Conway highlights unique Valley identity and political history

Photo: William Enright

The old Burnstown school house was packed to capacity as the Valley’s elder statesman, Sean Conway, took to the stage in the Need to Know speaker series hosted at the Neat Café on Wednesday May 2.

Conway’s talk, Aspects of a Distinct Society: The Economics and Political Culture of the Ottawa Valley in the Nineteenth Century, was Valley storytelling at its best, what Conway himself calls “Celtic volubility.”

The former MPP drew on his expansive knowledge of the Ottawa Valley’s economic, cultural and political history to regale the audience. Beginning with the Valley’s first summit between Algonkin Chief Tessouat and Champlain in the early 17th century, Conway highlighted important events, families and individuals in our history. He explained how events such as arrival of the Laird McNab, the Shiner Wars, and the “khaki” election of 1918 shaped our political history. He identified lumbering and political families like the Wrights, Eddys, Bronsons, Egans, Bonfields, MacLarens, Booths, Deacons,Whites, and Dunlops who built our economy. He also featured individuals like Paul Martin Sr., Charlotte Whitton, his own grandfather Thomas P. Murray, Jim Dempsey and the Maloney brothers, Jim and Arthur, who were raised and cut their teeth in the Valley’s unique cultural and political milieu.

Conway’s presentation was peppered with references to writers and artists. Of particular note was Joan Finnegan who hailed from Shawville and whose relative the Reverend Ralph C. Horner once served in Combermere. He founded an Ottawa Valley sect that gained North American attention. Officially known as the Holiness Movement, his followers were known in the Valley as Hornerites. Another writer, Robertson Davies famous for the high school staple Fifth Business, spent part of his childhood in Renfrew and based his “fictional” village of Blairlogie in What’s Bred in the Bone on this Valley town. Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s mother grew up in Lanark County. “Distinguished from any other place on earth” is how she described the Ottawa Valley in her short story collection Friend of My Youth. Conway also recounted how A.Y. Jackson, a member of the Group of Seven, told him about stopping to paint an old house in Combermere one day. The owner Kathryn Farmer, who was well known in the Madawaska Valley, stormed out and challenged him,

You’re not going to paint my house without knowing something about the lady who lives in it.

Another interesting story was the Brudenell Riot of 1872. In the federal election, Sir John A. MacDonald in an attempt to get Catholic votes convinced a Kingston lawyer, Irish Catholic, James O’Reilly, to run for the Conservatives in South Renfrew. O’Reilly was well known for prosecuting the assassin of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. In the day when electors had to announce their vote publicly and money and liquor were standard campaign material, it is no surprise that riots broke out in poling centres across the Valley. One such riot occurred in Brudenell where Renfrew Protestants attempted to interfere with the poll and clashed with the local Catholic lads. O’Reilly won that especially because of the voters who had trekked to Brudenell from five townships: Sherwood, Jones, Burns, Hagarty and Richards.  According to the 1871 Census, 200 eligible voters lived in these five townships and O’Reilly beat his opponent by 270 votes. After the election it was discovered that several votes cast in Brudenell were by residents of the nearby cemetery and seventy names were found in the Pembroke city directory. It was also thought that a number of newly-arrived Polish immigrants had been bribed to vote for O’Reilly on the promise of additional land.


William Enright, Michael C. Glofcheskie, Johanna Zomers dined at the Neat Cafe before the show  Photo: Mark Woermke

Conway’s audience included Valley notables such as Art Jamieson, Ray Chapeskie who provided some traditional Ottawa Valley tunes, and Jackie Agnew the provincial Liberal candidate in Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke. Agnew, who over the previous weekend attended a meeting of the Ontario Woodlot Association, enthused:

Lumbering is the foundation of Renfrew County, an important part of our history, and the way Sean tells a story … I wish he had been my high school history teacher.

No one but Sean Conway could address the complex history, economics, cultures, languages, literature, and the unique characters of the Ottawa Valley and then, as he said, “refract them through the prism of politics” to help us come to a better understanding and appreciation of our unique Ottawa Valley identity. Hopefully it encourages us to be proud of our small town, rural and Ottawa Valley roots, like the former judge and ombudsman Arthur Maloney who once opened a meeting by saying:

Important people come from small towns, and I am from Eganville.


  1. Ray Chapeskie

    It really was a super evening. I, like Sean, enjoyed accompanying my dad (Sean his grand-dad) to political rallies back in the day. Back then candidates spoke “off the cuff”, and like my dad would say “the entertainment value was worth the trip into town”.

  2. Joanne Olsen

    Indeed important people come from small towns and Sean is a prime example. Our Barry’s Bay native was always respected at Queen’s Park and known province-wide for his knowledge and commitment.

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