OCTOBER 15, 1858 - MARCH 20, 1938

Martin Burrell was not the first Federal Minister of Agriculture. But he was, importantly, the first Minister of Agriculture to be a farmer himself. Burrell was born in Faringdon, England and immigrated to Canada in 1883, intending to work as a fruit farmer in the Niagara Peninsula.

Burrell lived in the peninsula for a short time and then settled down outside Grand Forks, British Columbia. He did, however, achieve his occupational goal. Burrell’s fruit farming enterprise was quite successful and he became a member of the B.C. Board of Horticulture as well as the Province’s Fruit Commissioner. In 1906 Burrell attended the Dominion Conference of Fruit Growers as one of British Columbia’s representatives.

In 1903 Burrell was elected mayor of Grand Forks. The following year he sought Federal office as a Conservative party member but was defeated by a margin of 200 votes. Although he was defeated, he successfully returned in 1908 and secured his position as member of parliament for Yale-Cariboo. The Winnipeg Tribune attributed Burrell’s victory to his status as the “Provincial Fruit Expert.”

After his re-election in 1911 Burrell was appointed Minister of Agriculture. The following year he published a review on the Dominion Experimental Farms output to that date. At the same time, he created the departments Publications Branch to distribute and collect information. In 1915 Burrell opened a Publicity Division to further these goals.

1913 proved to be a trying year, with widespread drought across the Palliser Triangle. This did not slow Burrell’s drive to improve agriculture however as he introduced the Agricultural Instruction Act, Municipal Testing Order and developed a new system of field inspection and tuber examination for potatoes which proved to create a large enough increase in quality to remove a stifling American embargo.

Burrell’s biggest test came in managing Canadian agriculture during the war. Burrell was committed to organizing the logistics of agricultural export in a manner that kept Britain well supplied while also achieving fair prices for Canadian farmers. A 1916 rust epidemic lead Burrell to appoint a seed purchasing commission in order to ensure an inspected and reliable grain supply for the following year. Burrell also passed the Act Respecting Livestock in 1917, allowing him to directly supervise stockyards when necessary. Burrell also aided in the education for non-edible farm products, such as wool, which was in enormous demand for military uniforms.

In 1916 Burrell was badly burnt during the Parliament Hill fire. As a result of his decreased health and as an effort to include non-Conservative Union members in cabinet, Burrell relinquished his position as Minister of Agriculture to Thomas Crerar following the 1917 election.

Burrell would subsequently serve as Secretary of State, Minister of Mines and Minister of Customs and Inland Revenue for various periods of time before retiring from politics in 1920. Notably in 1919 he was chosen as the government representative to accompany the Prince of Wales on his Trans-Canada tour.

Following retirement Burrell became the Parliamentary Librarian and served in this position until his death. Between 1924 and 1938 he wrote a weekly literature column, Literature and Life, for the Ottawa Journal. When Burrell passed, he was considered a friend of both Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Conservative Opposition Leader R. B. Bennett. The most important friendship he demonstrated in his life, however, was to Canadian farmers, particularly during the arduous times surrounding the First World War.

Celebrating 150 Years of Canadian Agriculture