Reformatory was a huge issue
Near the turn of the 20th Century, a large reformatory for 1,000 “wayward boys” from all across Canada was earmarked for Alexandria.
For about ten years, the proposal was a hot topic and remained the subject of debate and speculation for 50 years after its fate was sealed.
In the late 1800s, the federal Conservative government kept reassuring local Tory MP Roderick R. MacLennan, a powerful and colourful politician, that the prison was indeed going to be erected in town. At the same time, Liberals insisted that voters were being taken for a ride and that the detention centre would never become a reality.
The Tories appeared to be making good on the pledge in January, 1893, the Solicitor General, the Hon. J.J. Curran, attended a public meeting in Alexandria to reiterate that the facility would indeed be built here.
Mr. MacLennan, a. k. a. “Big Rory,” an Alexandria resident, had received many positive reports from government sources.
An accomplished athlete and entrepreneur, he enjoyed success on many levels, but his biggest achievement was considered to be the promise of the reformatory.
In August, 1894, his friends in Glengarry organized a tribute to the member to express their appreciation for his efforts. Some 400 supporters turned out for a banquet in the Agricultural Hall. “The promised Dominion Reformatory was the subject of many flowery speeches,” according to news reports.
In October, 1894, officials of Kingston Penitentiary visited, conferring with MP MacLennan regarding a site for the Dominion Reformatory.
Big factors in the selection were railway, water and drainage facilities.
The Montreal Gazette indicated that the prison for juvenile delinquents was a cinch - - there were no less than four sites that met the requirements.
As rumours of the reformatory’s cancellation continued to swirl, MP MacLennan felt betrayed and he castigated justice minister, Sir Charles Tupper, in September, 1895, pledging not to seek re-election if progress was not made.
In January, 1896, the Public Works department called for tenders on the erection of a wing and a rotunda of the jail. Two weeks later, it was reported Joseph Bourque, of Hull, had been awarded the contract for a wing at a bid of $95,000.
In late March, Mr. Bourque came to town to arrange for the opening of a quarry and to begin hiring workers. Stone was then being taken and drawn to the site of the institution north of Alexandria.
But everything changed in June of that year.
By that time, Mr. MacLennan, who controlled newspapers in Glengarry and Cornwall, was well established after defeating in 1891 Liberal candidate Jacob Thomas Schell, a prominent lumber merchant from Alexandria. Although Mr. MacLennan’s records indicated that he spent $11,869.49 on his campaign, his return was challenged in court. Shortly after he made his maiden speech in the House of Commons July 17, the new MP was hauled into court. His plea of ignorance about any wrongdoing fell on deaf ears.
His story was further eroded by testimony of one of his agents, who admitted to having “treated” voters.
When his election was ruled invalid, a byelection was held in January, 1892. Although he was too ill to campaign himself, Mr. MacLennan, with the support of heavyweights such as Sir Tupper, won over Archibald McArthur. His expenses are listed in his books at $4,702.99.
During the petition hearings, MacLennan had feuded with Glengarry Liberal-- Conservative Association president John Alexander Macdonell, of Greenfield. Each claimed credit for having come up with reformatory idea.
From 1894 onward, Big Rory faced a challenge from the Patrons of Industry, a party which had elected David Murdoch McPherson to represent Glengarry in the Ontario legislature.
The MP became the Patrons’ most adamant opponent. In the 1896 federal election he conducted a ruthless campaign against Patron candidate James Lockie Wilson, who was backed by the Liberals, who did not enter a candidate themselves.
Mr. MacLennan distributed damaging information about the Patrons and their candidate, persistently chastised them in his newspapers and even pressured the Conservative Toronto Empire, in which he was an investor, not to print favourable accounts of Patron activities.
The tactics were effective. In that federal election, Mr. MacLennan defeated Mr. Wilson by 742 votes.
But on a national level, Sir Wilfrid Laurier won a clear majority of 22 seats nationwide, forcing Sir Charles Tupper to cede power to the Liberals.
In September, once again there were doubts about the reformatory. The Public Works department in Ottawa reported that difficulties had arisen between the contrator and architect. Only $3,000 had been paid on work carried. At the same time, the government was wondering about the wisdom of having one mega-prison for juvenile delinquents in the entire country.
In May, 1897, a delegation of 70 travelled to Ottawa, where again officials promised they would do their best to revive the project.
In October of that year, the verdict came down.
The government announced it had decided no further steps would be taken in building a reformatiry in Alexandria. Government negotiators were to work out a settlement with the contractor.
In July, 1902, the final chapter of the saga was written. J.H. McPherson had purchased for his son-in-law, Arch McPhee, the reformatory farm, north of Alexandria. The family would later become known as the “McPhees at the reformatory.”
The question remains: What kind of town would Alexandria be today if such a detention centre had seen the light of day here?
“Big Rory” MacLennan was a powerful personality.