Sir William H. Hearst

William H. Hearst

To commemorate the legacy of Sir William H. Hearst, the Sault Ste. Marie City Council officially designated the August Civic Holiday in Sault Ste. Marie as 'Sir William H. Hearst Day', in recognition of the former Ontario Premier and Sault resident.

Sault Ste. Marie joins many Ontario neighbours in naming our Civic Holiday after a notable historical figure, including: Simcoe Day in Toronto, Colonel By Day in Ottawa, Joseph Brandt Day in Burlington, John Galt Day in Guelph and Alexander Mackenzie Day in Sarnia.

Sir William H. Hearst is perhaps Sault Ste. Marie's highest achieving political figure and his accomplishments are publicly recognized through this designation.

Hearst was a long-time resident of Sault Ste. Marie who rose to the top job in Ontario politics. Hearst served as Premier from 1914 to 1919 while the Great War ravaged Europe.

Born in Arran Township, Bruce County in 1864, Hearst studied law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. Shortly after graduating, Hearst moved to the Sault and opened a law firm on Queen Street. The firm was known as Hearst, MacKay and Darling.

Hearst became the Chief of the volunteer fire brigade and, in 1908, was elected as Sault Ste. Marie's Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament, defeating Liberal incumbent Charles N. Smith by 241 votes. In that same year, Hearst was made member of the King's Council.

Hearst began as a backbencher in the caucus of the Honourable James P. Whitney but quickly became a powerful voice for "New Ontario". Hearst worked closely with Frank Cochrane, the Minister of Lands, Forests and Mines from Sudbury. When Cochrane ran and won the 1911 Nipissing Federal by-election, Premier Whitney chose Hearst to replace him as the Minister. Shortly thereafter, the town of Grant renamed itself in his honour and today is know as Hearst, Ontario.

As the new Minister, Hearst was critical in securing a loan for Algoma Steel and helped Abitibi (the former Parent company of St. Mary's Paper) acquire more than 5000 square miles of crown land. In the 1911 Provincial election, Hearst won by acclamation and returned to another Conservative majority. During this term, Hearst successfully negotiated the District of Keewatin to be added to Ontario which increased its size by 56%. The district is the area surrounding Timmins and James Bay.

By 1914 the Great War had begun and Hearst retained his seat, defeating Alderman Francis E. Crawford by a margin of 800 votes. Within three months of the election, Premier Whitney passed away. In an emergency Cabinet meeting, Hearst emerged as the new leader of the Conservative Party and was sworn in as the 7th Premier of Ontario on October 2, 1914. At 50 years of age, the Sault politician had risen from a mere "New Ontario" backbencher to the most powerful position in the Province. In keeping with his strict Prohibitionist beliefs, Hearst's ascension was toasted with mineral water during the Cabinet meeting.

Sault residents praised the choice of their adopted son.

Local MP Arthur Cyril Boyce declared, "The Hearst government commences its career in turbulent times, but its distinguished leader is endued with the genius to deal with the situation bravely in a broad Canadian spirit." Sault Star - Oct 2/1914.

The leader of the local Liberal association also sent his praise, "I think [the Conservatives] have made a good choice, and I am pleased that the new Prime Minister (of Ontario) is a man from Northern Ontario." 

Even the residents of Sault Ste. Marie were praised for helping elect Ontario's next great Premier. The October 2, 1914 edition of the Sault Star stated, "Every man in Algoma takes Mr. Hearst's election as a personal compliment." Sault Star - Oct 2/1914.

During his term as Premier, Hearst attempted to populate Northern Ontario by preaching the fertility of its land. However, the Head of Forestry at the University of Toronto was skeptical of the agricultural abilities of the Clay Belt. Hearst angrily denounced the study, claiming, "With all due respect to the gentleman mentioned, I know a great deal more about Northern Ontario than any professor in the country."1

Hearst's affection for the North never waned, but his focus shifted to global and provincial issues. In a bipartisan pact the Liberal leader, Newton Rowell stated there would be no elections until the mobilized men returned home. With Rowell's support, Hearst spearheaded a Province wide ban on alcohol. Many cities were already dry, but without a Province wide ban, people simply ventured to the next town for alcohol. On March 22, 1916 the Ontario Temperance Act was introduced and passed in the House. Every other Province followed Ontario's lead, except Qu├ębec, which banned liquor, but not beer and wine.

After Prohibition, Hearst pushed through a dramatic number of reform acts. The 'Chippewa Project' was approved, which ordered the construction of the world's largest electricity generating station in Niagara Falls. The Job-placement Bureau was created and put 24000 Ontarians to work by 1918. Hearst also initiated subsidized provincial housing, and granted the first family allowance benefits.

Nonetheless, Hearst became known for something much greater in his term, the enfranchisement of women. By February 1917, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan recognized the female right to vote. Suffrage groups now set their sights on Ontario, and the Liberal Party adopted suffrage as an official policy. Initially, Hearst opposed this movement, but public opinion on the issue shifted quickly during Hearst's term.

On April 12, 1917, two Conservative members rose in the house with private members bills granting women the provincial and municipal right to vote. Hearst rose in the house and stated, "The Government endorses the principle of the bill now before the House and assumes full responsibility for it, and I call upon my supporters to vote in its favour."2

Ultimately, suffrage proved easy compared to Hearst's most difficult political fight, conscription. Hearst and Rowell were avid supporters of conscription and it cost them both politically. Against the demands of Ontario's farmers, the government supported conscription, which meant their sons were sent to Europe's battlefields.

Farmers represented approximately 50% of Ontario's population. Their argument was based on the premise that one farmer could feed eight soldiers. Soon, protests were spreading from Toronto to Ottawa. The problem was heightened when the Minister of Agriculture passed away and Hearst took the post for himself. The resolve of the farmers led to other protesters, including union gatherings to oppose low pay and poor working conditions. Suddenly, the United Farmers of Ontario joined forces with the Canadian Labour Party to run in the next election.

The bipartisan agreement to avoid an election ended with the Great War in 1918. On October 20, 1919, Hearst faced the voters for the first time as the Premier of Ontario. The wounds were fresh and the United Farmers of Ontario formed the new government. On November 14, 1919, Hearst was replaced by the new Premier of Ontario, Ernest Drury.

Hearst lost his own seat and retired from politics, but not from public life. In 1920, Hearst was appointed to the International Joint Commission established by Canada and the United States to resolve water boundary disputes. Hearst served admirably for 20 years, until 1940. Though he did not return to Sault Ste. Marie, he never forgot the role the city played in his career. Hearst was proud that he was the only Premier to hail from Northern Ontario, a fact that held true until Mike Harris, from North Bay, was elected 76 years later.

For his efforts during the war, Hearst was knighted by King George V of the United Kingdom and became Sir William Hearst. For many years, Hearst was blamed for the Conservative party's political failure in 1919. However, history has shown that post-war elections are often unkind to the wartime leaders. Winston Churchill, one of Britain's most beloved leaders lost the election following World War II.

Hearst died September 29, 1941, and was buried in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.

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