Ottawa·Updated

City drops Whitton name from archives plan

Mayor Jim Watson has dropped plans to name the city's new archives and library building after controversial former mayor Charlotte Whitton.

Archives naming controversy

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Mayor drops bid to name library adn archives building after Charlotte Whitton 2:00

Mayor Jim Watson has dropped plans to name the city's new archives and library building after controversial former mayor Charlotte Whitton.

Whitton was the first female mayor of a major Canadian city and served as Ottawa's mayor from 1951 to 1956 and again from 1961 to 1964, but she was also a divisive figure some groups have labelled as an anti-Semite.

Watson had suggested transferring her name from the old City Hall Archives to the new facility on Woodroffe Avenue, and last week council's finance and economic development committee approved the motion.

The item was scheduled to go before council before Watson dropped it on Sunday, saying in a memo to council that commemorative namings should be positive occasions but that this suggestion had created "disunity in parts of the city."

Divisiveness becoming 'unpleasant'

"While I was and am appreciative of the fact that a clear majority of you were prepared to support the transfer in an effort to honour Dr. Whitton, I nonetheless believe that the divisiveness and character of the debate was becoming very unpleasant and for the good of unity in our community I will not proceed with the report," wrote Watson.

A number of groups, including the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and Canadian Jewish Congress, spoke out against Whitton at the finance and economic development committee meeting last week.

Whitton was elected in 1951, but many members of the Jewish community have since branded her a racist and anti-Semite over her actions before becoming mayor, when they say she lobbied against admitting Jewish orphans into Canada during the Second World War.

Mitchell Bellman, president of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, said Whitton campaigned coast to coast against admitting refugees from the war and "showed a distaste for anyone who was not British — so that included French-Canadians, Armenians, Italians."

Also drew ire of Francophones

Francophone groups also argued against the naming because of Whitton's opposition to bilingualism in Ottawa.

Watson said Whitton was a controversial figure, but said there is a wide body of contradictory information on her many statements and actions. The women of Toronto's B'nai Brith organization, for example, named Whitton their Woman of the Year in 1964.

Ottawa historian Dave Mullington, the author of the recent Whitton biography Charlotte: The Last Suffragette, was among those disappointment by council's decision to withdraw the former mayor's name from the new archives building.

Calling her "a very distinguished person," Mullington argued that Whitton wasn't the anti-Semite she's been portrayed as over the years. Rather, he said, the controversy has been overblown from an account in a 1982 book by two University of Toronto professors, in which they described a 1938 meeting with the Canadian Council on Refugees and Whitton's opposition to letting Jewish orphans come to Canada.

Racist comments overblown

"I found the minutes of that meeting, and it didn't tie in at all with what was reported in the book, and particularly comments I'm seeing today," Mullington said.

"Basically, she called for a 'go-slow' policy on refugees because at the time, 1938, there was … an awful lot of refugees — Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran — all sorts or refugees in Europe, wanting to come to Canada."

As the meeting in question was focused on Jewish orphans, he said Whitton took her usual position of "go slow" and "delay, delay."

While Mullington didn't dispute Whitton's apparent favouritsm of British immigrants over others, he said he didn't buy the argument that her "pro-British" inclination made her a racist.

Delighted with name change

Still, Mitchell Bellman, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, said he "couldn't be happier" with the decision to select a different name to grace the new archives facility.

As for his response to Whitton's advocates, who claim the minutes of that 1938 refugee meeting available in the national archives would clear her name, Bellman was unequivocal.

"It's pretty clear, based on research that was done in the early '80s, that she was anti-Semitic," he said. "And that she was against anyone who was of non-British extraction."

Watson said with the withdrawal of the name, the city will be asking people in Ottawa for suggestions on whom to name the building after. The new city archives and library building is scheduled to open in June.

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