Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews

Lord Strathcona


In 1897 the Herald’s College, London, was constrained to produce a coat of arms for a newly created baron.  The occasion demanded an excursion into a fresh field for emblems, and the daggers, mailed hands, the castles and collared wolves that commemorated feudal prowess and old-world achievements had to be laid aside.  The only thing the college did not abandon was a lion rampant and the jargon, but even the lion was only half a lion and the jargon sounded like a voyageur’s song played upon a sackbut.  The arms you may see here reproduced, and if you want to hear the modern tune on the mediaeval instrument here it is: “Arms, Gules on a fesse argent between a demi-lion rampant in chief or, and a canoe of the last with four men paddling proper, in the bow a flag of the second, flowing to the dexter, inserted with the letters N.W. Sable in base.  A hammer surmounted by a nail in Saltere of the last.  Crest, on a mount, vert, a beaver eating into a maple tree proper. Motto, Perseverance.”
     The arms were to be borne by Lord Strathcona, who had begun life as plain Donald A. Smith.  He was born in the year 1820 at Archieston, Morayshire, Scotland.  At the age of eighteen he entered the service of the Hudson Bay Company, and his career began.  He chose to ally himself with the ancient institution that had its charter from Charles I, because his family had been from very early in its history connected with the company and Northwest trade.  He had been educated for the Civil Service in India, but the glamor of a life of adventure in the far North had greater attractions for the ambitious youth than the enervating routine of official circles in the East.
     At that time if one had prophesied for Mr. Smith the eventful career he has had the prediction would have been met with incredulous shrugs.  The company was ancient and honorable, and there [page 71] were comfortable profits to be made in a manner that was so systematized that failure was almost impossible.  After a certain term of years he might be sure of retiring as many another with a comfortable income, and if he were supremely successful he might in the end be the governor of the company, but beyond the stockade that hedged the institution it might have been foretold that he would not go.
     And for many years it appeared that Mr. Smith was to have a slow advancement, even within the company.  He served for thirteen years on the Labrador coast, thirteen years in an inhuman climate, with no companionship save a few employees and his own thoughts; learning the secrets of the company, how to manage Indians, and how to produce the best returns.  It was gradually discovered, for the authorities of the company were in haste about nothing, that in Donald A. Smith they had a servant with the valuable knack of turning everything to account.  No matter how poor the post, he always showed a balance on the right side of the ledger.  But there are very few young gentlemen of the present day who would be willing to found a fortune upon thirteen years in Labrador, those thirteen magical years between eighteen and thirty-one.
     Things happen, nevertheless, even in a country without people, and when they happen they have value, and you think about them afterwards.  For instance, at one of Mr. Smith’s posts he laid out a small graveyard beside the sea.  There was no person in particular to bury, but a graveyard is an inevitable attachment to a house of life, and so it was furnished and kept in order.  And one day an American sloop came into the little harbor.  It must have been a good thing to see strangers who had nothing whatever to do with the concern.  They were sportsmen; they admired the trim post and everything about it and the graveyard.  “Yes,” one of them said.  “I should wish to be buried here, this is the spot where I should like to lie with that grand expanse of sea ever before me.”  On board the sloop that very night the man died of apoplexy, and his friends buried him in the post graveyard.
     The life of monotonous adventure breeds men who have self-reliance and a sureness of judgment in a degree corresponding to their natural endowments, and Mr. Smith had an unusual mental equipment for these circumstances to work upon and develop.  As a proof that no experience, even the dullest is ever lost, the fact may be emphasized that Mr. Smith would never have been able to carry [page 72] out schemes that had to encounter such definite material obstacles as lay in the path of the Canadian Pacific Railway had not his training in the wilderness taught him that such obstacles were dissolved by mere application of mental energy.  In all such circumstances the words of the old buccaneer might be quoted: “Brains will beat grim death if we have enough of them.”
     Mr. Smith was a product of the Hudson Bay company, and there is one thing to be remarked about the company and that is the vigor of its management and the power it has always shown of adapting itself to new conditions.  At the present time in the outlying posts business is done in much the same way as it was done one hundred years ago.  They use the same kind of clumsy fur press, and you will find them clinging to customs that elsewhere commerce has long ago abandoned.  At one of these posts I have eaten potatoes grown from seed brought in fifty years before.  The factor said they were the best potatoes in the world.  They were as large as glass alleys and had the consistency of beeswax.  At the same time in populous districts you will find the company’s retail stores doing a modern trade in a modern way.  This shrewdness of management has led to a selection always of the best available men for any given post, and Mr. Smith profited by the long experience of men and affairs that had preceded his apprenticeship.
     Upon his removal in 1851 to the Northwest he entered upon the direct path that brought him into public life.  It is doubtful whether there will ever be any local politics in Labrador, and it was well that Mr. Smith was transferred to the Northwest just when the territory was upon the eve of change.  He passed through all the grades of Trader, Chief Trader, Factor, Chief Factor, until, in 1869, he was appointed Resident Governor, and so far as the Hudson Bay Company was concerned he had achieved the ultimate.
     He did not rest here.  A chain of untoward circumstances soon forced him into prominence, and his own great genius has kept him to the present time in the forefront of Canadian and Imperial affairs.  About the year 1868 it became obvious that in the interests of the Canadian Federation of the title of the Hudson Bay Company to the territory over which they had had for so many years absolute control should pass to the Crown.  It was arranged that the sum of ₤300,000 and large reserves of land should represent the value of the charter, and the transfer was to be made.  But when the new Lieutenant-Governor came to possess himself of his power he was [page 73] turned back upon the borders of his domain by a handful of people who did not recognize his authority.  These were the Métis, the half-breeds of the plains, who had not been consulted in the new arrangement, and who, therefore, viewed it with natural suspicion and distrust.  Their leader was a fanatic, one Louis Riel, who was properly hanged after his second rebellion in 1885.
     In this extremity the Canadian government called upon three men of influence to inquire into the causes of the disturbance.  The future Lord Strathcona was one of these men, and his opportunity to apply his consummate tact to a severe problem of government had come.  For the first time his great prudence, his silent courage became manifest to an audience wider than the shareholders of a trading company.  His was the power that held the recalcitrant race in check until Wolseley, toiling through the iron wilderness, north of Lake Superior, arrived with his handful of volunteers.  Then the rebellion disappeared as it had come, like a sudden thundercloud.
     It left Donald S. Smith quite the most powerful man in the West.  He was thanked by the Governor in Council, and during the next year he was elected to the House of Commons.  In Canada political strife has always been bitter, and there it requires a man of great individuality to be superior to the claims of party.  Mr. Smith naturally gave his adherence to the party in power a Conservative government led by Sir John A. Macdonald in whose hands was the destiny of the West.  But that party was to learn that Mr. Smith was to be no slavish adherent.
     In the Atlantean task of building a railway from ocean to ocean this government fell upon evil days.  It became evident that it had trafficked with contractors and taken money for election purposes.  The excitement in the country was intense, but in the House of Commons it centered.  There in the first days of November, 1873, the question was fought to a finish.  The House had to divide upon a motion of the Hon. Alexander McKenzie, the leader of the opposition to Sir John Macdonald.  In a telling and dramatic speech Sir John threw himself upon the mercy of the House and the country.  It became evident as the debate proceeded that one or two votes would decide the fate of the government.
     At one o’clock in the morning of November 5, Mr. Smith got upon his feet.  His utterance was to be oracular, for he and the people he represented were most vitally concerned in the building of a railway necessary to their existence.  It has been his device never to [page 74] allow anyone to know what he is going to do until he has done it.  When that has transpired it seems tremendously worth while; the only right thing to have done.  This scene was to be a case in point.
     The House that had been before in a whirlpool of excited noise fell into a dead calm.  Even until his closing words it was not evident whether he would adhere to his party or desert it.  His speech was delivered into intense silence interrupted by hysterical bursts of applause.  “For the honor of the country no government should exist that has a shadow of suspicion resting upon it, and for that reason I cannot give it my support.”
     These were his closing words, capped by frantic ecstatic cheers from the opposition with which he had sided.  The government was doomed, and for the moment it seemed that D.A. Smith’s was the only name to the death warrant.  The House broke up in disorder.  In the corridors the members rushed together, cheering and handshaking, or reviling and threatening.  Suddenly there was a storm center around Mr. Smith, upon whom Sir John was bearing down.  He was held back, gesticulating wildly.  What he said never got into the blue books.  His language was sometimes “frequent, and painful, and free.”  He cried out, “I’d slap your face as quick as hell would scorch a feather.”  From which it would appear that Mr. Smith had something to forgive.
     But they both forgave, and in after years, side by side, the great politician and the great financier built the Canadian Pacific Railway.  It was in no idle spirit of laudation that Sir Charles Tupper stated that, “had it not been for Mr. Smith’s indomitable pluck, energy and determination, the road would never have been constructed.”  Mr. Smith very early recognized the fact that in his country the railroad must precede colonization.  He had faith in the West, and his first investment was in the purchase of a bankrupt railroad, the St. Paul & Pacific, that afterwards became a great factor in the development of Manitoba.
     When the deal was announced by which a number of Montreal financiers obtained possession of the shares held in the road by Dutch bondholders the wiseacres shook their heads.  Even some of the speculators quailed.  At least, they have a legend in the city under the mountain that they all went to church one Sunday morning and the preacher dealt so grievously with them that one at least trembled.  It seemed that the message was for them alone.  But it turned out that the Lord was on the side of the big battalions once [page 75] more.  For there could be no greater force at the back of an enterprise than the vast, undeveloped West, with its limitless resources.
     The St. Paul and Pacific developed into a system, with St. Paul for a terminus, that assisted materially in developing the North-western states and in building up Manitoba.  In truth, Lord Strathcona’s great financial ability and his power of forming combinations and inspiring men with his own ideals and hopes received their first opportunity for application and development in connection with American enterprise.
     Mr. J.J. Hill stated the truth when he said at St. Paul in 1893, “The one person to whose efforts and to whose confidence in the growth of our country our success in early railway development is due is Sir D.A. Smith.”
     In 1886 came Mr. Smith’s first Imperial honor.  He was created a Knight of St. Michael and St. George, and ten years later he received a Knight Grand Cross in the same order.  In 1897 he was raised to the peerage as Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.  During these years he attained to so many positions of financial trust that it would take an index to keep track of them.  He remained almost constantly in politics, unyielding as ever in all matters where subserviency was demanded by party exigencies.  That marked him out as a peculiar politician, but his very presence in the House of Commons was a sort of oddity.  He was not a legislator; he was not a statesman; he eschewed office; he seldom spoke.  He was forced into the House by his personality, and he sat there representing the silent conservative power of investments.  But from these remarks it is not to be supposed that he was not a working member.  Probably few men have done so much parliamentary work, for, given tireless energy the work pours down upon it like the shower of iron upon a magnet.
     During the closing months of the Conservative administration early in 1896 he was appointed Canadian High Commissioner in London.  The position was created in 1884, and Sir Charles Tupper was the only occupant before Lord Strathcona stepped into the London office.  The High Commissionership combines all the functions of an ambassador and a financial agent, but has no diplomatic standing.  The High Commissioner’s office is a rallying point for all Canadians in London, and all visitors from Canada to the metropolis register there.  The High Commissioner is expected to give information regarding the resources of the country, to guard its interests in Great Britain, and to have a general purview over all [page 76] trade questions.  Lord Strathcona’s great knowledge of Canada and Canadian affairs, and his capacity for detail, render him peculiarly fit for such an exacting post.  His lavish entertainment and his punctilious notice of all Canadians who may go to London has endeared him to many hearts.  No man could fill this position with greater credit to himself and benefit to his country, and it will be well-nigh impossible to replace him.
     The appointment is a political one, but when Sir Wilfrid Laurier came into power shortly afterwards in the same year, Lord Strathcona still retained office as if nothing had happened.  A man less independent would have gone down with the wreck of the Conservative party.
     The vexed question of the South African war need not be discussed here.  Lord Strathcona’s opinion was expressed in human terms with a vigor that left no doubt as to his position.  A little while ago he said, “Had I any doubt as to the justice of our cause I should never have fitted out the Strathcona Horse.”  The idea must have come to him in a flash; it was original.  Search the annals of every country, ancient and modern, and you will not find its parallel.  He gave the nation, at a critical time of the war, a force of five hundred and forty mounted men, completely equipped, and every man proved in the very qualities required.  Two days after his offer was made, on the 13th of January, 1900, it was accepted by the Secretary of State for War, and in just two calendar months and three days—on the 16th of March—the Montereydropped away from Halifax with the troop aboard.  In those two months twenty-eight officers, five hundred and twelve of other ranks and five hundred and ninety-nine horses had been collected.  The men were enrolled at twenty-three points between Winnipeg, in Manitoba, and Victoria, in British Columbia.  They came out from the Yukon and the Peace River; they were of all classes from the scion of nobility to the cowpuncher from the Calgary ranches.  Their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Steele, an officer of the Northwest Mounted Police Force, was the very man for the leader of such a troop.  Each unit of the Strathconas might have said of his leader “bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.”
     Lord Strathcona’s responsibility for the regiment ceased upon its arrival at Cape Town.  But until the Monterey touched the South African port all the expenditure for each and every detail of equipment, [page 77] pay and transport was borne by him.  The men received a complete outfit, as perfect as possible.
     The troop was called into existence by an individual and seemed to have a peculiar solidarity.  The conditions of free Western life had moulded the men, and they were all of one type.  Their spirit was perfect, a combination of caution, dash, and stubbornness.  They went to work quite in the key of a song composed for them at the time:

Crash along, slash along,
     cheer and away!
Round up the Boers at
     peep o’ the day,
Lasso them, throw them
     and brand them V.R.
S. for Strathcona, below
     the North Star.
Canada, Canada, Hip, Hip
Blow ‘Boot and Saddle’
     mount and away.

     But they were to require patience, and in the end showed that they had that soldierly quality for they were kept dangling at Cape Town while a raid was planned for them.  The plan to cut the railway to Delagoa Bay landed them in Tongaland uselessly, and they returned to Durban to be attached to the Third Mounted Infantry Brigade under Lord Dundonald.  After that they saw plenty of fighting during the campaign toward the Lydenburg district, and through it until, at the end of their service, they mustered in scarcely half strength.  Sergeant Richardson won the Victoria Cross at Wolve Spruit.  During an engagement at that point he rode back to rescue a trooper who had been wounded and had his horse shot.  His comrade lay under his dead horse within three hundred yards of the enemy, who kept up an active cross fire, but Richardson, just out of hospital and on a wounded mount, dashed in and bore him safely away.
     But the achievements of peace are saner and more lasting than those of war, and it will be as a philanthropist that Lord Strathcona will be remembered.  Of his private benefactions only one man could tell, and that is himself.  As his great public endowments have [page 78] had, so far as he could make them, a private character there can be no record of those relatively small gifts whereby he has gladdened many hearts and lightened much suffering.  These are subjects upon which not even his intimate friends can speak to Lord Strathcona; he will put them aside, courteously always and with that odd mixture of urbanity and firmness that is the characteristic of his manner.
     But there are several of his gifts that cannot be easily concealed and will be remembrances of him so long as the city of Montreal shall remain upon her foundations.  Jointly with Lord Mount-Stephen he set apart one million of dollars to erect a free hospital in Montreal to commemorate the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887.  Later, when the building had been erected on the side of the mountain they gave equally in the sum of eight hundred thousand to endow the institution.  There can be no finer site for an hospital in Lawrence.  Behind rises the mountain, terraced with lovely gardens, before lie the squares and steeples, the glittering river; and beyond that, the misty campaign with here and there a domed mountain, and at intervals a town or village marked by a breath of smoke or the steeple of a parish church that flashes like a poniard in the sun.  This hospital, the Royal Victoria, as it is called, is one of the best equipped institutions on this continent.  Modern science has been exhausted to furnish it adequately, and it is possible by reason of the large endowment to keep pace with the newest discoveries and inventions.
     Out of his own hand he has given probably one million dollars toward the cause of education in Canada.  Most of this has gone to McGill University of Montreal.  The foundation of the Royal Victoria College for the higher education of women is one of the most popular and useful bequests to this university.  “Donalda” it is affectionately called, in the feminized form of Strathcona’s Christian name.  The beautiful building guarded by a white marble statue of Queen Victoria, seated, looks down Union Avenue from Sherbrooke Street just on the border of the college grounds.
     All this munificence has flowed from a genuine heart, and no public man has given with greater generosity or more noble aim.  For though Lord Strathcona has a princely fortune it is not fabulous, and the bequests, of which but a few have been mentioned, represent [page 79] in comparison with larger donations equally lavish expenditure.
     One of the marked features of Lord Strathcona’s character is his loyalty to every one and everything appertaining to the Hudson Bay Company.  If you want to see him brighten mention some old factor or trader in the North.  They, in their turn, are as loyal to him and trust him with all they have.
     The company is his larger family; he is as faithful and interested in his smaller family, but with the added power that personal feeling and associations give.  He is devoted to Lady Strathcona, whom he married in the Northwest when he was a factor of one of the Hudson Bay Company’s posts.  She was a daughter of Richard Hardisty of the same company, a man whose memory is yet living in the Edmonton district, where he made his name as a great trader and a boon companion.  His grandchildren, the sons and daughters of Dr. Robert J.B. Howard, are his great delight.  His daughter and only child has the title of Honorable by courtesy, and as the descent of his peerage was fixed last year in the female line, her eldest son is the future Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.  This Barony is, in fact, the only one created for a Canadian that has any chance of perpetuity.
     Of houses Lord Strathcona has many.  His London residence is 53 Cadogan Square, S.W. Strathcona House, at Glencoe, Argyleshire, is his estate in Scotland.  Near Winnipeg is Silver Heights, where he still has a distant interest in his thoroughbred stock.  In Nova Scotia, at Pictou, is Norway House.  But his favorite residence is No. 1,157 Dorchester Street, Montreal.  Here he has surrounded himself with an artistic atmosphere.  His gallery contains many of the finest pictures on the continent; a glorious Turner, and examples of Raphael, Titian, Reynolds, Romney, Gainsborough, Breton, Constant, Constable and Millais.  The Japanese room is filled with priceless examples of Eastern art.  But throughout this house, which is first of all a home, unostentatious comfort reigns, and through it moves, with an air of perfect simplicity, the master, who has brought all these treasures together.
     In private life Lord Strathcona is a considerate husband and father and a most engaging host.  He does not greatly care for personal talk.  He is too self-contained and too watchful to be drawn out.  Control and a sort of lofty prudence are expressed by his bearing and by the intrepid look in his eyes.  He carries with him the atmosphere that surrounds all men who have dwelt long in solitudes. [page 80]  His favorite attitude when he converses is a strong folding of the arms and a downward pondering look.  His hair is now snow-white; his skin is fresh, and about him there is a pleasant vigor that is wonderful for his eighty years.  The general impression his personality leaves is well expressed by the old-fashioned word, wholth.  His talk is bright, and he is equally at home in American, Canadian or English politics. There is not a financial movement of importance anywhere in the world that is uniformed upon, and his gallery of acquaintances and friends is of amazing extent and variety, from the clerk at some outlandish post of the Hudson Bay Company to the King of England. [page 81]


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