Leslie Miscampbell Frost, Premier of Ontario, 1949-61

Gravesite commemoration of the Honourable Leslie Miscampbell Frost, Premier of Ontario, 1949-61

Thomas H.B. Symons, C.C., O.Ont, FRSC, LL.D., D.Litt., D.U., D.Cn.L., FRGS, KSS – Chairman, Ontario Heritage Trust

I am very pleased to be here today to bring greetings on behalf of the Trust’s Board of Directors, and to speak about my good friend and mentor, the Honourable Leslie Frost.

The Ontario Heritage Trust is the heritage trustee and steward for the people of Ontario, a strong advocate and advisor for heritage conservation, a centre for heritage information and education, and a significant promoter of Ontario’s natural, built and cultural heritage.

In 2007, at the behest of then-MPP Jim Brownell, the Government of Ontario created the Premiers’ Gravesites Program to honour Ontario’s former premiers by marking their gravesites. The Ontario Heritage Trust was chosen to design and implement this special new program as an extension of its role in commemorating significant events, people and places in Ontario’s history.

The Trust launched the program at a memorable ceremony in November 2008 in St. Andrews West, to commemorate the province’s first premier – the Honourable John Sandfield Macdonald. Since then, events have been held in St. George, Toronto, Brantford, Morrisburg, St. Thomas, Oshawa, Crown Hill and Guelph to commemorate 13 more premiers, each of whom left an important legacy through their leadership of the province.

Today, we are honoured to commemorate the Honourable Leslie Frost, Ontario’s 16th premier. Leslie Frost was born in Orillia in 1895. The rhythm and sensibilities of this small community, so aptly captured by Stephen Leacock in his fictional account of Mariposa in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, had a profound impact on Mr. Frost. His interest in and approach to politics was also influenced by his family life and, in particular, by the many lively political discussions that took place around the dinner table in the Frost home.

The First World War also significantly influenced Leslie Frost’s concept of public service and duty. He enlisted as a provisional lieutenant in the 157th Battalion of the Simcoe Foresters in the spring of 1915 and served in France and Belgium. During this period, both he and his brother Cecil wrote numerous letters home to their family that contained rich commentary on the politics of the day. A volume of this correspondence has been superbly edited by Dr. Rae Fleming.

Mr. Frost was discharged from the military with the rank of Captain in 1918, following a serious injury, about which he seldom spoke, but the impact of which he felt for the rest of his life. His wartime experiences fostered in him a passion for the political process and military history, and an ongoing concern for the welfare and well-being of veterans, which he carried with him throughout his time in political office. But, beyond this, it heightened the value he placed on community and a society in which its members cared for and gave support to one another. His respect for his comrades in arms in the Great War, so well described in his book, Fighting Men, his experiences on the battlefield and his time in hospital recovering from his war wound all reinforced his belief in community and the value he placed on it.

In his periods of leave for well-earned rest and recuperation from his front-line duty in France, and during his convalescence, Mr. Frost spent many hours in the gallery of the Mother of Parliaments, often with his brother Cecil, listening to the debates, observing the parliamentary performance of the great speakers of the time, and pondering the public issues they discussed. This experience deepened and sharpened his interest in, and respect for, the political process on the British model, which became a governing passion throughout his lifetime.

On his return to Canada after the war, Leslie Frost enrolled in law school at Osgoode Hall in 1919 and was called to the bar in 1921. He and his brother Cecil, with whom he shared a close lifelong friendship and a passion for politics, bought a law practice in Lindsay that same year. In 1926, Les married Gertrude Jane Carew and they happily spent the majority of their married life in this community.

Thus, born in Orillia and settled in Lindsay, he was very much a child of the Trent Severn Waterway. Its network of lakes, rivers and canals fascinated him throughout his life. He knew the Valley of the Trent – its history, geography, peoples and culture – like the back of his hand. It was his homeland community that he cherished dearly and from which, throughout his life, he looked out on the wider communities of Ontario, Canada and the Commonwealth with the affection and concern of a brooding hen.

Mr. Frost was first elected to the legislature in 1937, representing Victoria-Haliburton, and was consistently re-elected until his retirement in 1963, having given 26 years of consecutive parliamentary electoral service to the people of Ontario. He served as Provincial Treasurer and Minister of Mines in both the George A. Drew and Thomas Laird Kennedy administrations, and continued to serve as Provincial Treasurer for the first six years of his own premiership.

Leslie Frost was chosen as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in 1949 and was sworn in as Premier and Provincial Treasurer in May of that year.

During his time as Premier, 12 years in total, Leslie Frost led the province through a challenging period of incredible post-war expansion. Ontario was growing and industrializing and Mr. Frost recognized the value of, and the need for, growth within a context of fiscal responsibility. At the same time, he fostered a progressive, state-interventionist style of conservatism, which took a more caring approach to the needs of Ontario’s citizens, as evidenced by his government’s introduction of assistance for persons with disabilities and public hospital insurance, as well as by his great work in education. A thoughtful Conservative in dress and manner, and in his approach to matters, he was very much a progressive in thought and practice, moving the province ahead in its social programs aimed at community well-being.

With his strong sense of fair play, Leslie Frost was deeply committed to the protection and advancement of human rights. He was the master architect of much of Ontario’s fundamental human rights legislation. In 1951, his government passed an Act to Promote Fair Employment Practices in Ontario and an Act to Ensure Fair Remuneration for Female Employees. Fair Accommodation Practices Legislation followed in 1954 and, in 1955, the Frost government extended voting rights to Aboriginal people in Ontario. Under his steadfast leadership, the province of Ontario became the first province or state in North America to establish a human rights code and a human rights commission.

Mindful of the importance of economic infrastructure, Leslie Frost’s government greatly expanded the province’s transportation networks with its construction of the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway (Highway 401) and the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway in Ontario, as well as a multitude of new highways and highway improvements throughout the province. Construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and a number of hydro-electric developments, also formed a key part of the province’s agenda for economic expansion under his leadership.

Mr. Frost was sensitive to the often fragile relationship that existed between the province and its municipalities. His government increased provincial assistance to municipalities and facilitated the introduction of a metropolitan form of government for the Toronto area.

Amid the province’s growth and progress, however, Mr. Frost did not lose sight of the importance of preserving our natural heritage and resources. He acted decisively to ensure that Ontario’s resources would not be destroyed or “auctioned off for a quick buck” through his preservation of and respect for natural spaces, and his establishment of the Ontario Water Resources Commission.

But perhaps Mr. Frost’s most important priority as premier was education. He once said, “Education is Ontario’s number one problem and to it such vital needs as a hospital plan, highway expansion and the services rendered to maintain industrial expansion must take second place.” During the years that he was premier, new elementary and secondary schools were opened across the province, and plans were put in place for the establishment of a number of new post-secondary institutions and for the fundamental re-arrangement of others. He was, indeed, among our country’s leaders, a pre-eminent academic statesman.

Leslie Frost’s interest in education continued beyond his years as premier. He played a major part in the creation of Trent University and when it opened, he agreed to serve as its first Chancellor in 1967, a role that he pursued with active interest. In fact, he was no figurehead as Chancellor. On the contrary, he spent a good deal of time considering the university’s plans and needs, and helping to find the resources to support them. He attended a remarkable number of university events and functions, and made it a point to come to know a cross-section of the faculty. He and Mrs. Frost took a particular and personal interest in many of the students and they and their families were often stunned when he congratulated them by name at graduation ceremonies.

He had a special concern for the development of Canadian studies at the university. This was emphasized by the special fund established by Leslie and Gertrude Frost at Trent in 1969 to encourage teaching and research in the subject. The Frost Centre for graduate studies and research in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University is appropriately named in his honour.

Following his retirement from politics, Mr. Frost also served as one of the most active founding governors of Sir Sandford Fleming Community College, which named its campus in Lindsay in his honour. He served also as a member of the province’s University Affairs Committee.

Along with his belief in the importance of education, Mr. Frost cared deeply about the history of the province – and about the history of Victoria, Peterborough and Haliburton Counties in particular. His books – Forgotten Pathways of the Trent, and Pleasant Point Story: a History of Pleasant Point – are testament to his passion for the history of this region.

While Mr. Frost’s government boasts an impressive record of legislative accomplishments, perhaps equally important to his legacy is how he set about achieving such goals. Leslie Frost enjoyed tremendously, and had a wonderful gift for, connecting with the citizens of Ontario. During his years in politics, he visited nearly every home in his riding, believing that this was the only way to truly “understand the hopes and aspirations of the people.” And the people in turn admired his charm and integrity and greatly respected his leadership.

Mr. Frost was also greatly respected both by his political colleagues and by his political opponents who recognized him as a talented administrator and informed leader who was just as comfortable debating and firmly guiding policy in the legislature as he was in the barber’s chair in Lindsay from which, as he often said, he surveyed the political scene of Ontario. Indeed, it is in this role as Old Man Ontario, who gazed out fondly and protectively on his province and country, from the vantage point of the barber’s chair in Lindsay, that Leslie Frost is remembered with so much affection and respect across Ontario.

Just prior to his official resignation as premier in 1961, Mr. Frost wrote the following: “It has been a great privilege to lead our Party, which has indeed been the People’s Party, providing an opportunity for men and women – young and old and of all walks of life and all origins – to serve our Province and our Country in very challenging times.”

On more than one occasion, Leslie Frost observed that, like one of his sources of inspiration, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, he was “Canadian first, last and all the time” – and his life demonstrates and verifies this. The Frosts were childless and, in a very real sense, Ontario became their family. But he had also a profound knowledge of the literature, history and institutions of the British Isles and a great affection for them. They, too, were a source of inspiration throughout his life. In his later years, after the death of his indomitable wife, Gertrude, Mr. Frost joined my wife, Christine and I on a visit to Britain. After I had attended to some duties I had there in London and Oxford as Chair of the Association of the Universities of the Commonwealth, we had the good fortune to spend with him two weeks visiting people and places on an itinerary largely of his choosing. It was a very happy experience, made immensely alive by his constant flow of historical tales, personal anecdotes and literary allusions – and by his great sense of fun.

Reflecting on Mr. Frost’s political career, I am reminded of how the values of leadership, respect, collegiality, integrity and care and concern for the individual citizen, and for community, can in fact contribute to a successful and productive life in public service, even in the most challenging of times. In this regard, Mr. Frost’s career serves as an important reminder to us all of what politics can be.

We are honoured to be here today to commemorate officially, on behalf of all Ontarians, the Honourable Leslie Miscampbell Frost and to celebrate his dedication and service to the people of this province.

Thank you.