Charlotte Whitton Becomes Mayor

1 October 1951

On 1 October 1951, there was a seismic shift in Ottawa’s political landscape. That evening, Charlotte Whitton was unanimously chosen mayor by Ottawa’s city council to complete Mayor Grenville W. Goodwin’s term of office. Five weeks earlier, Goodwin had died of a heart attack only seven months after he was elected. Whitton’s appointment was remarkable and unexpected. At that time, there were virtually no female politicians at any level of government. Whitton subsequently went on to win four mayoral elections, dominating Ottawa municipal politics for almost fifteen years. In the process, she shook up what had been a comfortable bastion of male privilege, cleaned up City Hall that had become mired in patronage and nepotism, fought the cozy links between developers and city counsellors, built a new city hall, and presided over a rapidly growing city, all while keeping a firm grip of the municipal purse strings.

However, her years on city council were marred by an inability to work with others, and violent outbursts of temper which went far beyond verbal jousting. On one occasion, the diminutive mayor took several swings at a fellow council member, Paul Tardif.  Fortunately, she didn’t connect. On another, she pulled a toy gun from her desk drawer after a heated debate, prompting Tardif to half-jokingly say “Don’t shoot!” Whitton’s council antics, acerbic wit, strong views on virtually everything, and a penchant for the theatrical, which included a fondness for dressing up in medieval robes of office complete with a tricorne hat, kept her in the press spotlight for years. Already well known as an expert on social and welfare programmes, and a newspaper columnist, Charlotte Whitton, the mayor, became a celebrity, even appearing on the U.S. television show What’s My Line in 1955.

Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, 1954

Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, 1954

Whitton was born in Renfrew, Ontario on 8 March 1896. Her father, an English Methodist, did odd jobs in the area, while her mother, an Irish Catholic, ran a boarding house. As “mixed” marriages were frowned on in the late nineteenth century, her parents eloped, and were married in the Anglican Church. Whitton remained a life-long Anglican though her siblings became Catholic. Rare for women of that era, she received a university education, obtaining an undergraduate arts degree in 1917 from Queen’s University. By virtue of her high academic standing, the university granted her a master’s degree. Later, when she received the first of several honorary doctorates, she became known as Dr Charlotte Whitton.

After university, Whitton joined the Social Service Council of Canada, and became assistant editor of the journal Social Welfare. In 1920, she moved to the Canadian National Council on Child Welfare following its establishment by the federal government, becoming its director in 1925. With its mandate expanding over time to encompass family welfare, the agency later became known as the Canadian Council on Social Development. During her twenty-year career with the Council, Whitton became nationally prominent for her social welfare work, especially her advocacy for improved and standardized child welfare legislation across the country. She also worked on behalf of children and families at the international level, representing Canada on the League of Nations’ child welfare committee in Geneva. In 1934, she was named Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her pioneering child welfare activities.

Whitton was also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She disapproved of the prevailing moral double standard where mothers were blamed for illegitimate pregnancies but not the fathers. She also believed that women should be paid the same as men for doing the same job. She encouraged women to stand for election at all level of government, though she though they were best suited for municipal government on the grounds that cities dealt with issues closer to the family. In her view, women were better than men in caring for the sick, the elderly, and the young. In reality, she figured that women could outperform men at anything. She famously said “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Fortunately, this is not difficult.”

While “progressive” in some areas, she was anything but a left-wing radical. She supported capital punishment, opposed official bilingualism, abortion, and divorce. While a strong proponent of the traditional family, she never married, but instead devoted her life to her career, modelling herself on Elizabeth I, the powerful “virgin” queen. Whitton lived with her best friend Margaret Grier for more than a quarter century until Grier’s death in 1947. While the two women shared their lives, and had a strong emotional bond, there is no evidence of a physical relationship. When the Great Depression struck, Whitton became well-known for her “tough love” recommendations to deal with high unemployment, including the establishment of remote, quasi-military, work camps for unemployed men. She also opposed income support programmes except for the deserving poor, viewing government aid as dehumanizing, something that would diminish people’s responsibility for their family and neighbours. She unsuccessfully lobbied against the introduction of the “baby bonus,” arguing that it put an economic value on people’s “powers of reproduction rather than production.” Echoing the sentiments of supporters of the eugenics movement widely popular during the first half of the twentieth century, she also feared that the baby bonus would weaken Canadian blood lines by encouraging mental and moral “defectives” to have more children.

Whitton adamantly opposed immigration that might alter the complexion of Canada, both literally and figuratively. While she could do little to affect the French fact in Canada, she didn’t want to dilute Canada’s Englishness. Although she generally tolerated “Anglo-Saxon” immigrants, anybody else, including Jews, Asians and Blacks, were not welcome. Even when it came to British immigrants, Whitton was selective, wanting solid, yeoman stock who could support themselves; the poor, the sick, the huddled masses were not for her. She lobbied strenuously against child immigration from Britain partly due to the conditions that many children experienced on their arrival in Canada, but also due to her concern that they were not the right sort of people, often being the illegitimate offspring of the poorer classes. Again, she seemed to be influenced by the eugenics movement that viewed poverty as a pathological condition.

Most controversially of all, in 1940, Whitton opposed the evacuation to Canada of nine thousand, mostly Jewish, children from war-torn Europe. According to Irving Abella and Harold Troper, in their book None Is Too Many, the Canadian Jewish Congress saw her as “an enemy of Jewish immigration.” But Whitton views on race were mainstream stuff seventy years ago. Reflecting the mood of the population, the Canadian government refused to accept the child refugees, though it subsequently authorized ten thousand British children to take shelter in Canada.

In 1950, prompted by the Ottawa Council of Women, Whitton run for public office, winning one of the city’s four Board of Control positions in that year’s municipal elections. The Board, which formed a sort of municipal “cabinet,” was elected by citizens at large in the same fashion as the mayor; in contrast, aldermen were elected by residents of specific city wards. Whitton topped the slate of prospective controllers on the back of widespread support from Ottawa’s female voters. She was the first woman ever elected to Ottawa’s City Council.

In the same election, Grenville W. Goodwin, the soft-spoken owner of an optical company, was elected mayor, toppling Edouard Bourque, the previous incumbent. Despite opposition because of her sex, Whitton was selected by Council as Deputy Mayor reflecting her top place finish in the Board of Control race. When Goodwin passed away in August 1951, Whitton stepped in as Acting Mayor. However, her appointment as Mayor to fill the unexpired portion of Goodwin’s term was far from assured. The city’s solicitor argued that the “Acting” position was only temporary, and had to be ratified by a vote of Council. Many thought the position should go to a man. A poll of council members gave Whitton only one vote, with most favouring Leonard Coulter who had been Deputy Mayor under Bourque. However, following several weeks of back-room politicking, Coulter pulled out of the race, bidding his time until the next election. With the track now clear, Whitton became mayor. She immediately set out a five-point civic programme which included measures to reduce a shortage of low-cost housing (an issue dear to her heart), and steps to streamline City Hall. It was the start of a tumultuous period in Ottawa’s civic administration as Whitton shook up a complacent municipal bureaucracy.

Whitton subsequently went on to win the 1952 and 1954 municipal elections. Bowing out of the 1956 elections, she entered federal politics running as a Progressive Conservative candidate in the Liberal stronghold of Ottawa West in the 1958 General Election. While John G. Diefenbaker’s Conservatives swept to power, his coattails were insufficient to elect Whitton who lost by roughly 1,000 votes to the popular Liberal incumbent, George McIlraith. A disappointed Whitton returned to writing and lecturing before re-entering Ottawa municipal politics, winning the 1960 mayoral election. She won again in 1962. But by 1964, Ottawa residents were tired of Whitton’s theatrics and the constant battles at City Hall. That year they elected the gentle giant Donald Reid as mayor. Whitton experienced the indignity of placing third behind Frank Ryan, her own brother-in-law who had the audacity to run against her.  But her council days were not over. She returned to City Hall in 1966 as an alderman for Capital Ward, championing the cause of the elderly. She was successfully re-elected two more times, before retiring in 1972 after suffering a broken hip. She died in Ottawa at the age of seventy-eight in 1975.

During her lifetime, Charlotte Whitton received many honours. In addition to the CBE awarded her in 1934, she became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968, and received six honorary doctorates from Canadian and American universities. In 1973, the City Council chamber in the old City Hall was named the Whitton Hall in her honour. At the ceremony, Mayor Pierre Benoit called her “one of the greatest municipal politicians Ottawa has ever had.” She also received laudatory messages from the Queen, Governor General Michener, Prime Minister Trudeau and Ontario Premier Davis.

However, as controversial she was in life, Whitton remained controversial in death. In 2010, when Major Jim Watson proposed naming the city’s new archives building after her, the Canadian Jewish Labour Congress objected on the grounds that Whitton had been anti-Semitic, citing her role in barring Jewish child refugees from Canada in 1940. Dave Mullington, a Whitton biographer, came to her defence, noting that despite what happened in 1940, her relationship with the Jewish community was far more positive than this one incident suggested. Among other things, she had been a staunch supporter of Israel through the Suez Crisis in 1957, had been named “woman of the year” in 1964 by Toronto’s B’nai Brith organization, and was among the first persons to sign Lorry Greenberg’s nomination papers in his election for mayor in 1974. Greenberg subsequently became Ottawa’s first Jewish mayor. However, the controversy caused Mayor Watson to withdraw his suggestion. Instead, the archives building was named after James Bartleman, a former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

Sources:

Abella, Irving & Troper, Harold, 1982. None Is too Many, Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, Lester & Orpen Dennys, Publishers: Toronto.

Brown, Dave, 2010. “Charlotte Whitton’s ‘disappearing’ a disgrace; Former Ottawa mayor’s reputation on line,” The Ottawa Citizen, 22 October.

McCarthy, Stuart, 2010. “Recognize Charlotte Whitton’s Dark Side, The Ottawa Citizen, 16 August.

Mullington, Dave, 2010. Charlotte, The Last Suffragette, Refrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing Company.

———————. 2010. “Whitton Deserves a Fair Shake,” The Ottawa Citizen, 25 August.

Rooke, P.T. & Schnell, R.L., 1987. No Bleeding Heart: Charlotte Whitton, A Feminist on the Right, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

The Evening Citizen, 1951. Dr. Whitton Takes Over As Mayor; Gren Goodwin’s Funeral Thursday,” 28 August.

————————-, 1951. “Coulter Favored In Poll,” 29 August.

————————, 1951. “Charlotte Whitton Urges Public Life Partnership at Inter-Club Council for Women,” 15 September.

————————, 1951. “New Mayor’s Program, Dr. Whitton Outlines 5-Point Civic Schedule,” 2 October.

The Ottawa Citizen, 2010. “Jewish Congress opposes Whitton recognition, Group cites role in barring child refugees fleeing Holocaust in Second World War,”14 August 2010.

Image: Charlotte Whitton in full mayoral regalia, by Douglas Bartlett, 1954, Library and Archives Canada, CA19128.

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Fort Culture

31 May 1969

The National Arts Centre (NAC) was born out of a dream of establishing a performance hall in the nation’s capital. For decades, Ottawa made do with the Capitol Theatre, located at the intersection of Queen and Bank Streets. Although the Capitol was an architecturally impressive building and could seat more than 2,000 people in its cavernous auditorium, it had been designed for cinema and vaudeville shows. Constructed in 1920 for the Loew’s theatre chain of movie palaces, the Capitol lacked the facilities of a modern theatre.

In 1962, G. Hamilton Southam, a member of a wealthy Ottawa family that owned the eponymous Southam publishing empire, which included the Ottawa Citizen in its stable of newspapers, was approached by prominent Ottawa residents to spearhead efforts to turn the dream of a proper theatre in Ottawa into reality. The well-connected Southam, a diplomat in the Department of External Affairs, was ideal for the job. Within a year, the National Capital Arts Alliance, with Southam at its head, had put together a feasibility study, and was ready to approach the government for funding. The price tag for the building was $9 million (equivalent to $70 million in today’s money.) Their timing was perfect. The 1960s were years of plenty in Canada. The federal government, with money in its pockets, was seeking worthy projects to celebrate 1967, Canada’s centennial year. A performing arts centre for Ottawa fitted the bill perfectly. Southam presented the proposal to Prime Minister Lester Pearson in November 1963, and by Christmas the project had received the government’s formal approval.

Southam was appointed the co-ordinator of the project; he later becoming the NAC’s first director general. He immediately set up advisory committees composed of the country’s leading arts professionals to establish the requirements for an arts centre which would not only have a national mandate to promote and development Canadian performing arts and artists, but would also be bilingual, the first in the world. A number of sites were considered for the new performing arts centre. Nepean Point overlooking the Ottawa River, was an early favourite. But Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s mayor at the time, dissuaded the group, offering instead a parcel of city-owned land on Elgin Street.

The architectural contract for the Centre was given to ARCOP Associates of Montreal. Polish-born Fred David Lebensold, a founding member of the firm, was assigned the task of designing the complex structure.  Lebensold was a good choice. He had been a professor of architecture at McGill University, and was a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He had designed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and the Place Des Arts in Montreal. Lebensold’s hexagonal design for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, which was based on the shape of the building site, was in the Brutalist style. Poured, reinforced concrete covered with precast panels of Laurentian-granite aggregate in a variety of textures were used for both exterior and interior walls. “Brutalism” which comes from the French words, béton bru, meaning raw concrete, was a popular architectural style during the 1950s and 1960s for governmental and institutional buildings. The design attracted considerable controversy not least of which for the decision to turn the back of the building towards Elgin Street, with its front door facing the Rideau Canal. Charlotte Whitton called the Centre “Fort Culture.” The building was to house a salon, three performance halls of different sizes—the opera, theatre, and studio—in addition to workshops, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, restaurants, and an underground garage.

The approved plan was much larger than the Arts Alliance’s original proposal that Southam presented to Pearson, with the floor area increasing from 175,000 square feet to 474,000 square feet. Substantial funds, $500,000, were also allocated for sculptures, tapestries, and other art works to decorate the building. The budget was accordingly increased from $9 million to $16 million.

Construction began in late 1964. Excavation for the underground parking lot proved challenging owing to the risk of flooding due to the building’s proximity to the Rideau Canal. Costs quickly blew through the Centre’s $16 million budget, and were in excess of $26 million by the middle of 1965. When the building was finally finished in 1969, two years after Canada’s centennial, costs had reached $46.4 million (in excess of $300 million in today’s dollars). Needless to say, there were screams of outrage in Parliament. At a 1968 hearing into the matter, a senior Public Works official admitted that the government had placed more emphasis on quality than economy. A shortage of construction workers owing to building Expo 67 also contributed to cost pressures. But the millions bought a world-class performance centre which put Ottawa on the cultural map of not only Canada but the world.

National Arts Centre

National Arts Centre, May 2015

The decision was made to separate the official opening of the Centre from its first performance. On Saturday, 31 May, 1969, all of Ottawa was invited to an open house and the opening festivities. Nearly 40,000 people toured the facility, giving the new National Arts Centre generally favourable reviews. At the official ceremonies that afternoon, Prime Minister Trudeau presented Lawrence Freiman, the chairman of the Centre’s board of trustees, with the contract between the federal government and the Centre. Embarrassingly, however, the Centre’s state-of-the art sound system misbehaved. After a series of weird sounds and feedback screeches, the system failed, leaving the official speeches inaudible except to those closest to the dais. More successful were the day’s free jazz, folk, and band concerts, as well as the night’s fireworks, and the four searchlights that plied the dark sky.

Two days later, the curtain finally rose at the Centre for the first time. All of Ottawa’s movers, shakers, and arts glitterati attended a gala event in the Opera House. Sending gossip columnists atwitter, Prime Minister Trudeau, then single, was accompanied by Madeleine Gobeil, who had just been appointed to the Arts Centre’s board. Governor General Roland Michener and his wife sat in the royal box.

The evening’s first attraction was the silken, multi-coloured curtain woven by Micheline Beauchemin. Costing $75,000, the curtain was fabricated in Japan since no loom in Canada was large enough. The curtain rose on a specially commissioned, once-only performance of a ballet called “The Queen.” The music was by composer Louis Applebaum, choreography was by Grant Strate, and costumes were by Jean-Claude Rinfret. Eighteen dancers in white baroque outfits danced in front of a large Canadian coat of arms. After the dance, the backdrop was raised to reveal the provincial coats of arms surrounding a Canadian flag which turned gradually into a Union Jack and a blue and white fleur de lys while the orchestra played O Canada.

The pièce de résistance was the world premiere of Kraanerg, a contemporary ballet commissioned for the Centre’s opening, with music composed by Greek-born Iannis Xanakis, dance choreographed by Roland Petit, and sets by the op-artist Victor Vasarely. According to Sarah Jennings, author of the definitive history of the National Arts Centre, the “avant-garde ballet with the discordant electronic-sounding orchestral music” was “hailed by the critics.” Perhaps. For most of the audience, the ballet was impossible to understand, a view seemingly shared by Xanakis and Petit themselves who said that it could not be taken in either a literal or symbolic way. This didn’t leave a lot of room for comprehension. The dancing was highly acrobatic. The Chicago Tribune’s theatre critic wrote that the “company was put through a series of puerile calisthenics which started with Indian wrestling and stopped with push-ups.”  Claude Gingras of La Presse, called the first act “tiresome,” and the second “the effect produced by taking hallucinogenic drugs.”

A few days later, the first play was performed in the theatre. It was Lysistrata, a comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes about women trying to end the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex from their husbands. The play was adapted by Michel Tremblay, and performed by Montreal’s Theâtre du Nouveau Monde, directed by André Brassard. The first English-language play was George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about a young Aboriginal girl living in a big Canadian city, directed by David Gardener, and performed by the Vancouver Playhouse. The first production in the Studio was Party Day by Jack Winter, performed by The Toronto Workshop Productions. The play was an odd choice for the government-funded NAC. Set against the backdrop of the Nuremburg rallies in Nazi Germany, Party Day spoke of the dangers of government sponsorship of the arts.

After several successful years, the NAC ran afoul of changing social and economic conditions in Canada. With nationalism rising in Quebec, especially within the artistic community, it became difficult to attract French-language players to Ottawa, deemed an Anglo backwater. Growing regionalism in the rest of the country led to calls for government arts subsidies to be distributed equitably across the country rather than centred in Ottawa at the NAC. Canada’s economic woes also cast a long shadow. Caught between rising inflation and successive budget cuts owing to the federal government’s yawning fiscal deficits, the NAC was forced to drastically scale back its activities though the 1980s and 1990s. First to go was the Centre’s English and French, cross-country, touring theatre. The opera then found itself on management’s little list of things it could do without. Next on the cutting-room floor was the “Le Restaurant,” the NAC’s haute cuisine restaurant, and the NAC’s in-house repertory theatre companies. Even the acclaimed NAC orchestra was threatened with conversion into a community-based organization. As a final indignity, there was talk of privatizing the NAC, and turning the building over to the National Capital Commission for use as a rental hall.

A renaissance began in the late 1990s, under the leadership of Elaine Calder, and then Peter Herrndorf, aided by a strong artistic team, including world renowned Pinchas Zukerman as music director. As the federal fiscal situation improved, government funding stabilized. In 2000, the NAC Foundation was established to raise funds from the private sector, helping to reduce the Centre’s reliance on the government. There was also a renewed emphasis on in-house theatre with the establishment of the NAC English Theatre Acting Company in 2006.

NAC Logos

Old (upper) and New (lower) NAC Logos

In February 2014, the NAC unveiled its “Road to 2019,” which detailed upcoming artistic events and festivals in the lead-up to the Centre 50th anniversary. It also launched a new logo and motto, “Canada is our stage, Le Canada en Scène,” to underscore its national identity. In December 2014, the federal government announced that the NAC would be undergoing a $110 million refurbishment that would reorient the front of the Centre towards the Parliament Hill, the National War Memorial, and Elgin Street rather than the Rideau Canal. No longer would the NAC have its back to the city.

Sources:

Grace, Garry, 2010. “Resident Theatre Companies at the NAC,” ArtsAlive.ca, http://www.artsalive.ca/collections/imaginedspaces/index.php/en/history-and-context/residentcompanies.

Jennings, Sarah, 2009. Art And Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre, Dundurn Press: Toronto.

National Arts Centre, 2014. About the National Arts Centre, http://nac-cna.ca/en/about/brand.

————————-, 2014, Annual Report 2013-2014, http://www4.nac-cna.ca/pdf/corporate/AR_13-14.pdf.

Taylor, John, 1986. Ottawa: An Illustrated History, Toronto: J. Lorimer and Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The Gazette, 1989. “National Arts Centre facing death sentence,” 3 April.

The Globe and Mail, 1968. “$9 million Arts Centre rises to estimated $46.4 million,” 8 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre bargain at $46.4 million, architect says,” 13 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre target for PC complaint of ‘squandermania,’” 27 November.

————————, 2014. “Feds unveil $110-million reno job for National Arts Centre,” 10 December.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1969. “Love at first sight—for most of 40,000,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “40,000 agog but centre’s debut shaky,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “Curtain Up,” 3 June.

———————, 1969, “One gets tired of acrobatics,” 3 June.

———————, 1969. “The critics have their say,” 3 June.

The Windsor Star, 1989. “National Arts Centre Orchestra Saved,” 4 May.

Image: National Arts Centre, 2015, by Nicolle Powell