HARRIS, JOSEPH, grain merchant; b. 1835 in Toronto; m. first Jane Andrew, and they had four children; m. secondly Rebecca Cummer, and they had two children; d. 1 Nov. 1899 in Toronto.
Joseph Harris’s father was a British immigrant who had come to Lower Canada to work as a teacher during the late 1820s. Joseph was educated in Toronto and, at a young age, was employed by grain merchants there. He decided to pursue a career in that business at a most opportune time. Following the construction of several major railway lines in Upper Canada during the 1850s and 1860s, Toronto emerged as the leading grain market of the region. By 1855 the city’s businessmen had organized a commodity exchange so that buyers and sellers of grain could meet to negotiate contracts. The success of such transactions was largely dependent upon effective regulations governing grading and inspection which eliminated the buyer’s need to examine the product purchased. In 1863 an act passed by the Legislative Assembly of Canada set grading standards and allowed the boards of trade in Quebec, Montreal, and Toronto to appoint inspectors. At some point after 1862 Harris became Toronto’s deputy grain inspector under Julius Rough. Following Rough’s retirement in June 1871, Harris was promoted chief inspector, a position he held for the next 20 years.
During the 1880s the centre of the Canadian grain business shifted from Montreal and Toronto westward to Winnipeg. Manitoba’s production of high-quality Red Fife wheat increased, as did the province’s grain export market. An optimistic business class evolved, ready to take advantage of the new opportunities. Merchants built elevators and flat warehouses (covered storage bins with no mechanical equipment) along railway lines to take delivery of wheat, and in Winnipeg they established the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange in 1887. To benefit from these developments Harris moved to Winnipeg with his family in 1891, establishing a grain brokerage office there. He joined the WGPE and from 1893 to 1898 served on its council, a body which, composed of the most important grain merchants, established the rules governing the western grain trade. In 1896 he was elected vice-president of the exchange, and on 11 Jan. 1899 he became its twelfth president, but he was forced to retire in mid-term because of illness.
In the early 1890s two milling and elevator companies based in central Canada – the Ogilvie Milling Company [see William Watson Ogilvie] and the Lake of the Woods Milling Company – had dominated the grain business in Manitoba. Their chief competitors were approximately 50 small independent Winnipeg firms. Eventually, several of the city’s grain dealers realized that in order to challenge the supremacy of the two companies they needed to combine their economic power. Thus in July 1897 Harris joined with several other merchants, including Rodmond Palen Roblin*, Samuel A. McGaw, and Frederick Phillips, to found the Dominion Elevator Company. With an authorized capital of $200,000, the firm quickly became one of the major grain companies in western Canada. (By 1900 it operated 64 elevators – 14 per cent of the total on the Prairies – with a combined capacity of approximately 1.8 million bushels.) Harris served as the company’s vice-president until his death.
Following his retirement in 1899, Harris moved back to Toronto and died there later that year. He had been well liked by his colleagues in the Winnipeg grain trade, and the Toronto mercantile community had held him in respect. He had been a strong supporter of the Liberal party and a devout member of the Church of England. But his career was most significant as a symbol of the shift of the Canadian grain industry to the west in the late 19th century.
NA, MG 28, III 56, 3. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1898, no.16. Toronto, Board of Trade, Annual report . . . (Toronto), 1872–91. Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange, Annual Report (Winnipeg), 1890–1900. Commercial (Winnipeg), 13 Feb. 1893; 23 Sept. 1895; 10 Sept. 1898; 14 Jan., 4 Nov. 1899; 13 Jan. 1900. Commemorative biog. record, county York. R. L. Jones, History of agriculture in Ontario, 1613–1880 (Toronto, 1946; repr. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1977). A. [G.] Levine, The exchange: 100 years of trading grain in Winnipeg (Winnipeg, 1987).