Re­for­ma­tory was a huge is­sue

The Glengarry News - - The Opinion Page - -- Richard Ma­honey

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.

$3,000 wasted

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.

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