Ottawa writer Dave Mullington’s new book, Charlotte: The Last Suffragette, is a biography of Charlotte Whitton (1896-1975), Ottawa’s first female mayor, and the first female mayor of a major Canadian city.
Why did Charlotte Whitton jump out at you as a subject?
As a kid growing up in Ottawa I’d heard a lot about Charlotte Whitton but I didn’t give much of a damn about politics. But later on, after graduation, I went across the country as a journalist and then overseas. I came back to Ottawa in 1980 and lo and behold her name was still popular. She’d died five years earlier, but people still talked about Charlotte and the crazy things she did, and so on.
What do you think was her biggest or most lasting achievement as mayor?
I don’t think there was just one. She had a lot of achievements. She was strong on low-cost housing. In the post-war period there was a lack of affordable housing for a lot of people, particularly the returned soldiers. Also, before she came along the city was without a city hall for 25 years. The old one burned down in 1931 and all the councils since then had been dithering. She also made sure that they had a new police station and a new courthouse. She modernized the city’s public service. At that time there was a lot of cronyism going on and she stomped down on that.
What’s your take on the recent controversy over her designation as a person of national historic significance? (Whitton opposed Jewish immigration in the 1930s.)
I think she is a woman of national significance. Certainly, she said some of the wrong things, not just against Jews, but she said a lot of nasty things about Francophones and about Orientals and so on. That was in a different time and people were very wary of strangers.
Do you have a favourite Whitton quotation or anecdote?
The Lord Mayor of London came to Ottawa on a formal visit and he arrived wearing his chain of office. She had a banquet for him at the Chateau Laurier and during the meeting he leaned over and looked at her corsage and said, “If I smell your rose will you blush?” and she shot back, “If I pull your chain will you flush?”
If Charlotte Whitton was running for mayor this fall, would you vote for her?