|Woman Suffrage in Ontario|
**Article originally published in the February 2017 edition of Outlook newsletter.
J. W. Johnson taken from the Ontario Business College prospectus of 1917, CABHC
We had another centennial to celebrate in 2017— the right of women to vote in Ontario. And the man who for several sessions introduced the bill in the Ontario Legislature, to finally see it succeed just two years before his death, was John Wesley Johnson, Conservative M.P.P. for West Hastings and a prominent citizen of Belleville. The bill passed second reading on February 27, 1917. On the same day two bills put forward by members of the Liberal party extending the municipal franchise to women were given second reading as well.
Before the vote, Premier Sir William Hearst announced the determination of his Conservative government to enfranchise Ontario women, this to applause from both sides of the House. The Liberal party had for many years presented woman suffrage as a plank in their platform. During the debate which followed, most of the members were wearing in their buttonholes yellow daffodils which the ladies seated in the galleries had placed on all the desks before the House opened. A card had been attached to each flower asking the member to wear the women’s colours and vote for the extended franchise. According to the Daily Ontario, Mr. Johnson pointed out during the debate that “If in Great Britain women were called to the councils of the nation, surely in Ontario we could extend to the women the ballot.” And further, “We will take the patient by the hand and seize the skirts of happy chance,” he exclaimed to the amusement of the members. Concluding, he appealed to the Government to get behind his bill and place it upon the statutes of the Province. On a more serious note, he indicated that he disliked the slogan “Votes for Women,” preferring instead “Womanhood Suffrage,” a title with more dignity.
Who was the Member of Parliament who initially stood alone in defence of woman suffrage? John Wesley Johnson was born in Antrim, Ireland on January 17, 1846. He arrived in Canada in 1864, working initially as a steamboat purser and sailing for a period of time on the Great Lakes. In 1866, he passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. For a number of years, he was a member of Belleville City Council. A representative of Ketcheson Ward starting in 1884, he became Mayor in 1897, serving for four years.
Mr. Johnson was widely known as an educator and an accountant. Together with S.G. Beatty of Toronto and W.B. Robinson of Belleville, he conducted the Ontario Business College, and for forty-two years fulfilled the role of Principal. He was an author of several books on commercial matters.
For a number of years J.W. Johnson was connected with the 49th Battalion, Hastings Rifles, advancing from a private to a Major in the years 1865 and 1866. He served with the Canadian volunteers on the frontier. Known as an eloquent speaker, he made many patriotic speeches at recruiting meetings during the First World War. In a speech delivered on June 21, 1915 as he addressed the 39th Battalion shortly before the men departed for overseas, he refers to “these men [who] were going to save us and our possessions, this beloved Canada, these homes so dear, these precious mothers, wives, children and sweethearts; why generations of Canadians to be born and live in the long distant future will take up and carry forward to still more remote generations the loving gratitude that fills our hearts tonight.”
M.P.P. Johnson had been in poor health for about two years before his death on March 11, 1919. A fall resulting in a broken ankle was followed by failing health. His last public appearance in Belleville was on November 11, 1918, Armistice Day. Twice married, he was survived by his second wife, the former Mary Sawyer, as well as four sons and four daughters. Another daughter predeceased him.
His funeral was held at Bridge Street Methodist Church following a private service at his residence, 153 Victoria Avenue. Among the many citizens in attendance at the church were the men students of the Ontario Business College present in a body seated in the centre of the church; members of the Great War Veterans Association, also present in a body, and a number of teachers from the Ontario School for the Deaf, an institution Mr. Johnson was very interested in. He played a role in acquiring new dormitories built before the war, and worked towards securing $50,000 in improvements to the main building of the school.
Included in the address written by the pastor, Rev. Scott, were these words: “his name will go down to history as the man who introduced the bill for the enfranchisement of women into the Ontario Legislature. With him it was no mere grudging concession to the splendid work done by our women during the Great War, but he saw and felt that we were only half a democracy so long as that half of our citizenship which is most deeply concerned with the welfare of the home remained disenfranchised.”