Canada's minister of defence for air during World War II. The man who created a Canadian air corps that was a military force to be reckoned with.
Charles Gavan "Chubby" Power was born in Sillery, Que., on Jan. 18, 1888, to parents of Irish descent. He served in Europe in World War I, and was wounded and decorated for heroism.
He ran for Parliament as soon as he got home, winning a seat in the House of Commons as a Laurier Liberal in December, 1917. It was the first of a string of 10 straight election victories, and he only left the House when he was appointed to the Senate in 1955.
Power represented Québec-Sud, a largely francophone Quebec City riding, where his working-class background and common touch kept him immensely popular. The man who was prime minister during most of his years in the House of Commons, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was an academic and a tee-totaller, and appointed Power to the cabinet only reluctantly.
The bon-vivant politician used to spend his weekends touring the taverns in Quebec City, according to Canadian journalist and historian Peter C. Newman, drinking cheap beer and listening to his constituents; Mackenzie King disapproved of the habit on the grounds that cabinet ministers shouldn't be seen in dives. He told Power to stop.
"Listen," Power told the prime minister, "if you want my resignation, I'll write it. But I won't give up the taverns and I bet I'll win my seat in the next election, and you won't win yours." Which is exactly how it went.
Chubby Power joined the cabinet as minister of pensions and national health and moved laterally to the postmaster-general's portfolio in 1939. It was as minister of national defence for air, however, that he shone.
Canada's flyboys were known as some of the best the Allies had. Canada had never been attacked, so it had no shortage of equipment to train them with -- and God knows there was enough space to try out any manoeuvre the instructors wanted to put them through. Pilots from everywhere in the Empire came to Canada to train. Canadian-born pilots, however, were generally sprinkled throughout air units from elsewhere, rather than forming any units of their own. Canadian units would only serve at home, for things like coastal defence.
Power, who'd seen the calamitous decisions made by incompetent British generals in World War I, was determined that Canadians, especially abroad, should only be commanded by other Canadians. Not only that, but the increasingly independent Canadian government was suffering worse and worse cases of crossed wires with the British in their communications with the families of soldiers, sailors, and airmen back home. Sometimes, they couldn't even agree on whether a boy sent overseas to fight was dead, and sent contradictory messages to his parents or wife.
Also, as a Quebecer, even an anglophone one, Power knew how little tolerance francophone Quebecers had for the idea of being commanded by Brits. Most francophones didn't even think Canada should be in the war, let alone that they should sign up to take orders from British barons and viscounts.
Over the fierce objections of the RAF and some of the more fiercely royalist members of the Canadian military establishment, Power managed to "Canadianize" the air corps. Canadian pilots would serve together in Canadian squadrons, commanded by Canadians.
By the end of the war, Canadian pilots had distinguished themselves in virtually every theatre of the war.
Power left the cabinet in 1944, resigning his position as associate minister of defence over the Mackenzie King government's determination to use conscription to fill out the dwindling ranks of the Canadian military. The conscription crisis is a subject for another node, but the six-second summary is that the draft was wildly unpopular among francophone Quebecers who wanted no part of the war, and ultimately did damage to Confederation that, a reasonable person might argue, has not healed nearly 60 years later.
Power ran against Louis Stephen St. Laurent for the leadership of the Liberal Party and the prime ministership when Mackenzie King stepped down, in 1948, but lost. (That race included political titans C.D. Howe and Jimmy Gardiner, as well. Those were the days.) St. Laurent appointed Power to the Senate in 1955.
He died in office more than 50 years after his first election, on May 30, 1968.