Sir Joseph Wesley Flavelle, Bart.
William Wallace Barrett
Joe, as he was called when he was young, was brought up in extreme poverty, left school at the age of 13 to help support his family, endowed with remarkable business abilities, deeply religious, public spirited and a great Canadian.
He was the youngest of five children, raised in Peterborough in unhappy conditions because his father John Flavvl (as the name was pronounced in Peterborough those days) liked to drink too much and could not hold a steady job. Often his family had only bread and milk for food. But Dorothea, Joe’s mother was a very strong woman who kept the family together, taught school to earn extra money, and was the formative influence on her children’s character.
At the age of 18 he became a partner in the business of selling farm products and hired their first employee. Through hard work and self discipline he became a reasonably prosperous citizen of Peterbourough while still a young man. He married Clara Ellsworth who was the daughter of a Methodist minister and of Loyalist descent.
In 1887 at the age of 29, he moved to Toronto to start up his own business selling farm products and soon after was invited to be general manager and part owner of the William Davies Company which was Canada’s original meat packing company. His performance in that company became the basis of the family fortune.
His religious upbringing lead to his close association with the Methodist Church and for many years was superintendent of the Sunday school at the (then) Methodist Church at the corner of Church Street and Carleton Street. The church is now called the Carleton Street United Church.
He had two particularly strong points to help him in business - one was to surround himself with good men (he had a real eye for young talent), the other was an instinctive sense that accounting was the key to business success.
His success at the William Davies Company drew him into other businesses. He bought the Robert Simpson Company, later purchased by Hudson’s Bay Company, and was its President; he joined the Board of the Bank of Commerce and became its Chairman; he helped to form The National Trust Company and became its President.
From the age of 45 he started devoting more and more time to public service. He became Chairmen of the Board of Trustees of the Toronto General Hospital and was instrumental in moving the hospital to its present site at the corner of College and University Avenue in Toronto and contributed to the construction of the new building.
He was deeply involved with the University of Toronto and was an important influence in bringing the many colleges together to their present locations, and became Chancellor of the University.
His greatest opportunity for public service came during World War I when the British Government made him Chairman of the Imperial Munitions Board, an organization that handled all the orders in Canada that Great Britain was placing for shells for the battlefield. In its 4 year life, the Imperial Munitions Board was the biggest business organization Canada had ever seen. In 1917 for this work, he was rewarded by the King of England with a hereditary title – a baronetcy, making him Sir Joseph.
But he made one big mistake. He allowed himself to be in a position of conflict of interest. While he was supplying munitions to the soldiers fighting a war in Europe through the Imperial Munitions Board, he was also selling them canned food from the William Davies Company. He became the victim of a vicious newspaper attack and was accused (falsely) of being a ruthless war profiteer and later accused of having sold spoiled meat to the troops. An investigation proved that these charges were absolutely unfounded but his reputation suffered. Now it is standard practice where business and public sevice are combined that the parties involved must not be in a position of conflict of interest. Even if there is no actual conflict of interest there must not be the appearance of any conflict of interest.
Michael Bliss in his biography of Sir Joseph called “A Canadian Millionaire” writes:- “Joseph Wesley Flavelle was a man of great natural abilities, well endowed genetically. He was molded by his mother and his church to believe in hard work and service, and above all serving his fellow men and women. His was a world where duties and obligations seemed more important that rights and pleasures. He believed that much would be expected of people to whom much had been given. He was obsessed with doing the right thing and always doing better – trying to achieve the Methodist ideal of personal perfection - part of which meant learning to appear always relaxed, calm and untroubled. He was a generous, friendly and loving man, who learned to take delight and pleasure in all that life offered.”
The book “A Canadian Millionaire” was published in 1978 by The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited.