Peter Heenan started life as the son of an Irish labourer. By the time of his death, he was an esteemed politician in his adopted country of Canada, travelling the world to meet government and trade union leaders. He had met the Prince Of Wales and had a road named after him.
This rags to riches kind of tale began in Tullaree, County Monaghan, Ireland, where Peter Heenan was born on February 19, 1875. He was the third child of Peter Heenan and Margaret Rogers.
Travelling the World
When Peter (junior) was seven years old the family left Ireland to settle in Workington, Cumberland, England where his father gained work as a labourer. After he left school, Peter (junior) began working as a colliery boy at the St Helen’s Colliery. He tired of that and tried his hands (or rather his feet) as a professional footballer. A further change of direction saw him qualify as a locomotive engineer, and headed for Costa Rica to work for a construction company. When he succumbed to yellow fever he had to return to England.
Within a very short time he was on the move again, this time emigrating to Canada where at the age of 27 he settled at Kenora, Ontario and continued to work as an engineer. In his early forties he became interested in politics and became actively involved with the labour councils of Ontario. He was elected as the Labour representative for Kenora to the Ontario Legislature in 1919, with re-election in 1926 and 1930. As Minister of Labour, he came to be known as “Peter The Peacemaker” for settling 160 labour disputes in his first three years.
In 1926 he travelled to Europe where he presented Canada at the British Commonwealth Conference, taking the opportunity to connect with politicians in London and spend an hour with the Prince of Wales.
Return to Irish Roots
The visit saw him return to Ireland for the first time in 47 years. In between meetings with Irish Ministers of State and MPs, travelled to his old home townland where he met his only surviving relative – his father’s sister.
A report of the visit was published in The Northern Whig in May 1928 (reproduced below)
HOME AFTER 40 YEARS
The Hon, Peter Heenan, Minister of Labour for Canada, and County Down man, arrived in Liverpool on Saturday on the Canadian-Pacific liner Minnedoea, and is to visit Ireland at the conclusion of the League of Nations Labour Conference at Geneva, where he is attending the Canadian delegate.
“I want to see my old Irish thatched roof home again, after forty years,” said Mr. Heenan in an interview. “I have faced many vicissitudes since I left my farm cottage home in Tullaree, County Down, in 1888, when I set out with my bundle shoulder. Little did I dream that I should go to Canada a stranger and forty years later put off my overalls to take up the cares of office at the Ministry of Labour for that great Dominion”.
Mr. Heenan became a railway worker at Kenora, Northern Ontario, and in due course a public representative in many capacities, culminating in his appointment to the Ministry eighteen months ago. This the first holiday he has taken for forty years. I shall have a good time,” he said. “First to Geneva as a delegate to the League of Nations Labour Conference, then I am taking my wife, son, and daughter to Workington, to see the place where I spent my boyhood before I went off to Canada. Then across to Ireland to cast my eyes once again on the tumble-down cottage where I was born. ‘‘The only remaining relative in Ireland is my father’s sister, aged 86, who anxious to see me again.”
Heenan Highway Opens
In 1934 Peter resigned his federal seat in order to seek election to the provincial government. He became the Minister of Lands and Forest, responsible for natural resources development.
His support for the community of Kenora was celebrated in 1936 when a new section of highway was named in his honour. Opening the Heenan Highway, the Premier of Ontario Mitchel F Hepburn, paid tribute to Peter Heenan’s endeavours on behalf of Ontario. He singled out Heenan’s work to introduce two pieces of legislation – the Mother’s Allowance Act, and the Old Age Pensions Act.
Peter Heenan died in Toronto in 1948 at the age of 73. In his obituary the Star-Phoenix newspaper said his term as Minister of Labour was notable as a period of industrial peace to which he had greatly contributed.
He was survived by his wife Annie Priscilla (Fawcett) whom he had married in Manitoba in 1907. The couple had two daughters and three sons, When Annie Priscilla died in 1952, the children were living in Ottawa and Toronto.
Peter Heenan and Annie Priscilla are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Canada.