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WHITE, PETER, businessman and politician; b. 30 Aug. 1838 in Pembroke, Upper Canada, son of Peter White and Cecilia Thomson; m. there 26 Dec. 1877 Janet Reid Thomson of Ottawa, and they had three sons and a daughter; d. 3 May 1906 in Clifton Springs, N.Y., and was buried in Pembroke.

Peter White’s father, an original settler at Pembroke, had become involved in the square-timber trade and made the transition to the manufacture of lumber. Free Presbyterian in religion and tory in politics, the family formed part of the local élite. Peter Jr received a rudimentary education until, at age 11, he was dispatched to Bytown (Ottawa) to learn business practices. Having returned to Pembroke to assist his father, about 1859 he went into lumbering on his own account, establishing A. and P. White with his brother Andrew Thomson. The industry provided them with substantial income, and their firm continued until Andrew’s death in 1900. Peter was, in addition, president of the Pembroke Lumber Company, electric and water companies in Pembroke, and the Crystal Gold Mining Company, and was a director of the Excelsior Life Insurance Company.

It was politics, however, that intrigued White, who served as reeve of Pembroke Township and then of the village, from 1870 to 1875. One of his concerns at the municipal level was the promotion of the Kingston and Pembroke Railway. Using his local base, he entered the federal election of 1872 as the Conservative candidate for Renfrew North, but lost to James Findlay, editor of the Pembroke Observer. White won in 1874, only to be unseated on petition by local businessman and councillor William Murray. He ran again two years later, in a by-election, during which he made the deal that would influence the rest of his political career. Facing a close race, he appealed to lumber barons of the Reform persuasion, among them Henry Franklin Bronson*, not to use their power against him. Convinced that he would make an effective spokesman for their interests, they threw the force of their firms behind him and he was elected.

In the House of Commons White dispensed patronage to worthy Tories in Renfrew and supported the Canada Central Railway and later the Canadian Pacific, both of which connected Pembroke to Montreal and American markets. These commonplace activities, however, masked a more important role: by the early 1880s White had been placed on the executive of the Quebec Limitholders’ Association, to ally his position with the needs of the industry. The lumbermen were in a mood to talk conservation and to organize, particularly those operating in Quebec, where logging teams had reached the limits of the pine forest at the head-waters of the Ottawa River and were having difficulty acquiring quality logs. A complicating factor was the competition for forest lands from a powerful colonization movement backed by the Roman Catholic church [see François-Xavier-Antoine Labelle*].

At the meeting of the American Forestry Congress in Montreal in 1882, the QLA arranged for its most influential members to present their views, with federal and provincial politicians present [see James Little*]. White chaired the conference’s committee on forest fires, which recommended the enactment of forest-fire regulations and the reservation for lumbering of pine and spruce lands unfit for settlement. As a result, Quebec set up its first reserve (in the upper Ottawa valley) and a forest-ranger force in 1883, and Ontario hired a forestry publicist that same year and adopted a fire-ranging system in 1885 [see Aubrey White*].

Though these gains were reduced in 1886, when the Quebec reserve was abolished, the lumbermen remained convinced of White’s worth. That he was effective is witnessed by the fact that lumbermen of both parties openly supported him in his re-election attempts. Believing that their interests were not represented in the government of Sir John A. Macdonald*, in 1888 they supported him for the vacant post of minister of the interior and to fill the bill for a cabinet member from eastern Ontario. The prime minister, however, opted for John Graham Haggart* of Perth, as postmaster general. White had to settle for the chairmanship of the standing committee on agriculture and immigration.

On 29 April 1891 he was rewarded with the speakership of the commons, a position he would hold until 1896, when he and his party, unable to stabilize its leadership and wounded by the Manitoba school controversy, went down to defeat. There had been no doubt about White’s position on the school question: he openly opposed legislation to restore provincial funding of the Catholic schools and was unpopular with Catholics in his riding. Beaten by Liberal lumberman Thomas Mackie, he nevertheless became an honorary member of the Privy Council on 24 March 1897 and remained an ardent Tory combatant, running unsuccessfully in the by-election in Brockville in 1899 and in the general election of 1900 in Renfrew North. Re-elected there in 1904, he died two years later.

A successful businessman, Peter White found his métier in politics. In this arena he sought a national role but had difficulty escaping his regional proclivities.

Robert Peter Gillis

AO, RG 22, ser.364, nos.916 (A. T. White), 1262 (Peter White). City of Pembroke, Ont., Council minutes for the village of Pembroke (mfm. at AO). NA, MG 26, A; MG 28, 111 26, vols.94, 102–3, 716. Ottawa Evening Journal, 3 May 1906. Pembroke Observer, and Ottawa Valley Advocate, 3, 10 May 1906. Canadian biog. dict. Canadian directory of parl. (Johnson). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). The Canadian parliament: biographical sketches and photo-engravures of the senators and members of the House of Commons of Canada (Montreal, 1906). R. P. Gillis and T. R. Roach, Lost initiatives: Canadas forest industries, forest policy and forest conservation (Westport, Conn., 1986). Newspaper reference book.

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Cite This Article

Robert Peter Gillis, “WHITE, PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/white_peter_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/white_peter_13E.html
Author of Article:   Robert Peter Gillis
Title of Article:   WHITE, PETER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   February 26, 2024