Whitby to honour influential early political reformer, Ontario’s first Agriculture Minister


Published June 10, 2024 at 12:12 pm

Whitby plans to honour MPP John Dryden, a highly influential political reformer and Ontario's first Agriculture Minister. via Whitby Public Library.

The Town of Whitby will rename Brooklin’s Pioneer Baptist Cemetary after one of the town’s most influential historical figures; reformist and farmer John Dryden.

According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Dryden’s father, James Dryden, immigrated to Canada in 1820 from Sunderland in north England. James Dryden settled in Winchester, in what is now Brooklin, on a 200-acre plot on Concession Road 7, where built Maple Shade Farm in 1835. John was born five years later.

During John’s youth, he inherited his father’s reformist liberal ideals which railed against the Conservative dominance of the day. This ‘Family Compact’ made up of Anglican Tory elites dominated Upper Canada’s politics and law for decades prior to Confederation.

The name comes from the writings of William Lyon Mackenzie, who founded several papers critical of this oligarchy. By the time of Maple Shade Farm’s founding, Mackenzie was the first Mayor of Toronto following its name change from York.

However, Mackenzie was routed in the 1836 election. This led him to believe true reform was only possible through armed insurrection. By the following year, he led the Upper Canada Rebellion. The rebellion was short-lived, though the rebels grew more violent as it wore on.

They were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in December 1837 in what is now the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood. The Dryden’s rejected Mackenzie’s violence and worked within the Upper Canada establishment.

James Dryden became the Whitby Township Reeve around 1850. He later served as president of the Port Whitby and Port Perry Railway and a director of the Ontario Bank.

During this time the younger Dryden took over the farm as manager and more than doubled its size to 420 acres. The farm reared sheep, horses, and cattle. In 1863, just four years before Confederation, John followed his father’s footsteps into the political arena.

He was first elected to the town council, then served a term as Reeve. In 1879, Dryden ran as a Liberal for MPP of the Ontario South riding. He held the seat for more than 25 years.

The third Premier of Ontario, Oliver Mowat, appointed Dryden Minister of Agriculture in 1890. In this position, Dryden served under Mowat and his two successors, Arthur Sturgis Hardy and George William Ross. He was the only minister to keep his portfolio in the leadership changes.

As a broad ministry, Dryden was also responsible for “immigration, factory inspection, mines, roads, and a bureau of industries that compiled useful statistics,” biographer Ian M. Stewart wrote. He was also in charge of government farming subsidies which grew significantly during his tenure.

Dryden immediately got to work on reforming the portfolio leading changes at the Ontario Agricultural College, now part of Guelph University. He wanted the college to innovate in the way it trained farmers. It proved a hard ask, however, as the Farm Superintendent, Thomas Shaw, and College President James Mills were not cooperative with each other or Dryden, causing great friction and damaging the college’s reputation. This also proved fodder for relentless Conservative attacks just ahead of the 1894 election.

Shaw ultimately resigned and accused Dryden of corruption, though the charge did not stick politically. Dryden ultimately took over the college much more directly, leaving Mills in charge only nominally.

Next Dryden set his sights on Ontario dairy production. His reforms in this industry were massive and remain influential. At this time, the American William McKinley administration slapped tariffs on all dairy imports, which sharply curbed Ontario’s industry.

This left the United Kingdom the only place to send Ontario dairy products. However, high-quality dairy from Denmark cornered much of the European market. As a result, Dryden set up dairy schools in Strathroy and Kingston to improve Ontario’s dairy quality.

Dryden also led a push to establish more cheese and butter factories in order to compete. While some farmers feared for their independent creameries, most agreed the improved quality from a proper factory was worth the trade-off.

In 1895, Dryden set up an experimental farm near Wabigoon Lake up in north Ontario in an attempt to expand the agricultural base. Though the farm proved only moderately successful, it developed a supporting community. Eventually, it became the Town of Dryden in the minister’s honour.

Dryden also proved influential in education. As a devout Baptist, he ran the Brooklin Baptist Church Sunday School. He also joined the Toronto Baptist College board of trustees at its founding in 1881 and remained on the board after it was renamed McMaster University.

Despite his great contributions, Dryden was a man of his era and espoused the views of the time. Even as his fellow Liberals campaigned for women’s suffrage, Dryden fought strongly against women voting.

In a parliamentary speech against a suffrage bill, he voiced his belief, based on his view of the bible, that women were made to be subservient to men. As such they should, in Dryden’s view, remain in the home and not enter public service.

In 1897, Dryden’s brother George was appointed registrar of Ontario County, prompting a corruption scandal. William Smith, who Dryden had defeated in the 1896 election, accused Dryden of promising the registrar position to supporters in exchange for campaign funds.

Dryden accused Smith of slander. He ultimately won a highly publicized case when it was revealed Smith was likely drunk when he made the accusation and could not prove his story.

However, the damage was done and Dryden lost the 1898 election to Conservative Charles Calder. He challenged the election in court instead of resigning and won the resulting by-election. This simply delayed his ejection from Queen’s Park though. Calder won again in 1905. Dryden died in 1909.

On October 2, 2023, the Groveside Cemetary Board recommended the town rename the Pioneer Baptist Cemetary after the Drydens. Both James and John Dryden are buried there.

The cemetery was established in 1843, according to the board report, and run by an attached church until it closed in 1884. The Dryden family took over after the church shuttered and maintained it until the town took over.

Anyone with a concern about renaming the place can visit Connect Whitby to leave feedback until August 9.


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