Graham Spry

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Graham Spry at 3 months of age with his mother Ethelyn Spry (May 1900)

Graham Spry was born on February 20, 1900 in St Thomas, Ontario. Raised in a comfortable middle-class family, Spry was an important 20th century Canadian intellectual activist who worked as an editor, reporter, war correspondent, newspaper publisher, author, lobbyist, diplomat, and corporate executive in Canada, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

As a student at the University of Manitoba in the early 1920s, Spry won the gold medal in history, and became editor of the student paper, The Manitoban. He went on to work as a reporter and editorial writer for the Winnipeg Free Press. Free Press editor, John Dafoe, proved an important influence and mentor, contributing to Spry’s lifelong commitment to fostering a distinct Canadian society and culture. Subsequently, Spry edited and wrote for numerous Canadian and British newspapers and magazines during the summers while at university and in the following years. Some of these publications include: The Morning Albertan (Calgary), The Daily Express (London, England), The Farmers Sun/New Commonwealth, Canadian Forum, and Social Planning in Canada. During World War II, he also worked as a war correspondent for The London Times and The Ottawa Citizen.

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Graham Spry and Irene Biss on their wedding day at Chelsea Old Church in London, June 1938.

In 1922, Spry won a Rhodes Scholarship and left Canada to study at Oxford University. While at Oxford, Spry met a group of dynamic young Canadians, including Lester B. Pearson, with whom he met regularly to discuss Canadian current affairs. When Spry returned to Canada in 1926, Dafoe offered him the job of Secretary of the Canadian Clubs, a position that allowed Spry to begin to intervene in Canadian culture, identity and politics. In 1928 Spry established Canadian Nation, a magazine that expressed Canadian values of internationalism, biculturalism, the recognition of the Canadian cultural mosaic, and strong support of Canadian culture and artists.

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Graham Spry in 1938.

Graham Spry is perhaps best remembered for his passionate activism in support of Canadian public broadcasting. In 1930, when radio was emerging as a key medium of mass communication in North America, Spry co-founded with fellow activist Alan Plaunt the Canadian Radio League (CRL), a grassroots organization that advocated public control of the airwaves. In 1929, when the American lobby for a model of private broadcasting in Canada was highly influential, the Royal Commission on Public Broadcasting (also known as the Aird Commission) recommended the establishment of a national public radio system to be called the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Company. However, when Mackenzie King’s Liberal government was defeated by R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives in the 1930 federal election, the project of public broadcasting was called into question. The Canadian Radio League, spearheaded by Spry and Plaunt, campaigned vigorously in support of public broadcasting. 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.

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A typical breakfast pose. Graham Spry in the late 1950s or early 1960s in London.

Biographer David Smith describes Spry as an “intellectual activist.” In a short biography written in 2000, Smith details a highly successful lobbying campaign for public broadcasting spearheaded by Spry and Plaunt in the late 1920s and early 1930s: “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. … 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 [in order to allow] a Canadian perspective.”

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Graham Spry, an avid reader and writer, in his favourite chair at the Spry’s Ottawa house in the 1970s.

Biographer Rose Potvin notes that Spry’s and Plaunt’s campaign for Canadian public broadcasting remains a classic case in the art of lobbying. Aside from the tactical success of the campaign, the ideas expressed by Spry in this context remain pertinent in a contemporary neoliberal landscape where media policy and economics are increasingly guided by discourses of deregulation, privatization and globalization. Consider, for instance, Spry’s classic 1931 commentary in “A Case for Nationalized Broadcasting”: “Here is a majestic instrument of national unity and national culture. Its potentialities are too great, its influence and significance are too vast, to be left to the petty purposes of selling cakes and soap.” In his incisive account of Spry’s contribution to Canadian communication thought, Robert Babe (2000) writes: “In 1930, Spry coined his famous and oft-repeated aphorism ‘It is a choice between the State and the United States’ to underline the fact that in broadcasting (as in so many other matters), Canada as a nation, as a community, cannot survive without government actively coordinating, and in some measure, directing activities.”

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Graham Spry gives a speech at his 71st birthday party. This homage to his life’s work organized by friends and colleagues.

In addition to his passionate commitment to fostering Canadian public media, Spry was also a staunch socialist. Spry acted as a special constable during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, and although he later felt he had been on the wrong side, the Strike had a formative influence. Amidst a deepening Depression in the early 1930s, Spry was a founding member of the League for Social Reconstruction; he later joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and was a signatory of the 1933 Regina Manifesto. One of the first to run for office under a CCF banner in 1934 and 1935, he lost both contests by what he called “large and enthusiastic majorities.”

In 1938, Spry married Irene Biss, and the couple had three children, Richard, Robin and Lib. The couple first met in 1933 through the League for Social Reconstruction, and Irene and Graham shared a commitment to social justice. It is important to note that Irene Biss was a brilliant political economist in her own right. A student of John Maynard Keynes, Biss became a lecturer at the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto where she worked closely with renowned Canadian communication scholar Harold Innis. Obliged by a University of Toronto policy to resign her position when she married, Irene taught briefly at Cambridge before World War Two, worked as an economist for the Canadian government during the war, and became deputy president of the Associated Country Women of the World while the Spry family was based in Britain. Irene Spry later taught at the University of Saskatchewan and at the University of Ottawa after the family returned to Canada.

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Graham Spry with his grandchild and his son Robin (right) and wife Irene in the background.

Branded a radical because of his association with the CCF, by the mid-1930s Spry was virtually unemployable in Canada. He eventually found a position England with an American oil company, and during World War II served as personal assistant to Sir Stafford Cripps of the British War Cabinet. In 1942, he accompanied Cripps on a mission to negotiate Indian independence. In 1948, Spry re-established professional ties with Canada when he was appointed agent general for Saskatchewan in Britain at the behest of the province’s CCF premier Tommy Douglas, Spry’s former friend and colleague. Although this was initially only a short-term appointment, Spry stayed on as agent-general for over two decades, all the while closely following events in Canada. One of Spry’s many achievements as agent general was to recruit British medical personnel to help neutralize the 1962 Saskatchewan doctors’ strike against the introduction of provincial medicare.

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Shield’s Edge, the Spry family cottage on Kingsmere Lake near Ottawa, purchased just before Graham Spry was posted overseas.

In 1968, Graham Spry returned to Canada where he settled with his wife Irene in Ottawa. Officially in retirement, he remained active, notably by reactivating the Canadian Radio League (renamed the Canadian Broadcasting League) where he served as chairman from 1968 until 1973. In recognition of his services, Spry received five honorary doctorates and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. On his seventy-first birthday, Spry’s friends and colleagues held a party to honour his lifetime achievements with Lester B. Peason as master of ceremonies. He died in 1983.

Graham Spry at Shield’s Edge cottage.

Graham Spry at Shield’s Edge cottage.

Original text by Julianne Pidduck

Bibliography

Robert E. Babe, “The Communication Thought of Graham Spry,” Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Rose Potvin, Passion and Conviction: The Letters of Graham Spry, Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1992.

David James Smith, “Graham Spry: Father of Canadian Public Broadcasting.” Friends of Canadian Broadcasting website, March 1, 2000. http://www.friends.ca/pub/189

David James Smith, Intellectual activist: Graham Spry, a biography, doctoral dissertation, York University Department of History, 2003.

Graham Spry, “A Case for Nationalized Broadcasting,” Queen’s Quarterly 37/4 (Winter 1931): 151-169.