time and was without foundation. More important was the criticism of his management of the grain marketing program. In June 1884 he worked out an arrangement with the firm of Mitchell and Mitchell to buy farmers’ wheat, apparently unaware that the company’s capital was provided by the CPR. The following year the CPR withdrew its backing and Mitchell and Mitchell terminated the agreement with the union. Lacking capital, the union decided that Purvis should personally undertake to market its members’ wheat, building up capital out of the profits of the business. In December 1885 he was accused of having a secret agreement with the CPR by which he would profit at the expense of the farmers. Although the union supported him and an audit of the books later found everything in order, he resigned from the executive in January 1886.
The provincial press took his resignation as an admission of guilt and vilified him. By July 1886 his humiliation was complete. For two years he had neglected his farm in his devotion to the agrarian cause, and he now encountered personal financial difficulties. Looking for a fresh start, he moved his family to Minto (N.Dak.), where he remained until 1894. In that year he sold his farm; what became of him afterwards is not known.
NA, MG 26, A: 46150, 191785. PAM, MG 10, E14. Statement of the claims of the province of Manitoba and the North-West Territories; to the constitutional right of a province under the British North America Act, 1867 ([Winnipeg, 1885]). Commercial (Winnipeg), 17 June, 7 Oct. 1884. Daily Free Press (Winnipeg), 27 Nov., 6, 28 Dec. 1883; 6 June, 9, 25 July, 28 Aug., 1 Sept., 13 Oct. 1884; 19 March, 18, 21 Dec. 1885; 5, 8, 20 Jan. 1886. Manitou Mercury (Manitou, Man.), 9 July 1886. Stonewall News and Rockwood County Advertiser (Stonewall, Man.), 16 Jan. 1886. Morton, Manitoba. J. A. D. Stuart, The Prairie W.A.S.P.; a history of the rural municipality of Oakland, Manitoba (Winnipeg, 1969). D. F. Warner, The idea of continental union; agitation for the annexation of Canada to the United States, 1849–1893 ([Lexington, Ky.], 1960); “The Farmers’ Alliance and the Farmers’ Union: an American-Canadian parallelism,” Agricultural Hist. ([Baltimore, Md.]), 23 (January 1949): 9–19.
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