McCREA, FRANCIS (Francis Nelson), lumber merchant, manufacturer, and politician; b. 14 Jan. 1852 in the township of Durham, Lower Canada, son of Francis McCrea, a farmer, and Eliza Nelson; m. first Elizabeth Church (d. 1876); m. secondly 11 Nov. 1882 Judith Fanny Ella Wakefield in South Durham (Durham-Sud), Que., and they had ten children; d. 30 Oct. 1926 in Sherbrooke, Que.
Francis McCrea was born to Irish parents who worked a small farm in the Eastern Townships and he grew up there as part of a large family. He is believed to have received only a rudimentary education. He began a long and fruitful career as a self-made man in the mid 1870s, while employed as a labourer in the lumbering operations of Charles Church, of South Durham. This period was clouded, however, by the deaths in 1876 of his first child and then of his young wife, who was the niece of Charles Church. In 1881, the year before his second marriage, the 29-year-old McCrea appears in the census as a merchant living with a carpenter and his wife in South Durham. A little later he is described as a supplier of wood and fuel to the Canada Paper Company in Windsor Mills (Windsor). Listed in the 1891 census for South Durham as a merchant, McCrea already seemed reasonably well off, with two servants in the house to cater to a second family that included three young children. At the time, he had 15 people working for him. McCrea moved to Sherbrooke, a large regional centre, in 1901, and soon took his place among its most prosperous citizens, as the luxurious residence he built in the northern part of the city shortly before 1909 shows. In partnership with others, he bought or founded lumbering firms such as the Lotbiniere Lumber Company and the Sherbrooke Lumber Company (which received its letters patent in 1903). It was, however, with his arrival at the Brompton Pulp and Paper Company, probably in 1907, that he was able to move up to a position among the leaders of the middle class in the Eastern Townships.
Brompton Pulp and Paper, which had been founded partly by American capital, was then on the way to becoming an important component of the region’s economy, with its plants in Bromptonville and East Angus, its control of the water resources of the Rivière Saint-François, and its hold on extensive timber limits. McCrea would be its president until his death in 1926. In 1920 Brompton Pulp and Paper produced wood pulp, newsprint, kraft paper, and cardboard. The Bromptonville plant was the third largest pulp maker in Canada in 1910, and the plant in East Angus, which was the first in Canada to supply sulphate pulp and kraft paper, was the third largest manufacturer of paper in the province of Quebec in 1920. What is interesting about the company’s success is the fact that some entrepreneurs from the region (albeit in partnership with businessmen from the United States) were able to resist the pressure of monopoly capitalism, especially Montreal-based, during the early decades of the 20th century by concentrating on the exploitation of forest resources. At that very time, other sizeable firms, developed at the outset mainly by local elites (the Paton Manufacturing Company of Sherbrooke, the Eastern Townships Bank), had succumbed or were succumbing to that pressure. Although it did very well during World War I, Brompton Pulp and Paper would find itself in difficulty at the end of the 1920s, very likely because of the price war in the paper industry and the advent of plants with greater production capacity. It would merge with other firms in 1930 to form the St Lawrence Corporation.
Like the rest of the elite in his time, McCrea was notable for the many interests in which he was involved. In addition to being associated with numerous firms at the same time (he was president of five companies and vice-president of two others in 1917), he was active in politics. He was mayor of South Durham for about ten years at the end of the 19th century, and he was the Conservative candidate for Drummond in the provincial election of 1900, in which he was defeated. Eventually he represented Sherbrooke as a Liberal mp for nearly 14 years, winning consecutively in the elections of 1911, 1917, and 1921. His political role on the federal scene proved minor on the whole, but his speeches in the house provide much information about his concerns and thinking. As an entrepreneur who had started with nothing, McCrea was a staunch supporter of economic liberalism. He based his views on his own experience, as this statement made in 1922 shows: “When I left my father’s farm I went out as a labouring man, and without friends, without money, without anything to recommend me to the world. If I have had some degree of success it has been by putting into practice what I am now preaching to others; it has been the result of thrift and industry, of taking care of my money and not spending more than I earned.” In his eyes, work was the cure-all for a “difficult situation.” Doubtless it was for this reason that he had little sympathy for the unemployed in 1922. “I had been told there are 250,000 idle men,” he said, and he wondered “what those men are looking for? Are they looking for work, or is it ‘positions’ they want?” In the same vein, he protested against changes in working conditions, especially against shortening the working day and raising the cost of labour. As a paper manufacturer well aware of his own interests, he spoke out in the house during World War I against regulation of the price of newsprint (below the cost of its production, according to him) and he frequently denounced the existing railway freight rates (which he considered excessive).
As the mp for a riding whose central city, Sherbrooke, was largely French-speaking, McCrea came to the defence of French Canadians during the conscription crisis of 1917 [see Sir Robert Laird Borden*], condemning in the house the attitude taken by Ontario. “The war had hardly commenced before Ontario was hurling insult at them about being slackers, and not enlisting. . . . I think if they had spent part of the time in trying to do justice to the minority in Ontario, by granting them the right to teach their children in their own language . . . , they would have accomplished more in the direction of recruiting.” Yet towards the end of his career in federal politics, he had a difference of opinion with his party, which was then in power, in particular about customs duties, for he was a protectionist. McCrea voted against the government on several occasions, with the result that he ran in the 1925 election as an independent. He withdrew from the race before election day, however, and he died the following year.
Francis McCrea was one of the last illustrious representatives of a native-born, English-speaking middle class in the Eastern Townships that owed its influence to the accumulation of important political and economic positions. He occupied a strategic position for many years, and it is noteworthy that he did so until the mid 1920s, even while the rise of monopoly capitalism was increasingly bringing the Eastern Townships’ economic assets under the control of capital from outside the region.
ANQ-MBF, CE402-S74, 14 mars 1852; CE403-S22, 31 août 1876, 11 nov. 1882. LAC, MG 26, I, 91, 134; RG 31, C1, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, Durham and South Durham, Que. Sherbrooke Hist. Soc. (Sherbrooke, Que.), IP 464 (McCrea family papers). Ville de Sherbrooke, Div. du greffe, Rôles d’évaluation, Sherbrooke, 1905, 1911. Sherbrooke Daily Record, 23 March 1911, 27 Oct. 1925, 30 Oct. 1926. La Tribune (Sherbrooke), 15 mai 1930. “Attractive residence at Sherbrooke, Que.,” Contract Record (Toronto), 23 (1909), no.19: 57–60. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1911–25. “Death of Frank N. McCrea,” Canada Lumberman (Toronto), 46 (1926), no.22: 46. J.-P. Kesteman et al., Histoire des Cantons de l’Est (Sainte-Foy, Qué., 1998). Men of today in the Eastern Townships, intro. V. E. Morrill, comp. E. G. Pierce (Sherbrooke, 1917), 219–20. Thierry Nootens, “Men of today in the Eastern Townships, 1917: les notables sherbrookois à la fin de la Première Guerre mondiale,” Rev. d’études des Cantons de l’Est (Lennoxville, Qué.), no.11 (automne 1997): 85–111. Gilles Piédalue, “Les groupes financiers et la guerre du papier au Canada, 1920–1930,” RHAF, 30 (1976–77): 223–58. Ronald Rudin, “The transformation of the Eastern Townships of Richard William Heneker, 1855–1902,” Journal of Canadian Studies (Peterborough, Ont.), 19 (1984–85), no.3: 32–49. The storied province of Quebec; past and present, ed. W. [C. H.] Wood et al. (5v., Toronto, 1931–32), 5: 572–73.