John Stephen Willison.

Reminiscences, political and personal online

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Opposition upon its knees in passionate pleading against
the sudden decision of the leader to relinquish the com-
mand. Nor would a single incident complete the story.
But the doors of caucus are so guarded that only whis-
pers reach beyond the threshold.

It was said of a British statesman that he had not
even "a feeding acquaintance with his party." This was
true of Mr. Blake, and yet no one ever had more devoted
adherents than he in the House of Commons. He could
be petulant, inconsiderate and ungracious. He could
impose laborious drudgery upon associates and absorb
the material which they had accumulated through "long
days of labour and nights devoid of ease" without any
word of praise or gratitude. He could pass out of the
Chamber without turning towards a colleague who had
just spoken with power and effect in a great debate. It
is said that Mr. David Thompson, who held Haldi-
mand for the Liberal party through three or four Par-
liaments, upon reaching Ottawa after a serious illness
was warmly greeted by Sir John Macdonald, while
from Mr. Blake he had neither a handclasp nor a word
of sympathy or welcome. On the day in 1890 that fire
destroyed a portion of the University buildings at
Toronto Mr. Blake made the first speech in Parliament
that he had delivered since his resignation of the Lib-
eral leadership. If only from the fact that he had
broken a long silence the incident was of high interest
and significance. But when The Globe reached Ottawa
next day there was no report of Mr. Blake's speech nor
any account of the proceedings of Parliament. So
much space was devoted to the fire that the Parlia-



mentary report had to be held over and all other matter
highly condensed. Meeting Mr. Blake in the lobby, I
ventured to express regret that the report of his speech
had not appeared. He intimated with cold acidity that
he had not discovered the fact and was at a loss to know
why I should think he would be interested. There are
times when language gathers within one which, owing
to the proximity of the family, the presence of the steno-
grapher or other untoward circumstances, has to be sup-
pressed. This is serious because I have the notion that
profanity which has to be muzzled is more injurious to
the system than that which has free and robust utter-
ance. I am still uncertain whether I should be proud
or ashamed of the restraint which I exercised on that
occasion. When I met Mr. Blake again a few days
later he took me to the library and in a long conversa-
tion was confidential, gracious and almost affectionate
in his references to my despatches from the Gallery and
my interpretation of his own position in Parliament and
potential influence upon public affairs in the freer rela-
tion which he could maintain towards parties and ques-
tions in which the exigencies and interests of parties
were subordinate to national considerations.

I have been told that Mr. Blake once met a friend
from Toronto in Dublin. The Canadian was effusive
in his greeting, for he was lonely, and a familiar face
was a gleam of sunshine. Mr. Blake responded in a
few frigid sentences and passed on his way in solemn
abstraction. The friend stood for a moment in dumb
surprise, then stepped after Mr. Blake, and peremptor-
ily demanded an explanation. He said in effect: "You
know me well. We have been friends. I was glad to
see your face. I wanted to talk with you, for you come


from home, and for weeks I have been among strangers.
Why do you pass me without a word as though I was
unworthy of your regard or recognition?" And Mr.
Blake said, with a touch of emotion: "I am sorry. I
am as glad to see you as you can be to see me. I would
have understood in a moment how strange my conduct
must appear. If I cannot explain, I think you can un-
derstand." The friend understood, and he and Mr.
Blake spent companionable hours together in Dublin,
If one may say so without blatant egotism, I had more
confidential relations with Mr. Blake than need be dis-
closed. The acquaintance began when I was in the
Press Gallery and he was leader of the Liberal party.
There was a closer intimacy after I became editor of
The Globe and he was settling his future relation to the
party, chafing over the adoption of "unrestricted reci-
procity" with the United States as the fiscal programme,
and nursing his soul in bitterness over Sir Richard Cart-
wright's assumption of leadership in Ontario. During
his first years in the Imperial Parliament I had many
letters from Mr. Blake discussing very frankly the char-
acteristics of British statesmen, the political conditions
in Great Britain and the course of events in Canada.
Over and over again he expressed the desire that we
could talk together, and the hope that we would have
an early meeting in Canada or in England. In 1897,
while this correspondence was proceeding, I visited
London and met him on the street. He shook hands,
made a perfunctory inquiry as to my movements, and
strode away. During four or five weeks in London I
neither saw nor heard from Mr. Blake again. I cannot
think that I had even a momentary sense of annoyance,
I believed that I had come to understand the man, and



was convinced that he intended no discourtesy nor was
conscious of any neglect. But there was a curious con-
flict between his letters and his actual conduct.

In contrast I think of the experience of a young
Canadian from St. Mary's who was in London and saw
across the street a man of unusual stature, with heavy
shoulders and head leaning forward under a slouch hat.
He thought the figure and movement were familiar, and
crossing over found, as he had suspected, that the man
who had attracted his attention was Hon. Edward
Blake. He had the courage ito introduce himself,
although he had never met Mr. Blake, and save that
he was a Canadian had no claim upon his famous com-
patriot's consideration. Instantly Mr. Blake's face
shone with pleasure and his hand went out in hearty
greeting. He walked with the young Canadian, took
him to dinner, got him a seat in the gallery of Parlia-
ment, and treated him with such consideration and
attention as he would have expected only from a close
friend or a member of his own family. There is a story
in Sir George Ross's volume of Reminiscences which
I heard him tell more often perhaps than he knew. "I
suggested to Mr. Blake," he writes, "that it might be
profitable, from a party point of view, if we brought
before the House some question of general public inter-
est to show that we had some power of initiative as
well. After a review of several suitable topics it was
agreed that I should give notice to reopen the question
of reciprocity with the United States in the form of a
motion asking for correspondence between the Govern-
ments of Canada and the United States bearing upon
the subject. As the question was a comprehensive one
and might involve an expression of the policy of the



Liberal party, it was agreed that I should submit an
outline of my speech for Mr. Blake's approval, which
I did. In the course of a couple of weeks my motion
was reached, and I rose to deliver myself of a speech
which I had carefully prepared and which I felt con-
fident would be a reasonably creditable presentation of
my case. I spoke for about three-quarters of an hour,
and was listened to with fair attention by both sides of
the House. The Hon. Mr. White replied to my argu-
ments, and with one or two short speeches the debate
closed. Though not particularly impressed with my
effort to instruct the House, I ventured to say to Mr.
Blake a few hours afterwards : Well, I have done my
best for reciprocity. How did you like my speech?*
'My dear boy,' he said, 'I did not hear a word of it. I
slept the whole time you were speaking.' Whether to
take his repose as a mark of perfect confidence in my
ability to do justice to the subject or as showing a lack
of interest in anything I might say was my dilemma. It-
was, however, the last speech about which I asked his
opinion, either before or after delivery." In telling me
this story as illustrating Mr. Blake's neglect of his fol-
lowers, Sir George Ross added that once as he was leav-
ing the Chamber after a speech by Mr. McQuade, of
South Victoria, who was by no means among the best
speakers of Parliament, he saw Sir John Macdonald
with his arm about Mr. McQuade's shoulders and
heard him whisper, "McQuade, you spoke like an
angel, I am proud of you." In his book Sir George
adds, "Whether Sir John felt sincerely proud or not I
do not like to say, but I am sure McQuade did."

I have related these incidents because they explain
a great man and perhaps illuminate aspects of his car-



eer. I cannot agree that he had not high qualifications
for leadership or that he was without adequate courage
for political conflict. In his nature there was a strain
of despondency. He sank easily into gloom and de-
pression. Responsive to passing impulses, he made
decisions inconsistent with his real character and true
ambition, surrendering positions which he could not
recover, but which in honest communion with himself
he knew he should have seized or held. Still, notwith-
standing his moodiness and remoteness he had the affec-
tion of many of his followers and a loyal obedience and
confidence which was not affected by successive defeats.
Hon. Alexander Mackenzie resigned the office of leader
under compulsion ; Mr. Blake imposed his resignation
upon a pleading, protesting and despairing party.
There is no doubt that he was vexed by the desertion of
many Parliamentary associates upon the motion to con-
demn Riel's execution and was grievously wounded by
the contumacy of Mr. Mackenzie and Sir Richard
Cartwright. He was incensed, too, over utterances by
Cartwright in open conflict with his own attitude to-
wards the tariff. It is clear that Mr. Blake sought to
disarm the Protectionists and persuade the country that
there would be no revolutionary disturbance of the in-
dustrial system under a Liberal Government. In his
address to the electors of West Durham in 1882 he
said: "I have fully recognized the fact that we are
obliged to raise yearly a great sum, made greater by the
obligations imposed upon us by this Government, and
we must continue to provide this yearly sum mainly by
import duties, laid to a large extent on goods similar to
those which can be manufactured here, and it results as
a necessary incident of our settled fiscal system that



there must be a large and, as I believe in the view of
moderate Protectionists, an ample advantage to the
home manufacturer. Our adversaries wish to present
to you an issue as between the present tariff and absolute
free trade. That is not the true issue. Free trade is, as
I have repeatedly explained, for us impossible, and the
issue is whether the present tariff is perfect or defective
and unjust." He said again at Malvern in 1887: "No
man, I care not how convinced an advocate of absolute
free trade for Canada he may be, has yet suggested a
practical plan whereby our great revenue needs can be
met otherwise than by the continued imposition of very
high duties on goods similar to those we make or can
make within our own bounds or on the raw material. I
invite the most ardent free trader in public life to pre-
sent a plausible solution of this problem, and I contend
that he is bound to do so before he talks of free trade as
practicable in Canada. I have not believed it soluble
in my day, and any chance of its solubility, if any chance
there were, has been destroyed by the vast increase of
our yearly charge, and by the other conditions which
have been created. The thing is removed from the
domain of practical politics."

But, as in 1882, The Globe would emphasize the
tariff as the chief issue between the parties, so in 1887
Sir Richard Cartwright was taunted into violent de-
nunciation of the Protectionists, and as prospective
Minister of Finance in a Liberal Administration he was
perhaps naturally treated by Conservative speakers and
writers and by the industrial interests as the authorita-
tive interpreter of Liberal fiscal policy. It is under-
stood that Mr. Blake's statement at Malvern had been
submitted to a Liberal conference and approved even



by Cartwright, and undoubtedly there was feeling that
Cartwright had not observed the compact. But Sir
Richard's tongue was an unruly member. Abuse of
manufacturers with him was an instinct, a duty, a recre-
ation, and a profession. It is suspected that he was
deliberately incited to provide the campaign literature
which Conservatives required to offset Mr. Blake's
attempt at Malvern to remove the tariff from "the
domain of practical politics." The course of The Globe
in 1882 was among the reasons for the removal of Mr.
J. Gordon Brown from the editorship. The course of
Sir Richard Cartwright in 1887 aggravated an incom-
patibility between Mr. Blake and Sir Richard into an
enduring estrangement and perhaps explains incidents
and events in the later history of the Liberal party as
yet uninterpreted and misunderstood. When Mr.
Blake resigned the leadership of the party did he not
entertain a vagrant notion that he would be recalled
and restored to the dignity and authority in the councils
of the country which his ambition coveted despite fitful
impulses of revolt and wayward denial of his dominant




As I have said elsewhere, it is not easy to penetrate
the secrets of a party caucus. Of this I had conclusive
evidence when Hon. Wilfrid Laurier was chosen to
succeed Mr. Blake as leader of the Liberal party. I
knew that the caucus was to nominate a leader and that
Blake's choice was Laurier. I knew also that there
were influential elements in the Opposition unwilling
to accept Blake's advice, and convinced that Laurier
had neither the industry nor the energy required to dis-
charge the heavy and exacting duties of the office. Fur-
thermore, he was of the French race and a Catholic in
religion. There was much feeling that Mr. Blake had
received a meagre support from Catholic voters and a
keen sense of exasperation over the realignment with
Sir John Macdonald of the French Conservative "bolt-
ers," whose anger over the fate of Kiel did not outlast
the first division in the new Parliament. But caucus set
aside these grievances, and despite his own resolute pro-
test, Mr. Laurier was elected to the office of leader.
The motion which prevailed was submitted by Sir
Richard Cartwright, and seconded by Hon. David
Mills, both of whom doubted the wisdom of the deci-
sion since both aspired to the position. But neither
slackened in devotion to the party or ever conspired
against Laurier. They were slow, however, to admit
that caucus had acted wisely, and for years their
speeches contained no eulogy of the leader. Mr. Mills
cherished the hope that Mr. Blake would return; Sir
Richard did not. 159


For hours I sought to learn whether or not a suc-
cessor to Mr. Blake had been appointed. But every
tongue was tied and every ear closed to my appeal. No
one maintained a more resolute silence than Laurier
himself. He would neither deny nor admit, confirm
nor affirm, agree nor disagree. Nor would he even
engage in any suggestive speculation. Finally, towards
midnight, when the appeal from The Globe for a state-
ment became imperative, I saw Mr. Laurier and told
him that with or without his consent my despatch would
announce in the morning that he had been chosen to
succeed Mr. Blake. He protested that I could have
no knowledge that the statement would be accurate and
intimated with cold civility that he did not believe I
would be rash enough to send out any such message.
But I was rash enough to do so, and the message was
substantially if not strictly accurate. I intimated in
my despatch that the appointment was temporary and
conditional upon Mr. Blake's restoration to health and
resumption of the leadership. The Globe, however,
amended the despatch, erased the qualifying sentences,
and declared editorially that Mr. Laurier had been ap-
pointed and that Mr. Blake's resignation was final and
irrevocable. In The Globe office there was fuller
knowledge of Mr. Blake's position than I possessed, but
for some time there was no disclosure of the proceedings
of caucus. The truth was that Mr. Laurier was elected
leader, but could not be persuaded to accept, and in-
sisted upon the appointment of an advisory committee
to counsel and direct the Opposition during the current
Parliamentary session.

Curiously enough, my action never was questioned
nor the accuracy of my despatch ever denied or admit-




ted by any member of the Liberal Parliamentary party.
It became necessary to see Mr. Laurier often, but he
made no reference direct or indirct to the incident. On
the day that Parliament prorogued, however, he called
me down from the Gallery and Intimated that he had
definitely accepted the leadership, and that there was
no reason his decision should not be announced. But I
cannot think that his judgment was settled or that he
was yet persuaded that he could command the general
support of the Liberal party. He was comparatively
unknown, in Ontario and the East, and wholly unknown
in the West, while in Quebec he was distrusted by the
Hierarchy and regarded with more of respect than
affection by the French people.

Once a group of Liberals were discussing the politi-
cal outlook in Quebec as the election of 1896 drew near
and the Manitoba school question hung heavily on the
horizon. Laurier said, "How can I be strong in Que-
bec? I am an old Rouge, I have been fighting priests
and bishops all my life." Dr. Landerkin, who was of
the company and in very happy temper, rose to his feet,
brought down his right hand with a sweeping gesture
upon his bosom and declared with impressive fervour,

"I am an old Rouge, too, but I am not such a d

fool as to fight bishops."

There was a common notion that Laurier had no
iron in his constitution, and at best would be
an ornamental figure, obedient to the commands of
stronger men in the party. This, I believe, was
the judgment of Sir Richard Cartwright. I know
that this was the view of Hon. David Mills. Re-
calling the estimate in which he was held by so many
of his Parliamentary associates one thinks of Bap.




McNabb's little red rooster of which Herndon tells in
his Life of Lincoln. Beaten in the ring it mounted a
wood-pile, flirted its feathers and crowed lustily. Bap.,
looking on in disgust, exclaimed irreverently, "Yes, you
little cuss, you're great on dress parade but not worth a
d n in a fight."

Laurier had a reputation for eloquence which does
not always denote strength, and a reputation for indol-
ence which it was not thought he could overcome. If I
ever had this impression it was soon dispelled. Shortly
after he became leader I was his guest for a few days at
his home in Arthabaskaville. During those days he
talked much and I very little. In nothing that he said
was there any suggestion of arrogance or boasting. But
he revealed his knowledge of men and of books, his
clarity and vigour of mind, his inflexibility of will and
purpose. At least I thought I had discovered a man of
very different quality from the amiable Laodicean
whom many Liberals feared and most conservatives
believed had been installed in a position to which he
was unequal. In a long letter to The Globe I sought
to convince the Liberal party that Mr. Blake's successor
would be an actual and dominant leader. If there were
those who doubted and derided, in the judgment of
history the prophet will not be dishonoured.

It was my fortune to accompany Mr. Laurier on his
first visit to Ontario after he became leader of the party.
He and Madame Laurier spent a short holiday in the
Muskoka Lakes with Mr. J. D. Edgar and Mrs. Ed-
gar. At Bracebridge, Port Carling, and Parry Sound
the leader delivered short addresses, and at Parry Sound
he attended a Methodist camp-meeting. Later he
visited Orillia, Cannington, Lindsay, Sturgeon Point,



Guelph, Mount Forest, Wingham, and St. Thomas. At
St. Thomas, where he was the guest of Dr. Wilson,
M.P., and Mrs. Wilson, he attended service at the
Presbyterian Church, for which, by the way, he was
gravely rebuked by the Conservative organs of Quebec.
The preacher was Rev. J. A. Macdonald. The sermon
was vigorous and eloquent. I have often thought that
Dr. Macdonald is even more effective in the pulpit than
on the platform. But most of his speeches are sermons,
and perhaps I think of the pulpit as his natural setting.
This, I believe, was the first meeting between Laurier
and Dr. Macdonald, as it was my first meeting with the
man who was to be my successor in a position to which
I had no immediate prospect of appointment.

Mr. Laurier's only serious addresses were delivered
at Cannington and Guelph. Again and again during
those summer days in Muskoka and throughout his
leisurely journey across the Province, Laurier insisted
that a French Canadian and a Roman Catholic could
not hope to secure the common allegiance of Liberals
in the English Provinces. Again and again he pro-
tested that his elevation to the leadership could be no
more than a temporary expedient. In his speeches he
declared that he was only a tenant of the office of leader
until Mr. Blake's restoration to health, and there can
be no doubt that this was his hope and expectation. As
a consequence he was not as aggressive nor as authorita-
tive as could be desired. I did not think that he made
a strong impression upon the meetings which he ad-
dressed. There was lack of vigour and confidence.
There was no energy in his deliverance. Nor was even
the attraction of personality which was his great posses-
sion fully displayed. Only at Cannington did he reveal



his actual quality. An Anglican clergyman with gross
discourtesy arose in the meeting and shouted that they
could not learn the true way from a Roman Catho-
lic. Laurier retorted with passionate energy, "You
could in politics," and he proceeded in sentences of
stern rebuke to flog the interrupter into humiliation and
silence. The rest of the speech was animated and con-
fident, in contrast to the tame and listless spirit in which
most of it was spoken. I had the impudence to tell the
leader that he should engage the belligerent divine to
attend and interrupt at subsequent meetings. But
Laurier seldom was embarrassed by heckling. Nor was
he ever overcome by organized interruption. I can-
not think, however, that his reputation was enhanced
by his visit to Ontario in the summer of 1888, and I am
confident that he did nothing to dispel the common
notion among Liberals that he was too gentle and too
gentlemanly for the hard, rough, uncompromising,
aggressive warfare in which a political leader must
engage if he is to establish his own position, control a
party in Parliament and inspire respect and devotion in
the constituencies.

It is curious that the qualities of decision and resolu-
tion which Laurier possessed in such remarkable degree
were those in which he was thought to be deficient. It
is just as remarkable that despite his reputation for in-
dolence when he became Prime Minister he was an
example of industry in office, indefatigable in his
attendance in Parliament and diligent and vigorous
in the direction of the party which he recreated and
over which he exercised such complete authority. No
one who had knowledge of his career in Quebec before
he became a national figure could have doubted his



courage, but his comparative inaction in Parliament
from 1878 to 1887 explains many misconceptions which
prevailed in the other Provinces. He loved the Library
of Parliament more than he loved the Chamber of the
Commons. He browsed among books, reading and
thinking leisurely but spaciously, happy in a few intim-
ate friendships, and content apparently with the posi-
tion that he had achieved. For years I was a faithful
patron of one of the second-hand book-shops of Tor-
onto. My taste was for biography and memoirs, for the
books which describe great figures, great incidents,
great events in French and British history, and for the

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Online LibraryJohn Stephen WillisonReminiscences, political and personal → online text (page 11 of 25)