How one Ontarian overcame family tragedy to become the province’s 10th premier

By Steve Paikin - Published on August 13, 2018
[a mill in Ontario
The old mill in Kagawong, once owned by the Henry brothers, is now a museum. (Steve Paikin)

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Although Indigenous people have been there for the past 10,000 years, Manitoulin Island remains one of Ontario’s best-kept secrets.

The largest freshwater island in the world, Manitoulin (Ojibwe for “spirit island”) can be found at the north end of Lake Huron.

There are only two ways onto the island: hop on the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry, at Tobermory, or drive across one of Ontario’s few remaining swing bridges, at Little Current.

The island plays a role in the tragic life of Ontario’s 10th premier, George Stewart Henry. It’s an obscure story in the rest of the province, but many islanders know it well.

Back in 1872, brothers Robert and William Henry were among the first settlers to come to the island from the south. They were lumbermen from York and Dufferin counties who came to build a timber mill; they were hoping to take advantage of the vast lumbering potential in the north.

The village of Kagawong, on the island’s north channel, was now open for business, thanks to the newly signed McDougall Treaty, named after the then-secretary general of Indian affairs.

When the Henry brothers arrived, they saw the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls, which they correctly surmised could generate the power needed to run their mill. The mill became renowned because the timber that was processed there went south, was turned into paper, and eventually became the world-famous Sears catalogue.

Back then, the only way onto the island was to take a ferry from Owen Sound. When Robert did that in May 1882, tragedy struck. An overturned lamp resulted in fire breaking out on the S.S. Manitoulin. As the story goes, Robert, who was a good swimmer, jumped into the icy waters to help save others but had a heart attack and died. As a result, his brother, William, became solely responsible for the family’s timber operations in Kagawong. Then, just a few months later, disaster befell him, too.

William was aboard the S.S. Asia, again travelling from Owen Sound to the island, when a huge storm capsized the vessel. William was among the dozens who perished. His body washed up at Parry Sound two weeks later.

The double tragedy forced William’s widow, Louisa, to sell the family’s timber operations, ending the Henrys’ association with Manitoulin Island. The brothers’ deaths led the government to pass stricter safety regulations that resulted in more lighthouses and ensured that ships would carry an adequate supply of life jackets.

One of William’s five children, George Stewart Henry, was only 11 when his father died. He grew up to become a lawyer and then a farmer in East York, Ontario, and would later serve as a Conservative MPP and eventually as a cabinet minister in G. Howard Ferguson’s government. Ferguson won three consecutive elections before giving way to Henry, who in 1930 became Ontario’s 10th premier. Alas, for Henry, the mood for change was in the air, and in the 1934 provincial election, he lost to 38-year-old populist firebrand Mitchell Hepburn.

Henry stayed on as opposition leader until 1938 and retired from politics five years later.

More than half a century ago, the mayor of Billings Township (which includes the village of Kagawong) wrote to Henry, after his premiership had ended, to ask him what he could remember about his childhood association with Manitoulin Island.

Henry recalled riding down one of the mill’s logging chutes into Lake Huron, almost like children do on amusement-park rides today. He also confirmed that after both his father and his uncle had died, he visited the island again, albeit infrequently.

Today, Henry’s main legacy is located well south of Manitoulin. In 1958, he sold the 460-acre homestead in what is now north Toronto that had been in his family for more than six decades. It went for about $2 million (that’s nearly $18 million today). The house he lived in is still there. Ten days after the sale, at the ripe old age of 87, he died. But “Henry Farm” was developed into a well-known subdivision in North York. Henry himself is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, a 15-minute walk from TVO headquarters, in midtown Toronto. The George S. Henry Academy public school in North York, established in 1965, was named in his honour.

Still, the Henry legacy also endures on Manitoulin Island. Huge portraits of the Henry brothers hang on the walls of Billings Township Council headquarters, situated in the original Henry mill building (at the intersection of Old Mill Road and Henry Drive, of course). And last Thursday, William Henry’s great-great-granddaughter Catherine Henry MacRae and her daughter (William’s great-great-great-granddaughter, now a student at the University of Ottawa) visited Kagawong for a public event at which they shared stories of the former premier. (One of the audience members was Barb Hannah, whose grandfather was Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th prime minister and a former MP for Algoma East, which included Manitoulin Island).

Even in this remote corner of Ontario, history comes to life from time to time.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Catherine Henry MacRae as the great-granddaughter of William Henry and to Catherine's daughter as William's great-great-grandaughter. TVO regrets the error.

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