Skip to contentSkip to navigation
Graham Spry: The Father of Canadian Public Broadcasting

Graham Spry: The Father of Canadian Public Broadcasting

Written by
David Smith
March 1st, 2000

Graham Spry’s (1900-1983) legacy includes creation of CBC, creation of CCF (now the New Democratic Party), articulation of what are now core Canadian values

We have just passed the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Graham Spry, the father of Canadian public broadcasting. He is best remembered for his astonishing success as a volunteer broadcasting lobbyist. Spry was also one of the more important Canadian intellectual activists of the twentieth century, advancing many of the core values that came to be accepted as Canadian. He popularized such phrases as “the state or the United States” in reference to Canadian broadcasting imperatives and “bi-culturalism” in reference to his promotion of Canadian linguistic duality at a time when many English Canadians still subscribed to British Imperial doctrine.

In October, 1930, during the Great Depression, with a stingy Conservative government newly elected to Ottawa, Spry pulled off what must be considered the most successful lobbying campaign ever undertaken in Canada. American corporate concerns, waking up to the money-making potential of radio networks based on advertising revenue, ignored the Canadian border in their expansion plans. Spry and fellow activist Alan Plaunt founded and led the Canadian Radio League to push for a national public broadcasting network. Their efforts culminated in the establishment of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission in 1932, which evolved into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) four years later.

Spry convinced Canadian skeptics that it was possible to resist the American media tide. Perhaps the biggest skeptic of all was Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. Through almost two years of both private and public lobbying, Spry managed to bring him on side. For instance, Spry quietly exploited such personal relationships as his friendship with Bennett's good friend and later brother-in-law, William D. Herridge.

Spry also led a very public campaign. In hard-hitting articles published in journals of the day, Spry argued convincingly that only through federal support would it be possible for Canadians to effectively speak to each other in this new medium. Spry and Plaunt together orchestrated a masterful campaign that united business, academic, newspaper, and religious leaders in a common cause. All these interests recognized the wisdom of asserting some measure of control for Canadians over the new medium; control for the purpose of allowing a Canadian perspective. The genius and dedication of Spry and Plaunt are demonstrated by the following: the two were the only full time League personnel; they made do with only a few thousand dollars, all of it donated by private individuals and non-profit organizations; they were not paid for their efforts; and, when the campaign began, Spry, the elder of the two, was only thirty years old.

Spry was also convinced that functional democratic societies require independent media institutions. Spry and Plaunt, mindful of the threat of excessive government or business control of radio, pushed for independent revenue sources such as those derived from radio licences. In its early years, Canadian public broadcasting was not an expense to Canadian taxpayers. Unfortunately, against the advice of Spry and Plaunt, funding for public radio gradually came to depend on direct federal government subsidies, a development which undermined its independence.

After its success in 1932 the Radio League became inactive. In 1958 Spry reactivated the League, concerned that American-style programming would dominate Canadian airwaves in the new medium of television. Despite his residence in London until 1968, Spry influenced Canadian media affairs. For example, he was a leader in the initiative that blocked direct American investment in the new Canadian network, CTV.

Spry also contributed to Canadian intellectual and political affairs. In 1919, as a student at the University of Manitoba, Spry fell under the influence of the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, John Dafoe. Dafoe inspired Spry to activist Canadian nationalism and helped him win a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1922, Spry left Canada for studies at Oxford followed by a year working at the League of Nations in Geneva. At Oxford, Spry fell in with a remarkable group of young Canadians including future Prime Minister Lester Pearson (the two became lifelong friends). Spry started a “Canadian group” which met regularly to discuss Canadian affairs and plot ways to strengthen the Canadian identity.

At Geneva, Spry was disappointed in the Canadian government's unwillingness to assume a more active role on the world stage. In 1926 he published an article in a young journal, the Canadian Forum (which he would later buy and save from oblivion). This article was one of the first to call for an activist Canadian foreign policy based on her “intermediate position between great and small.” Twenty years later, after the Second World War, the active, internationalist Canadian foreign policy that Spry advocated would finally be implemented.

When Spry returned to Canada in 1926, Dafoe offered him the job of Secretary of the Canadian Clubs. Spry took on the role of intellectual and cultural activist. A generation ahead of most Canadians Spry called for internationalism, biculturalism, recognition of the Canadian cultural “mosaic,” and aggressive support of Canadian culture and artists. In 1928 Spry set up the journal Canadian Nation, which became the best expression of a group of earnest young Canadians who worked to establish these values; Spry, ever the optimist, sincerely believed Canada could serve as an inspiration in terms of tolerance in human affairs and active government devoted to the interests of citizens.

In the nineteen thirties, the economic turmoil of the Great Depression led to a great deal of political unrest. Several radical political movements sprang up across Canada. In this environment, Spry joined in with several other young intellectuals to promote a new, moderately socialist party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (C.C.F.). This party is still with us, after reforming in 1961 as the New Democratic Party. In the Depression era, the C.C.F. fought for a greater government role in directing the economy and expanded social programs such as universal medical coverage, unemployment insurance, and welfare assistance.

In 1932, Spry left the security of his Canadian Clubs work to become a C.C.F. campaigner. He became the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Ontario wing of the C.C.F. Among many other battles, Spry fought the inhumane policies that were implemented against indigents in public shelters. In 1935, he and fellow C.C.F. activists obtained trucks and drove several hundred unemployed men to C.C.F. Party offices after populist Premier Mitch Hepburn turned them out of shelters on the pretext that there was sufficient work on rural farmsteads (there was not, as newspaper investigations proved). Spry was the first federal political candidate to campaign on an explicitly Keynesian platform of deficit spending. He was defeated by popular former Toronto mayor Tommy Church in a 1934 byelection and again in the 1935 general election.

When he left the C.C.F. in 1937, Spry was unable to find work in Canada due to his socialist associations. He worked as an oil executive in London, England, a job he landed through a connection with an old Oxford friend. During World War Two, Spry endured the Nazi blitz. He tried to obtain a position in the Canadian military but was again denied because of his socialist past. After the War Spry went to work for Canada's first C.C.F. Premier, Tommy Douglas. He became Saskatchewan's agent general for Europe, based in London. When Saskatchewan moved to become the first Canadian province to bring in universal free medicare, doctors there went on strike. Spry helped break the strike by recruiting British doctors and sending them to the province. After retiring in 1968, Spry settled in Ottawa and continued his lobbying efforts on behalf of Canadian broadcasting, appearing before commissions and committees where he argued courageously for the interests of Canadian viewers. In doing so, he clashed repeatedly with the representatives of increasingly powerful Canadian media empires.

Spry's most enduring legacy is the CBC. It is unthinkable that we would have this institution without his depression-era lobbying work. Throughout his lifetime as a media activist Spry continued to speak out for independent revenue sources for public broadcasting and considered the CBC's lack of a secure revenue source to be its greatest weakness. The CBC remains the only significant mirror of the Canadian reality to be found on the air. Until his death in 1983, Spry doggedly acted as the conscience of the Canadian broadcasting scene. Into his seventies and eighties, he argued that in a functioning democracy the media are too important to be left to merely money-making concerns. His ideals continue to be advocated by lobbyists such as those at Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. And to a substantial degree, the Canadian values derived by Spry and others in the 1920s, and broadly accepted since the Second World War, continue to define us.

* At time of publication, David Smith was completing a doctoral thesis at York University on the life of Graham Spry. He can be contacted at: [email protected].

© David Smith

Photograph by Yousuf Karsh, taken from Rose Potvin, Passion and Conviction: The Letters of Graham Spry (Canada Plains Research Centre, University of Regina, 1992)

Stand with us in the defense of Canada's cultural and economic interests.