The Historical Society of Ottawa’s first speaker series of 2023 was an exciting debate on who was Ottawa’s most remarkable mayor: Charlotte Whitton or Marion Dewar? In one corner we had Dave Mullington, a former journalist, author, and long time member of the HSO defending Whitton. In the other corner, defending Dewar, we had a last-minute substitution of Robert Fox. Fox was Dewar’s chief of staff, Oxfam Canada’s representative in Central America, Communications Manager for CUPE, National Director of the NDP, and is presently co-chair of the Ottawa People’s Commission on the Convoy Occupation. Both experts in their chosen champion, the audience was really in for a treat.
Mullington was up first and jokingly pointed out it’s lucky that the subject of the debate was Ottawa’s most remarkable mayor rather than its kindest because in this debate of saint versus sinner he had chosen the sinner. He gave the audience great details on Whitton’s life and career before she became mayor. Whitton was elected to the Ottawa Board of Control in 1950, and, after the mayor Grenville Goodwin’s unexpected death the same year, she was immediately appointed acting mayor, becoming the first woman mayor of a major Canadian city. For those wishing to learn more about Whitton’s achievements it’s worth checking out Mullington’s book ‘Charlotte: The Last Suffragette’ published in 2010, which the HSO will have a few copies for sale at the next in-person speaker series.
Fox was up next and came dressed in two campaign buttons he wore while campaigning with Dewar back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As Dewar's Chief of Staff, Fox spent a lot of time with Dewar and spoke emotionally about her love of the city and its people. Dewar served as mayor from 1978 to 1985 and is well known for leading Project 4000, where in 1979, when Ottawa pledged to sponsor 4000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees. For those wishing to learn more about the project the HSO has a recorded speaker series from co-authors of the book "Running on Empty" by Michael Molloy and Robert Shalka, and Rivaux Lay, former Cambodian refugee, on the HSO YouTube page.
To finish up the afternoon, the two joined together on stage for a question period with questions from the audience. Both were incredible speakers and I was left unable to choose a winner. Special thanks again to Robert Fox, who filled in at the last minute for Elisabeth Arnold, Ottawa City Councillor, Somerset Ward, 1994-2003.