Old-time politics in Hastings County

A logo that I think the late Simon Courneya of Tweed would have very much appreciated atop this post.

A logo that I think the late Simon Courneya of Tweed would have appreciated being atop this post.

There was a letter to the editor in the Tweed News last month that brought a smile to my face, because it reminded me of how passionate about their politics people in Hastings County were when I was growing up there, at the Manse in Queensborough. Whether federally or provincially, the riding (which had various names and geographical configurations over the years: Prince Edward-Hastings, Hastings-Peterborough, Hastings-Frontenac, etc. etc.), pretty reliably went Conservative – Tory – in those days. And obviously there were lots of passionate Tories about. But there were equally passionate Grits too – and by the way, in those days Liberals really were called “Grits.” (I don’t think anybody uses that word anymore, except lazy headline writers looking for a short word.)

The Grits didn’t, as I say, have much success in those days, the 1960s and ’70s. Things have been somewhat better for them in more recent decades, though at the moment the riding is held by Conservatives both federally and provincially once again. Backbenchers, I might add. The riding has quite the venerable tradition of electing Conservative backbenchers, though there have been a few exceptions. One of which – not a Conservative, either – I’ll get to in a minute.

Anyway, this letter to the editor was a tribute to Tweed resident Simon (Si) Courneya, who recently died at the age of 88. Letter-writer Richard Rashotte began by noting that Mr. Courneya (whom I should note I never met) was a farmer all his life, a Second World War veteran, a member of the Legion and a former municipal councillor. He of course mentioned his family, his late wife and the children of which they were so proud. But the rest of the letter was about his political life, and I’m going to quote because I thought it was just charming:

“Simon was also a life-long Liberal. Federal or Provincial, he was always there for signs or phoning or giving rides to the polls. In a number of elections, Tweed had campaign rooms. Si would be in charge of Hungerford Township Polls. Near the end of polling hours he would call all he knew with the hopes of getting just one more voter to cast a ballot. Once polling was over it was customary to call the other Parties to congratulate them on a good effort to get out the vote. Maybe a toast to all was shared as it was standard to get 80% or more to participate in the democratic process, a far cry from present day low voter turnout and attack ads and demonization of all politicians.

“Simon had the privilege of attending the Ontario Provincial Leadership Convention with his niece Leona (Courneya) Dombrowsky. This was the start of her involvement in politics and was a great source of pride to Simon.

“Whether it was in the coffee shop or at any meeting, you knew where Simon stood. He was a Liberal and proud of it.”

Don’t you just love that? Can’t you just feel the lifelong passion of this man, and so many like him, for their chosen party? I remember that in those days in Hastings County almost everybody was either Grit or Tory (NDP? What NDP?), and that was it. You could be sure they would never, never, never vote for any party other than their own.

Yet despite this fierce party loyalty, how lovely that on election night they’d call each other up at the various party headquarters to issue congratulations, and maybe have a toast (I’m guessing with good old Canadian rye) to all the voters and the candidates and perhaps the democratic process itself. And with an 80-per-cent turnout, well they should have toasted! Would that we could get participation rates like that today.

Anyway, yes, one Hastings County elected representative, Liberal MPP Leona Dombrowsky, Simon Courneya’s niece, went on to become Ontario’s Minister of the Environment, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Minister of Education before being defeated by Conservative Todd Smith in the most recent provincial election.

Leona Dombrowsky campaigning with former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty. (Photo from zeably.com)

Leona Dombrowsky, MPP for Hastings County, cabinet minister, and Simon Courneya’s niece, campaigning with former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty. (Photo from zeably.com)

Simon must have been saddened by the results of that last election – I bet he’d worked hard to get his niece re-elected – but how proud he must have been during Dombrowsky’s years as MPP and cabinet minister. It was proof that even in Hastings County, the Liberals could sometimes win. It must have been sweet vindication for a lifetime of political work and many Liberal losses – and I hope he enjoyed every minute of it.

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