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Visiting the statue of Sir Adam Beck, Toronto, Ontario: Emanuel Hahn recalling an overpowering hydro-electric advocate

Updated on December 12, 2013
Provincial flag of Ontario
Provincial flag of Ontario | Source
Statue of Sir Adam Beck, University Avenue & Queen Street, Toronto
Statue of Sir Adam Beck, University Avenue & Queen Street, Toronto | Source
Emanuel Otto Hahn, ca. 1928
Emanuel Otto Hahn, ca. 1928 | Source
Map location of Toronto, Ontario
Map location of Toronto, Ontario | Source

But now a poster boy for imposing more expensive electricity?

Sir James Whitney, Ontario Premier 1905-1914, had two elephants in the living room.

One was the Orange Order.

The other was Sir Adam Beck. (Yes, he became a 'Sir' just in time before William Nickle, managed to implement, in fits and starts, a convention by which the practice of conferring titles in Canada was stopped. At least, largely so.)

But first of all, the Orange Order. Such was its influence during Sir James Whitney's Premiership that it succeeded in bringing about a ban on the teaching of French in Ontario's secondary schools (according to the terms of the Province's Regulation 17).

Enter Adam Beck, minus the 'Sir', during Sir James Whitney's Premiership, who wanted hydro-electric power which would bring cheaper energy. The Ontario Liberals, close to the private power companies, widely perceived as overcharging customers, didn't. What Adam Beck wanted, Premier Whitney got for him.

Mr Cheaper Energy was a successful business personality with lines in cigar boxes and the turf, who had also served as Mayor of London, Ontario; he had also entered the Provincial Legislature and Sir James Whitney's Conservative Ontario government (as Minister Without Portfolio). Adam Beck thus advocated publicly owned electricity supply. Rather than their Liberal opponents, in 1905, it was the Ontario Conservatives that were the socialists, or at least, the promoters of 'business socialism', as historian Desmond Morton has called the stance (1). (Maybe later Premier George Drew and Ted Jolliffe should have stuck together.)

But soon the elephant morphed into something else. The Hydro-Electric Power Commission, of which Sir James Whitney had appointed Adam Beck as Chairman, started behaving like a monopolistic, semi-independent conglomerate. Sir James Beck himself was even looking to the St Lawrence River as a source of power. Hey, wait a minute: the St Lawrence is partly in New York and this would involve the Dominion, or Federal, Government, and for Ontario Premiers this would not be convenient. So maybe the Quebec Premier could help 'rescue' us, by agreeing to the joint harnessing the Ottawa River, and in the process obtain cheaper energy for Ontarians, too?

Thus it was that in the 1920s Ontario Premier Howard Ferguson and Quebec Premier Alexandre Taschereau put their heads together; one result of this was a power station at Des Joachims on the Ottawa River.

Another result was dumping one of the elephants: Premier Taschereau basically said: 'How can you expect me to do this politically if you people are still banning French in secondary schools?' Premier Ferguson essentially replied: 'Oh, we can get rid of Regulation 17' (leaving historians to point out that he was one of the original supporters of the measure).

In any case, after the death of Sir Adam Beck in 1925, his memory was honoured by the commissioning of a statue by German-born sculptor Emanuel Hahn (2). The result of Hahn's labours, in a work unveiled in 1934, is a life-sized statue in an intriguing pose. Sir Adam Beck is portrayed in a back-to-the-wall pose, as if he is making a solitary effort of resistance against the efforts of opponents (by implication, standing for the common people in the face of vested interests). The knee of the statue's figure is bending, as if the person depicted, despite his back-to-the-wall stance, is ready to 'pounce': maybe implying a street-fighter under pressure who is, however, used to getting his way. In any case, it seems the sculptor has evidently made a great effort to enter into what he has understood as the personal psychology of the man he is trying to depict; how effectively and accurately, depends to some extent on the viewer.

Responsibility for the statue was shared jointly by the City of Toronto and the Toronto Hydro-Electric Commission.

In 1950, existing power facilities on the Niagara were re-named the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Toronto, things have come full circle. Sir Adam Beck seems to have become somewhat of a poster boy among those who want to impose more expensive, alternative energy. So, how ever did this somewhat bizarre state of affairs come about? Well, the argument among some Central Canadian environmentalists goes, more or less: "Look, Beck imposed from above an energy policy on Ontarians. We want to impose measures without particularly worrying about the inconvenience of competitiveness. (Not like those business-minded Albertans ... )"

This story is set to run and run. (So don't be surprised if Al Gore and Prince Charles are asked to hand out eco-awards named for Sir Adam Beck, reinvented as: 'Mr More Expensive Energy who makes Torontonians feel good'.)

And so it goes.

May 14, 2012


(1) Desmond Morton, A Short History of Canada , 3rd Ed., Toronto, Ontario: McClelland & Stewart, 1997, p. 151.

(2) Sculptor Hahn is also known for works such as the Bell Telephone Memorial, on which he worked together with W S Allward, and for stamp and coin designs. He was President of the Sculptor's Society of Canada. He was married to Elizabeth Wyn Wood, also a prominent sculptor.

Also worth seeing

In Downtown Toronto , the Queen Street area also includes many historically significant buildings; these include: Osgoode Hall, Campbell House, Old City Hall, the Metropolitan United Church, and others.


How to get there: Porter Airlines, flies to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, with wide North American connections. Car rental is available at Union Station. Air Canada flies to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. However, visitors to Downtown Toronto will find many sights to be easily walkable. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. For up to date information, you are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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