MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 13 - North Bay's Politicians

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Colin Vezina, former reporter and City Editor of the North Bay Nugget. Handley and Vezina discuss North Bay’s most prominent female politicians including Orma McNaughton, Nell Mallory, Lynn Bennett and Monique Smith. Handley and Vezina also discuss other notable politicians in the City who served at the municipal, provincial and federal level including former Premier Mike Harris.

Peter Handley:
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 have a conversation again with Colin Vezina – North Bay native, 30 years with The Nugget in various key roles, longtime volunteer and Rotary Club member and still doing it all. You mentioned the last time we talk - you used the term: ‘establishment.’

Colin Vezina:
Yes, every community you may agree thousand establishment and I use that term when JGA Stevenson, who at the time was the head of the arena commission at Memorial Gardens which had just been birthed, as it were, in November 1955. He ran into Merle Dickerson and he called Merle a crook and Merle said ‘I'm an honest crook and if you say that again I’ll sue you.’ Merle said to me, ‘you know pal, he’s just part of the establishment’ and well JGA Stevenson was. He was one of the controlling perhaps top ten people in North Bay and we still have our establishment. We still have those in business, industry and commerce right now who, in large part control – or influence, not control but rather influence decision-making in just about any level you think about.

Peter Handley:
Can you think of any time when it was other than benign in your estimation?

Colin Vezina:
No, it's pretty well always been there, Peter. You know, depending on the…

Peter Handley:
And it's always been positive? Would you say?

Colin Vezina:
Pretty well. It's been a flight if you will, a gentle fight, but a firm fight between the liberal establishment and that includes the federal and the provincial groups and the conservatives. I mean it's just… I’ve watched it over the years, particularly when I was in the newspaper business and putting on a paper. I'd watch this tussle going back and forth and being editor you had to be neutral, which I was, but it's still here today.

Peter Handley:
Okay, you also mentioned last time, briefly that you were told something in confidence. In 30 years with The Nugget not just as reporter but you had positions of responsibility with The Nugget.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, I started as a cub reporter and landed up as Editor. Yeah. So I went through the chain.

Peter Handley:
Things you were told in confidence. Now, you’ve mentioned you had a relationship with Merle Dickerson – you were almost his campaign manager.

Colin Vezina:
Well, no. I was Jack Burrows’ campaign manager after I retired, but no, not with Merle I kept the distance there. You know, about 3 feet just far enough away that…

Peter Handley:
That you could get information, but not get drawn in.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, because Merle loved you, but he’d use you. Not that I was particularly bright but I had been warned by men like Mort Fellman, the participant Jack Granger, so I was aware.

Peter Handley:
Can you think of anything that you were told in confidence that you had to hold or that you knew something that you couldn't use in the newspaper that will

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, I mean, many, many times the people from City Hall, our own North Bay Police Service, with whom I'm still involved with from time to time, the OPP… I would be told stuff in part because they knew I was going to find out anyway and I was. It was my job and I was, of course, trained by good people and I would be told and they’d say, ‘but I'm telling you this in confidence, you can't say anything about it for three days or one day or a week’ and I’d say, ‘okay, fine.’ But, be sure that CFCH was our nemesis of course and we’d have to make sure the radio station doesn't break it or scoop us. But oftentimes, I found that being in the newspaper business people would approach you with a view that the you’re unbiased and primarily we were objective as reporters. The subjectivity comes into it in the columns and editorials, but to be entirely objective they knew did we tell them the truth. In fact, I was speaking with somebody earlier today some other place I was at 8:30 about that very thing - about being told facts and events coming in, in confidence. But I have been told some stuff that I just I couldn't use because I'd given my word and and things had not broken the way that the informants had hoped. But I in all the years, Peter, I have never, and never is a long time - I have never broken a confidence. That’s some 60 years.

Peter Handley:
You should be proud of that.

Colin Vezina:
I am I am. But again, I had teachers like Mort Fellman and Britt Jessup and Jack Granger – three of the best brains in the news business or in the newspaper business I guess I should say.

Peter Handley:
Did you or what did you feel like when... I mean, first of all, it was The Nugget and then all of a sudden came CFCH radio and then all of a sudden came KGM television and now there’s a plethora of different things. Did you ever work with these people or were you combating them all the time.

Colin Vezina:
No. I worked with Clancy – Clancy McDonald, your former associate. Clancy and I worked well together and so did I work well with John Size senior who was at the old CKGN and I came back to The Nugget from Chrysler in 1972 and started over again as a reporter. I mean, they had plans for me, but I had to start at the bottom and work my way up again and I needed help at the time and Clancy and John Size Sr. couldn’t do enough for me. And so we would exchange Clancy and I. If I got a tip my first kick at the can, I phoned the radio station and say ‘did you hear about such and such?’ or ‘we’rere going to bed at 11:30 (meaning we’re running the press at 11:30 and so it will be on the street), so for your noon broadcast you can have this item. Now you owe me one.’ And that's how we worked so they wouldn't be scooped and they wouldn't have to wait for The Nugget to see what was going on. I know I work closely with you guys. Yes, over the years.

Peter Handley:
I know I worked closely with your guys over the years.

Oh yes.

Peter Handley:
And yet some people frown on that. I think cooperation is important.

Colin Vezina:
Our job is to provide information to the public. Whether it's radio, television, the newspapers, whatever. Indeed, we work together, but it's always nice to scoop at the time. I delighted in scooping the radio station or television station and then rubbing it in a little bit.

Peter Handley:
Okay, women in local politics. There has been a lot of guys over the years in politics at the municipal, federal and provincial levels. Women that stuck out in your mind? There weren't that many and still isn’t…

Colin Vezina:
I think of one of the originals was Norma McNaughton and this was back in the 60s - the early 60s. To my knowledge, she was one of the originals. I know there was also the late great Sam Jacks referred her as the friendly bulldozer…

Peter Handley:
Nell Mallory?

Colin Vezina:
Nell Mallory. Of course, Aunt Nell. She was a formidable force on Council.Was she on when you were on Council?

Peter Handley:
No

Colin Vezina:
She retired before then, but she was on Council for about eight or nine years and headed what they called Parks and Recreation at the time. She did a great deal for North Bay particularly, but she had Sam Jacks as director who was really the brains behind it. Nell took the credit, but Sam did the thinking.

Peter Handley:
Lynn Bennett?

Colin Vezina:
Lynn, you know… Strongly NDP at the time and when she ran for Council, she did very well, of course she was Deputy Mayor. I served with her when I was chairman of the police commission and Lynn as Deputy Mayor, of course, had a seat along with the Mayor and Lynn was good to work with. She she's pretty sharp.

Peter Handley:
I know during my terms on Council, we had three ladies. There were more, but I mean federally and provincially - Monique Smith.

Colin Vezina:
Oh Monique. She was McGuinty’s, as you know, right arm and a position came open here or the nomination at least for the liberal party and her dad, Dick Smith was MPP and died in 1977. He was succeeded by the late Mr. Justice Mike Bolan, and when Monique came back to town she went in with a resounding victory because the whole liberal organization got behind her. She was in for 2 terms as I recall. So, I happened to be at an event when Dalton McGuinty was here and Monique mentioned him. She called him Dalton and she said ‘Dalton, can you tell us anything about the hospital?’ and finally, in desperation, the premier said ‘yes Monique, there’s going to be a hospital and we’re going to announce it next week, now will you leave it alone’. Of course I wasn’t in the newspaper business then, but Monique - the other MPP's did a great deal to have the hospital built but it is Monique Smith who gave it the final push. I was there and I heard it. She deserves a lot of credit and she deserves credit to for being the last one to push the completion of the four-lane highway. So, she was formidable in office and I wouldn't want to cross her. She's a lawyer to boot you know?

Peter Handley:
Now, are there any other politicians that stick in your mind that the over the years and at whatever level? I know we talked quite a bit about Dick Donnelly and I mean, there are some pretty formidable politicians. You even talked about Leo Troy earlier.

Colin Vezina:
Oh yes. The Major.

Peter Handley:
I mean he was one of your coaches. Transferred from what was a courier in the First World War and came back and taught and did all sorts of athletics and then got into politics.

Colin Vezina:
Well he he took the Algonquin Regiment overseas. He was a Major was his rank and but he was 43 at the time, and so they wouldn't leave from overseas, and he was absolutely irate because of what they said was, you're too old and I mean telling that to the major. He was 65 and still jumping around and whatnot, but he was yet he was a good coach and when Leo picked up the liberal banner, I think he opposed Donnelly and he just half of the city played hockey or football for the Major and he went in so very well and then I remember his son Dick calling me. He played fullback for the Trojans and he called me at The Nugget and said ‘I have some news is not good, it’s my dad.’ Leo had died in 1967 in office.

Peter Handley:
That was weird too because Jack Garland died in office.

Colin Vezina:
That's right. Well, actually, Jack Garland died on the train back to North Bay coming back from Ottawa because the trains ran then – the transcontinental. But yeah, Leo. He was extremely popular and course at the time it was that it was a conservative government in office in Queens Park and Leo an avowed liberal, he’d get into some terrible discussions with the with The Nugget. I wasn’t City Editor at the time, I was in supervision but that's as far as I was at that time, but to Leo would get into great discussions with Mr. Fellman, who was editor about this position in that position and these two guys went back to the collegiate and Mort had to stand his ground as well but they’d meet lunch and everything would be okay again. You now, but yet Leo did what he could. He worked very hard for the community, but he was on the wrong side of the fence at the time to get things moving.

Peter Handley:
Yeah this city is bouncy. It's strongly or seems to be more liberal, federally but provincially, it seems to go everywhere.

Colin Vezina:
My dad was an avowed liberal Federalist, but when it came to the province. He'd swing over to the Tories and I asked him I think when I was in grade 9 or 10 or whatever was at the time and he said ‘balance’. These are not his exact words but this is his message and he said ‘well when you have the same party and in Ottawa and the same party Queens Park. He said that's not good for the province’ and I thought well, okay, and I that's 60 some years ago my dad told me that. So that's this hitchhikes on what you're saying, Peter, you can pretty well call it reasonably so, with the exception of Moe Mantha’s victory, about which way the riding is going to go federally because 80% of the time since the riding was founded it was been liberal, but the other, I mean, you look at the book and it's conservative and liberal, conservative, liberal and so on.

Peter Handley:
What was your relationship with Mike Harris, both as an MP and then as Premier?

Colin Vezina:
Well with Mike, you know, I'm a left-handed golfer and I was having trouble hitting the ball. So Mike leaned over me like a great grizzly and he could have crushed me if he wanted to and he showed me how to hit the ball. I knew him through his dad, Dean, because we’d go down there and fish and I remember Mike when he was a kid, but when he ran for office Noreen and I lived out in Birchaven and I can remember Mike coming to the door and him coming up the driveway on Sable Crescent and I just went to the door and I remember distinctly saying, ‘Mike, how are you? You don't have to waste any time talking to Noreen and I were with you’ and he said ‘thank you’ and turned around and away he went. So I thought a great deal of Mike. There are great many teachers and others in public service who would throw rocks at me for saying that. But that's the way I feel. Mike was a good Premier. The only problem was, he tried to do too much too soon, he was committed to Nipissing and both Noreen and I worked very hard on his campaign - flipping pancakes and you name it and I'm really proud of this - I have a signed letter from Mike Harris thanking me when he retired as Premier, thanking me for the work that I did as a volunteer for him and he said in the letter ‘you knew I was going to be Premier before I did, because you told me’ and I did. Over a lunch in the Kennedy Building, told him, I said, ‘Mike, if you are elected to head the PC party, you are going to be the Premier’ and I said ‘so, be careful because if you go chase the presidency of the party you're going to be the Premier.’ Then he was the Premier. So this is what he was alluding to.

Peter Handley:
He had a plan didn’t he?

Colin Vezina:
Mike had a plan, but I mean he did he get into trouble of course down with the native property and the one man was killed. I think and I feel deeply that, and so does Mike, if he had tread a little easier he would've made it, but there was so much to do in such a short time and he was in a hurry. Anyway, the rest is history. But, as a guy, he was very committed to this riding, and he was very, very committed to the province. He wanted to want to get things going and get the show back on the road is what he wanted to do.

Peter Handley:
He was a ski coach, golf coach… He was a school trustee I believe.

Colin Vezina:
Well he was a teacher. Originally he and Peter Minogue were both teachers and then they both decided no that’s not the life for me. So Peter followed his father into real estate and building and of course Mike was with his dad with the tourist operation and then he started to, you know he started to get into not coach but to teach. He was a golf pro is what he did and then slowly he got into politics. He was down at Pinewood and he was doing well, but the PC party gave him the nod and encouraged him and he said okay and the rest is history.

Peter Handley:
JJ Blais

Colin Vezina:
Oh JJ…

Peter Handley:
Liberal representative, cabinet minister…

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, he was the Minister of Defence which certainly did us a lot of good here in North Bay. It meant that we kept the base for the longest time with the two squadrons. JJ was very committed, but and this is history so I can say it, I'm not breaking a confidence - JJ would call me from time to time and say, ‘how are you?’ and I’d say ‘I'm fine, let's talk about something serious’ and he'd say ‘well, what you hear?’ and he was pumping me for information just like so many others did. That was fine, so I said ‘JJ, I’ve got to tell you something and you might not like it’. ‘What? What? What? What? What?’ You know he was hyper in the morning. I said ‘JJ there's an election coming up’. ‘I know’. I said ‘listen to me for a minute. People are saying that they don't see very much if you’. ‘Well, I'm very busy. I am the Defence Minister.’ I said ‘JJ, will you listen to me?’ and he listened and I said ‘everybody is aware of that, but don't lose sight of your roots.’ ‘Well, I'm pretty busy’ and I thought well okay I told you. Well you know what happened - the PCs found Moe. Another golf pro and I mean who didn’t like Moe? I mean Moe with his hockey history and I was lucky enough I played with him with the old-timers.

Peter Handley:
It’s Moe Mantha we’re talking about.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, Moe Mantha Sr. Of course, Moe went in and boom he was elected. JJ moved out of town the next day. It was a Thursday. He moved out of town. He just need he left.

Peter Handley:
I think that was the greatest shock of his life.

Colin Vezina:
Oh he couldn’t believe it. He said the nerve of these people, and he didn’t ask me so I didn’t say anything, but had he asked me I would have laid him out right there. I’d say
JJ, you were told, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say I told you, but I’d say you were told and the warning signs were there. People felt that you got a little too big for your britches and if you forgot who put you in there. The rest is history.

Peter Handley:
And they went right back to liberals right after the one term with Moe with Woody.

Colin Vezina:
Well I mean Woody - the two of them. That was such a funny campaign. 2000 it was because strangely and enough. I helped with - I had just retired as editor and as editor, you couldn’t belong to anything even the Rotary Club.

Peter Handley:
Are you serious?

Colin Vezina:
Oh yeah the head office wouldn't let me. I'm surprised you let me go to mass every Sunday. Even my service and when I came home and I was part of the naval reserve. They even wanted to know all about that and you know were talking about the Armed Forces - you want to argue with the government of Canada go ahead, so they left me alone. But anyhow they wouldn’t let us do a lot.

Peter Handley:
Now go ahead, I interrupted your train of thought.

Colin Vezina:
Which was?

Peter Handley:
We were into Bob Wood.

Colin Vezina:
When Woody came in, I mean you and we can only imagine - well you remember the fuss. It was his campaign was nothing short of hilarious. It was fun from the time we started.

Peter Handley:
He worked hard on that.

Colin Vezina:
He worked very hard on it and what he will tell you was…

Peter Handley:
Former morning man.

Colin Vezina:
Well yeah I mean the guy is a household name in North Bay and I forget what his polarity was but it was at least 2 to 1.

Peter Handley:
Yeah, he never had a serious threat his whole time in office. I think one election he lost one poll. Just phenomenal.

Colin Vezina:
Well he was immensely popular and of course people knew him from the time that he served on City Council and was elected Deputy Mayor and was smart enough to ask Dick Donnelly to take that job. I admired him for that. There was a recent example where that should've been done but it wasn't.

Peter Handley:
Absolutely.

Colin Vezina:
Woody was… There are so many stories about Woody.

Peter Handley:
Give me one. He was very irreverent, he worked very hard, he was a constituency man. Rather than worrying about federal stuff he was a constituency guy.

Colin Vezina:
Woody was a vet, you know. He served five years in RCF and then and he came to North Bay, but of a veteran. So he is like myself, he served in the Cold War and I’m a Cold War vet. So, Woody being a former Air Force guy and the MP the hierarchy within the Air Force decided as only bureaucrats can that the Air Force defence establishment will be moved to Winnipeg and that's when we lost two squadrons and almost half the base. Woody had this discussion going on from time to time of with a couple of air marshals, and finally they said ‘Mr. Wood, our CFB North Bay will be no more. It is going to Winnipeg’ and Woody said and he told me this, Woody said ‘we’ll see’. This is when he went to then Prime Minister Chrétien and Chrétien’s deputy was Herb Gray from Windsor and Woody and Herb were great, great friends. Woody somewhere along the line did a bunch of stuff for Herb and Herb wouldn't forget. He went to Herb, told him his problem and told him ‘I need your backing on this’ and he said ‘okay’. He said ‘I want to make an appointment with the Prime Minister’ okay and he did it and he saw Prime Minister Chrétien and told him what was going on and he said ‘I spoke with the Deputy Prime Minister, and he's fully supportive of the Prime Minister’ and to tell Woody that Chrétien said ‘yeah, are you sure about that?’ and he said ‘yes’ he said ‘you can call him.’ ‘I’m going to do that’. Well so he got ahold of Herb and of course if you listen to Wood he says ‘Hello, Herb’ he says ‘It’s me and Wood is here and so on’. He turned to the Bob and he says ‘okay Bobby’ he said ‘in 10 days there will be on announcement’ he said ‘it's not going anywhere’. He and Jack Burrows got together, those two, and saved the base. What we have right today. Now the hole was closed, but it moved upstairs. But we still have and I stand to be corrected here, but I think we still have around 350-400 jobs at the base. But those two guys, Jack Burrows, who was also an outstanding Mayor and of course I’m bias there but that’s okay. I mean look what he did with the water. But, he and Woody, those two guys saved so then Woody met again with the Air Vice Marshal and he said ‘Mr. Wood. I just want to tell you that this discussion is over’ and he said ‘everything is being moved’ and Woody said ‘I looked at him and I wanted to call them something but I didn't I was only a Corporal when I retired and he was a Vice Marshal so’ but he said ‘I looked him right in the eye and I said ‘no Air Vice Marshal. It isn't moving from North Bay. Just watch the news’. Three days later, the defence office out of Ottawa mentioned it was staying here.

Peter Handley:
Good story. Good story.

Colin Vezina:
Woody deserves credit he worked very hard as did Jack Burrows.

Peter Handley:
Absolutely. You mentioned Burrows, Deputy Mayor, Mayor, Hospital Board, Business…

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, business.

Peter Handley:
Old North Bay business.

Colin Vezina:
Jack was part of be a little annoyed but as you probably know Jack was my best pal, okay I guess you didn't know that but yet he was. He and I were pretty tight. So, Jack was in university in Toronto. I don't know if he was going to study to be a teacher or not, but his dad wanted him to come back to North Bay to get involved in the business because his father saw they were in the feed business and horses and cows and sheep, and whatever. But Jack had some definite ideas about where it could go. They also owned the store on the corner of Third Avenue and Cassells Street – it was a meat store and so it was a going concern that it was just too much for one guy. So Jack gave up his university training and he pretty well took over the business and I mean he built that thing up into what it is today. It is a very industrious and successful enterprise. The whole Burrows operation.

Peter Handley:
What pushed him into politics because he's not really a politician?

Colin Vezina:
Well, Jack was encouraged to run for school board and you know he and Elaine had four kids time just like the rest of us. Everybody had a house full of kids. So, Jack was a very, as you know, astute businessman and he could get along with a rattlesnake. I mean you know if somebody was ornery Jack would sit and listen to them and sympathize. The first thing you know the guy was coming Jack's way and Jack had him and then Jack would wink, you know. That was his style even in high school. I mean he was 6 foot 3, 6 foot 4 and the opened you with the football and somebody would be trying to catch him and he’d take a step which was about 5 feet when he was running. But, Jack got into politics through school board activity and then he served on the hospital board. There was a conclusion that as soon as he sat on the board as a Trustee we just knew he was going to be the chairman and he was. That was back when we said chairman not chairs.

Peter Handley:
I worked with Jack for nine years and there are several things that I… he treated everybody as they were adults.

Colin Vezina:
Yeah, fairly.

Peter Handley:
In my memory, he chastised people in those nine years twice. Two people. He just did not do that. He also he never came to me and said ‘I'd like you to support this’ or ‘I'd like you to not support this’. He would never try to influence. In contrast to certain other Mayors that we had who run a tight ship and ‘you will vote this way’. That was what I always respected him for. Jack was a gentleman.

Colin Vezina:
Jack was very much, you're absolutely right. Jack was very much a gentleman and his power of persuasion was very strong because I watched Jack over the years. When we sat on the Police Commission, he'd make a point and he and I would be in concert, but we had to convince three other people. Jack would take the lead – you know how it works and he would he would present a case and but then he would look at each one and then in the final analysis he would say ‘the chairman and I agree with this, now it's up to you’. Well you know he solicited support but he didn't put you on the spot. If you wanted to go the other way, that's okay. He had presented his case and you and always well you sat nine years on Council with him, and he won. I can't think of another Mayor who won more support. Vic was bing, bang, boom. This is the way it's going to be and people listened to him but he was completely different. He did a lot of good for the City as he does as our MPP but with a whole different style. You’re absolutely right about Jack. He wouldn't he wouldn't do that because he would feel then that you were obliged to do what he would want you to do because he was the Mayor. That wouldn't be right to him and would be on ethical bounds.

Peter Handley:
Colin, again, thank you for allowing us to mine your memories in so many different areas. North Bay Nugget – 30 years Nugget Employee, North Bay Native, various key roles at The Nugget, longtime volunteer, the Police Board Boardroom is named after Colin Vezina as a matter of fact, Rotary Club member and so on and so forth. Anyway, thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. These productions put together by the North Bay Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales, but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community. 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.