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Sault honours Ronald A. Irwin (Updated)

Civic Centre officially re-named after former MP, mayor

Ronald A. Irwin built Sault Ste. Marie's Civic Centre in the early 1970s for less money than the controversial and long-overdue facelift the building is currently undergoing.

The waterfront landmark got a new sign outside and new plaque inside tonight honouring Irwin: the Sault's member of federal Parliament from 1980 to 1984 and from 1993 to 1997, mayor of Sault Ste. Marie from 1972 to 1974, a former city councillor and school trustee, minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (1993-1997) ambassador to Ireland (1998-2001) and consul general of Canada in Boston (2001-2005).

On hand for the unveiling were wife Marg, son Brady, daughters Toni and Nicole and eight grandchildren.

Irwin became a member of the Order of Canada in 1975 and was awarded the Sault Ste. Marie Medal of Merit in 1999.

Tonight, City Council is holding its first face-to-face meeting tonight since the COVID-19 emergency began six months ago.

The full text of a news release from the City of Sault Ste. Marie follows:

Sault Ste. Marie City Hall renamed in honour of former Mayor Ronald A. Irwin

A dedication ceremony marking a name change for Sault Ste. Marie’s City Hall was held today in honour of former Mayor Ronald A. Irwin. In recognition of his record of public service and his contribution to the community and the country, the City of Sault Ste. Marie has renamed its City Hall to the Ronald A. Irwin Civic Centre.

The Honourable Ronald A. Irwin served as both a City Councillor and as Mayor when key decisions were made to move forward with the waterfront redevelopment and the relocation of City Hall to its current location. Further, he was the Mayor in 1974 when construction of City Hall was finished and the building was opened to the public. In the context of these considerations, a committee of Council was formed in 2020 and unanimously determined that the Civic Centre was the most appropriate choice to commemorate Mr. Irwin’s contributions to the community.

“In the 70s, Sault Ste. Marie was commencing urban renewal, with a concentration on the waterfront,” states former Mayor Ronald Irwin when reflecting on the current location of City Hall. “I remember that from Clergue Park, looking westerly, the waterfront was a mix of industrial and commercial uses. I spent the mayoralty campaign carting a foam model from meeting to meeting, doing my best to convince people of the waterfront’s potential. On January 8, 1973, I contacted all former mayors still living, Jim McIntyre, Alec Harry and John Rhodes. We went down to the old ferry dock site and turned the sod. Getting City Hall to the waterfront was only the beginning.”

Born in Sault Ste. Marie in 1936, the Honourable Ronald A. Irwin C.M., LL.B., Q.C., P.C., records a lifetime of public service as the only political leader to have served as a school board trustee, City Councillor, Member of Parliament, Privy Councillor, Ambassador and Counsul General. From 1993 to 1997, he served the country of Canada as the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Canadian Ambassador to Ireland (1998–2001) and Counsul General of Canada in Boston (2001–2005). He was a Member of Parliament from 1980 to 1984 and from 1993 to 1997.

“Ron Irwin has a long and impressive record of serving both his community and his country,” said Mayor Christian Provenzano. “Wherever he was and whatever he was doing in his many roles, he represented the best qualities of our community: hard-working, resilient and determined. The rededication of City Hall in his name is a fitting tribute to his legacy and his contribution.” 

Locally, Irwin served as Mayor of the City of Sault Ste. Marie from 1972 to 1974, prior to which he served as an Alderman of Council and School Board Trustee. Irwin was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1975 and awarded the Sault Ste. Marie Medal of Merit in 1999.

“Over the years I have been fortunate to have served Sault Ste. Marie and Canada in many capacities,” adds Irwin. “Perhaps the answer to why seek public office is as simple as that. The reward is in the doing.”

The City of Sault Ste. Marie congratulates the Honourable Ronald A. Irwin on his many achievements and for providing a vital role in the City’s ongoing expansion and continued growth.

Ron Irwin's prepared text follows:

If the truth be told

by Hon. Ronald A. Irwin

The Irwins of County Cavan, Ireland migrated to Canada in the 1870s, in search of a better life. They found it in Sault Ste. Marie. Five of our family have served municipally. First, my great grandfather, Alfred Irwin, was on the Tarentorous Council, which eventually became part of Sault Ste. Marie. My Uncle Tom Irwin was the mayor of the city, his brother, Fred, a councillor, myself as mayor and councillor, and my son, Brady, as a councillor. My mother was paralyzed in a serious car accident when I was four, and, out of necessity, I was raised by my Italian, widowed grandmother. We lived in the old West End when it was a distinct Italian community. Over the years I have been fortunate to have served Sault Ste. Marie and Canada in many capacities. The one that was most enjoyable was mayor of Sault Ste. Marie. There are only a few of us left that served together on council, so I thought that while I was still lucid, I would pass on a few of the stories behind the stories.

The Waterfront

In the 70s, Sault Ste. Marie was commencing urban renewal, with a concentration on the waterfront. I remember that from Clergue Park, looking westerly, the waterfront was a mess of mixed industrial and commercial uses right through to where we now have the Bridge Plaza. If you drove along Bay Street you caught only a glimpse of the river from time to time because of the oil tanks, foundry, gravel and coal piles, scrap piles and other similar uses. The city’s opinion was divided. The majority favoured a clean up, but worried about the cost. A vocal minority felt that since industry was already there, leave it alone. A planner the city had hired said that, unlike most cities, Sault Ste. Marie had no centre. He said that if there was a revolution no one would know where to gather.

The City Hall

We spent several months making a decision to build a new city hall. Once we decided council split 4 1/2 ways on the site. I strongly lobbied for the waterfront and was staunchly supported by Gerry McGuire, now retired President of Sault College, and Sonny Gualazzi, still here as Chairman of the Committee of Adjustments. A second group wanted to build on the old site on Queen St. A third small group wanted to build on the Second Line. A fourth group hadn’t decided and didn’t know what they wanted, and, finally, one councillor maintained that if we built on the waterfront, the building would immediately topple into the St. Mary’s River. We eventually formed a coalition of councillors in favour of the waterfront. I spent the mayoralty campaign carting a foam model from meeting to meeting, doing my best to convince people of the waterfront’s potential, while my opponent kept accusing me of intending to install a solid gold chandelier right here in the proposed new council chambers. On January 8th, 1973, I contacted all former mayors still living, Jim McIntyre, Alec Harry and John Rhodes. We went down to the old ferry dock site and turned the sod. Getting the City Hall to the waterfront was only the beginning. It would still be surrounded by blight.

The Roberta Bondar Park

One of the first areas we looked at is where the Roberta Bondar Park is situated today. It consisted of three properties: Beaver Lumber Company on Bay St., The Canadian Steamship Lines (C.S.L.) on the water, and the McMaster Oil tank farm between them. Beaver Lumber Company had suffered a fire, and it wanted to move. The negotiations with that company went smoothly. After Beaver Lumber, I received what I thought was good news. C.S.L. did not own the water lots in front of their property on the St. Mary’s River. They were owned by the federal government. I contacted the Ministry of Transportation, and asked that these lots be transferred to the city, one government to another, so that we could immediately create a park. I was surprised when the Ministry officials said no, unless we paid the Ministry market value. That assertion to me was ridiculous. C.S.L. never paid a cent over the years to use the water lots, but now we were asked to pay market value. We went up the Ministry’s chain of command until we found someone with a little more common sense who overruled the subordinates and had the water lots transferred to us.

The McMaster Oil tank farm discussions went poorly and slowly. The owner was in no mood to settle. Litigation was threatened and after protracted negotiations, a settlement was finally reached. I received a Christmas card from Mr. McMaster, I believe from Mexico. He had a sketch artist design the card. It depicted a bunch of oil tanks, hand in hand, all singing and dancing while one waved the city’s cheque. Below the tanks it said, “Tanks a lot Ron, & Merry Christmas”.

The last piece was that owned by Canada Steamship Lines, based in Montreal. I flew there there and met Louis Demarais, head of a globally successful company. We sat down in his office, and he said, “You know I’m from Sudbury. I knew that.

He said, “You know the Demarais family started in Sudbury with a bus line, eventually growing into Power Corp based in Quebec, the now owner of CSL.” I knew that, too.

He said, “You know when we lived in Sudbury, I was on the Sudbury Council.” That was a surprise. I didn’t know that. Then he said, “I like what you guys are doing in the Sault. The C.S.L. property is yours. We’ll work out a reasonable price later.”

I wanted to hug him. I asked him if then and there we could draft a broad memo of the understanding, so that I could come back and show council. He said, “You’re from the Sault. I’m from Sudbury. A handshake is good enough”, and he extended his hand to me. The handshake held. We acquired the property.

Gerry Duffy was our urban renewal co-ordinator attached to the Urban Renewal Committee. He was responsible for obtaining appraisals and taking on the difficult job of negotiating. One of the more expeditious set of negotiations was the land between the City Hall site and Bay St. In short order, the city acquired a cab stand, a real estate office, a car dealership, a rooming house, an engine repair shop, the Chamber of Commerce office, the ferry office, and we levelled the area.

The Senior Citizen Drop In Centre

Across the street where now stands the Senior Citizen Drop In Centre was an acquisition that always bothered me. It was Bayles Tire. Mr. Bayles did not want to sell. Unfortunately, we had to take the position that price was negotiable but not possession. He finally reluctantly and sadly agreed. Shortly before demolition I ventured inside the building and went upstairs to a large room. The walls were covered with large upcoming show posters. Someone had glued them. Only then did I realize that this building had once been a vaudeville, and later, a silent movie theatre. It felt as though a piece of our history was being lost. Soo Foundry was next on the list. I never quite understood how a foundry was allowed to build on Bay St. in the centre of the city. Traders Metal and McLeans Sand & Gravel negotiations were started and completed after several years.

The Ermatinger Old Stone House

There was one development that happened because of an off-hand remark by Jean Chretien. He was in his early 30s, a cabinet minister, attending the official opening of the Ermatinger Old Stone House, and I was a councillor. We were standing in the back yard and what you saw on Pim St, St. Thomas St. and Bay St. were a few homes in fair shape but the rest, dilapidated and poorly maintained. Chretien turned to me and said, “You guys should clean that up.” At the time, this area was outside our urban renewal plan and was without funding.

In the early months of becoming mayor, I thought about what Chretien had said. I spoke to Nick Hurt, a city engineer. I asked him if he was prepared to become a one man department, buying up the houses as they came came on the market in this area and demolishing them. At the same time he was to maintain his regular duties in the engineering department. He agreed and eventually, as the program continued, the open area south of the Old Stone House was created.

The Texaco tank farm was a hard nut, and a difficult company. The company wanted the most money they could get, even attempting to by-pass Gerry Duffy. It didn’t work. Eventually the company folded its hard line. Once the tanks were emptied and the property ours, the task of dismantling began. Fumes still existed, and blow torches were used- very dangerous and only to be done by experts. Not on this site but in another part of the city in the past, an “empty”oil tank blew up because of non-expert dismantling. I watched each day with apprehension as tanks came down.

The Marinas

As we opened up the waterfront, it was apparent that we had no proper municipal marina. We sought advice and built the Pine St. marina. In later years, it was followed by the Bay St. marina.

Parkland

It was very expensive for the city or developers to provide parkland as the city grew. In my visits to Ottawa I was intrigued with Prime Minister Mackenzie Kings’s concept of a green belt encircling the city. It made sense to start the process early when land could be purchased in large chunks at more reasonable prices. I felt we should anchor on the river on both sides of the city then encircle the city: Mark’s Bay came on the market, and I thought this could be our western anchor. I contacted provincial minister Leo Bernier, a northerner from Kenora, for financial assistance. Minister Bernier told me he’d help, but that his former colleague Arthur Wishart wanted Batchewana Island, and he could only do one. He reviewed both proposals and chose Mark’s Bay, making it the only provincial part within a city limits in Ontario.

Creek Diversions

While we were doing the waterfront, we were experiencing tremendous problems with tributaries flowing into the river. In the Bayview/ Goulais Avenue area the West Davignon would do immense damage turning Bayview into a lake. In the East End, Clark Creek would back up to the extent that neighbours could canoe over former back yards. Widening and diversion was expensive but necessary. The areas were worked on through our conservation authority with municipal-provincial funding. The flooding problems have been remedied in major areas, but with the complex changing weather patterns continue to go on. Projects like these have gone from “wait and see” to imperative.

Community Spirit

All of the heavy lifting was a team effort. Federal, provincial, municipal governments, the corporate and non-profit sectors have all done their part. Municipal employees have done excellent work. Moreover, the Sault has been blessed with people before, during and after my tenure who have given so much of their time to the city as volunteers. I will highlight only two, who are an example of the many. Elsie Savoie had a vision. That vision was an art gallery on the waterfront. She negotiated and worked her way through land acquisition, funding, architects, and art experts. Finally, leaving a legacy, the Sault Ste. Marie Art Gallery. Similarly, Harriet Black, who had already done so much for the city, decided we should have a fall festival. She put together one of the most complex, inclusive board of directors I have ever seen, brought in experts, obtained funding, developed programs and created the Sault Ste. Marie Fall Festival that we have today.

About the same time, City Hall was completed. I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer and with my young family, I decided to take time out of politics to spend more time with them and regain my health. My first meeting in the City Hall was my last as a councillor. People whose families migrated to the Sault from all over the world came in their native costumes and, in pairs, presented their homeland insignias which still hang on a wall in the main lobby.

One day a friend dropped a copy of the Detroit Free Press off to show me an article on the front page. It was about the Sault. The first paragraph read, as I remember it, “What the Canadians at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario have accomplished with imagination and single-minded resolve, to change their waterfront from an eyesore to a people place, is something that we in Detroit should study and follow.” That was a compliment to all of us.

The Sault Ste. Marie Museum

I returned to politics at the federal level as a M.P.. I was only there a short while when I received an urgent request from the directors of the Sault Ste. Marie Museum. The museum had, for many years, been allowed to use a portion of the Armory to display artifacts but, unexpectedly, had been given eviction notice by the military. It had no options for a relocation facility.

I had an idea. I knew that while the federal Department of Public Works had taken over the first floor of the old post office at Queen St. E. and East St., the second floor was empty. The department had spent $200,000 in renovation. I contacted the Department and requested the museum be allowed to use the second floor for a nominal or no rent. The response I received was that the museum could have the second floor if they paid market rate rental. I explained to the department this was impossible since the museum had no money. The department wouldn’t budge.

The department’s minister, Paul Cosgrove, came to the Sault on another matter, and I took him to the site and showed him the empty space on the second floor. Here the whole episode went sideways. I was unaware that Cosgrove and the very person with whom I was dealing had had a huge disagreement over some manner in another city. Cosgrove unexpectedly sided with the museum. He ordered his own department to vacate the building, find another spot, and turned the entire building over to the city for the museum. I never knew, nor even asked, about what the previous disagreement was. I’m still puzzled.

Clean Water and Public Health

Sault Ste. Marie needed a major upgrade of its water and sewage systems. The consensus was that the projects were so expensive funding for both at one time was not possible. There were prioritized, first the sewer funding and then the water funding. Sault delegations made repeated attempts to obtain senior level of government financial support and had failed. There was a downturn in the economy and the federal government set up a major infrastructure program in partnership with the provinces and municipalities, where projects like the Sault’s could be be addressed. How it worked was that Pierre deBane was the responsible overall federal minister. In each province a federal minister would meet with a provincial counterpart, review the municipal projects, and forward the agreed ones to Minister deBane for funding. Convoluted but workable.

The Sault lobbied for the sewage program having already decided there was very little chance of getting both water and sewer concurrent funding. I met with our designated federal minister and was assured that Sault Ste. Marie would be top of the federal list. A few days after the Toronto joint meeting, I had heard nothing. I contacted the federal minister and was told, “I am sorry, Ron, but the Sault’s proposal was rejected.” I didn’t understand why so I phoned the provincial minister, Leo Bernier, who I knew from my time as Mayor and asked him for a reason. He said, “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but the feds didn’t put the Sault proposal on the table.” I was stunned.

This was only one option, and that was to appeal to the Prime Minister Trudeau. Easier said than done. To get to the Prime Minister, you had to meet with his principal secretary, Jim Coutts, who was his gatekeeper. A very powerful position. I knew Coutts well. There is little to do in Ottawa after work when Parliament is in session and you are away from your family. Eight of us put together a friendly poker game in an empty room in West Block and met every Wednesday evening. Coutts and I were two of the eight. The game night went on for four years. I phoned Coutts, explaining what had happened and asked for a meeting. Maurice Foster and I arrived at his office in Langevin Block and were surprised that Coutts had invited Minister deBane also.

Jim liked afternoon tea and had it served, I found it frustrating to be rambling on about the need for a sewer system while he sipped his tea. Finally, he put the cup down, looked over at deBane and said, “Pierre, Ron and Mo are right. Do the Sault projects. Both sewer and water.”

DeBane was stunned. He said, “How Jim? The fund is empty. It was allocated across Canada.” Coutts said, “Do them. We’ll cover the cost from the Prime Minister’s office out of consolidated revenue.”

The projects were ultimately completed, but I’ve never been in the water filtration plant. Actually, I’ve never even set foot on the grounds. Mulroney had won the general election. His people officially opened the water treatment plant. Maurice and I were never invited.

I’m often asked “Why did you do it?”. It’s hard to explain, but there are instances that shed a bit of light. Perhaps the best was right here in the Sault. Ritva Rajala was a volunteer director of the Ontario Finnish Rest Home Association. The Association had completed Phase 1 of its development and was looking at Phase 2, 61 extended care beds. There was stiff competition by three other credible applicants.

The Minister of Health for Ontario convened a hearing. When she heard that the Finnish Rest Home Association was providing similar care as the province at half the cost per patient because of its volunteer base, she stopped Ritva and asked, “But how do you keep such an effective volunteer group together?”.

Ritva said, “I don’t understand the question.”

The minister said, “What I mean is, what is the reward?”.

Ritva replied, “Now I understand. The reward, Madam Minister, is in the doing.”

Perhaps the answer to why seek public office is as simple as that. The reward is in the doing.

The Sault Ste. Marie Canal

While in power, Mulroney’s government did something in the Sault which was unfathomable. It decided to permanently close the Sault Ste. Marie ship canal. Considering that Sault Ste. Marie was held politically by his government, I never understood that decision. People here were upset, and many tried to get the federal government to reverse the decision, to no avail. Mayor John Roswell was one of those people. The silence from Ottawa was deafening. I learned later that the plan was to let the walls of the canal deteriorate to such an extent that the government would then backfill the entire canal, with little public dissent.

Jean Chretien was making his second attempt to become party leader and came to the Sault. He had asked me to run again, and said it would be a hell of a ride. I was two years away from my 60th birthday, and I was reluctant to do so because I did not want to be away from the family again. I agreed because it Jean that was asking. When I was his parliamentary secretary, we had become close working on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the repatriation of the Constitution. I was convinced he would be a great prime minister.

Royce Fiacconi and I picked Chretien up at the airport and were taking him to his hotel. As we came along Queen St. West, I asked Royce to turn right on Huron St.. Chretien chuckled. “Now, we’re going to look at your damn canal, right?”. I could never get one past him. We stopped at the canal and got out as close to it as we could. The park was a mess, and the canal itself in shambles.

Most people don’t realize Chretien’s love of history. Not just Canada’s but most countries. He peppered me with questions, even when he knew most of the answers. We discussed the Northwest Rebellion of 1870, and the American refusal to let the Chicora use the Michigan canal. We talked about how the troops disembarked and had to carry their packsacks six miles through the bush behind us. Canada decided that we could not let this happen again, and the Canadian canal was built.

He said, “And now once again, our only passage to Lake Superior is through American waters.”

I said, “Right. I am only asking one thing, your commitment to restore and re-open our canal.”

Chretien never made snap decisions. He always considered the pros and cons before deciding an issue. He stood there for a time while Royce and I waited, then said, “This canal is not only a part of the Sault’s history, it is a significant part of Canada’s history.”

“If I make it to Prime Minister, I will re-open it. Don’t overspend because I want to balance the federal budget.”

He did make it to Prime Minister. He and Paul Martin not only balanced the budget for one year, but for several years. And he did restore and re-open the Sault Ste. Marie canal.

I spent the next decade as a cabinet minister, a personal adviser to the Prime Minister, an Ambassador to Ireland and a Consul General to New England.

Jean Chretien was right. It was one hell of a ride.

One day in Boston, on my 70th birthday, I said to Marg, “I’m tired. Let’s go home.”

There was only one home, Canada, the best country in the world and Sault Ste. Marie, one of its best cities.

We packed and home we came.


David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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