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A Note on Lord Strathcona

In scanning the career of Lord Strathcona, who died in January, 1914, it is but natural that the fact which, at the time of his passing, seemed to excite the interest of the world at large was the enormous fortune that he accumulated, and the munificent use that he made of it. But apart from his high position in world-finance, his life had other aspects of more romantic interest. Other men have risen from humble beginnings to almost unlimited financial power, but few have evinced the taste for public affairs, and have taken the hearty enjoyment in public service, that characterized Strathcona. The great capitalist, as a rule, shuns political life, and interests himself in public affairs only when the conservation of his own interests and the stability of the nation's credit are at stake. But Strathcona, or Donald Smith as he was known in his humble beginning, was different. He embodied in the nth degree the eternal Scotsman—particularly the Scotsman of the Highland strain—without who the British Empire as we know it to-day would have been impossible. In every part of the world the extension of British influence has largely been the work of men such as himself, some of whom have risen to enormous wealth and influence, some of who have died poor, but all of whom have displayed great executive capacity, combined with a high order of imagination, which characterizes the Highland Scotsman in his finest development.

The debt that Canada owes to Scotland has been eloquently recorded by many writers, and similar obligations exist not alone in Canada but in Australia, New Zealand, and all the overseas Dominions. The same is true of many countries not under the British flag. Throughout the United States, throughout South America, throughout the seven seas, the "Highland brigade" have been the couriers of Empire—of British influence. In common with the other branches of the British people, they have won eminence in the pioneer work of the explorer, the soldier, and the sailor; but, in the task of developing, holding, and extending the territory and the advantages so gained, they have played the paramount part. It was as the Highland Scotsman, par excellence—the man uniting executive genius with a great creative imagination, that Lord Strathcona acted a predominant role in the drama of Canadian development. That he was wily in attaining his own ends and unremitting in his pursuit of them will hardly be denied. The expansive delight that he took in the power that was his was also eminently characteristic of his breed.

On this continent it is the custom, when a man has made a great fortune, to endeavour to find for him beginnings of a squalid character—to exaggerate the poverty in which he was reared. Some years ago, when the late Charles W. Fairbanks was aspiring to Presidential nomination in the United States, he felt himself so handicapped by the lack of a log cabin in his ancestry that he invented one. It was, therefore, to be expected that fabulous accounts of the distressful conditions under which Strathcona was born should get into print. One American newspaper of high standing even said that at his birth his mother had not sufficient clothing for her new-born bairn, a tale associated with the birth of Lincoln.

Such was not the type of youths that the Hudson's Bay Company sent to Canada in the early years of the nineteenth century to conserve its vast interests. They were soundly educated young men, with a knowledge of accounts, and with the executive capacity to govern the trading posts to which they were assigned; they were also intrepid men with the roving impulse upon them, who felt, as no race has felt quite so keenly as the Highland Scotsman, the "call of the wild". Lord Strathcona was himself authority for the statement that before he entered the service of "the Great Company" he had contemplated the study of law. It is possible that if he had not been inspired by the career of his mother's brother, John Stewart, a fur trader, who with Simon Fraser had helped to explore the Fraser River in 1808, he might have remained at home and distinguished himself as a Writer to the Signet. His own addresses show that from the time he was sent to Labrador as a youth of eighteen in 1838, he grasped the possibilities of Canada as a whole. It was his happy lot to play a great part in the development of a wilderness into a wealthy, commercially aggressive and aspiring nation, and there is no doubt that to the outside world he was the living symbol of Canadian development.

It was his grasp of affairs that found him, while yet under fifty, at the head of the Hudson's Bay Company, though a man as yet unknown to fame in the outer world. The great events of the sixties, out of which was born the Dominion of Canada, brought him to the fore as a national figure. These involved the acquirement of the vast territories hitherto governed by the factors of the Hudson's Bay Company, who were at once traders and law-givers. In the negotiations for the transfer he necessarily played an important part. The people of the scantily populated West did not welcome the change. Open rebellion was the result in Manitoba, and the Company did not escape the charge of having connived at Riel's attempt to establish an independent nation on the prairies. It was Donald Smith, the Company's chief factor, who stepped in when Hon. William Macdougall, Colonel de Salaberry and others had failed, and paved the way for a bloodless settlement, and who was deputed by Colonel Garnet Wolseley to restore civil order at Fort Garry. The discretion that the experienced fur-trader showed in handling the French-Canadian half-breed facilitated in a large degree the project of peacefully uniting Canada from ocean to ocean. This was one of the many important steps leading up to the final consummation whereby the West was linked to the East literally by bands of steel.

From that day forward the name of Donald Smith was definitely linked with every episode in the development of the Canadian West. He applied himself to the great problem of transportation, and to his financial influence, which his cousin George Stephen (afterward Lord Mountstephen) persuaded him to exert, was due the fact that a project which many of the ablest men in this country regarded as a fantastic dream, became a living reality. To Macdonald and Tupper, who made the Canadian Pacific Railway a political possibility, and to Strathcona, Stephen and their friends, who staked their all to make it a financial possibility, Canada owes its existence as a cohesive nation.

Yet the early years of Strathcona's political career, which began when he was fifty, could not have been very happy. From 1870 he was one of the small contingent which represented Manitoba in the House of Commons at Ottawa, and, as has been pointed out, it showed an exceptional quality in a financier that he was willing to accept the cares of public life under such conditions. He was the butt for constant attack. He was accused constantly of being member for the Hudson's Bay Company rather than the representative of his constituents. Men like Dr. Schultz, afterwards Governor of Manitoba, did not hesitate to accuse him of sedition. He recognized no considerations of party loyalty, and stood above and beyond party—in a sense "monarch of all he surveyed". It is not recorded that he ever openly quarreled with anybody, but Macdonald and Tupper assuredly quarreled with him, and he had to withstand bitter castigation from their lips.

By those who were on the inside of politics he was generally credited with being the man chiefly responsible for the defeat of Sir John Macdonald's ministry in 1873, and he gave his support to Hon. Alexander Mackenzie during the brief regime of the latter as Prime Minister of Canada. Unquestionably he inspired in Mackenzie a aster conception of the possibilities of the Dominion than was held by the other leaders of his party. Donald Smith's breach with the Conservative party was healed on its return to power in 1878, through the mediation of Sir Charles Tupper, who, in common with him, desired above all things the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway . Undoubtedly he bitterly resented his defeat in 1880 at the hands of the electors of Winnipeg, whom he rightly thought he had served well. It is doubtful whether he ever had much affection for Winnipeg afterward, but retirement from political life enabled him to pursue his great aim of pressing the C.P.R. forward to completion. His taste for political life, however, was shown when he re-entered Parliament in 1887 as member for Montreal West, and he came forward as a candidate for the Conservative party at a time when many believed that its fortunes were declining. The shift of 1896, whereby he succeeded his friend Sir Charles Tupper as Canadian High Commissioner at London, when the latter became leader of the Conservative party, was happier in the outcome for himself than for Sir Charles; and, moreover, was extremely fortunate in its result for the Dominion of Canada.

Among the many striking elements of Lord Strathcona's character not the least was the fact that he loved money, not for itself, but for what he could do with it. He was one of those rare being who could, so to speak, breed money, but it was probably the consciousness that money was power that constituted its appeal for him. No man in any country was more princely in his gifts to all charitable, artistic, and educational objects, or more inspired by a sense of patriotism in the bestowal of them. Colossal as was his individuality in many of its aspects, he was nevertheless profoundly human, and dowered with Scottish cunning. He was typical of the unique race from which he sprang, and also of the great land in which he wrought his amazing career. That career is interwoven with the history of the formative period of the greater Canada, and his place in our annals is "fixed as the northern star." It is not only doubtful whether we shall look upon his like again, but whether the changing conditions of this country will in future afford equal scope for another genius of his type. The personality of no Canadian who has since represented this country abroad, has possessed in anything like an equal degree, the glamour of romance. And this glamour has been perpetuated in death, for the ambitious Scottish youth who began his career in the wilds of Labrador lies entombed in the Pantheon of Britain's greatness, Westminster Abbey.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.