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First elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in the 1905 election, Ferguson served as Minister of Lands, Forest and Mines in the government of William Hearst from 1914 to 1919. Ferguson became leader of the Conservative Party upon the defeat of the Hearst government that year.
In the 1923 election, the Ontario Conservative Party came to power under Ferguson's leadership by defeating the United Farmers of Ontario-Labour coalition government of Ernest C. Drury. The Tories won 75 of the 111 seats in the legislature. Ferguson's government encouraged private investment in industry and the development of the province's natural resources as a means of achieving prosperity. It was re-elected in the 1926 election with 72 seats, and in 1929 with 90 seats.
In 1911, Ferguson argued in the legislature that "no language other than English should be used as a medium of instruction in the schools of this Province," despite the fact that a significant proportion of the population was French-Canadian. Sectarian politics was still rife in Ontario, and the Conservatives relied on a base of Orange support. Ferguson was prepared to pander to the Orangemen with anti-Catholic and anti-French rhetoric.
In 1912, the Ontario government passed Regulation 17, which restricted the use of French language instruction to a minimum. This legislation outraged Quebec, and was an irritant to national unity during the First World War. When Ferguson became Premier, he reversed himself by moderating the legislation and allowing more French language instruction. His government, however, refused to extend funding for the Catholic Separate school system past Grade Eight.
Ferguson's reversal on Regulation 17 was a concession needed for his alliance with Quebec Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau. Ferguson and Taschereau formed an axis against the federal government to demand more provincial rights and defend the provinces' ownership of natural resources such as water power (i.e., hydro-electric generation).
The Ferguson government, eager for new tax revenue, also held a plebiscite to soften the province's temperance laws. A slim majority voted against prohibition, leading Ferguson's government permit the sale of beer with an alcohol content of no more than 4.4%. Such brew became known as Fergie's foam.
In 1927, the government introduced legislation to establish the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and allow the sale of alcohol by government-owned and operated liquor stores. The Tories' moderate stance on temperance allowed them to isolate the Liberals who, until 1930, took a hard prohibitionist stance opposing even regulated liquor sales. The Liberals' position alienated all but the most hard-line temperance advocates.
The Tories remained hostile to labour and immigrants, and were not prepared to provide social relief when the Great Depression threw thousands out of work and into poverty. The Ferguson government also opposed federal government plans for an old age pension.
- Oliver, Peter. G. Howard Ferguson : Ontario Tory. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1977.
- Oliver, Peter. Public & private persons : the Ontario political culture 1914-1934. Toronto : Clarke Irwin, 1975.
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