MARTER, GEORGE FREDERICK, businessman, office holder, and politician; b. 6 June 1840 in Brantford, Upper Canada, eldest son of Dr Peter Marter and Jane Augusta Hatch; m. 25 June 1862 Mary A. Green of Windham Township, Upper Canada, and they had three daughters and one son; d. 10 May 1907 in Toronto.
After graduating from the grammar school in Brantford, George Frederick Marter entered business. Eventually he moved to Windham, in Norfolk County, where he added to his commercial pursuits an interest in local government; for ten years he served as township clerk. Next Marter now with a family, relocated in Teeterville and shortly afterwards in Waterford. Although he became a councillor and a successful merchant in that community, Muskoka soon beckoned and he acquired a general store in Bracebridge. The peripatetic family found greater permanency through another transfer, to Gravenhurst, where they remained for more than 16 years. There Marter prospered as a contractor and in other mercantile ventures, which gave him local prominence; in 1884 he was the village’s reeve. During his early career he came to see himself as a self-made businessman who represented small-town Ontario. In some respects he never outgrew this confining image.
In 1886, running as a Conservative, Marter won the newly formed seat for Muskoka in the provincial assembly. Before long he became a notable figure within the opposition ranks, and during the “equal rights” agitation [see William Caven; D’Alton McCarthy*] he was associated with his party’s strong Protestant element. His leader, William Ralph Meredith*, allowed party members considerable initiative and Marter a Methodist, established himself as a vigorous exponent of prohibition. In 1893 he introduced a bill barring the retail sale of liquor, but it was supplanted by a government measure requiring a court ruling on provincial jurisdiction in the matter. Marter was also one of the first legislators to advocate, in 1894, discontinuing the maintenance of Government House in the name of public economy. Like Meredith, he was critical of the Liberal government of Sir Oliver Mowat for enhancing the privileges of the separate schools. Finally, he placed new emphasis on improving party organization and canvassing at the constituency level.
In the general election of June 1894 Marter who had moved to Toronto with his family about 1891, was returned in the new riding of Toronto North. Four months later Meredith resigned as leader to assume a federal judgeship. A Tory caucus considered four possible successors: Oliver Aiken Howland, Marter, George Ansel Sterling Ryerson*, and James Pliny Whitney*. The selection of Marter on 23 October seemed sagacious. After all, he had proved his ability to gain votes in both rural and urban ridings and, according to the Toronto Daily Mail, was the only candidate to have “addressed meetings in almost every constituency in Ontario.” But in the end the choice was most unfortunate.
Marter did introduce some welcome reforms into the party’s operations. For example, he established an executive committee to consult with the leader on major policy decisions, a step that the Mail saw as the beginning of an “Opposition Cabinet.” Nevertheless, no one’s advice was sought when Marter during the by-election in November to fill Meredith’s seat, rashly committed the Tories to total prohibition and then proclaimed his willingness to abolish separate schools, “if it can be done.” Both stands were constitutionally doubtful and unpopular. The Conservative candidate, another antagonist of separate schools, was defeated by 803 votes in a constituency that the Tories had held since confederation.
Confidence in Marter did not increase when, soon after, he completely reversed his positions. In December he declared that prohibition would not be pursued, because, he claimed, Grit temperance men could not be counted upon to place their consciences before their party in dealing with the issue. The campaign against separate schools would also be dropped since he had become convinced that it was “utterly impossible to abolish them.” He went further, promising to abandon even the measured criticism of separate schools that Meredith had delivered. The new Conservative leader “did not believe in agitation simply for the sake of agitation.” The sentiment was laudable, but the turn-about made him look irresolute and weak.
Marter’s ability to improve his image suffered when he was struck ill with peritonitis during the 1895 session. In his absence Whitney became de facto leader. Marter’s role as head was further undermined by his own parliamentary ineptitude. An episode during the 1896 session was typical. He assailed the Liberal regime for its failure to teach practical courses, such as bookkeeping, in the public schools. The minister of education, George William Ross*, gleefully pointed out that the leader of the opposition must have consulted only the summary of his department’s activity. The full report revealed that 14,000 students had taken bookkeeping. Such blunders stimulated the growing movement for his removal. On 2 April, at the close of the 1896 session and after less than 18 months as leader, he resigned and made way for Whitney.
A rumour circulated that Marter would be offered a seat in the Senate but the appointment did not materialize and he became increasingly restive within the Conservative ranks. Under Whitney’s leadership his desire to be treated as the senior statesman of the party was ignored and he gradually drifted into a non-partisan position. In the 1898 election his majority in Toronto North was cut to 34 by Edward Hartley Dewart. By 1900 he was longer attending the Tory caucus and on two occasions the following year he voted with the Liberals. In the election of 1902 he ran as an independent, stressing the need to embrace prohibition, but he was narrowly defeated by his Conservative rival. Marter now turned his attention to business. An agent for the London and Lancashire Fire Insurance Company, he founded, with the assistance of his son, Edward C., the Toronto insurance firm of Marter Hall Company Limited.
During his later years Marter was closely associated with the temperance activities of the Dominion Alliance and in 1903 he became its president. He retained that post until his death from diabetes in 1907. The Globe considered his involvement “the most important feature” of his public life and noted at his death that “practically the existing temperance platform was laid down by him.” Marter was less successful as a politician, especially during his leadership years, but he had contributed to the emergence of a dynamic progressive Conservatism, which eventually brought the Tories to power in 1905.
AO, F 5, MU 3112; F 775, MU 7144, 1894, no.1. Globe, 3 April 1896, 24 March 1902, 11 May 1907. Toronto Daily Mail, 24 Oct., 15 Nov. 1894. World (Toronto), 3 April 1896. Canada and its prov. (Shortt and Doughty), 17: 175–76. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Charlesworth, Candid chronicles. CPG, 1887–1902. C. W. Humphries, “Honest enough to be bold”: the life and times of Sir James Pliny Whitney (Toronto, 1985). Norfolk County marriage records, 1795–1870, ed. W. R. Yeager (mimeograph, Simcoe, Ont., 1979), 315. R. E. Spence, Prohibition in Canada; a memorial to Francis Stephens Spence (Toronto, 1919).