HISTORIC ST. MARYS: A Prime Ministerial Visit

  • History   Thursday, November 18, 2021   Mary Smith

By Mary Smith
In the autumn of 1921, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Arthur Meighen, was campaigning across the country, in preparation for a federal election in December. Robert Borden’s Union Party, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals during the war years, had won the previous election in 1917. They had defeated the remnants of Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals, those who were opposed to conscription, the chief aim of the coalition. By 1921, the war had ended, Laurier had died, Borden had retired and Meighen had been chosen to succeed him as party leader and prime minister.
As the Unionist Government was reaching the end of its mandate, the coalition was falling apart. Although reluctant to change the party name, Meighen was, in reality, campaigning on a Conservative platform. Once again, the Liberals, always strong in Quebec, were also formidable opponents in other parts of the country. And a new populist party, the Progressives, was gaining ground, especially in Western Canada. In Ontario, this new party was aligned with the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO.) But Meighen campaigned vigorously, defended his party’s policies, and spoke to crowds at hundreds of whistle-stops across the country.
In early October 1921, town officials were informed that Meighen would be stopping in St. Marys, his former home town, as he campaigned through southwestern Ontario. The St. Marys Journal Argus published the display ad that accompanies this week’s column. As soon as they had heard the news, local supporters had immediately organized committees to prepare for the event. With the date and time set, the next decision was the location. The announcement states that Meighen would address “a public meeting in the skating rink” – a seemingly unlikely place. But as an indoor venue to accommodate the expected crowd, it was the only option.
Leading up to the 1917 election, rallies and debates had been held in the opera house on Water Street. It had a large stage for speakers and invited dignitaries while the audience crowded onto chairs on the auditorium floor and rows of fixed seating in the balcony. But the opera house had been closed and gutted in 1919. It was now an industrial building, part of the St. Marys Milling Company operations.
The town hall auditorium was not large enough. In 2021, Fire Code capacity for this facility is 204 persons (standing room) and 129 persons (non-fixed seating.) A century ago, capacity limits were likely more flexible but there were no fire exits or signage and town council was aware of the risk. A newspaper item appeared under “Council News” in early October, deploring “the unsafe condition of the Town Hall in case of a fire at the time of a crowded meeting in the hall upstairs,” calling it “a veritable fire-trap… There should be exits from the north end of the building leading directly to the ground.” A motion was passed to have the situation remedied. Otherwise, the Methodist Church had the largest indoor space with fixed seating in the community. (In 2021, Fire Code allows 510 persons in the sanctuary.) However, holding a political rally in a church would not have been appropriate.
That left the ice rink, a facility built in the 1880s for local curlers, a large wooden building with the barn-style roof just northeast of the Wellington Street Bridge. Ice would not go in until cold weather and so, in October, it was easy to obtain it for Meighen’s visit. As Amy Cubberley noted in her “Looking Back” column several weeks ago: “The energetic committee in charge of the preparations for Prime Minister Meighen’s meeting tomorrow have been busy. The hall is being handsomely decorated by the ladies in charge and will be capable of seating 2,000 persons, with a platform that will hold 300 invited guests.” These days, we are all very aware of capacity limits and the idea of more than 2,000 people congregating in that old barn-like building seems astounding. Even in 1921, it must have been ambitious. The committee, nevertheless, went ahead with arrangements “to have the building comfortably seated, decorated and lighted for the occasion.”
The day arrived and when Meighen stepped from the train onto the station platform, he received a carefully organized welcome. The band played and at least 100 students from the collegiate shouted out school cheers to greet their most famous “old boy.” A motorcade “wended its way through the chief thoroughfares while the public en masse on the sidewalks cheered in right royal fashion.” The official party eventually got to the old ice rink and approximately 50 (not 300) official guests took their places on the temporary platform at the east end of the building. The decorators had done their work well “with palms and other potted plants, British and Canadian flags and bunting.” The newspaper did not give an actual estimate of the number in attendance, only stating that the crowd was “immense” and “the rink was tasked to capacity.”
Dr. Michael Steele, Unionist candidate for Perth South, was the first speaker, and praised his party’s leader. He was followed by another guest, Sir Henry Drayton, Finance Minister, who defended the party’s budget. At last it was Arthur Meighen’s turn. He was a gifted public speaker. He had a set speech in support of his party’s policies but first he knew how to appeal to this particular crowd. “I am sincerely glad to be in St. Marys and sorry only that I have to make a speech. Otherwise, I would have enjoyed myself indeed. … The faces before me are familiar but I must forget that and address myself to the task which is mine this afternoon.” When the speeches were over, the band led the prime minister from the building and he left for his next campaign stop in Stratford. The stage and decorations in St. Marys were dismantled.
As receptive as the crowds may have seemed during Meighen’s campaign, the results of the December election were disappointing for his party. The Liberals, under the wily Mackenzie King, won a minority government with the Progressives in second place. However, this party turned down the request to serve as Official Opposition and so Meighen’s Conservatives, now with only 49 seats out of a total of 253 seats in parliament, were offered that role. Arthur Meighen became Leader of the Opposition.
The newspaper results for Perth South showed that the Liberal candidate, William Forrester from Mitchell, was the overall winner in this riding although Conservative Dr. Steele had been the clear favourite in St. Marys. In Blanshard Township, Meighen’s birthplace, and also in Fullarton and Downie, the UFO/Progressive candidate, Robert Berry, had topped the polls. This 65-year-old Blanshard resident was well-known as an excellent farmer and a trusted municipal politician. Several of his six sons were also farmers while another, Albert, was doing graduate work in Public Health at the University of Toronto. Dr. Albert Berry would later receive many awards, including the Order of Canada, for his work on municipal water quality in Canada and around the world.