In the last episode on George Drew, I mentioned that the successor to Drew was John Diefenbaker and that is true, but in between, for a very brief period, there was another man. His time as the Leader of the Opposition was five months, and he led the Progressive Conservatives for two weeks, but he was so much more than that.
Born in Hull, Iowa to Canadian parents on May 13, 1894, Rowe came to Ontario with his parents when he was two.
Growing up in a rural area, he would become a cattle breeder and farmer when he was an adult. He would also spend some time at a business college in Toronto.
In 1917, he married Treva Alda Lillian Lennox, and together the couple had four children, one of whom died in infancy.
In 1919, Rowe got his first taste of politics when he became the reeve of the Township of West Gwillimbury, a role he would serve in until 1923.
In 1923, he would join the provincial legislature as an MPP, and serve until 1925.
The year he left provincial politics, he would be elected to the House of Commons. In 1935, he would become the youngest cabinet minister under R.B. Bennett, when he served as a minister without a portfolio.
Rowe would say of Bennett that he was, quote:
“probably the most knowledgeable and least-appreciated prime minister because of the very difficult time he went through.”
During his time in the House of Commons, he would never have less than a majority of votes in each election, with his best election being 1930 when he had 4,981 votes over his opponent.
In 1935, when the Conservatives suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Liberals, who began 22 years in power, Rowe left the House of Commons and focus back on provincial politics.
At the time, Rowe was described as tall, handsome, an able debater who was fluent and persuasive in his speaking.
In 1936, he quickly became a force in Ontario, becoming the leader of the Conservative Party of Ontario. A main reason for his sudden accession to the top of the party was the fact that he did not live in Toronto. For rural members of the party, that appealed to them, and for the party members in Toronto, it made him more acceptable in their minds to the rest of Ontario.
The Windsor Star described him as such, quote:
“A practical farmer and a well-known livestock breeder, Mr. Rowe has always been keenly interested in urban as well as rural problems.”
One party member who was not identified in the National Post, would say quote:
“Rowe is an able man. So are the others. They are all able men but Toronto constituencies have more voters in them to members elected than others outside.”
In fact, Rowe was not one to even make speeches, but when he did, it would make the papers for the rare occurrence that it was. One such instance came over the issue of conscription during the Second World War. On Nov. 14, 1941, he would launch into a long tirade against the Liberals, stating quote:
“I hear the minister of national defense say we are for an all-out war effort, that the Canadian front is on the English Channel, that the defense of Canada is over there, and some one else is saying that in election pledges and that we can not have selective service for overseas, but that we will adopt conscription of compulsory service for Canada, I begin to wonder what the position is.”
Rowe, calling for conscription would add, quote:
“I would like him to tell us that he had gone down to his compatriots in Quebec and explained to these loyal people that the home front for the defense of Canada is overseas, that without a mandate he had brought in compulsory selective service to defend the shores of Canada, and that, therefore, he was justified in providing for compulsory military service for where the fighting is going to be.”
As he did not have a seat in the legislature, he could not serve as the Official Leader of the Opposition in the Legislature.
After failing to win a seat in the 1937 Ontario election, he would resign as leader of the party. Rowe would be replaced by Drew, who Rowe would replace as leader of the Progressive Conservatives almost two decades later.
Rowe was soon acclaimed in a by-election and found himself back in the House of Commons, a place he would remain in for the next 25 years. Every election night that Rowe was re-elected to the House of Commons, his hometown of Newton Robinson would celebrate at his home to cheer on the man they saw as a hometown hero.
Throughout his life, Rowe was described as a man who had a charming and friendly personality, who never forgot a name. He was said to always take time to stop, shake hands and talk to members of the community.
He often didn’t tend to make waves in the House of Commons, not like Drew would in his efforts to always oppose Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t raise his voice when he needed to. On March 15, 1945, he would criticize King and state that in the previous two months he had, quote:
“witnessed a government record of procrastination and vacillation unparalleled in our history. The hesitate and evident fear of the Right Honorable Mr. King to meet Parliament early enough to allow the representatives time to fully air the people’s grievances as one of the most sacred functions of our parliamentary system, is a growing insult to democratic government.”
The Windsor Star would describe the speaking style of Rowe, saying quote:
“He spoke without notes and in a rollicking way, being adept at countering interjections. His old-style speaking form and ready humor often had political friends and foes alike busting with laughter.”
Heading into the 1953 election, after 18 years of Liberal rule in Canada, Rowe would state that the chances were good for the Progressive Conservatives to come back to power. He was right, but he was off by four years.
Rowe would actually serve briefly as leader of the Official Opposition twice. The first time was from 1954 to 1955 when Drew was dealing with meningitis and could not be in the House of Commons.
As a result of his illness, Drew would choose to resign as the leader of the Progressive Conservatives. With that resignation, Rowe became the Leader of the Opposition on Aug. 1, 1956.
Rowe served as the Opposition leader until Dec. 13, 1956. In that span, he also served as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from Nov. 29, 1956 to Dec. 14, 1956.
In both of those capacities, he would be succeeded by John Diefenbaker, who would become prime minister the following year.
Rowe would remain in the House of Commons after he served briefly as leader. One interesting aspect of his final years in Parliament was that from 1958 to 1962, he served with his daughter, Jean Wadds. This makes them the only father and daughter to ever sit together in Parliament. His son in law, who was actually three years older than him, also served in the House of Commons from 1925 to 1958, the year of his death.
One month after he left Parliament on April 8, 1963, Rowe was appointed as the 20th Lt. Governor of Ontario on May 1, 1963 by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
Diefenbaker would state that Rowe was chosen for his, quote:
“Lifetime of public service fits him admirably for this appointment.”
Diefenbaker would appoint Rowe as Lt. Governor on Jan. 15, 1963. When Rowe finally took over as Lt. Governor, Diefenbaker was no longer in power, and Lester B. Pearson was the new prime minister.
His swearing in ceremony was delayed unfortunately due to a foot infection Rowe had.
In taking office, he would state, quote:
“I feel rather nonplussed as to how I should approach this honorable office.”
During his time as Lt. Governor, he would become known for his Cadillac Fleetwood sedan, which had the number 1 as his license plate, a perk of being the Lt. Governor. He would also be able to attend events that appealed to him, such as the Ottawa Winter Fair and Horse Show in 1965, where he inspected the Governor General’s Foot Guards.
In November of 1967, he would join Prince Philip in placing a wreath at the cenotaph in front of Toronto’s old city hall.
As Lt. Governor, Rowe was a supporter of agriculture and rural affairs, as well as harness horse racing. His love of horse racing would be passed to his son who would start building race tracks around Ontario as a result. Rowe would spend most of the time he was in Parliament also taking part in harness races, with his last official harness race taking place in 1962. One of his most memorable moments racing came in 1946 when he became the Canadian owner and driver to compete at the famed Hambletonian Trotting Classic at Goshen, New York. In that race he drove Riddle Todd, who Rowe considered to be among the finest horses he ever handled. He also served as the president of the Canadian Standardbred Horse Society from 1927 to 1928 and again from 1958 to 1961.
Rowe would be instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. For his contributions to the sport throughout his life, he was one of the first individuals inducted into the Hall in 1976.
In 2013, his son was inducted into the same Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame his father helped create.
In his role as Lt. Governor, he would attend harness races whenever he could. He would attend the Provincial Cup Pace, one of the oldest harness races in Canada, in 1967. At the time, it was believed to be the first time that a Lt. Governor of Ontario had singularly honored a harness track in the province.
He would serve in that capacity until July 4, 1968.
In 1970, the Progressive Conservatives honored Rowe in a special dinner on May 13, 1970. In attendance were George Drew, current Leader of the Opposition Robert Stanfield and Montreal millionaire Jean Louis Levesque.
Rowe would say at the event, speaking at a time when the Conservatives had been out of power for seven years, and would be for another nine years. He would say quote:
“Don’t lose heart. There are better days ahead. We’ve nothing to be ashamed of in the Conservative Party. We have a great leader today. I urge you, don’t hesitate to support your leader 100 per cent. There are times it will be difficult. There are times it will be difficult to get along with your wife.”
Following his retirement, he would spend his time at his farm, where he had a horse breeding and harness racing business. With his son, he would found the Windsor Raceway and the Barrie Raceway. He was also known to take part in racing himself. In 1970, when he was 76, he drove Demon Duchess to a fifth-place finish at the 1970 Futurity at Garden City Raceway. Today, the community hosts the Earl Rowe Trot, a race to honour Rowe and his son. Many around him felt that his first love was always harness racing, which he began to take part in 1913, and would continue to do so until his late 70s when he could no longer carry a license for it.
By 1976, Rowe and Thomas Murphy were the last two surviving cabinet members of R.B. Bennet’s government, allowing him to vote in the convention that brought future prime minister Joe Clark into power.
Also in 1976, Rowe would resign as the president of the Windsor Raceway Board of Directors after they voted to allow Off-Track Betting, something he completely opposed throughout his harness racing career.
On Feb. 9, 1984, while he was working in his office next to the racetrack on his farm, he suffered a fatal stroke, passing away at the age of 89. He died only a few weeks after the death of his wife. The morning he died, he had been driving horses, doing what he loved to the very end.
A school in Bradford, Ontario and a provincial park near Alliston, Ontario are named for Rowe. The land for that provincial park came along thanks to 25 hectares donated by Rowe to the government, in 1958. Rowe wanted the park to be run as a non-profit with a board comprised of individuals who held public office.
Ontario’s deputy premier Robert Welch would state that Rowe was, quote:
“a truly wonderful Canadian who was tremendously and actively involved in community life. Certainly a man who has left his mark with respect to this province and this country.”
Information from Wikipedia, Simcoe County History, Bradford Today, The Montreal Gazette, The Windsor Star, Windsor Star, the Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Journal,
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