MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 11 - Politics in North Bay

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Colin Vezina, long-time journalist at the North Bay Nugget. Handley and Vezina discuss the possibility of Vezina entering the world of politics as well as his reporting ventures in the field. Vezina and Handley reminisce about many of North Bay’s former mayors and Vezina shares several personal antidotes about some of North Bay’s most notable names in politics.

Peter Handley:
Hi there and good day! Welcome to North Bay’s Heritage Diary. Listen up and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by, which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. This time, we open the diary of our shared past and take another look at North Bay and its politics and politicians with Colin Vezina – something like 30 years with the North Bay Nugget. He met all sorts of people and has all sorts of stories to tell. Politics…Did you ever have an urge? I mean it's been done before, media guys run for office? I mean you’ve got the background here. You're from here and all that sort of stuff.

Colin Vezina:
I was asked a couple of times. Not by the majors, not the provincial or the federal, but yeah, I was asked a couple times to consider running for Council. At the expense of sounding vein, I suspect my chances were reasonably good because a lot of people know me. But no. I saw so much of it and I mean you were part of it for what four years?

Peter Handley:
Nine years.

Colin Vezina:
Nine years, my heavens. Look at that. I saw so much of it and I saw the amount of work that goes into it and the ridicule and as a newspaper guy, regardless of what you do you take a lot of guff. If you want to talk about developing a shell. I got a pretty good introduction when I served on the police commission. In the first year I was a member, the second year I was the deputy and the remaining four years I was the chairman of the police commission. That was very interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed that. You know I learned it. We had it go before Council to present the budget. Mind you, we had the avenue that that if Council objected then we could go to the cops and go over their head, but you don’t like to do that and we didn't have to because we'd justified our budget. In a way I guess I ran but I was never elected to anything on the political scene. I have great respect for the men and women who serve, particularly on Council. When you serve federally and provincially well, that's a horse of a different colour. You have a lot of responsibility, but when you serve municipally - in your nine years you know about it and you're Pete Handley and everybody knows you, but you think that how many times you and Pam are out shopping someplace or at a hockey game or anywhere and someone would approach you or the phone would ring. This was wrong, that was wrong and I'm not sure that that I can handle it without want to climb through the phone.

Peter Handley:
The social stuff now makes it even worse.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, that whole social media now is a whole new story.

Peter Handley:
You talk about City Council in something like 30 years at the Nugget, you were around for a lot of different Mayors, right?

Colin Vezina:
Oh yes.

Peter Handley:
How far back do we go? Do you remember any of them? The Mayors here when you were a kid?

Colin Vezina:
Oh, yeah. I remember Bill Stones in 1944-45. At the winter carnival well he had this very, very heavy Scottish accent and you’d get him singing Jingle Bells and it didn't sound anything like Jingle Bells. He’d do that down where the museum is now, it used to be the CPR station. Then there was JL Shaw who owned the pop factory – the Coca-Cola and then Ced Price who started the Price Signs and T.M. Palmer was the jeweler. T.M. was a good guy and he served in 50-51. I’m just looking at a few notes here. He was followed by Art Beattie and then in 54 the whole town blew up because a man by the name of Merle Dickerson came on the scene. Merle took this town by storm. He served 54, 55, 56, 57, 58 and 1960. The establishment here, every community has its establishment - we have one here now, they tried everything to get rid of this horrible man. I mean they threw Art Beattie up against him and then T.M. Palmer and Ced Price and Bill Croen and Rennick and Brown. It didn’t matter. The people kept electing him. Merle left town for a while and Cecil Hewitt, who was a delightful guy…

Peter Handley:
Can we just go back to Merle for a second?

Colin Vezina:
Sure it because there’s more on him. He made a comeback.

Peter Handley:
Yeah, didn’t he also, in some respects, put North Bay on the map at that time? Something about that time period. Didn’t they say he raced some dog team?

Colin Vezina:
Well, yeah, at the Royal York. But for the next four years, Cecil Hewitt was Mayor.

Peter Handley:
And Cecil Hewitt was a gentleman wasn’t he?

Colin Vezina:
He was very much a gentleman.

Peter Handley:
The complete opposite of Merle.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, Cecil looked a little bit like Jimmy Stewart. He was very laid back and relaxed. So you’d say ‘Hey, how are you Cecil’ and he’d say ‘well…it’s…so…kind…of…you
…to…ask…about…my…welfare’. He couldn't get over the fact that people would stop and say ‘hello’ and we all said ‘well you’re the Mayor!’. So in 1966, Merle made a comeback. Merle came back to North Bay and one of the first things he did was he ran for mayor. He was elected and there was a big battle in 1968-69 when Don King went up against him. Remember that there was annexation in 1967-68. It wasn't amalgamation, it was annexation. The city annexed the both the two townships.

Peter Handley:
West Ferris and Widdifield.

Colin Vezina:
There was the big battle and Merle beat Don King out by 130 votes. That's how close it was for the mayor's job. Merle stayed there until 1971 and then Bruce Goulet came on the scene in 72 and he beat Merle out by about 500 votes. Then Merle came back in 74 and he beat Goulet. Then he beat Goulet again and again. Then Jack Smylie – Dr. Jack Smylie took them on and Merle beat him. But when we had the winter carnivals here they were just remarkably huge. Merle was a showman in many regards and so to promote the winter carnival to the of the Royal York Hotel Merle alerted my brother Bob who was in Toronto at the time what he was going to do. So, the Toronto Telegram was there and the Star found out about it and Merle drove a dog team, I think he arranged the dog team through the late Dr. Murray Leatherdale, who was a great dog lover and racer and historian. But yeah, he raced this thing through there twice. I mean the place went nuts and you know how staid the place was at the time. Merle thought this was wonderful and he had this touque on that was 3 feet long and this great wonderful furry coat and everybody thought he was great. The next day, it's plastered all over the front page of the Globe, the Star, the Telegram that this Mayor from North Bay and this carnival. The carnival was an outstanding success. People came up from Toronto area and southern Ontario material to see what North Bay was all about with this mayor who had a dog team. Merle had promised them that he would let them run up and down Main Street and let them drive the dog team. I mean of course when they got here there was no dog team. That was Merle.

Peter Handley:
He played fast and loose with a number of different rules didn’t he?

Colin Vezina:
Well there was the matter of the Hydro that sort of wasn't paid for. There was the matter, when he was a contractor, of certain culverts that had a start and had a finish but no middle. I mean he’d put two feet in this end, two feet in that end and the inspector would see it and approve it. So Merle got about eight driveways out of what normally would have been one hunk of galvanized metal. Merle got into a bit of a gambling situation and in 1980. In the summer of 1980, he was caught out at a Chinese restaurant on Castle Street toward Trout Lake Road and a bunch of people were charged, of course Merle as well. He was brought out to the jail and the correctional officers out there were just terribly offended, that Merle was in there until his bail was set. The normal procedure is, of course, when you're in jail that you're locked up and registered, and so on until someone brings the bail and the JP signed the papers. Well, Merle was in the orderly room with the with the correctional officers and having sandwiches and drinking tea and coffee in and telling them songs and dances and entertaining them until finally whoever came to get him. Merle told me this, I said ‘so what’d you say Merle?’ and he said ‘I said thank you boys, I enjoyed my visit. I want to see you, but I don’t want to come back here.’ So that was Merle and he was held of office because he was convicted by this judge from Timmins who treated Merle terribly and just went up one side and down the other. I suppose it was proper, but the people in North Bay didn't think a whole lot of that. I mean all Merle was doing was playing a little cards. The fact that he was the mayor's was beside the point. Merle came into my office at the Nugget, I was Editor then, and the he always called me ‘pal’ for some reason. He said, ‘well pal, how are you?’ and I said ‘well how are you?’ and I said ‘well what are you going to do?’ and he said ‘well, I don’t know’ and I said ‘well, Merle why don’t you run again – you’d get elected’ and he said ‘do you think so?’ and I said ‘of course. I’ll tell you what; just say ‘I’ll be back’.’ I said ‘if you say that I'll put it in quotation marks and I'll put it in the red headline in tomorrow's paper that you're coming back’ and he said okay. If you look in the Nugget back in the summer of 80-81, I guess it was. That's what it said ‘I'll be back’. Of course, the establishment went absolutely crazy about this bandit and this criminal. But, well you know Merle was reelected and he stayed there until he got sick and he died of cancer. Stan Lawlor succeeded him as he was Deputy Mayor.

Peter Handley:
Was he the most colourful politician we’ve had here do you think?

Colin Vezina:
Oh yeah. I think Don King could hold his own. He was he was outspoken and this is a guy who served with the Algonquin Regiment, who was very seriously wounded in the Normandy invasion and came back here and supported so strongly by his wife made a business. He was the Reeve of Widdifield at the time and terribly, terribly outspoken.

Peter Handley:
He got involved with the Northgate business?

Colin Vezina:
Oh yeah. The old Boiva property. It was Don, in large part, who engineered that.

Peter Handley:
Our first shopping mall.

Colin Vezina:
The first major one when I think of the size north of Toronto as it were. Well, no, Barrie had a big one but certainly in Northern Ontario. I think of Jack Smylie. I mean he was Dr. Smylie, you know, everybody loved Jack because…

Peter Handley:
He was like a Cecil Hewiitt almost?

Colin Vezina:
He was and you know when your pet was hurt, Dr. Smylie fixed your pet. I mean how do you not like Jack? But as far as colour is concerned, no one was in was in Merle's league. I think of guys like John C. Hopper and Don Grassy. Don ‘the count’ Grassy. I mean they're always saying things that in all got the pot broiling, but nobody was in Merle's class. He hated the establishment and the establishment hated him. I remember once I was with him out at the gardens. In those days there was an Arena Commission – Clarence Rennick was the Chair. I happened to be there with Merle as a reporter and JGA Stevenson was in charge of Canadian Longyear and that was a big, big thing. JGA Stevenson was very much a part of the establishment in the 60s and anyway, he was very involved with the North Bay Skating Club. I guess it was a Marina Commission meeting that was there. That must've been it. But Merle said hello to JGA Stevenson, and Stevenson said ‘I'm not talking to you’ and Merle said ‘well that’s fine’ and he said ‘you're a crook’ and Merle turned on him and said ‘yes I am a crook, but I'm an honest crook’ and he said ‘the next time you say it, it’s going to cost you a lot of money and so will court’ and Stevenson shut up right there. That was Merle. I'm a crook, but I’m an honest crook. I have one more little story about Merle. Again, I was with Merle. He had two cars you know. He had a really good car and then this old flopper. It was about a 1951 whatever. It was a dreadful colour. It was some terrible odious green or something and the fenders were rotting. So he’d pull this out at election time and I was with him and were going out Cassells Street and the late Morris Brown decided that he would run for Mayor. Everybody knew about Merle and that certain things he did didn’t necessarily meet the requirement of the law. So, Brown said ‘Vote Brown for a cleaner town’. This is what he advertised in the Nugget and on CFCH and so on. I was with Merle and he didn’t smoke and didn’t drink so I happen to be with him for whatever reason and there were some city guys working at the corner of King and Castle Street. Merle said ‘I’m going to pull over here pal.’ Merle approached the guys, this is just prior to election time and he said can I borrow your tabacco. Back then everyone used to roll their own cigarettes. So he said ‘can I borrow your tabacco, I left mine in the car’ and so he rolled a cigarette and put it up to his lips and lit it and held it there. This is to be part of the gang and he complimented the way that the guys were working. He said ‘well I’ve got to go boys. I just wanted to say what an awful thing that Brown guy is saying ‘Vote Brown for a Cleaner Town’. He said ‘when I'm away at the conventions I talk about the way you fellows keep our city streets and sidewalks looking I mean look! They couldn’t be any cleaner than they are right now!’ and they said ‘You bet your life Merle. Damn right.’ I mean he won a vote in five minutes there. Is it sneaky? Of course, but that was Merle. He never shut off.

Peter Handley:
What about Dick Donnelly?

Colin Vezina:
Dick Donnelly? This city was so incredibly fortunate to have a man like Donnelly. No one tried to pull any fast enough on Council because Donnelly always sat in the same spot and his stomach would bother him so he’d get up and walk back and forth with his hands behind his back, didn't say a word, but if someone was trying to talk, Dick would do it deliberately to throw the guy off and him he'd launch at them just like he was in court. He ran for mayor in 1980-82 up against Smylie and Lawlor. He came close to being elected.

Peter Handley:
He was acting there for a while when Merle was unable to serve wasn’t he?

Colin Vezina:
That’s right, he was the Deputy Mayor. This is when Merle got thrown in the can. But when when Merle got sick, Stan Lawlor, later to be mayor of course, was the Deputy Mayor and he just he took over as Mayor when Merle died. Dick served as Mayor until there was an election and he very nearly got elected, but Jack Smylie beat him out by about 1600-1700 votes.

Peter Handley:
I can remember Donnelly taking the skin off someone. Council would have some big time operator from Toronto or somewhere trying to dazzle the peasantry…

Colin Vezina:
Dick would see them coming through the door and he’d just his incisors. He’d rip them apart bit by bit like a cat playing with a mouse. I think we were so fortunate to have had him on Council because nothing, nothing got past him and if he wanted something it was for the good of the city. He was he was a politician in the sense that he was in there for gain. As you know, he was a very successful criminal lawyer and had I got myself in the jackpot and at any time I would've gone to as they called him ‘Dirty Dick.’ Yeah, I would have gone to Richard F. for sure. The police guys hated them. I mean, they admired him, but they hated him because they had to be right on the ball with their evidence because he’d pick a hole in something just like that.

Peter Handley:
What do you remember about Jack Garland?

Colin Vezina:
Big Jack? He was a very gracious, individual. I remember walking down the street once with Jack. He had been at the Nugget and he was going downtown. Mort had sent me downtown for something and I walked with Jack. We’re at the Empire corner of Fraser and McIntyre and this gentleman who worked for the ONR – he was a retired section man and his name was Grassy, he was 5’4 if that, very solid indivisual and here’s Jack Garland, 380-400 pounds 6’4 and were crossing the street and Mr. Grassy said ‘hello, Mr. Garland’ or ‘hello Jack.’ Jack Garland always wore a Homburg and he tipped his hat to Mr. Grassy and he said ‘Mr. Grassy… how are you?’ and he said ‘I’m a fine’ and Jack said ‘good, thank you for saying hello’. He didn't stop, put his Homburg back on and kept walking. This is the kind of guy he was.

Peter Handley:
Beautiful voice too.

Colin Vezina:
Beautiful. When Diefenbaker was elected in 1957, we were talking again and I was speaking with Jack Garland and he said and I quote ‘what a dreadful day for Canada’. Of course, a Conservative government and the very nerve of the populace to elect a conservative government to replace St. Laurent and the rest of that gang long before Pearson came in. Yeah, ‘what a dreadful day for Canada, Colin, a dreadful day’ and he was somber about it too. And, you know, when Diefenbaker came back in again with the majority government, Jack Garland went in with an enormous edge. But still, it was it was awful because he was in opposition.

Peter Handley:
We’ve worn you out. I'd like to get you back and talk more about the politicians currently in politics, but I think we’ve run the gamut for today. I really want to thank you for coming in. You’re one of our prime volunteers here in the city of North Bay, businessman and former nugget… everything for about 30 years. So, thanks again. Thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. These productions are put together by the Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales, but hopefully to kindle interest area history. Local lore is important to any community and we shouldn't let it go unremarked and unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when we flip another page of the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at peter.carello@cityofnorthbay.ca. Production – Kealey Ducharme. Pete Handley speaking.