Canadian Transport Sourcebook

[ Home | All Works | List of Authors | By Date | Contact ]
Canadian Transport Sourcebook > All works> Lord Strathcona > Chapter 13

Chapter XIII

The Reconciliation

Meanwhile, what of "Donald A?"

Not very long after the second of the two really momentous appearances which may be said to exhaust our interest in the strictly parliamentary side of his life, Smith disappeared from Ottawa for a while; forever from what Sir John had unkindly, but not untruly, called the rotten borough of Selkirk. His haunts among the ballot-mongering Métis knew him no more. It happened in this wise. In 1878, as we all know, honest Alexander Mackenzie, perpendicular as his own plumb-line, fell by the wayside, and ceased to be first minister of the Crown.1 He perished by the too negative rectitude of a let-alone policy which was too meticulously safe to be successful, and too conscious of the vanity of human fiscal effort to be either interesting or enterprising. In spite of his untiring thrift and integrity, his penny wisdom in the pressing affair of railways, his inveterate love of canals, and his incapacity to cut the losses of that Avernian road, the Dawson route, cost the country tens of thousands of pounds. British Columbia, all the North-West, and even Smith himself at heart had been sick of his dilatory virtue and lily-white inactivity. A stern economist and spotless Rabbi of the Manchester Pentateuch, he was the very pedant of religious non-interference in all trade matters which, by the gospel of his faith according to Cobden, meant that man, that "fly on the wheel," could do no more to direct or deflect them from the orbit marked out for them from all eternity by majestic cosmic laws than Canute could to turn the tide. Sir John was in power again. Nothing but death could snatch the sceptre from his grip. He sat there till he was carried out feet foremost, enthroned on the two rocks whereon he built that State which was all the Church he cared for, the rocks of the National Policy and the transcontinental railway. These twin pillars implied each other, and all Smith's natural affinities were for both. He respected Mackenzie deeply, but in all burning questions of public action his whole heart and mind assented to Sir John. The other statesman's timid fumbling with the urgent need of the hour, steel rails to Vancouver, was a sore trial to his "independent" supporter, who had frequent cause to feel that the country, and especially his part of it, could better spare a better man than the joyous old sinner of a Greatheart who seemed now to have broken with him forever. One can hardly doubt that the five years of general drift were beginning, in the depths of his slowly-revolving mind, to make themselves increasingly felt as a long enough fast-day and season of prayer and humiliation for his ancient allies, whose crime after all, had been the too fiery intemperance of their eagerness to get things done by hook or crook. Like all governments that had their spell at the troughs of office, they had needed to be hung up in the wind for a while to dry. That process of oxygenation might now be regarded as fairly complete. At any rate they came back with a rush, leaner and more wary, if not sadder and wiser, men. One of their first cares, too, was to repay in kind the benefactor they had so largely to thank for their refreshing interval of rest and their spacious place of repentance. The pious debt was soon discharged; the member for Selkirk was given a long, indeed a permanent, leave from the labours of his Western constituency.

At first, things ran in the familiar well-worn grooves. In 1878, Selkirk had duly returned him as an Independent, repudiating with an earnestness that betokened the struggling dawn of a new light the hostile nickname "Mackenzie-ite." Unfortunately, the election had features which appeared to call for judicial examination. Hudson's Bay bills had been observed to burn abnormally large holes in half-breed pockets during those days. The shebeens of Winnipeg had done a roaring trade, a Noah's flood of tea had boiled upon its stones. Two judges looked into those phenomena and their possible connection with the results at the polls. The first had found the ballots white as snow. But Ottawa had been invaded by a sudden zeal for electoral specklessness which could not rest until assurance had been made doubly sure that there was nothing rotten in the state of Selkirk. The new brooms there, once far from free from germs themselves, were bound to sweep quite clean. So a second judge was invited to the microscope, whose diligence was rewarded by the discovery that his learned predecessor in this delicate case had once, a long time ago, borrowed money from the successful candidate absolved by him, the defendant in it. It would have been rather a distinction if he had not. To whom had Smith not lent money? He had long understood the gentle art of reckoning compound interest at seven per cent., ever since the days, in fact, when he had had occasion to lay out his weekly savings out of his salary of twenty pounds a year. The admirable habit had at last proved to have its disadvantages. Judgment was given against him. At the bye-election which followed, the now omnipotent Sir John, free to concentrate all the batteries of every conceivable kind of influence upon the lonely Fort Garry, had no difficulty in finding the means to ensure the desertion of its half-breed garrison. These in fact, turned upon the band of their old shepherd, seeing all of a sudden that he was not longer the fit and proper man for them. So, Smith ceased to feed them, and entered into an abiding rest from that sort of pastoral care and a holiday of no less than nine years from all parliamentary anxieties and wrangles.

He retired with a very good grace into a vigilant obscurity. He had never thrust himself into the public eye and just then, as it happened, it suited him very well to lie low. He made himself wisely scarce. He was keenly, though quite inconspicuously, interested in certain complicated, sometimes very uncertain, and always vitally critical, dealings with the government on the part of a combination of Montreal business friends of his, the new charter-holders of the C. P. R. These dealings marked like mile-stones several distinct points of departure in that arduous enterprise and it was his modest love of the shade, his steady abstinence from obtruding himself upon the notice of one of the high contracting powers, which contributed not a little to the smoothness of those highly sensitive negotiations. For the occupants of the treasury benches were supposed, more perhaps by a face-saving fiction that otherwise, to be still hot in their hearts against him. It can scarcely have been more than skin-deep. Sir John's nimble apprehensiveness could not have missed shrewd suspicions. Where Stephen was acknowledged head of the railway building firm, Smith was sure to be not far away. Who was it (when he needed them for necessary purposes), that said of the St. Paul–Minneapolis adventurers (for being one of whom he had once scurrilously abused Smith): "Catch 'em for the C. P. R. while their pockets are bursting with Yankee gold?" The saying bears its father on its face. The fact is that the rank and file of the party would never have forgiven even Macdonald for showing the least mercy to the "traitor," the Judas who had betrayed him with a kiss. Therefore, the traitor remained judiciously silent like a scapegoat in his wilderness, keeping a sharp look-out from a rock of wide view there, and sometimes signalling across the solitude to the High Priest's intimates on the verdant side of Jordan.

But this tragedy of revenge, which had long been a good deal of a farce, could not go on very much longer before an audience not entirely composed of hissing geese. Even Smith could no do good by stealth forever and a sentence of nine years' banishment from their beloved debating-society was enough to sate the indictive passions even of Sir John's most truculent sectaries. When the feverish night-mare of that road-making through all sorts of spectre-haunted bogs and over the dizzy mountain-barriers had ended at last in a brilliant dawn and a reveillé of fame's trumpeting cock-crows, when Stephen was now Sir George, and plain Smith, Sir Donald, with two peaks of the Rocky Mountains called by their names, when anyone could buy for twopence the far-flung photograph of Donald A. at Craigellachie, cheek by jowl with Sandford Fleming and Van Horne, and see in it the execrated pariah bending to the hammer-stroke that made the last spike ring "finis" to that thrilling chapter of Imperial history, there could be no more dissembling. The winter of internecine discontent was over. Donald and John, reunited by the very same railway which had played a great part in divorcing them, could kiss and make friends before all the world without a blush, like righteousness and peace. The formal reconciliation took place in a Montreal club. Whether what each man said to the other was worthy of the occasion, no man knoweth; what each felt in his heart he confided only to his wife, if even to her; but after such a conference of a powers, Smith could go back to his natural fold and be welcomed by the ninety and nine who had never left it. What he had ever to do even as an "independent" in that galley whose horned crew had never ceased to stand factiously in Sir John's way (which was also Smith's, though few knew it at the time), clamorously and persistently butting and blocking at every successive stage of its labouring advance the greatest work of their two lives, both so crammed with deeds? Smith was now in his element among his peers who had never in the darkest hour despaired of the commonwealth, the makers of the two things that have stood, the National Policy, and the C. P. R., and heartily at one with them in both. So, too, on the other side. When Montreal West, in the year 1887, returned by acclamation the illustrious Doyen of its much fewer equestrian citizens, Chancellor of McGill University, joint-founder of the Royal Victoria Hospital, sole founder of the Royal Victoria College, no Conservative felt, and scarcely a single Liberal dared to hint, that the diligent nursing of that constituency, the dinners and garden parties in the palace on Dorchester Street, the cost of any one of which would have inundated Red River with its favourite Bohea for a month of Sundays, were scandals crying loudly for investigation by the High Courts of the Dominion. And when one fine evening in the fall of 1887 the "bear" of May the tenth, 1878 was conducted to his seat once more, this time on the right hand, the joy in those high halls was most evangelically unconfined, reducing all envious voices to silence. Sir John and Tupper who, almost the last time they saw him there, had made his "blood run cold with war-whoops," now led the ringing cheer.

After this edifying scene of reconciliation, the course of the member for the Hudson's Bay Company ran smooth, unbroken and wholesomely dull. Such events and dates as it had, have already been sufficiently indicated. Thenceforward, he enjoyed to the full the parliamentary happiness which comes of having no history. And yet, if all tales be true, he had but a narrow escape from further lively times in the old arena. There was a moment just before he quitted it for good when it seemed as if he might have been chained there by a life-sentence. There is reason to believe that when Sir Charles Tupper, in 1896, was summoned from England to succeed Sir Mackenzie Bowell in the headship of the Conservative party, a section of that party were by no means oppressed by longing for his return. There was a certain robustness in the methods of Sir Charles which, in the eyes of some of the faithful on his own side, appears to have gained in beauty by distance. They liked him best in London. So, rather an active intrigue was set on foot to keep him there in his place as High Commissioner, and entrust the conduct of the party to Sir Donald Smith.

What would have happened had it succeeded? One thing at least is fairly sure. Smith could not have won an election which the "old war-horse" failed to win. The fact is, no one could have won it for that band. In the periodicity of politics, which seems to be just as sure as the ebb and flow of the tides, the Liberals' time had come round again. Their rivals had by that time quite gone to pieces. They could not so much as make a decent show of coherence among themselves. It was well for Smith that a kind fate spared him the hopeless task of attempting to lead to victory what could only begin to be cured by shattering defeat, and of reorganizing that mass of staleness. More time was needed than even he could spare them at his age, though he did live to see them in power again, time for better impulses to grow in the chill air and sobering shades of adversity, time, too, for fresh blood to spring up and mature. Donald A. had, it is true, shown much power of adaptation, and played almost as many parts as Shakespeare assigns to man's life in general. Without ever dropping a single activity he had once taken up, or throwing any of his masks away, he had, like an ancient actor, exchanged each in turn for a fresh one with a loftier brow-piece and a more swelling robe. Continually self-surpassed, he had always moved on and up from what might have been well enough for most other people, to something better still. But would this have been better? The new rôle would scarcely have suited him. For a long time to come it would have been one not of action but of mere criticism, and Donald Smith was no wizard in mordancy. The oil-can came much more natural to him than the vitriol-flask. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, carrying on the fiscal principles which were anathema to the most eloquent of his own supporters, and going one better on railways than the often excoriated recklessness of his predecessors in office, resembled an upside-down Sir Robert Peel much more strikingly than Donald A. in Opposition would have recalled the brilliance of Disraeli rubbing in the brine of such little inconsistencies. The next great issue for us after Confederation, and the National Policy and C. P. R. which were the corollary and crown of Confederation, has been for some time, and still is to-day, the part we shall play in that to which all these have led up the closer clamping together of our—in all but spirit—utterly ramshackle Empire. On that truly living issue, the greatest of all, Donald Smith would have been quite sound in every fibre, but he would not have been a more resolute or creative leader along that path of destiny than Sir Robert Borden.

On the whole, then, we may be glad that things happened as they did. Tupper fought a gallant though a fruitless fight in Canada, adding new lustre to a reputation already great, and made room in London for a High Commissioner who was, as it were, cut out by endowment and experience for the precise measure of his chair. Nothing in Smith's parliamentary life became him better or turned out more happily for him than the leaving of it. The time had come when he could do his best service at the centre.

1 See Parkin: "Sir John A. Macdonald."

[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.