Monday, October 4, 2010

Lord Strathcona

Just finished a first-rate biography by Donna McDonald: Lord Strathcona: A Biography of Donald Alexander Smith. A number of places and things in Canada are named after this guy (1820-1914): he is in the middle of a famous photo called "The Last Spike," commemorating the completion of the CPR in November 1885, shortly after the end of the second Riel rebellion (he was a major investor in the CPR); he was a personal emissary from the government of Canada who negotiated with Louis Riel during the first rebellion in 1869-70; as he made the transition from Hudson's Bay Company employee to general investor and businessman, he contributed to the encouragement of the settlement of the Canadian west (and made much of his money from American railroads). He was a member of the Manitoba legislature for a number of years, even though his interests often caused him to be substantially east of there; a member of Parliament in Ottawa; Canadian High Commissioner in London toward the end of his life.

I still can't tell whether he was very deep or very shallow. A hard worker, he was known for his kindness when poor and for his philanthropy once he was rich. He remained faithful to the the Presbyterian religion he grew up with, but insisted that people of different faiths were all approaching the same God. His wife was Métis, and he was always trusted by the Métis of Western Canada, and by Father Lacombe who ministered to them; he and Lacombe could well remember the days when the original "first nations" were fading from the scene, and the Métis enjoyed a golden age as buffalo hunters.

Some funny moments. He and Sir John A. Macdonald, along with Macdonald's loyal ally, George Cartier, hit it off initially, but then eventually had a falling out over the Pacific Scandal. John A. was accused of offering American railroad interests (led by yet another Scot, Sir Hugh Allan) the opportunity to build the CPR provided they first supplied him with money for his campaign. Some actual documents emerged that seemed to confirm this accusation. John A. had some success in defending himself, but at crucial moments he retreated from the scene, and probably spent a lot of time drunk. One problem was that he couldn't actually remember signing all the letters that had been produced--he had been drunk when he signed--and he was convinced that there were probably more damning letters somewhere that he had totally forgotten. At one point McDonald's government could win a confidence vote if Strathcona, still Donald Smith at the time, cast the deciding vote in favour. In a private meeting, John A. piled on the charm, but then apparently turned abusive. Smith was already inclined to vote against the government because a leader should not only be upright, but appear so. He voted non-confidence.
... The problem, as he saw it, was not that Macdonald had accepted Allan's contribution to his party's electoral expenses. It was that Allan had believed the money was not a donation but a bribe; he believed he was purchasing the railway contract and Macdonald disregarded this fact, either because it was convenient for him to do so or because he was too drunk to recognize how others would interpret the transaction. This, in Donald's view, was a grave error. It was not enough for a prime minister, especially of such a new nation, to be honourable: he had to be seen to be honourable. (p. 220)

There was a severe falling out between them for years, but eventually they became staunch allies again. Much later, one of Strathcona's charitable causes was the support of John A.'s widow.

Another highlight: Strathcona was constantly urging Europeans to settle in the Canadian west. In some countries this activity was actually illegal. 1898:
"The arrogance of the Canadian, Lord Strathcona," fulminated the Hamburger Nachrichten, "and the utter disrespect shown by him for the laws of the Empire in publicly conducting his emigration propaganda on German soil and in the very teeth of the authorities, demand that vigorous representations should be made at once to the British Government which is, we presume, still responsible for this Colony. While apart from the weakening of the Fatherland which the success of such propaganda entails, the attempt to lure our fellow-countrymen to this desolate, sub-arctic region is, upon human grounds alone, to be denounced as criminal. (421)

In 1900, Strathcona personally raised and funded some troops for the Boer War. They were unofficially known as "rough riders," and I was hoping that this was the real source for the names of a couple of Canadian football teams from my childhood. It turns out they were probably both named after Teddy Roosevelt's Roughriders, formed in 1898.

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