ROBB, JAMES ALEXANDER, businessman and politician; b. 10 Aug. 1859 in Huntingdon, Lower Canada, son of Alexander Robb, a farmer, and Jenny (Janet) Smith; m. first 11 Sept. 1889 Mary Alma Wattie (d. 1902) in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Que., and they had one daughter, who predeceased her father; m. secondly 16 Aug. 1919 Mary Elizabeth Wattie, née Fletcher, in Vancouver; d. 11 Nov. 1929 in Toronto and was buried in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield.
James Robb was educated at Huntingdon Academy until age 16, when he began to work for his uncle in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield as a flour miller’s assistant. By the time he was 20 he had become a partner in the firm, named McDonald and Robb. He later became its president and would hold the post until his death. Estimated to be worth only $2,000–$5,000 in 1889, the company was evaluated at $5,000–$10,000 less than ten years later and it would continue to prosper. Later in life Robb would also serve as chief executive of the Montreal wholesale flour business of Bruneau, Currie and Company Limited. In addition to achieving success in business he played an active role in local politics, most notably as mayor of Salaberry-de-Valleyfield from 1906 to 1910 or 1911. A public petition had requested that he assume office in order to put the town’s finances in order. During this period he entered federal politics as a Liberal. Beginning in 1908 he won six consecutive mandates. His Huntingdon riding, which became Châteauguay-Huntingdon in 1914, was not a safe Liberal seat. Certainly Robb’s chances were improved by his party’s popularity in Quebec but his riding had been won by a Conservative immediately before his election and would be won by another shortly after his death. Popular and well known in his constituency, Robb gradually acquired greater responsibilities at Ottawa, being named chief Liberal whip in 1917 and, after the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier* in 1919, Liberal parliamentary house leader.
In December 1921 the Liberals returned to power in Ottawa. Under William Lyon Mackenzie King*, they had swept all 65 seats in Quebec. Within the Quebec bloc, however, a bitter rivalry divided a Montreal-based group – led by former Quebec premier Sir Lomer Gouin and defending the interests of big business – and a more populist Quebec City–based group headed by Ernest Lapointe*. Although clearly identified with Gouin’s group because of his business interests and his proximity to Montreal, Robb was one of the rare Quebec Liberals to share the confidence and friendship of both factions and he entered cabinet as minister of trade and commerce on 29 December. His most notable accomplishment during the one and a half years he held this portfolio was the negotiation of a trade deal with Australia. From 17 Aug. 1923 to 4 Sept. 1925 he was minister of immigration and colonization, continuing the policies of the period that encouraged white, British settlers to come to Canada. During most of this time he was more preoccupied with his position as acting minister of finance, a role he assumed during the illness of William Stevens Fielding, than with his position as minister of immigration. His budgets of 1924 and 1925 foreshadowed the economic thrift and political concerns of the four budgets he would present after he officially replaced Fielding.
Robb served as minister of finance from 5 Sept. 1925 to 28 June 1926, when he resigned with King and his cabinet during the King–Byng affair [see King; Julian Hedworth George Byng*]. Shortly afterwards, on 2 July, Arthur Meighen*’s Conservative government was defeated in the house on a legally questionable but politically astute motion which King had asked Robb to introduce concerning the validity of Meighen’s government. When the Liberals again took office, Robb was reappointed finance minister on 25 Sept. 1926; he would hold the post until his death in 1929. Robb’s budgets, conceived during a period of expanding trade and growing government revenues from moderate tariffs, featured debt reduction, tax cuts, and a general decrease in government spending. Often referred to as prosperity budgets, they were praised by many as responsible and only a few expressed concern that the apparent economic growth was illusory and that the refusal of the government to fund social programs had left many Canadians vulnerable. Presented in Robb’s characteristically straightforward style, these budgets contained little that was new or original and simply applied the program of thrift encouraged by King. A comment by Robb to King in 1928 that “good business policies and the national interest require that economy be practised by every department” reflected the content of many letters between the two.
Although King was impressed with Robb’s thrift, he often suspected that the minister of finance was over-sympathetic with the economic policies of the Conservative party. “Robb is too Tory and protectionist by instinct and association,” King recorded in his diary on 7 March 1925. Robb maintained the reputation and connections he had established as a member of the Gouin high-tariff wing of the Liberal party in the early 1920s. From the time he headed the finance department, however, he proved to be as concerned as King about the political fortunes of the Liberal party and sought to win support for it from those who favoured reduced tariffs. Although he was never interested in the details of political organization, his middle-of-the-road tariff and other policies succeeded not only in satisfying those whom he termed his “manufacturing friends,” but also in attracting an important number of low-tariff Progressives. Perhaps a greater limit on Robb’s influence in cabinet than his conservative leanings and his identification with Gouin and Fielding was his reputation for relying excessively on the officials in his department. His deputy minister, George Finley O’Halloran, remarked that Robb was “inclined to glance at, rather than read, a long memorandum.” Nevertheless, his presence in cabinet was appreciated by the prime minister, who often praised Robb’s financial skills and his loyalty to the party.
In the fall of 1929, shortly after the disturbing news of the stock market crash, Robb became seriously ill with pleurisy and he died in November of apoplexy. During his burial service he was praised by many of the mourners as a popular mp respected by all parties. His secretary, Robert Watson Sellar*, noted years later in his memoirs that Robb was “neither an orator nor a ready speaker but he talked sense (in plain and simple English and French) and was an astute and trusted politician who was at his best when reconciling differences.”
ANQ-M, CE607-S35, 3 nov. 1859; S72, 11 sept. 1889. BCA, GR-2962. LAC, MG 26, G; I; J (esp. J13); MG 27, III, B10; MG 31, E5. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1908–29. CPG, 1908–29. R. MacG. Dawson and H. B. Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King: a political biography (3v., Toronto, 1958–76). Directory, Montreal, 1929–30. F. W. Gibson, “The cabinet of 1921,” in Cabinet formation and bicultural relations: seven case studies, ed. F. W. Gibson (Ottawa, 1970), 63–104. J. E. Rea, T. A. Crerar: a political life (Montreal, 1997). S. P. Regenstreif, “A threat to leadership: C. A. Dunning and Mackenzie King,” Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), 44 (1964–65): 272–89.