John Stephen Willison.

Reminiscences, political and personal online

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dignity of Canadian politics or the welfare of the coun-
try." '

It is strange that one so gifted and naturally so gen-
erous as Rev. Doctor Douglas, of Montreal, should not
only have nurtured this suspicion but boldly proclaimed
his distrust. He described Thompson as "a clerical
creation" and "a lay Jesuit in the Government." On
his brow there was "the brand of pervert." "He was
enthroned in order to manipulate with Jesuit art the
affairs of this country." There was nothing in the poli-
tical career of Sir John Thompson to suggest that his
patriotism was tainted by his religious connection. But
it is true that a Roman Catholic in the English-speak-
ing countries rarely becomes the leader of a political
party. When was a Catholic Prime Minister of Eng-
land? No Catholic has held the office of President of
the United States. By contrast Canada is singularly
and resolutely tolerant. Is the fact that Canada is more
Catholic than Great Britain or the United States the
true explanation? Sir Henri Joly was Premier of Que-
bec, but if he was Protestant he was also French. Hon.
John Sandfield Macdonald was Premier of United
Canada and Premier of Ontario, and probably his
Catholicism was no greater disqualification in the Eng-
lish-speaking Province than was the Protestantism of



Joly in the French Province. It is doubtful if Hon. C.
F. Fraser, notwithstanding his ability and integrity,
could have become Premier of Ontario. No doubt men
of meagre capacity sometimes attain office because they
are Roman Catholics, but as certainly Catholics reach
the first places less easily because of the church to which
they belong. Probably the explanation lies in the
aspiration of the Papacy to temporal power, the old
conflicts between civil and ecclasiastical authority, and
the assumption of elements in the church to supremacy
in civil affairs.

No man ever attained high office more absolutely
and unequivocally by sheer force of character and
ability than did Sir John Thompson. It is doubtful if
he ever spoke a single word or took a conscious step to
secure the leadership of the Conservative party. There
is reason to think that he would have become leader of
the party upon the death of Sir John Macdonald if the
judgment of his colleagues had prevailed. But, not
convinced that the feeling of the Parliamentary caucus
was the common feeling of Conservatives in the con-
stituencies, he strongly advised against any doubtful
experiment. Sir John Abbott therefore was appointed,
with full knowledge that he would be comparatively
inactive and uninfluential and that Thompson as leader
of the House of Commons would be the mouthpiece of
the party and the actual dictator of strategy and policy.
From the first, it was manifest that Sir John
Thompson was the logical and inevitable leader. Dur-
ing the few months that he was Premier Sir John
Abbott never addressed a public meeting or exercised
the actual function of leadership. This was not because
he was unequal to the position. For he could be wise in



council and bold in action, and had qualities which
inspired regard and confidence. But he knew that he
had not long to live and was looking beyond the jangle
of political conflict into the long silence. There was
no seer to foretell that his successor would so quickly
follow upon the journey which each of us takes alone
and knoweth not the hour of his going.

It is to the honour of the Conservative party, in
which the Orange element is so powerful, that there
was general acquiescence in the elevation of Sir John
Thompson. But there was not complete acquiescence.
Mr. D'Alton McCarthy believed that he should have
succeeded Sir John Macdonald. He so expressed him-
self in language which Thompson could not misunder-
stand. He held that neither by the length nor by the
nature of his services, nor by natural identification with
the masses of the Conservative party was Thompson
entitled to the leadership. Even if the title were
clearer, there were forces in the party which would not
submit. Inevitably, whatever the prospect of the
moment, these influences would express themselves and
disaster would follow. He did not object to Thompson
as a Minister, but as leader he was objectionable in the
party interest and in the public interest. Nor was Mr.
McCarthy's attitude presumptuous or unreasonable.
For many years he was among the active and trusted
advisers of Sir John Macdonald. In debates which
involved legal and constitutional issues, in the bitter
contests over provincial rights as represented by the
Liberal Government of Ontario, and in many stern
party battles in the Committee on Privileges and Elec-
tions, McCarthy was chief counsel for the Conservative
party and the Federal authority. No one was more



active in founding The Empire when Sir John Mac-
donald and the Conservatives of Ontario required an
organ. Moreover, McCarthy was a Protestant and the
natural spokesman for formidable forces among the
Conservatives of Ontario and the other English Prov-
inces. He could not fail to be conscious that he was
reduced to an inferior position in the party and in Par-
liament by Sir John Thompson's phenomenal ascension
to influence and natural assumption of many of the
functions which he had discharged. Whether or not he
resented the reduction to lower rank in the Conserva-
tive army, and like many other great men was carried
by personal feeling into new courses, it is certain that
he became estranged from Sir John Macdonald and
made mischief for the Government. Leading the agita-
tion for disallowance of the Jesuit Estates Act of Que-
bec, supporting the abolition of separate schools by the
Liberal Government of Manitoba, and challenging the
legal status of the French language in the Western Ter-
ritories, he excited intense feeling in the country and
precipitated stormy and bitter debates in Parliament.
Whether or not he was actuated in any degree by per-
sonal feeling, there is no doubt that he was faithful to
his convictions in opposing extension of dual language
and racial and religious privileges. It is understood
that when the motion for disallowance of the Jesuit
Estates Act came before Parliament Mr. McCarthy was
so incautious as to declare that he had pledges of sup-
port from many of the Conservative members from On-
tario. The statement was carried to Sir John Macdon-
ald, who made a personal appeal to every Conservative
upon whom Mr. McCarthy relied, with the result that
only seven ministerialists voted for disallowance. This



interference by the Prime Minister, natural as it was
and necessary as it was to the credit and dignity of the
Government, McCarthy never could overlook, although
it is believed his displeasure did not then extend to Sir
Charles Tupper.

During my first years in the Press Gallery Sir John
Thompson was the most powerful debater in the Con-
servative Parliamentary party, as Hon. Edward Blake
was the most impressive and convincing speaker among
the Liberals. Sir John Macdonald had greater author-
ity than either, but his ascendency was the growth of
years; the long result of a rare personality and a great
prestige. Neither in Blake nor in Thompson was there
any impelling spontaneity or magnetism. Blake was
often heavy and sometimes monotonous. Thompson
was always cold, sober, self-contained and distant. In
his pilgrimages throughout the country Thompson was
described by irreverent blasphemers as "the ice-wag-
on" ; Blake could be very lonely and remote. Once I
saw the Liberal leader mooning in solemn abstraction
over the exchanges in the reading-room when a col-
league on the Liberal front benches, who had returned
from dinner with "a quart of wine visibly concealed
about his person," if I may borrow language which Mr.
Alfred Boultbee applied to a clubmate, lurched against
him, brought his hand down with tremendous force
upon the bowed shoulders, and gurgled, "Come come
'long, you you old hulk, and have some fun." The
hulk put his hand affectionately across the back of his
unsteady associate and shook with laughter. One could
not know from the frosty exterior how intimate and
companionable Blake could be in rare moments of self-
revelation. But so often he was among the glaciers.



So often he seemed to be like Goldsmith's Traveller,
"remote, unfriended, melancholy." I recall a meeting
which Mr. Blake addressed at Kincardine in 1882 dur-
ing a bye-election for the Legislature. In early man-
hood he had appeared in South Bruce as a candidate
for the Commons. It may be that he was softened and
inspired by memories of that triumphant contest. He
had set the riding aflame by his moving, sonorous ora-
tory, the energy of his deliverance, the revelation of his
eager intellectual virility. For a generation the Lib-
erals of Bruce recalled that contest with such enthusism
and reverence as Scottish Liberals remember Gladstone
and Midlothian. As he grew older Mr. Blake became
too anxious about the letter of the message and sacrificed
spontaniety in dependence upon manuscript. But at
Kincardine in 1882 he delivered an address remarkable
for its humour, its flavour of neighbourliness, its simple
human quality, and moment by moment one could feel
respect deepening into sympathy and softening into
affection. I heard Mr. Blake many, many times in
Parliament and on the platform, and often perhaps he
displayed greater power, but never as it has seemed to
me was he so close to his kind and so disencumbered of
his greatness. For whatever one may think of certain
aspects of Mr. Blake's character and career, he was as
great a man as ever was born in Canada if the mind is
the test and the standard. At his side stands Sir John
Thompson. The test here also is sheer intellectual
power, capacity to reason, instinct to understand.

It is the common notion that Sir John Thompson
was unemotional, unaffected by praise, impervious to
attack. But I am told by those who sat at his side in
Parliament that he boiled within under adverse criti-



cism and muttered protests and imprecations that would
have required rigid censorship in any religious publica-
tion. In a memorable attack upon Sir Richard Cart-
wright he amazed Parliament by the fervour and viol-
ence of his denunciation. He declared that Cartwright
would rather abuse his country and defame it than eat
his breakfast. He thanked God that nature broke the
mould in which he was made when she cast him. He
put all his passion and contempt into the savage sen-
tence, "As a member of the bar I have sometimes
spurned the fee of a blatant scoundrel who denounced
everybody else in the world, and was himself the most
truculent savage of them all." Upon that speech could
have been pronounced the verdict of the Nevada jury,
"If it please the court we, the jury, find that the prisoner
is not guilty of strikin' with intent to kill, but simply to
paralyze, an' he done it." It may be that in that speech
only was the man fully expressed. He had schooled
himself to restraint and discipline, but there was a vol-
cano within whose forces he alone understood. It is
said that in council he was companionable, unre-
strained, tolerant of the asperities of associates, happy
in their foibles and eccentricities. But in Parliament
and on the platform he was austere, if not cold, and
even when he was gracious there was more of dignity
than of cordiality. Many shrewd but biting judgments
ascribed to Thompson were current in the lobbies of
Parliament. Unfortunately those I remember strike so
hard at men still living that they cannot be repeated.
He never was more happy than at a dinner of the
Toronto Board of Trade when he discovered "the lean
and hungry Cassius" in Hon. George E. Foster. Of
great girth himself and with colleagues of equal girth



he said, "Their youth and their robustness excited the
imagination of a Toronto poet, who indited some verses
to me and put into my mouth words which were put
into Caesar's when he said, 'Let me have men about me
that are fat, sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o'
nights,' and I could make you to-night a little boast
about the girth and weight of my colleagues if it were
not that my friend Cassius here the Finance Minister
breaks the record and utterly destroys the average."

Sir John Thompson, with grave reluctance, entered
the Macdonald Government as Minister of Justice in
1885, when Quebec was inflamed over the fate of Kiel
and excited writers in Ontario were "smashing Con-
federation into its original fragments." Smashing Con-
federation is the common pastime of Canadian patriots
when the party is in danger or the Constitution inter-
feres with the designs of minorities or the prejudices of
majorities. But the ship of State sails on and the waters
are assuaged.

The new Minister first spoke in Parliament in direct
reply to Hon. Edward Blake on a resolution declaring
that Kiel should not have been executed. So far as I
can remember there was no general impression in the
country that Thompson was of exceptional character or
capacity. He had been Premier of Nova Scotia and a
member of the Supreme Court of his Province, but at
best he had only a Provincial reputation in law or in
politics. When he sat down after his first speech in the
House of Commons it was realized that a great figure
had emerged from a curious obscurity. Parliament is
seldom deceived. There are first speeches that dazzle
with metaphor and rhetoric, but these reach the ear
only. For once or twice such performances may attract,





but they have no enduring quality. Soon the benches
empty and the sounding phrases become the jest of the
smoking-room. The House of Commons distrusts elo-
quence. It is seldom that a great platform orator
catches its atmosphere. A long training in Provincial
politics constitutes a positive disqualification for the
Federal Parliament. But from the first Sir John
Thompson had the manner of Parliament. From the
first he commanded its interest and confidence. He was
simple, lucid, persuasive and convincing. He seemed
to be interested only in the logical structure of his argu-
ment. He was not so anxious to achieve a personal
triumph as that he should be understood and that the
cause for which he pleaded should suffer nothing by
imperfect statement or intemperate advocacy. In short,
he gave an impression of simplicity, sincerity and inte-
grity, and in Parliament these are the qualities that
prevail. If he did not overcome Mr. Blake in his first
speech in the Commons even the Opposition admitted
that the reply was adequate, that a man had appeared
of vital power and resolute character, and that a great
task had been done with high skill, wise discretion and
profound judgment. Nor do I think that Sir John
Thompson ever was humiliated or discredited in Par-
liament by any incident, attack or situation. Through-
out the impression of austere integrity persisted. He
came into Parliament in a difficult time, and found
work to do that was not pleasant. But whether one
recalls the expulsion of Rykert, the long, heated, acri-
monious inquiry into the McGreevy charges, the inter-
national negotiations in which he was engaged, the
measures of policy and legislation for which he was
responsible, his integrity stands and his patriotism is



not impugned. He did not come to his country gift-
less nor fail "to show fruit of his days."

There was a divided and somewhat sullen party
behind the Liberal leader. Many of the French mem-
bers who had stood with Sir John Macdonald from
Confederation had been driven into revolt by the fierce
current of feeling which swept over the Province when
Kiel was hanged in defiance of its angry and tumultu-
ous protest. There are few more ugly incidents in
Canadian history than the erection of the Regina scaf-
fold into a political platform. There is no doubt that
the half-breeds had grievances, that the Government
had warning, and that by sympathetic decent consider-
ation for the rights of the helpless and anxious settlers
the revolt could have been averted. But Riel was at
the foot of the gallows years before. In the Red River
he had sanctioned murder and had received a full por-
tion of mercy. In precipitating a second rebellion he
was foolhardy, insolent and defiant. The man, perhaps,
was on the verge of madness, but if so the calculating
politicians did not discover that he was insane until he
was executed. I think of a Liberal journal which de-
clared before the death sentence was carried into effect
that we had come to "a pretty pass" in Canada when a
base, foul, red-handed murderer could escape the con-
sequences of his crimes because a cowardly Govern-
ment dare not order his execution. After he was
hanged, this journal was just as certain that we had
come to "a pretty pass" when a bold and chivalrous
champion of his oppressed compatriots could be put to
death by the Government whose neglect and ineptitude
had provoked the revolt. The "curve" which Mr.
Smiley took so gallantly at the request of Sir John Mac-



donald was nothing compared with that which was
taken by Liberal politicians and Liberal newspapers
when Kiel was executed.

During the ferment of agitation in Quebec against
the execution and the clamorous demand in Ontario
for Kiel's death Hon. Edward Blake was in the Old
Country. Thus he was free to approve or condemn,
however deeply many of his associates might be com-
mitted against his decision. Contending that Kiel was
insane and the Government responsible for the rebel-
lion, Mr. Blake joined hands with the excited agitators
of Quebec, and so far as he could prevail rallied the
Liberal party against the execution. One may not im-
pugn his sincerity, but the circumstances were singular
and suspicion inevitable. It is hard to believe that Kiel
would have become a martyr and a patriot if he had
been reprieved. It is certain the execution would have
seemed to be less heinous if Quebec had been quiescent.
We often get strange results when actions are measured
by political exigencies. Once in the House of Com-
mons long after the fires of this fierce controversy had
smouldered into ashes, Dr. Weldon, of Albert, recalled
this chapter of Mr. Blake's career in grave, cold, stern
sentences of rebuke, if not of contempt. As Dr. Weldon
spoke the Chamber became very quiet. Mr. Blake
seemed to shrink as though a whip were laid across his
shoulders. One felt as sometimes in a court-room when
a great trial has ended and the Bench pronounces judg-
ment with reluctance, but with inflexible justice. From
the Liberal benches there was no protest. The Minis-
terialists were responsive, but there was restraint in
their cheering. The common knowledge that Mr.
Blake and the scholarly member for Albert had tastes



in common, and that the Liberal leader thought highly
of Dr. Weldon gave a curious emphasis and a startling
unexpectedness to the attack. It may be that Dr. Wel-
don was unjust. Possibly this impressive Parliamentary
incident has coloured my thinking about Mr. Blake's
relation to the issues which arose out of the Northwest
Rebellion and Riel's execution. But surely the Liberal
party would have had its feet on firmer earth and the
historian would find Mr. Blake's career less embarrass-
ing if he had been content to leave the question of Riel's
sanity to the alienists, and simply held Sir John Mac-
donald and his colleagues responsible for the neglect
and misgovernment which, with or without Riel's
malign activity, produced the rebellion, or if convinced
that Riel was insane had spoken before his life was

Mr. Blake was in Europe, but one may speak
to Canada even from Europe. It is impossible to
believe that he was ignorant of the vital facts of Riel's
career, and the evidence produced at the trial at Regina.
or had not definite opinions about his mental condition
before he was executed. I remember how confident
Liberals were that Sir John Macdonald would not dare
to hang Riel and defy Quebec, and how deep was the
dismay when the sentence was carried into effect. They
had believed that the Conservative leader would suc-
cumb to the agitation in Quebec and that to such final
and irrefutable evidence of "French domination" the
English Provinces would not submit. But when Riel
was hanged and feeling in the English Provinces ap-
peased they foresaw certain defeat in the constituencies
unless Quebec could be consolidated against the Gov-
ernment. It was not easy to detach Quebec from Sir



John Macdonald, nor easy to adjust the Liberal party
to an alliance with the mutinous elements in the French
Province. A political party, like an individual, devel-
ops character, firmly rooted in its traditions, convic-
tions and sentiments. Under George Brown the Liberal
party warred against Quebec. When Mr. Blake secured
office in Ontario he excited Orange feeling against Sir
John Macdonald over his merciful dealing with Kiel
after the Red River insurrection, and secured a sub-
stantial measure of Orange support in the constitu
encies. In the general election of 1882, in which Mr.
Blake first appeared as leader of the Liberal party,
there was much fervent denunciation of the "tricky
Bleus," and upon many platforms the campaign vocal-
ists sang "The traitor's hand is on thy throat, Ontario,
Ontario." Now, however, circumstances seemed to
require an alliance with the Bleu and the traitor. In-
deed, from this time there is a clear and continuous
design in Mr. Blake's course as leader of the Liberal
party. He sought to detach Irish Catholics from Sir
John Macdonald by aggressive advocacy of Home Rule
for Ireland. In alliance with Hon. Wilfrid Laurier
as leader for Quebec, he strove to secure the confidence
of the French Province. He attacked the Orange Asso-
ciation and gave zealous support to the measures of the
Mowat Government, which were so distasteful to the
extreme Protestant elements. He failed because Sir
John Macdonald had the enduring confidence of Irish
Catholics, because Cartier was a living force in Quebec
with the generation which remembered the firm and
happy partnership between Cartier and the Conserva-
tive leader, because Langevin was the faithful cham-
pion of the Hierarchy, because Laurier was distrusted



by the church whose faith he professed, because Chap-
leau could reach the soul of the French people as even
Laurier could not, because Macdonald's whole career
was fashioned in sincere and courageous racial and reli-
gious tolerance, and because in the Liberal party which
George Brown created there were traditions and sus-
ceptibilities inimical to any effective alliance with the
Roman Catholic Church and the Province of Quebec.
Until Laurier appeared no Federal leader of the Lib-
eral party was able to achieve what Mowat accom-
plished in Ontario. Mowat succeeded because he had
in such peculiar degree the confidence of Presbyterian

If Mr. Blake could have effected the alliances which
were his deliberate objects he would have prevailed in
the country, but the facts of history, the constitution of
the Liberal party, and the personality of Sir John Mac-
donald had created conditions and established influences
too great to be overcome. Moreover, when Hon. Alex-
ander Mackenzie, Sir Richard Cartwright, Mr. Charl-
ton, Mr. Mulock, Mr. Davies, Mr. Paterson, Mr.
Scriver and other influential Liberals in Parliament
could not be persuaded to condemn the Government for
sending Riel to the scaffold it became difficult to con-
solidate the Liberal forces in the country. A party
divided in Parliament is a party divided outside Par-
liament and disabled for cohesion and aggression in
battle. Hence because of division and disunion over
the execution at Regina and the firm adhesion of Pro-
tectionists to the Government, Mr. Blake failed in 1887
as he had failed in 1882, and fretful, discouraged and
dispirited, he imposed his resignation upon a broken
and disheartened party. It was the habit of Mr. Blake



to resign. If we could penetrate the secrets of Liberal
caucuses between 1880 and 1887 we would discover an

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Online LibraryJohn Stephen WillisonReminiscences, political and personal → online text (page 10 of 25)