Here’s a quiz that’ll test your store of Canadiana.
“He talked to dead people.”
“There’s a bronze statue of him outside the doors of the high school he attended.”
“Some pundits called his devotion to his mother ‘unnatural.’”
“A righteous sort, he roamed the streets of Toronto intent on saving the souls of ‘ladies of the night.’”
“An entry in his diary admitted: ‘there is no doubt I lead a very double life.’”
Today the dog-hair encrusted Silcox bus is pulling into Woodside National Historic Site in Kitchener. It’s the boyhood home of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the esteemed Canadian in the aforementioned quiz.
With the exception of Pierre Trudeau, few our PMs have attracted more posthumous press…and fascination.
Not all have been positive about Canada’s 10th national leader. Indeed, some views have been downright critical.
In her controversial column of June 13, 2012, Waterloo Region Record journalist Luisa D’Amato made it clear how she felt about “Willie.”
In an opinion piece entitled: “It’s Hard to Understand Fight to Save Woodside,” D’Amato opines: “other people can shed tears for Woodside, but I’ll never join them. Local people protested when the federal government laid off the interpreters and significantly cut the hours at the Kitchener Historic Site, which calls itself the “boyhood home” of former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Maybe we wouldn’t feel so bad if we understood what an awful man King really was.”
Strong words from a forthright journalist indeed.
But before we delve deeper into D’Amato’s thoughts, let’s take a brief tour of Woodside National Historic Site in Kitchener. This is where the future Prime Minister of Canada and his family lived between 1886 and 1893.
King’s father John earned his living as a lawyer in Berlin (Kitchener) Ontario. But alas! it wasn’t much of a living. John was more a scholar than a lawyer and his clients were few and far between.
As a result, the King family– John, his wife Isabel, sons Willie and Max and daughters Bell and Jennie were perpetually poor. The inconvenience brought no end of worry to Isabel who knew what grinding poverty looked like.
The youngest daughter of William Lyon Mackenzie had been born into extreme financial circumstances after her father’s banishment to the U.S. for inciting the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.
In 1886, when Willie, the oldest of the King’s four offspring was still in short pants, the family moved from more modest accommodations to Woodside, a rental property of eleven acres on the outskirts of the fast-growing Berlin.
It was a lovely home with expansive gardens and mature trees. To leave his family’s “mark” on Woodside, John King planted a tulip tree on the grounds. More than a century later, the massive tree remains a treasure on the Woodside grounds.
Woodside was an idyllic childhood setting for four growing children. Croquet on the Woodside lawns was a common summer pastime and the children kept a pony, “King Billy.”
In the Kings’ case, appearances were deceiving. Running a large home was expensive and John’s law practice brought in little revenue. Certainly not sufficient to employ hired help to cook, clean and tend the Woodside gardens and grounds.
Isabel, Bell and Jennie did all the home’s he domestic work. Sons Willie and Max tended to the vegetable garden, caring also caring for chickens, a pig and a cow. Given their financial shortfall, the Kings counted on produce and home-grown meat to put food on their table.
In 1880, Willie began school at Suddaby (formerly Centennial) Public School in Kitchener. His years there were undistinguished. It seems that young Willie King saved his energies for “tomfoolery” out of school.
A boisterous lad, he enjoyed galloping his pony, King Billy through the neighbourhood; stealing plums and apples from neighbours’ trees, boring holes through fences and ringing doorbells, then running away before the door was opened. These shenanigans earned him the name “Rebel.”
Willie King then passed on to Kitchener Collegiate. There he gained notoriety for cheating on tests, and skipping school to go swimming.
Legend has it that Willie’s Mathematics teacher Adolph Mueller once asked his errant pupil why he stood perpetually at the bottom of his class. Willie is reported to have responded: “well someone needs to be there.”
And while he had skill as a debater, Willie King also held grudges over the results of debating matches.
Willie departed Berlin in 1891, at age 17. He’d been accepted for studies at the University of Toronto. From this point on, Willie rarely returned to Berlin and Woodside.
In 1893, hoping that her husband’s languishing legal practice would be jump-tarted, Isabel engineered the family’s move from Berlin to Toronto. There they lived in a series of rented properties, none as fine as Woodside.
Retrospectively King called his Woodside years “those that left the most abiding of all impressions and most in the way of family associations.”
Fast-forward to the early 1940’s. Woodside has fallen into disrepair and is slated for demolition to make room for a housing complex. A number of Kitchener citizens band together to form the Mackenzie King Woodside Trust.
Their plan is to see the property restored to the days of the King family’s residence. Now serving as Canada’s 10th Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King gives his blessing to the project and is often consulted during the restoration process.
In 1952, Woodside was declared a National Historic Site by the government of Canada and was opened to the public as a museum.
For over fifty years, Woodside staff, dressed in period costumes, toured the many visitors through the historic home. At festive times of the year– Christmas, New Years and Easter, special programs were put on at Woodside with the requisite English tea and dainties.
Having “dodged” the demolition-bullet of the 1940’s, Woodside faced a crisis of another sort in 2011. A flood had damaged parts of the site and forced its temporary closure.
But as the months passed with no re-opening date announced, more Woodside problems were reported. Contamination and mould had been discovered as crews worked on the building. Parks Canada announced that historic Woodside would remain shuttered “until further notice.”
Woodside’s closing coincided with significant job-cuts at Parks Canada. In an effort to reduce spending by $29 million, 27 Parks Canada National Historic Sites would lay off staff. Sites would reduce the hours open to the public.
The hue and cry from the public sounded long and strong, and calls were made to again save Woodside. One dissenting voice from the clamour was Luisa D’Amato.
She recalled for Record readers King’s poor record as Prime Minister on human rights, and his dubious support of Adolf Hitler prior to Hitler’s rise to power. In part D’Amato wrote:
“I’m not talking about King’s unwillingness to help desperate, unemployed people during the Great Depression, which cost him the 1930 election. I’m not even talking about his internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War…. I’m talking about his worship of Adolf Hitler.”
“It’s all there, in his diaries. King met Hitler on a visit to Germany in 1937 and adored him. A year later, on March 27, 1938, after Hitler had annexed Austria and his intentions were crystal clear, King rhapsodized: “I believe the world will yet come to see a very great man-mystic in Hitler. . . . His dictatorship is a means to an end — needed perhaps to make the Germans conscious of themselves.”
D’Amato also pillories King for his “shameful anti-Semitic policies in the 1930s and ’40s. “So few Jewish refugees were accepted into Canada under King’s watch that it gave Canada possibly the worst record of all possible refugee receiving states…” (Abella and Troper, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948.)
In October 2013, after being closed to the public for two years, the downsized Woodside opened again—a shadow of its former self.
The Site would now only run from September to December. With these cutbacks, three Woodside guides and interpretive staff were out of work. Visitors were, however, invited to take a pamphlet which would lead them on a self-guided tour. One lone Parks Canada employee would be on-site to answer questions.
Woodside grounds would, however, remain open to the public.
One wonders Willie King, a well-known occult-dabbler and séance devotee has appeared at his former home to voice his opinions on Woodside today.