Partner Margaret Grier, buried together
Queen's University, 99 University Ave, Kingston, ON K7L 3N6, Canada
Thompson Hill Cemetery, Thompson Hill, ON K7V 3Z4, Canada
Charlotte Elizabeth Whitton OC CBE (March 8, 1896 – January 25, 1975) was a Canadian feminist and mayor of Ottawa. She was the first woman mayor of a major city in Canada, serving from 1951 to 1956 and again from 1960 to 1964.
Whitton attended Queen's University, where she was the star of the women's hockey team and was known as the fastest skater in the league. At Queen's, she also served as editor of the Queen's Journal newspaper in 1917; and was the newspaper's first female editor. From Queen's she became the founding director of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare from 1920 to 1941 (which became the Canadian Welfare Council, now the Canadian Council on Social Development) and helped bring about a wide array of new legislation to help children.
Despite her strong views on women's equality, Whitton was a strong social conservative and did not support making divorce easier.
Whitton was elected to Ottawa's Board of Control in 1951. Upon the unexpected death of mayor Grenville Goodwin that August, Whitton was immediately appointed acting mayor and on 30 September 1951 was confirmed by city council to remain mayor until the end of the normal three-year term. Whitton is sometimes mistakenly credited as the first woman ever to serve as a mayor in Canada, but this distinction is in fact held by Barbara Hanley, who became mayor of the small Northern Ontario town of Webbwood in 1936.
Whitton was a staunch defender of Canada's traditions, and condemned Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson's proposal in 1964 for new national flag to replace the traditional Canadian Red Ensign. Whitton dismissed Pearson's design as a ‘white badge of surrender, waving three dying maple leaves’ which might as well be ‘three white feathers on a red background,’ a symbol of cowardice. ‘It is a poor observance of our first century as a nation if we run up a flag of surrender with three dying maple leaves on it,’ she said. For Whitton, the Red Ensign, with its Union Jack and coat of arms containing symbols of England, Scotland, Ireland and France (or a similar flag with traditional symbols on it) would be a stronger embodiment of the Canadian achievement in peace and war.
She became well known for her assertiveness and for her vicious wit with which many male colleagues, and once the Lord Mayor of London, were attacked. She is noted for the quotation: "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult."
In 1955 she appeared on the American game show and television series What's My Line.
In 1934, Whitton was named a Commander of the British Empire at the 1934 New Year Honours and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967.
Whitton had many remarkable achievements but her story is framed by current controversy over some of her actions.
She has been accused in print of espousing, "a 'scientific' racism that viewed groups such as Jews and Armenians as 'undesirable' immigrants." (Open Your Hearts: The Story of the Jewish War Orphans in Canada by Fraidie Martz)
In 1938, she attended a conference in Ottawa to launch the Canadian National Committee on Refugees (CNCR). She showed opposition to some of the other attendees' arguments. A common belief is that she was directly opposed to Jews and in particular Jewish children. Oscar Cohen of the Canadian Jewish Congress is reported to have said she "almost broke up the inaugural meeting of the congress on refugees by her insistent opposition and very apparent anti-Semitism." This sentiment is countered by the official record which includes notes from her presentation, including "lobby the government to initiate a long-term refugee program ..." and an interest in protecting all at risk, "particularly Hebrews in the Reich and in Italy."
According to the Canadian Jewish Congress: "Certainly in the course of the Second World War and the Holocaust, she was instrumental in keeping Jewish orphans out of Canada because of her belief that Jews would not make good immigrants and were basically inferior."
As Mayor in 1964, she declined Bertram Loeb's $500,000 donation to the City's Ottawa Civic Hospital. The official rationale was that the city could not afford to keep the centre operating. The sentiment exists that she "simply didn't want the name of a Jewish family on an Ottawa hospital building.".
According to Patricia Rooke, Whitton was a "complete anglophile" who opposed all non-British immigration to Canada. "Charlotte Whitton was a racist," according to Rooke. "Her anti-Semitism, I think, was the least of it. She was quite racist about the Ukrainians, for example. She really didn't like the changing character of Canadian society."
In opposition to the anti-Semite argument, Whitton was well received by various Jewish organizations in her lifetime including B'nai B'rith and various Jewish-centred publications. She was also a supporter of — and the first to sign the nomination papers of — the first Jewish Mayor of Ottawa, Lorry Greenberg.
In 2011 Whitton's name was kept off of a new Archives Building in Ottawa due to this controversy.
Whitton never married, but lived for years with her partner, Margaret Grier (1892 – December 9, 1947). Her relationship with Grier was not widespread public knowledge until 1999, 24 years after Whitton's death, when the National Archives of Canada publicly released the last of her personal papers, including many intimate personal letters between Whitton and Grier. The release of these papers sparked much debate in the Canadian media about whether Whitton and Grier's relationship could be characterized as lesbian, or merely as an emotionally intimate friendship between two unmarried women. Grier died in 1947 and is buried at Thompson Hill Cemetery, Thompson Hill, Horton, Ontario, Canada. In 1975 Whitton was buried alongside her.
Whitton's relationship with Grier was dramatized in a play called Molly's Veil written by playwright Sharon Bajer. Bajer was inspired to write the play after reading letters written between Whitton and Grier and used these as the basis for the play. The play explores Whitton's relationship with her partner Grier, portraying Whitton as a loving partner in a lesbian relationship and deals with the tension between Whitton's private life and her public one.
The Ontario Heritage Trust erected a plaque for Charlotte Elizabeth Whitton, O.C., C.B.E. 1896-1975 in the council chambers, city hall, 111 Sussex Drive, Ottawa. "A controversial fighter for social reform, Charlotte Whitton served on the Canadian Council on Child Welfare (later the Canadian Welfare Council) and on the League of Nations Social Questions Committee. In 1951, she was elected mayor of Ottawa."