The Ottawa Valley is a unique place, and has been since the beginning of recorded history.
This continues to be well reflected in the character of its people, its culture and its politics, according to former MPP Sean Conway, the latest guest lecturer to take part in Algonquin College's ongoing speaker series.
On Monday evening, Conway spoke on the colour and character of the Ottawa Valley political tradition, which has been shaped by a number of unique factors. These include the Ottawa River, the timber trade and being on the borderlands between settlement and the wild lands, and being bi-provincial with the overlap of English and French Canada, which included a mix of Irish, Scots, Germans and Poles to make things interesting.
“You get a sense the Ottawa Valley developed a strong regional culture, with its own folklore and its own music,” he said. “One with a strong ethno-cultural orientation.”
Conway said there is something within that mix which brewed a strong independent streak which persists to this day. Unlike most of eastern Canada in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Ottawa Valley remained essentially on the frontier; it's economy wasn't primarily based on agriculture – due to the rugged landscape – and didn't look to Toronto for leadership.
Not looking west to Muddy York for political or any sort of guidance was in large part the result of the timber trade, he said, which really kick started the region in the early 1800s. The Napoleonic Wars had cut Britain off of its European source material for its mighty navy, so it looked westward to its Canadian possession in North America for its stands of white pine and other wood prized in shipbuilding.
Conway said this focus forged a resource-based economy which would influence the area throughout its history. Everything in the 1800s and early 1900s would be directly influenced by the timber trade, from society to its politics. By the mid-19th Century, some 25,000 were working in the lumbering industry.
Due in part to its isolation, the Ottawa Valley would remain on the fringe of pre-Confederation Canada for many years afterwards. The frontier nature of the region, coupled with the hazards of lumbering and the log drives, meant a wild independent streak developed within those who lived and worked in the region. The area attracted those who often had a strong dislike for regulations and central authorities trying to impose its will upon them.
Conway said it was a rough and dangerous place, where rough and dangerous people lived. When Irish immigrants brought in to work on the canals near Bytown became unemployed, they muscled their way into the lumber business, which was run primarily by French speaking people. The resulting gang war in the 1830s ranged from Bytown to Pembroke and beyond.
“The region was thought of as the Toronto bypass,” he said. Using the Ottawa River meant one could stay away from the lower Great Lakes of Erie and Ontario when heading out west, and the timber trade itself kept the settlers and businessmen looking to Ottawa – then Bytown – Montreal, Quebec City and onward to Liverpool and London in England, rather than to Toronto as the majority of commerce did at the time.
Conway said the political power houses of the area were based on those same rough and ready people who made their fortunes in the timber trade. Families like the Whites, the Dunlops, the McDougals, the Maloneys, the Brysons, the Murray Brothers and so forth supplied MPs, MPPs, senators, mayors and council members for generations.
Provincial borders meant little to those whose fortunes were made on both sides of the Ottawa River, he said. For instance Thomas Murray of Pembroke served in Parliament for 20 years, representing at differing times both the Renfrew constituency and the Pontiac while remaining in Pembroke.
The highly diverse nature of the region meant politicians had to become skilled at reading the nature of people they were looking to for support. Conway said building a successful coalition meant a balancing act between religion, creed and geography as individuals looked at seats in office.
That same mix could easily topple the same person the very next election. Conway said Peter White, a long-time MP for North Renfrew, was defeated because his independent streak rubbed some voters the wrong way.
“He didn't like what happened in the Manitoba School crisis,” he said, and opposed his own government's stance on it, but kept that to himself. But there are no secrets within the Valley, and many knew where he stood.
In that, separate French Catholic school, as well as English Protestant ones, had their funding stripped away by the Manitoba government in favour of a public system. It was seen as an attack on the French language and sharply divided the ruling Conservative party, which backed funding the separate schools. Wilfred Laurier, strongly opposed to the funding issue, would use it to help win the 1896 election for the Liberals, ending 30 years of Conservative rule.
White lost by 50 to 60 votes, Conway said, the same amount by which he won his seat. He said it showed, as has been characteristic of elections in the Ottawa Valley, that to be successful in politics here, one has to understand the local voting base, and find people who would appeal directly to that base in all circumstances. It also demonstrated the volatility of the electorate.
Conway said this nature of Ottawa Valley politics had some election campaigns resemble professional wrestling matches, with both sides doing everything possible to ensure their candidate won. Few batted an eye when fistfuls of money would be exchanged for voter support.
Over time, things changed. New election financing laws and the way politicians were to conduct themselves removed much of the wild west style of politicking. Conway said these days, especially within the last 20 years or so, the individual politician means less than the party brand he or she represents.
“These days, the individual is mostly gone from a situation,” he said, especially in this age of message control, where MPs and MPPs are no longer free to speak their minds as they once were.
“The party brand and the leader brand tends to be the determinant,” he said.