Last week’s column, describing the 1934 firemen’s convention at Elora, mentioned that Wellington South MPP Paul Munro who was scheduled to present an award, was killed the day before in a tragic traffic accident.
D. Paul Munro had been a rising figure in Guelph legal circles, with a natural affinity for politics and public life. A strikingly handsome man, he was able to befriend people from all walks of life with his quiet self-confidence and lack of pretense. As a politician, Munro had the ability to work with people who did not share all his ideas.
Like many of Canada’s political figures of the 20th century, Munro was a child of the manse. His father was a minister of the Disciples of Christ Church in Manitoba. Later the family returned to Ontario, living in Hamilton.
As a youth, he came to Guelph, but a short time later, when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 29th Battery. After the war he resumed his education at Osgoode Hall, and when he graduated he returned to Guelph as a junior in the practice of lawyer R.L. McKinnon.
McKinnon was impressed with the young man, and soon took him into partnership. When the government elevated McKinnon to the bench, Munro took over the practice. Like McKinnon before him, Munro became an active member of the Wellington South Liberal riding association.
In September 1931, the riding’s Conservative MPP, Lincoln Goldie, died at 67 after a brief illness. Premier George Henry called a by-election for November.
The Conservative nomination meeting turned out to be an ugly one. William Gamble, a retired OAC faculty member and gentleman farmer, captured the nomination over Guelph Mayor Bev Robson. Furious at the result, Robson rose and delivered a denunciation of the “bitterness against me,” and claiming those who opposed him were part of the same clique who had opposed him as mayor. He alluded to “a whispering campaign” mounted by his foes.
The Liberal meeting a week later was much more subdued. Guest speaker was the party leader, Mitch Hepburn, who delivered one of his tirades against the extravagance of the federal and provincial governments. Party insiders had been grooming Paul Munro for a couple of years as a potential candidate. The temperance faction of the party nominated T.E. Bissell, the retired owner of the Elora farm implement firm bearing his name.
When the ballots were counted, Munro won the nomination handily. Bissell rose to make it unanimous.
Though nominations were expected from the Independent Labour Party and the United Farmers, neither fielded a candidate. Bill Gamble, apparently well-funded, mounted an intense campaign with full-page newspaper advertisements. Munro relied on a series of small meetings and door-to-door campaigning. Hepburn was impressed with the young man, and came several times to assist.
Gamble captured the city of Guelph with a majority of 829, but when the towns and townships were added, Munro overcame that majority by a margin of 120.
As a rooky opposition MPP, Paul Munro spent his time learning the ropes and devoting much time to constituency work. He quickly became a popular member of the caucus. He was able to maintain his close relationship with party leader Hepburn while building bridges to those in caucus who disapproved of Hepburn’s drinking and womanizing, such as Wellington North MPP Dr. George McQuibban, an outspoken temperance man.
Premier George Henry’s government dragged its way through the early years of the Great Depression. Though he had a strong reputation as a businessman, Henry was a lacklustre political leader. He seemed helpless and tired in light of the economic conditions, and frequently caused himself headaches with his pronouncements.
Mitch Hepburn continued his call for more economy in government. He was very light on specifics, but he seemed to bring a spirit of energy to politics, in contrast with Henry. In April 1934, Henry decided to call a general election for June 19. Both the major parties in Wellington South scheduled their nomination meetings for the same afternoon.
Neither meeting generated much excitement. The Conservatives at Guelph City Hall nominated Mayor Bev Robson. He was the only candidate. Their guest speaker, surprisingly, was Bill Gamble, Robson’s foe, who beat him for the nomination fewer than three years earlier.
Up Wyndham Street, in the hall above Ryan’s store, Liberal leader Hepburn gave one of his rambling but animated attacks on the Henry government. After that the meeting unanimously endorsed Paul Munro for another term.
Munro had learned much since his first election, and showed his skills as a campaigner. He spent a lot of time striding door-to-door and driving from farm-to-farm. In addition, he held a series of rallies and had no difficulty in getting help from other Liberals.
At his Fergus meeting, for example, he drew a huge crowd to the old and now demolished town hall beside Melville Church. Chris Wilson, the unofficial head of the Liberal organization in Fergus, introduced him. Munro gave only a brief speech, then turned the podium over to Dr. McQuibban, who spoke about issues related to Ontario Hydro and to the temperance question.
Munro was reluctant to say much about that divisive subject. There were also speeches by Bob Gladstone of Guelph, who would be elected an MP a year later, and by Dr. Blair of Arthur, the MP for North Wellington.
Robson, by contrast, ran his own show, concentrating on issues pertinent to Guelph rather than the whole riding. He was frequently argumentative and bombastic, and made few friends with his attacks on Paul Munro. For example, he chided Munro for not bringing new industries to Guelph, and claiming that Munro avoided attending the legislature for weeks at a time. At several meetings he called hecklers liars, after which the meetings degenerated into shouting matches.
The real issue in the campaign, though, was party leadership. Although he was party leader, Hepburn had not yet secured a seat in the legislature. With his blanket and outspoken pronouncements and claims of scandals, therefore, he struck many people as a windbag. In person, though, he could be a very effective, dynamic speaker.
Conservative leader George Henry seemed weary of politics, and had nothing to say about helping to turn the economy around. He and other cabinet members devoted most of their energy to attacks on Hepburn.
The general unpopularity of the Henry government certainly helped Munro, but his record and his campaign style gave a solid demonstration of competence. He won the riding by a vote of 10,388 to 6,436. That gave him the largest majority in the history of Wellington South. It certainly stood in contrast to his squeaker of a majority in 1931.
Mitch Hepburn had a tough job in selecting a cabinet. The Liberals captured 65 of the seats in Ontario, compared to 17 for Henry’s Conservatives. There were various geographic considerations, and policy differences over such issues as temperance and public electricity. Hepburn planned to announce his cabinet in early July, and no one doubted that Paul Munro would be in it.
On July 1, Paul Munro was in Hamilton, visiting friends there. In the afternoon he began a drive to Toronto to attend a caucus meeting in Toronto called by Hepburn. He had four passengers: Mrs. John Sutherland, formerly of Guelph and a family friend, and a Mrs. Palmer and her two young children.
Foolishly, Munro had six-year-old Paul Palmer on his lap as he drove. Near Waterdown he lost control of his big sedan. He swerved into the ditch, and before he could get the car back on the highway he struck a huge pine tree, snapping it off. He and Mrs. Sutherland died instantly. The others received only minor injuries.
Hepburn made enquiries when Munro did not appear at the meeting. When he heard the news he rushed to the scene of the crash.
The funeral, at War Memorial Hall on the OAC campus, drew almost 2,000 people. Attending were Hepburn, many members of the caucus, cabinet members from the Henry government, and much of the social elite of Guelph. There was also a private service at the home of Judge R.L. McKinnon for close friends and family, conducted by Rev. S.L. Shipley of the Disciples Church.
Paul Munro was certainly on Hepburn’s short list for a cabinet appointment. And based on his early career, he would undoubtedly have enjoyed a lengthy and successful career in public life. Ontario might have taken a much different course had Paul Munro gained the leadership of his party as the successor to Mitch Hepburn.