Walter Bernard Smith: Hemmingford’s Parliamentarian

by Mary Ducharme   (October 2017)

Two native sons of Hemmingford rose in politics to the national arena: Julius Scriver serving John A. Macdonald, and Walter Bernard Smith serving with Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Recently Gerald Smith, Walter’s son, shared memories of his father, as well as two albums of newspaper clippings following the political career of this “solid” Liberal. The scrapbooks, assembled by the late Gaetane Payant Smith, Walter’s wife, reveal an extraordinary man who gave voice to rural districts of the newly formed constituency of St-Jean. His challenge: weld together a riding that spread from Hemmingford and Havelock to Iberville, and from the international border to Mercier.

His career reached into provincial politics when he became Chair of the Quebec Liberal Association. From there he gained recognition and he was nominated in 1968 to served as MP for the St-Jean riding and won the election. Though much involved in the scenes of provincial and national politics, he remained in friendly contact with his home-town neighbours in Hemmingford.

As MP he was instrumental in securing $50 million in funding for the Military College in St-Jean among other funding interventions. As secretary to the Minister of Supply and Services, he was involved in the Department of National Defence negotiations regarding the Lockheed military aircraft. As Chair of the National Committee on Agriculture, he improved agricultural trade regulations to protect local producers. In a speech to the House of Commons he spoke of the rich black soil in our region, the best market gardens in Quebec, but “some of our perishable vegetables are rotting in the fields while truckloads of vegetables are imported into Canada.” He also argued for pension hikes for low-income families, and an increase in pensions for veterans and widows.

Walter, also known as “W.B.” was born in March 26, 1912 in Hemmingford, the son of Bernard J. Smith of Irish ancestry, and Mary M. Whyte Smith. He was one of five children who grew up on a farm on Fisher Street. After attending the Fisher Street School, Walter attended Academie St-Thomas Aquinas, and later became a customs officer. In 1947 he purchased Stringer’s Store (Stedman’s). But Walter’s ambitions went beyond the mercantile, and he became deeply involved in the political life of Hemmingford. He served 24 years as councillor (1941- 1965) and two years as mayor (1965-1967). Among his community services, he was a founding member and vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, a director of the Golf Club, served on the school commission, and was a Knight of Columbus.

As champion of ordinary Québecois he spoke eloquently in both English and French for “unification, justice, peace, and prosperity.” His anti-separation sentiments generated antagonism and rival Conservatives made fun in cartoons of his signature brush-cut. Nonetheless, Smith’s strongest ally, Trudeau, was similar-minded on many issues including that industry and agriculture could work “side by side.” Said Trudeau “Walter Smith is the man to do it.”

The demands on the personal time of Walter and his wife Gaetane Payant of St-Chrysostome had consequences. Gaetane, poised, attractive, and a companion in public occasions, suffered a painful bone disease, and found the constant flow of visitors in their home and Walter’s long absences a trial. When she travelled with him to St-Jean, she often waited long hours in the car when meetings went overtime, and when they rented an apartment in Ottawa so they could spend more time together, waiting for Walter remained a major theme of her married life. The long absences also affected their three children Pauline, Gerald, Claudette. Gerald remembers well the day when his father handed over the reins of Stedman’s store thus determining the course of Gerald’s life for decades to come.

The stresses of political life added to Walter’s failing health. Ulcers plagued him, and he developed a heart condition. At the age of 75, he died at home of a heart attack on October 3, 1987. He had retired from politics in 1976 after the completion of the 30th Parliament.

Thirty years after his death this year, the extent of his service has not yet received due recognition or awareness. Those who wish to know more about Walter Bernard Smith’s contributions may find more detailed material at the Hemmingford Archives after the new facility re-opens late this fall 2017.