J. J. Harpell – a Man of Vision

on Monday, 01 June 1959. Posted in Diverse Articles

Unrivalled achievement in realising the advancement of the worker

On the 28th of last February, at his home in Senneville, a great Christian, James. John Harpell, died in his 86th year. He was the founder of one of the most important printing establishments in Canada and was an outstanding philanthropist who in deed and example, helped a great number of individuals to make a success of their lives. He was an Irishman and a Catholic. His remains were laid to rest in the parish cemetery of St. Anne de Bellevue.

A start from scratch

Mr. Harpell was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth; he had to start with nothing. He left school while still very young, having lost interest in studies, and hired himself out as an apprentice in a foundry. It was his employer there, of whom he always held the fondest memories, who made him understand that if he wanted to make anything of his life he had to acquire an education. The young man took his advice and undertook to educate himself, following a university course by correspondance while he earned his livelihood tutoring and selling books.

With what he had saved and in partnership with a well-to-do friend, he established in Toronto, in 1911, the Industrial and Educational Publishing Company, which he moved to Montreal two years later. However, he was anxious to locate his printing plant outside the city so that his employees would benefit from the fresh air and the clean surroundings. To this end he bought some property in St. Anne de Bellevue where he built a large establishment which he called Garden City Press and into which he moved his printing plant in 1918. The editors and staffs of four industrial revues which he printed, had their offices in the same building. He also built houses which his employees occupied at very low rents.

A post office was set up on the premises to which the Hon. William Fielding, who was Minister of Finance in the Wilfrid Laurier government, gave the name, Gardenvale. At this time, Mr. Fielding was publishing the "Journal of Commerce" which was printed by the Garden City Press.

The Garden City Press expanded very rapidly. The Industrial and Educational Publishing Co., established in the very heart of Toronto, a second printing plant to which was also given the name, Garden City Press. The two undertakings were highly successful.

Helping others to help themselves

I was employed by Mr. Harpell for more than 17 years, from the first months of 1921 to September 4, 1938, as linotypist, instructor of apprentices, foreman of the composition room, translator of manuals, associate editor of his periodical, "'The Instructor", proofreader, and teacher of the winter courses he held for his employees.

Consequently, I knew Mr. Harpell, not only as my employer but also as a man in pursuit of an ideal. That ideal he liked to sum up in the phrase: help others to help themselves.

It is precisely this trait of his character I would like to dwell upon, rather than his business activities, along with his part in setting my feet on the road to Social Credit.

Once having established himself at St. Anne de Bellevue, Mr. Harpell expressed the desire to make of his institution a place, not only of employment for the young but of cultural advancement also. The occasion to realize his dream came in 1921 when a strike of typographers almost emptied the composition room of the printing plant. There were only four of us left out of a dozen and while we occasionally received aid from Montreal in the evening it was quite evident that some permanent and more satisfactory arrangement would have to be made. So it was finally decided that those pupils of the Brothers' school who were through their eighth grade and wanted to be printers would be taken in.

This of course did not mean the end of all our troubles. There were many who did not finish; others left after having learned the trade with the idea that they could do better elsewhere. But in spite of these disappointments Mr. Harpell was very glad that he was able to help the local young people. And his interest rested not only with the English-speaking boys; he was equally interested in the advancement of those of the French-speaking race.

One day I accompanied Mr. Harpell on a trip to La Tuque. His purpose was to visit the Messers Brown, proprietors of a paper mill in that town. Mr. Harpell, along with others, had founded the Institute of Industrial Arts; he was extremely anxious to see the employees of the pulp and paper industry follow the correspondence courses established by the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association, in order that they might advance themselves. To this end he solicited financial aid from employers in order that the payment for the courses by the young might be made easier. At La Tuque only those employees of the English language seemed to be eligible for promotion. Mr. Harpell remarked to the Browns that an employer who set up business in Quebec and profited from the natural resources of the province and from the skill of its workers, had an obligation towards the population and it was his duty to facilitate as much as he could the advancement of those workers furnished him by the local folks. This bit of advice handed to the Browns, illustrates perfectly Mr, Harpell's ideal which he pursued in his own business and in his relations with other employers.

But Mr. Harpell was not satisfied with just making his employees good artisans. He had in mind associating them with him in the business, even of handing the business over to them one day when they were ready to assume the responsibilities. "If the employers do not lead their employees to this end, he confided to me one day, communism will take control of our working forces and will take over our businesses in violence and disorder."

In 1929, Mr. Harpell sold his industrial publications at reasonable prices to those who were in charge of running them. It was at this time that I heard him make the reflection, during the course of a trip to La Trappe at Oka: "He who is the owner of the publication on which he is working, will bring to it greater interest, a greater sense of responsibility and will better serve the reader than will someone who is just a salaried employee."

He was right. The new owners formed the National Business Publications and made a tremendous success of the business. This company today, publishes 12 revues, 5 annuals and employs people at St. Anne, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and has travelling men in all parts of the world.

The employees become owners

But it took more time to raise to such a level those who were employed in the various departments of the printing plant, those who worked in the offices, in the composing room, at the presses, in the binding shop, etc. The years of stock market gambling passed, those years prior to 1929; then came the depression era, and finally the second world war.

In 1945, Mr. Harpell judged that at least a good part of the Garden City Press were capable af assuming the responsibility of proprietors. So he proposed that those who so wished should form a cooperative and buy the business from him.

Now buying an establishment of the value of the Garden City Press could very well be an unthinkable proposition for mere salaried people. Consequently, Mr. Harpell made them a proposition which made the deal more of a gift than a sale. In effect, he said:

Take the establishment as it is. It is presently bringing in annual profits. It will continue to do so if you know how to run it. Out of these annual profits you will remit to me each year the sum of $40,000.00 for ten years. At the end of that time the property becomes yours completely. This offer was accepted. The printing plant took the name of 'Harpell's Press Co-operative". The new owners went to work with greater attention and assiduity than ever before. They were paid as simple employees, their salaries being set by committees of the different types of work. Profits continued to flow in. Reserves for depreciation were duly set aside. Mr. Harpel received his annuity of $40,000.00 regularly. By common accord, no dividend was declared to the members of the co-operative for these ten years. At the end of the ten years the accumulated dividends were shared out.

When the first eight years had been paid, Mr. Harpell relinquished any further claim upon the printing plant, thus, in effect, returning to the co-operative $80,000.00 yet due. So the members of the co-operative got, for their $320,000 a business worth more than 4 million dollars.

In 1955, ten years after the inauguration of the co-operative, each member benefited from an accumulated dividend that was quite respectable — pro-rated to the salaries of the members. I am told that the average for each member was well over a thousand dollars. And each year the profits and the dividends continued. Workers turned into owners, salaried employers become capitalists — this is an accomplishment which surpasses by far anything that any union or syndicate has ever been able to accomplish or even promise.

Harpell's Press Co-operative today counts 130 members out of the 250 people who work in the establishment. No employee is obliged to join the co-operative. However, those who wish to join it must first finish the 5 years of apprenticeship if they are just beginning, or a period of probation, before being admitted. The personnel of the co-operative — the superintendant, foremen, those employed in the various offices and workshops — are, for the most part, composed of French-Canadians.

Harpell, in like manner, placed his Toronto establishment in the hands of the employees there. The above figures, however, concern only the branch at St. Anne de Bellevue.

A beacon on my course

For my part, I owe a great debt to Mr. Harpell. I was no longer in his employ when he turned over his printing establishment at St. Anne de Bellevue to his employees. But I believe that I was immeasurably enriched by all that I learned in his company and by the fact that through him my feet were turned towards Social Credit.

Mr. Harpell was well-versed in many branches of economics, politics (the true politics, not the party kind) and finance. He benefited from his personal contacts with the Hon. Mr. Fielding whom he always considered as the ablest minister of Finance ever to-go to Ottawa. Mr. Fielding remarked to him one day that if he wished to know who it was who very often forced the hand of the government he had only to cast his eye upon the forces aligned with the banks and the great insurance companies.

Mr. Harpell instituted a series of courses for his employees, one night a week during the winter months. I was the teacher. During the winter of 1933-34 we studied electricity, and with it the matter of the electricity trusts which flourished at that time. We soon perceived that there existed a still more powerful trust, that controlling credit and money and that this trust was vitiating the financial and political life of the country. It was decided that this would form the topic of our studies for the winter of 1934-35.

First it was necessary to find an appropriate manual on the monetary question. We invited suggestions and received many texts and manuscripts on the monetary system, on bank credit, on the proposals of Gesell, the viewpoints of McGreer, documents from the Southampton Chamber of Commerce, and many others. Along with these we received the works on Social Credit.

From my very first meeting with this doctrine, in a booklet of 96 pages — From Debt to Prosperity — I saw in the proposals of Douglas something which was superior to what was contained in all the others; the problems were resolved and at the same time the liberty of the individual was fully respected. I felt that I had discovered a very great truth indeed; and from that time I felt an irresistible compulsion to know better and make known this body of principles.

Mr. Harpell, himself, was convinced that Social Credit was superior to all other doctrines in what concerned finance.

All this took place about ten months before the election of Aberhart's followers in Alberta. I did not know at that time that a new party had assumed the doctrines and the name of Social Credit. But regardless of the acts or the omissions of a party young or old, I was convinced that sooner or later the light of Social Credit would lead the world to a new civilization and I was resolved to do my utmost to see that this light came sooner rather than later.

Through contacts established by The Instructor, a publication founded by Mr. Harpell, I had an opportunity to launch, on my own, in 1936, "Cahiers du Credit Social" (Social Credit Notes). This in turn prepared the way for the foundation of the journal, "Vers Demain" which Gilberte Côté (today, Mrs. Côté-Mercier) and I launched in the Autumn of 1939.

So, you can see, Mr. Harpell is not out of place in a Social Credit publication. The history of the Social Credit movement stemming from Vers Demain, would be incomplete without mention of his name.

More than 20 years have passed since I resigned my position in the printing plant of Mr. Harpell to devote myself completely to the work of Social Credit. I have never regretted this decision. But I have never forgotten Mr. Harpell, and before his tomb, I wish to render him this homage.

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