Letters of a local Premier: G. Howard Ferguson

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When G. Howard Ferguson left Kemptville to take office as Premier of Ontario in 1923, he moved into a very different kind of world from the small town in which he had grown up. But he soon found that Kemptville followed him, even into the Premier’s office. Family, friends, neighbours and issues that had been part of his life at home continued to take up his time and energies as he led the province.

Before his political career had started on the Village Council, he had operated a legal practice, representing residents, lending to those who needed mortgages, small loans, and generally being involved in the day-to-day lives of the people. Now, as premier, he was receiving letters from clients who needed clarification about where exactly their property line lay, or what by-laws governed their particular issue with the Village Council.

In October, 1923, as he was finding his way around the Premier’s office, he had to deal with an uncle and aunt, Albert and Adeline Holmes, who lived in Toledo, Ontario. They were aged, and he had been looking after them for a year or two. They refused to leave their farm, and Howard had to hire someone to run it for them. But they started forwarding their tax bills to him, expecting him to pay them. He became increasingly exasperated with them. This went on for years. In 1927, he wrote to his Aunt Adeline to let her know that he had paid their taxes ($212.50), but complained that “I think it is nothing short of a scandal that you and Albert should impose upon me in this way”.

It seems the aged relatives were spending their own money and revenue from the farm on other things, leaving Howard to foot the bills. He had to warn them in the strongest terms: “You must either change your ways of running things there or I am going to withdraw entirely…I haven’t the time to be running up and down there.”

Perhaps his family thought that, as Premier, he was wealthy and powerful enough to call on for whatever they needed. Even his sister, Marion, married to a local doctor and living in the family home on the corner of Clothier and Rideau Streets in Kemptville, was draining his finances throughout his time as Premier and even when he had left to become Canadian High Commissioner in London. At first, in 1930, when he became aware of her financial situation, he blamed it on the “maintenance of that big house”.

He enclosed a cheque for $300. Four years later, he was still bailing out his family. In June, 1934, he sent a cheque for $1,000, a very sizeable sum in those days, but was upset that he had heard nothing from Marion about how she had spent it. Once again, the High Commissioner was forced to issue warnings: “I want to help both of you, but as I said to you before, my means are not inexhaustible, and there is a limit to what I can do.” But his relationship with Marion remained close and the rest of this letter was full of family and political gossip.

But not all of Ferguson’s correspondence was concerned with family crises. As High Commissioner in London, he was mixing with a very different social milieu. In 1938, following a general election in Northern Ireland, Howard and his wife, Ella, sent a note of congratulations to the Prime Minister of the Province, James Craig, Viscount Craigavon as he was known. Craig was a fervent Orangeman and British Imperialist, in both of which he shared Ferguson’s attitudes. Craig had made clear his approach to government in Northern Ireland in 1934, when he stated in the Northern Ireland House of Commons: “… it is undoubtedly our duty and our privilege, and always will be, to see that those appointed by us possess the most unimpeachable loyalty to the King and Constitution. That is my whole object in carrying on a Protestant Government for a Protestant people”.

Howard had a deep attachment to the Empire and the Royal Family, and one of his prized pieces of correspondence was a letter addressed to him by Lt. Col. Richard Streatfield, the Private Secretary to Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, in June, 1939. By this time, Ferguson had retired as High Commissioner, but he and Ella had sent a special gift to the young Princess Elizabeth for her thirteenth birthday. The letter read:

“I am commanded by Princess Elizabeth to convey to you Her Royal Highness’ most grateful thanks for the box of Maple Sugar, which she received this morning. I am to add that she and Princess Margaret are particularly fond of this Canadian product”.

The lawyer from Kemptville had certainly come a long way from Clothier Street.

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