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Tuesday 16 Jul 2024

A Sobering Controversy
David Simmonds

A controversy is fermenting right here in Prince Edward County. It is a sobering reminder you can’t please everybody. The controversy may drive some to utter an expletive or ten.  

A statue for Letitia Youmans.

County staff is reviewing a proposal, from a group of like-minded residents, that urges the County dip into its reserve budget and fund a statue memorializing Letitia Youmans (above). The proposed location for the statue is the Wellington Park. Ms Youmans (1827-1896) served multiple terms as the president of the Ontario and Dominion Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was the founder of the WCTU in Picton.

Steve Campbell, author of Prince Edward County: an illustrated history,” says Youmans spoke up for the rights of women to have “a comfortable home, a sober husband ... and sober sons.” She took a pledge of abstinence at the age of ten. Thereafter, she “tried her damnedest to eradicate drinking, smoking and bad language in Prince Edward County and elsewhere,” says Campbell.

Buried in the Glenwood cemetery, in Picton, Youmans has an Ontario heritage plaque in her memory, at the edge of the cemetery, near the corner of Grove Street and Prospect Avenue. Her supporters, one of whom we spoke to and who wishes to remain anonymous, insist Youmans deserves further recognition. After all, I was told, if “that drunken louse,” John A. MacDonald, founding Prime Minister of Canada, is worthy of a statue on the main street in Picton, why shouldn’t there be a corresponding statue erected, in Wellington, of a woman who lived up to her own high standards.”

Youmans kept Wellington dry.

This support of Youmans reminded me that, when most of the rest of the County went wet, Wellington was an island of dry. Erecting the statue would offer Wellington a new opportunity to tout its moral superiority over Picton.

That’s a hard argument for a councillor, up for re-election, to rebut. Indeed, supporters, of the project, are quite confident they will have a majority of council on their side when the matter comes to a formal vote, later this summer.

Rumours are leaking and the proposal is starting to receive some blowback. One grape grower, who also requested anonymity, said, “It’s an insult to hard working vineyard owners everywhere. How can the County, a place where alcoholic drink production drives the economy, confer recognition on a person whose very aim in life was to drive our industry out of business?”

If sentiment continued to go in the direction of Ms Youmans, the grape grower said it was quite possible he would cease his practice of giving gifts of wine as prizes at golf tournaments and gala fundraisers. As well, he might dig up his vines and leave the County, lock, stock and terroir. “If the County won’t create a climate in which wine is supported, I’m darn sure somewhere like Sudbury will.”

Not just grape growers are angry. It’s the hospitality businesses, as well. As one bed and breakfast host explained to me, “The County and Wellington in particular, draws people because it has a hipster friendly image. Hipsters like their local wine and craft beer. Can we risk throwing that reputation away by dignifying a 19th century anti-drinking zealot? I feel betrayed.”

One restaurant has already gone on the offensive. Its owner sent letters to its customers asking them to join in denouncing the statue proposal. The letter states that, “Councillors should have anticipated the outrage the proposed monument would cause because the fundamental values of local industry are directly questioned.”

In an off the record briefing, County Mayor Robert Quaiff defended the right, of councillors, to approve the proposal, stating that, “If you stifle controversy, you also stifle the pursuit of knowledge, the generation of ideas and the discovery of new truths.” Local MPP Todd Smith, who has been watching the controversy develop, stated to us that he considers the proposal “a bit tone deaf,” but that this was an issue for the municipality to resolve.

Alternatives to a statue.

Behind the scenes, we understand, Mayor Quaiff is attempting to broker a compromise. One solution is to ask the University of Alberta to confer a honourary doctorate on Youmans; with the understanding that the County would then shelve consideration of the statue. The university might just go for it: she would be a lot safer choice than would David Suzuki, for instance.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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