J.P. Bickell: The Life, the Leafs and the Legacy

J.P. Bickell: The Life, the Leafs and the Legacy

Posted on September 19 by Jason Wilson in Non-fiction
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Born in a manse in Molesworth, Ontario, in 1884, John Paris Bickell would overcome family tragedy to become one of Canada’s true renaissance men of the first half of the twentieth century. JPB or ‘Smiling Jack’, as he was known to many – was fatherless at seven, owned his own brokerage firm at twenty-three and was a millionaire before he turned thirty. As one of the most important industrialists in Canadian history, J.P. Bickell cut an enormous swath across a nation that he helped to shape. Bickell kick-started several long-standing and successful businesses and organizations, transformed the city of Toronto, played a key role in the Allied cause during the Second World War, gave a leg-up to the multifarious and future careers of many in the business world, and ultimately exemplified the best of twentieth century philanthropy in Canada.

Bickell made the lion’s share of his riches on the city-side of mining, and was Ontario’s first and likely most important producer of gold. Bickell’s sage advice and assistance also gave form and funds to some of Canada’s most famous including, among others, Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn, Lord Beaverbrook, Jack Kent Cooke, Roy Thomson, Nathan L. Nathanson, Sydney Logan, and, perhaps most famously, of course, Conn Smythe. Yet Bickell’s work touched far more not-so-famous people.

As a board member of Wellesley Hospital, Bickell was intimately involved in several philanthropic endeavours throughout his life; and his eponymous foundation, to which he left most of his millions, would advance several strains of medical research and care in Canada.

Certainly, Bickell was not flawless. He drank to excess, gambled with caprice, was inclined to keep company that was perhaps a little too ‘interesting’, and embarked on far too many and sometimes unnecessary escapades. As a man who loved risk, Bickell would court several close calls during his life, most of which had been the result of his audacious lust for adventure. In many ways, however, his several near-death experiences only added to the mythology of the man.

This mythology grew exponentially over the course of Bickell’s life. A life large enough to include many different personas: there was Bickell the broker; Bickell the banker; Bickell the builder; Bickell the ‘Busy B’; Bickell the bomber; and, perhaps most outstandingly, Bickell the benevolent.

At the age of thirty-six, Bickell would retire from the brokerage firm that he had established and in which he made his first million. He did so to concentrate all of his formidable energies on mining gold. As president of McIntyre-Porcupine Mines Limited, Bickell soon graduated to multi-millionaire and contributed greatly to the communities of Schumacher, Porcupine and Timmins. By 1955, only four years after Bickell’s death, the company had produced $230 million worth of gold, paid its shareholders over $62 million in dividends, and had employed hundreds of families in the greater Timmins area.

Bickell fit the early twentieth century Canadian cliché of rich-mining-magnate-cum-hockey-man. Not unlike others in the mining industry, he chose to include hockey within his portfolio; he was part owner of the Toronto St. Patricks before that team underwent a shocking and historical metamorphosis. Spurred on by one of hockey’s all-time characters, Bickell helped lead the franchise to seven Stanley Cup Championships and become one of the most storied teams in professional sport: the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In the grand narrative of the Maple Leafs, however, the role of Conn Smythe has been slightly exaggerated while Bickell’s has been somewhat soft-pedalled. The two friends, nevertheless, worked together to form a team that manufactured astounding results, both on and off the ice. Perhaps most impressively, the company built one of the hockey world’s finest coliseums: Maple Leaf Gardens. They managed this remarkable achievement during the prevailing misery of the Great Depression. In essence, Bickell, as he would do for so many others, facilitated Smythe’s dream of an ice palace for Toronto’s winter warriors.

The dream-maker was involved in a head-spinning number of diverse interests and institutions. Bickell was, for example, an appointed director of Canadian Bank of Commerce, National Trust, Imperial Life Assurance, the Art Gallery of Ontario, National Trust, INCO, and, perhaps most famously, Maple Leaf Gardens, of which he was the first president. He also his hand in the silver screen game as the Vice President of Famous Players and helped Nathanson develop the theatre chain. Importantly, Bickell was a senior partner of the notable New York stockbrokerage Thomson and McKinnon. By the end of the 1930s, there was scarcely an industry in Ontario in which J.P. Bickell did not have a hand in or an understanding of.      

Though Bickell loved his life in the fast lane, his patriotic duty was inviolate. When war broke out, Bickell went to England and joined a foursome that would be known as the ‘Four Busy B’s’. This group, led by Lord Beaverbrook, included former Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, Toronto-born British MP Beverley Baxter and, of course, J.P. Bickell. At first, Bickell was in charge of moving aircraft from the factories to the airfields for both training and operational procedures as the Controller of ATFERO. It was a job that was vital to stopping Hitler’s plans to invade the United Kingdom during the famous Battle of Britain.

Following this successful chapter of his war, Bickell returned to Canada as president of Malton Ontario’s Victory Aircraft. Victory held the crucial responsible of constructing and delivering Lancaster Bombers to the Allies. The ‘Lanc’ was known as the ‘shining sword’ of the RAF’s Bomber Command. Despite all of his numerous and noteworthy pre-war appointments, Bickell’s wartime roles were no doubt his most important.

Following the war, Bickell kept up his impossible pace. He helped fund and establish the aircraft manufacturer A.V. Roe Canada Company, publicly rallied against Canada’s coming off of the gold standard, and set about crafting a legacy that would, upon his passing, see some $13 million dollars donated to charity. This money established the J.P. Bickell Foundation which, since its inception, has paid out over $160,000,000 to charity, including $76 million to the Hospital for Sick Children.

While we are able to view his different personas, Bickell the man will forever remain something of an enigma. J.P. Bickell added richly to the lives of so very many people, most of whom he would never meet. The foundation that bears his name has pledged to ensure that “his deeds will not pass away, nor his name wither.” It is hoped that this book will – at least in some small measure – safeguard the same.

Jason Wilson

Posted by Dundurn Guest on February 14, 2017
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Jason Wilson

Jason Wilson is a bestselling Canadian author, a two-time Juno Awards nominee, and an adjunct professor of history at the University of Guelph. He lives in Stouffville, Ontario.