SINCLAIR, DAVID VOLUME, merchant, politician, and temperance advocate; b. 10 June 1864 in Madoc, Upper Canada, eldest son of Peter Sinclair, a harness maker, and Agnes Volume; m. Hettie Miller Reed of Nova Scotia, and they had four daughters and a son; d. 20 Aug. 1922 in Belleville, Ont.
David V. Sinclair moved from Madoc to Belleville in his teens to find employment as a clerk in a dry goods store. He later established his own store, which he was to operate until his death, sometimes with a partner. A kindly employer, he would leave bequests to his staff in his will. In addition, he became extraordinarily active in the community as a member of the Board of Trade, Lions Club, school board, and city council, but he poured most of his enthusiasm into causes related to his Christian faith.
A member of John Street Presbyterian Church, he was for many years superintendent of its Sunday school, as well as clerk of the session, member of the board of managers, and delegate to the General Assembly. His involvement in the Young Men’s Christian Association was even greater. Over the years he served in all of its volunteer positions, including that of president; his main contribution seems to have been in the management of its finances.
Not surprisingly, Sinclair was an advocate of Prohibition. In the provincial election of 1914 he ran as an independent temperance candidate in Hastings West but was defeated. Then, in 1921, he was elected president of the leading temperance organization in the province, the Ontario branch of the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic. His election, just years after the branch had brought Prohibition to Ontario, must have seemed a capping moment for this small-city activist, but it was not the success it appeared to be. He had not been prominent within the branch; even close to home his accomplishments were more worthy than significant. Why then would a body that had to deal with important figures, at both the provincial and the federal levels, turn to him? The answer lies within the structure of the branch and the state of its finances.
Like many volunteer organizations, it was dominated by its professional staff, based in Toronto. The key staffer was its combative secretary, the Reverend Benjamin H. Spence, who had held the position since 1907. Under the circumstances it would have taken a strong president to be more than decorative. Members of the executive were additionally out of touch because they met only three or four times a year; those from outside the Toronto-Hamilton region often could not attend. It was difficult too for Sinclair to participate on committees that normally met in Toronto. Moreover, the branch was suffering financial and organizational woes. After Prohibition had been achieved, in 1916, popular support declined. But the costs of maintaining staff and fighting referenda on temperance matters remained high, so that the branch fell into debt. Finally, it had to struggle for place with the rival Ontario Referendum Committee, under the Reverend Andrew Shaw Grant.
By 1921 the branch was thus unattractive to anyone who might be a prominent and forceful candidate for president. (Spence would likely not have encouraged such a candidate.) So it was that Sinclair quietly became president on 24 Feb. 1921, at the branch’s annual convention in Toronto. His subsequent impact appears to have been minimal, even during the heated campaign that spring over the referendum on importing liquor into Ontario. The branch continued its decline, and Sinclair’s name rarely appears in records of executive or committee meetings. The weak condition of the branch was underscored by the fact that the single name put forward to succeed him as president was nominated without the candidate’s permission or knowledge. At the poorly attended convention held a few months after Sinclair’s death in August 1922, his name was only briefly mentioned.
David V. Sinclair’s obituary in the Belleville Daily Intelligencer in August 1922 praises him largely in terms of his service to the local community. This assessment seems fair.
AO, F 834, ser.A, files 14-15, 17, 20; RG 22-340, no.6346. YMCA of Belleville, Ont., Records. Daily Intelligencer (Belleville), 21-22 Aug. 1922. G. A. Hallowell, Prohibition in Ontario, 1919-1923 (Ottawa, 1972).