1 – William John Grummett

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William “Bill” Grummett, circa 1955

William John Grummett (1891-1967) MPP, QC, known to his colleagues and friends in later life as “Bill” Grummett was a civic leader and  politician. He was elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1943 as a member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) Party, the forerunner of today’s New Democratic Party.  Among other duties, he served as House Leader for the CCF following the disastrous provincial election of 1951 in which the party leader Ted Jolliffe and 32 other CCF MPP’s lost their seats. 

Before taking up politics,  Bill Grummett had, in the early 1920’s, made a bold move from Toronto to the remote northern Ontario town of Ansonville. He had only recently passed the Ontario Bar examinations, having graduated from Osgoode Hall, School of Law in 1920.  The move to  a cooler climate and a slower pace of life was the recommendation of his Doctor as a means of finding relief from recurring bouts of malarial fever. 

On arrival in Ansonville,  he set himself up as a Barrister/Solicitor,  immersed himself in building his legal practice, and in service to his new community.  He became the Town Solicitor and the Coroner.  Much of the work as Town Solicitor was undertaken without payment.   He, and other like minded colleagues, were instrumental in forming and directing the community corporation that brought telephone service to town.  When hard times came in 1929, he simply stopped collecting rent for an apartment building he owned and operated.  He was outspoken on issues of provision of adequate housing, medical care and appropriate town infrastructure. 

By 1922 his fledgling business was healthy enough that he required an assistant.  He hired a bright, capable young lady, one Marie Gaouette.  Ms. Gaouette assumed her duties at the office and it wasn’t long before her intelligence, wit and beauty resulted in a marriage proposal from the boss.  William Grummett and Marie Gaouette were married in 1923 and then, after a brief honeymoon, they went right back to work.  Marie Grummett continued her legal career, now as a partner in the firm, and did so for the remainder of her life.  They worked side by side at their legal practice, and later in politics and raised five children – as partners.  

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Marie and Bill Grummett at work

Bill Grummett’s life long commitment to his town made the move into provincial politics in 1943, at 54 years old, seem natural. And,  given the issues that he was working on for so long in Ansonville, it was not entirely surprising that he should elect to join the CCF with their progressive notions of social responsibility.  However, considering the ideas and proposed programs contained in the CCF platform, his first political move could,  very well,  have been his last.  The radical nature of the CCF agenda, including proposals such as the social control of transportation, utilities and the industries of the natural resource sectors (mines, forestry) as perhaps some of the more contentious elements, could have been career ending, but Bill Grummett’s standing in his community was such that the riding of Cochrane South (which includes Ansonville – now Iroqouis Falls) put him in office in four consecutive elections.  The most notable was the election of 1951, in which the CCF was nearly obliterated as a result of the effects of anti-communist Cold War hysteria.

He was, by accounts, the least “politician” of politicians. During the campaign for the 1951 election, The North Star (Parry Sound, Ontario) newspaper ran an article entitled, “Nobody Knows How He Does It But He Does It Like Nobody”, in which the author considers how this man, “…who does not act, talk, smile, walk, breathe or look like a politician” could have won successive elections.  The article refers to Bill Grummett as a “political paradox…” who “can defy all the principles of modern politics and still be swept into office.” “He talks; he doesn’t roar…He’s not a hand shaker; the only babies he’s kissed are his own; he’s about as fond of publicity as a 19th century doctor.  He says hello to everyone he passes on the street, if they say hello to him; he’s about as dapper as a wet tweed suit.  He’s a small town lawyer; he’s never pretended to be anything else.” 

While in office Bill Grummett attended to the issues that put him there, working on legislative committees for the establishment of public utilities, transportation systems, the rights and living conditions of First Nations people and fairness in the extraction of publicly owned natural resources. He was active in the protection of the rights of all individuals.  In 1947, thirteen years before the Canadian Bill of Rights and thirty years prior to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms he  introduced a bill into the house for the establishment of a provincial civil rights act and addressed his fellow legislators with the following words,

“Mr Speaker it does not matter what a person’s race,  colour or religion is, surely in this country of ours they should have an equal right to all the privileges and advantages of our country, and if our people and our institutions are not prepared to give those rights freely and justly then let us put an act on our statute books which will compel them to do so.” 

Of course, before the public man, before there was “Bill” Grummett, there was Will Grummett – that is how he signed his letters and notes -the boy and then, young man who eventually went off to war in defence of his country.

Will Grummett was born into the last decade of the Victorian era in 1891, and grew up on the family farm near Osprey, Grey County, Ontario. He was the eldest of John (1858-1950) and Elizabeth Ann (nee Nixon 1867-1926) Grummett’s nine children

It seems likely that both John and Ann considered themselves and their family British first and Canadian, to the extent that “Canadian” as an identity existed in the early part of the last century, only as a consequence of geography. John was a first generation immigrant from the town of Little Dunham in Norfolk, England having arrived in Canada in 1885. Ann was born in Toronto just as the unification of the British North American colonies resulted in the new Dominion of Canada in 1867. Her father was a colonist of unknown British extraction and her mother was born in Yorkshire.

The family portrait below, taken in 1913 or perhaps as late as 1914, appears to be a sombre affair but it should be pointed out that a high quality photograph such as a portrait at this time required a long exposure. Portrait photographers instructed their clients to assume a relaxed countenance and to avoid smiles since these could result in either blurring as the smile shifted and decayed or bizarrely frozen grins as a smile is held beyond the extent of the emotion which created it – neither of which was the desired outcome. So, while the family appears to be listening to someone explain how to prepare income tax returns, with the mix of responses running from boredom to defiance to something like shock, they are in fact trying to make their faces impassive.

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John and Ann Grummett and Family (1913)

Will or William John,  stands in the back row, second from the right end next to his brother Raymond (b. 1897) and sister Margaret (b.1892). At the left end of the row is Walter (b. 1896) and next to him Ernest (b. 1894). From left to right in the front row are Eva (b. 1902), then the Father, John, Herbert (b. 1906) the youngest of the boys, sits in child size chair between his parents, his mother Ann on his left and next to her the youngest, Amy (b. 1909) and finally, Mary (b. 1900).

The photo betrays an effort to cultivate a modicum of gentility in both the boys and the girls despite their lives as a hard working rural farm family. The men are dressed in their “Sunday best” dark suit with celluloid collar and tie. Will being the exception since, as a university man at the time, he sports what would appear to be a newer, more up to date look. Margaret, the young lady of the family, is dressed in a fashionably current, high neckline dress: it would be surprising if she had more than a second like it in her wardrobe. Herbert, the youngest boy, is notably dressed in a sailor suit, a practice copied by well to do families of British extraction, from the British and Russian Royals who had a penchant for dressing their little princes up in nursery versions of military uniforms. The three younger girls are also turned out in Sunday best right down to their button up patent leather boots.

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The home of John and Ann Grummett and family, Grey County, Ontario

The family home was a handsome, two story brick clad, frame house complete with a front verandah, Victorian gingerbread fretwork on the gables and decorative knee bracing for the roof overhang. A summer kitchen is just visible in the photo at the back of the house. I expect the house had a master bedroom and 3 smaller bedrooms and would have been very comfortable for a family of say six people. For the family of eleven as they were, there would have been only one bedroom that didn’t sleep three. While crowded by today’s, admittedly excessive, standards, I am sure no one in the family considered it much of a hardship.

The house is set in an equally impressive farm yard, well laid out and sheltered from the wind with a good size barn functioning as livestock shelter and equipment storage.

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The Grummett farm yard, circa 1940

Both the portrait and the farmstead suggest a family that has met with some success as a result of hard work on good land. Their efforts have placed them squarely in the middle class of the time with enough of a financial surplus that at least one and perhaps more than one of the children could attend university. 

And that is exactly what John and Ann’s eldest boy did.   Will enrolled at the University of Toronto, probably in 1910 immediately after finishing high school, and received his Bachelor of Arts degree during the spring convocation in 1914.  He appears to have done well enough in his first degree, so much so that he was accepted into the law program at Osgoode Hall (Toronto) beginning in the fall of 1914.  He was 23 years old.

Next installment coming in January,  The Why and the When of War.

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