John Stephen Willison.

Reminiscences, political and personal online

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old books and pamphlets which relate to the political
history of Canada and the United States. I learned that
if I did not order as soon as the catalogues appeared the
best books would be taken by Laurier. The range of
his interest was wide and catholic, but of modern fiction
he read little. While he was at Washington in 1899 he
read Uncle Tom's Cabin. When I asked him if he had
not read the book before, he admitted that he had, but
declared that he found a second reading more interest-
ing and profitable than any of the newer novels. Once
I asked him what biographies of Lincoln he had read.
His answer was that he had read them all, and that he
thought the best was that by John T. Morse in the Series
of American Statesmen. Few books have been written
about Lincoln that I have not read, but I think the little
volume by Carl Schurz has the first place in my affec-
tion. Mr. Isaac Campbell, K.C., of Winnipeg, who
has read much of the Lincoln literature and has a very
complete Lincoln library, values highly the volumes by
Morse and Ida M. Tarbell, but he has read so many
books illuminating so many phases of Lincoln's char-



acter that he hesitates to admit that one or other is a
favourite. I once heard Mr. Laurier and Mr. Goldwin
Smith discuss treatises on French cookery with a fam-
iliarity as interesting as it was surprising. It was this
Laurier who did not aspire to be leader of a political
party and who seemed to have settled in a way of life
which he was reluctant to forsake. But the separation
from these old tastes and interests was not at all com-
plete. He read much while he was in office. One may
be certain that he read more in the greater freedom and
leisure which he enjoyed after his Government was
defeated. But surely there was a great reserve of am-
bition in Laurier which would have gone unsatisfied if
he had never commanded a party and dominated a

It was commonly believed when Laurier became
leader that he would submit to the stronger will of Sir
Richard Cartwright. But if there ever was a struggle
between the two the decision came quickly. I do not
think there ever was any actual conflict, for Laurier
prevailed without apparent effort or assertion. So all
those who thought they might be Seward to Laurier
were undeceived. It was said that Sir Richard im-
posed Commercial Union, or Unrestricted Recipro-
city, upon the Liberal party. But probably Commer-
cial LTnion was conceived in The Mail office. Although
Mr. Erastus Wiman was the reputed father, one sus-
pects that Mr. Edward Farrer instructed Wiman, and
by his persuasive and trenchant writing, made the pro-
posal attractive to the Liberal leaders. At this time
The Mail was at variance with Sir John Macdonald,
and there is reason to think that The Globe espoused
Commercial Union because The Mail, by its vigorous



advocacy of the new programme, was dividing The
Globe's constituency. In those days The Mail was in
search of a party, and the Liberal leaders were very
willing to encourage its advances. There never was a
complete union, but there was co-operation for mutual
advantage which, as I well remember, The Globe re-
garded with disfavour and concern. Between Sir
Richard Cartwright and Mr. Farrer there was a per-
sonal relation of long-standing, although not an intim-
ate friendship, and probably Mr. Farrer persuaded
Sir Richard to pronounce in favour of continental free
trade before Laurier had committed himself. But
Laurier was as favourable to the policy as his associate,
even if he was not the first to deliver judgment. I am
thinking only of the genesis of the movement and the
suspicion that Sir Richard imposed his will upon the
titular leader of the party and not of the wisdom or
unwisdom of the proposal to which they gave mutual
sanction and support.

By a speech which Laurier delivered in Toronto in
1889 he dispelled many prejudices among English-
speaking Liberals outside of Quebec and finally estab-
lished himself as the national leader of the party. He
could not have become leader at a more inauspicious
time. The alliance with Mr. Mercier in Quebec was
distasteful to the Liberals of the other Provinces. In-
deed, it was not unusual for a French Liberal to whis-
per that he was a Rouge, not a Nationalist, a disciple of
Dorion and Laurier, but a reluctant follower of Merc-
ier. More than once I heard Mercier speak in Quebec.
No one except Chapleau could exercise such wonder-
ful command over a French audience. Eager, dashing,
dominant, bold and direct, he set the blood of French



Canadians leaping, and enlisted in his service all they
had of emotional fervour, of racial instinct and racial
prejudice. He was not scrupulous, but he had political
genius and he was very competent. It was not easy for
Laurier to maintain an alliance with this daring provin-
cialist without loss of trust and prestige in the English
Provinces. But Mercier was the stronger in Quebec,
and any open quarrel would have destroyed the Liberal
party in the French Province. There is a story, prob-
ably not authentic, that on the eve of polling in the Fed-
eral election of 1891 Mercier said to a friend, "If I
were leader of the Liberal party I would have a major-
ity of twenty in Quebec to-morrow." The friend asked
why Laurier should not do as well since he had Merc-
ier's most active and energetic support. "The reason,"
said Mercier, "is that Monsieur Laurier is an honest
man." I have often heard Laurier say that Mercier had
such influence with the French people that if he had
determined to impose economical and conservative gov-
ernment upon Quebec he could have held the Province
as easily as by the methods which he practised and
which made his last days a tragedy instead of a triumph.
At least Mr. Marchand did, and Sir Lomer Gouin has
done what Laurier believed Mercier could have done
to his own great honour and to the infinite advantage of
his Province.

The Jesuit Estates Act, which produced the Equal
Rights movement in Ontario, greatly embarrassed
Laurier, not because there was any sound constitutional
basis for the Protestant agitation, but because he could
speak only with diminished authority against the temp-
est of sectarian feeling which swept over the country.
In Parliament he opposed disallowance of the objec-



tionable Provincial measure, as he was bound to do,
and as, indeed, did the great majority of Parliament,
but there was a formidable element in the Liberal party,
as there was a multitude of Conservatives, who would
not hear the voice of reason and against whose wrath
over the appropriation of $400,000 for the Jesuit Order
by a Canadian Legislature no constitution could pre-
vail. While this flaming anger possessed the country
Laurier was eager to come to Toronto in order to ex-
plain and defend his position. But the Liberal leaders
of Ontario would not entertain the proposal. They
insisted that he could not get a hearing, that he would
meet with violence, that he would be humiliated and
discredited, and would damage the party irretrievably.
While I was his guest at Arthabaskaville he lamented
again and again that he could not get permission to
speak in Toronto, and insisted with absolute conviction
that none of the untoward consequences which his asso-
ciates predicted would follow. I was then President
of the Young Men's Liberal Club of Toronto, and I
suggested that if he was so determined to speak in
Ontario I would go home and organize a meeting. It
was agreed that I should make the attempt, although he
doubted if I could succeed. I had his promise, how-
ever, that once the meeting was announced he would not
have it cancelled no matter what objection might be
offered or what pressure might be exerted to prevent
his appearance at Toronto. The executive committee
of the club, was easily persuaded to afford Laurier the
opportunity which he desired. Without consultation
with the editor of The Globe, any member of the
Mowat Government, or any Liberal member of Par-
liament, I secured the Horticultural Pavilion and an



nounced the meeting. There was much foreboding and
head-wagging. But, as I anticipated, once the fact that
he was coming was announced it was recognized that
the decision could not be reversed and that all possible
measures must be taken to ensure a favourable result.
But there were representative Liberals, afterwards his
docile if not obsequious followers, who would not
attend and who were only less vigorous in condemna-
tion of the Liberal leader than in censure of those who
were responsible for the invitation which he had

I was chairman of that meeting. The hall was
crowded. Every member of the Mowat Cabinet was on
the platform. Many Liberal members came in from
the country. The bulk of the audience was not un-
friendly, but there was a hostile element which was
not easily controlled. During the first hour I was not
so confident that those who had predicted confusion and
disaster were not of the House of Wisdom. My few
introductory sentences were taken well enough, and
when Laurier rose there was generous applause. But
one felt instinctively that there were undercurrents of
suspicion and unrest. When he mentioned The Globe
there was satirical jeering and hissing. As I was a
member of The Globe staff, that was not pleasant, but
since its attitude towards the Jesuit Estates Act and the
equal Rights movement had been so variable and vacil-
lating I was more abashed than surprised. Once, I
remember, I was stopped on the street by an acquaint-
ance, who intimated, with stern displeasure, that he did
not like The Globe's position on the Jesuit Estates ques-
tion. I retorted angrily and in unparliamentary langu-
age that he must be d - hard to satisfy since there was



no possible position on the question that The Globe had
not taken. The truth was that The Globe had first op-
posed disallowance of the Act, discovered later that
public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of disal-
lowance, and finally argued that the Act should be dis-
allowed because the Pope was mentioned in the pre-
amble. Possibly the Pope had no business there, but
since he had been there from the beginning The Globe's
sudden anger at his presence was not convincing. Those
indeed were grievous days for The Globe staff, and the
hissing at the Pavilion meeting was only a disconcert-
ing manifestation of the contumely to which we were
continually subjected.

There was a far more disturbing demonstration
when Laurier named Mr. D'Alton McCarthy and Dr.
Caven, the wise, revered, acute, judicial Principal of
Knox College, whose severely logical mind did not
apparently perceive the illogical position of an Asso-
ciation which demanded disallowance by the Federal
Government of an Act within the constitutional com-,
petence of a Provincial Legislature. Laurier strug-
gled to recover control of the meeting but again
and again the cheering for McCarthy and Caven
was renewed. There was nothing violent or ruf-
fianly in these demonstrations. There was per-
haps a suggestion of respect for the speaker, but with
this there was cold, stern, deliberate displeasure over
his attitude and resolute, uncompromising allegiance to
the champions of the Equal Rights movement. One
could see that Laurier felt the actual physical strain of
the struggle. Not only was there a hostile element in
the meeting determined to express itself, but on the faces
of many of those who were voiceless there were no evi-



dences of concern or sympathy. There was not, as so
often happens when a speaker is badgered and harassed,
the quick and fierce rally of the defensive forces and
the greater volume of counter cheering which over-
whelms a body of disturbers. Laurier had not only to
silence interruption, but to dispel coldness, create sym-
pathy and compel conviction. If he did not wholly
succeed, he did at least reduce the meeting to subjection
and inspire respect for his courage and tenacity. There
was no further disorder and as he proceeded there was
frequent cheering and manifest agreement with many
of his arguments. But the sentences which were ap-
plauded were those which recalled his battles for free-
dom against ecclesiasticism in Quebec, which asserted
his devotion to the principles of British Liberalism,
which pleaded for sympathy and understanding be-
tween Ontario and Quebec, and which deplored racial
and religious intolerance. I think of the long roll of
cheering when he quoted the great sentence, "No Italian
priest shall tithe or toll in our dominions," and the fine
fervour of his peroration, "When the excitement has
subsided let us remember that though divided by dif-
ferent tenets and of different religious creeds, we all
worship the same God. Let us remember that though
divided by religious forms, still we all believe in Him
who came to earth to bring to men peace and good-will,
and if we are true to these teachings, if we are ever
ready to give and to take, to make all allowance for the
opinions, nay, for the prejudices of my fellow country-
men, for my part I shall never despair of the future of
our young country."

The man triumphed, but the Jesuit Estates Act was
still an alien and a fugitive in Toronto. The triumph



was greater than appeared at the moment. There could
be no better evidence of the temper of the meeting than
the conduct of Sir Oliver Mowat. He had prepared a
speech for the occasion, and the manuscript was in The
Globe office. But not a sentence of that speech was de-
livered. Wary and cautious, as he ever was, he felt the
ground step by step, never going an inch too far, nor
ever reaching the point of danger. He was cheered by
those who had harassed Laurier, although he did not
actually challenge any argument that Laurier had ad-
vanced. He spoke for Mowat with keen, shrewd
appreciation of the feeling in Ontario, and the danger
of any open rupture with the Equal Rights Association.
The eulogy of Laurier which he had prepared was not
pronounced, and any positive support for the position
of the Federal leader was withheld. Laurier at most
carried only a portion of the meeting; for Mowat there
was universal cheering and vast enjoyment of his
smooth, deft, adroit handling of an audience which
knew as well as he did himself that he was manoeuvring
for safety and leaving Laurier to such judgment as
would be pronounced upon his own appeal and argu-
ment. At the close of the meeting Mowat whispered to
me that he could not afford to make the speech which
he had prepared and that I must destroy the manuscript
which he had sent to The Globe office. As he spoke his
eyes twinkled behind his glasses.

It was discovered next day that the common judg-
ment on Laurier's speech was far more favourable than
could have been expected by those who had attended the
Pavilion meeting. Even Sir Oliver Mowat and many
of those who had opposed the meeting admitted that
Laurier had greatly enhanced his own prestige and had



convinced many doubting Liberals -that objectionable
as the Jesuit Estates Act might be, the demand for dis-
allowance could not be conceded. At a luncheon to
Laurier at the old Reform Club on Wellington Street,
Mowat spoke of the Federal leader with none of the
reserve and caution which had characterized his speech
at the Pavilion. When he had finished, Laurier

whispered, "D him, why, did he not say that

last night?" I have heard Laurier declare that the
Pavilion meeting was the most severe ordeal of his
public career, and that there were moments when he
was mortally apprehensive he would have to abandon
the struggle for a hearing. But he prevailed and never
again in Ontario did the Liberal leader find an audi-
ence unwilling to receive his message, nor did he ever
again encounter public feeling as adverse as that which
was expressed at the Pavilion nearly thirty years ago.
Not only was Laurier embarrassed by the alliance
with Mercier and the eruption over the Jesuit Estates
Act, by the Protestant Protective Association and the
movement against Catholic schools in Manitoba, but
also by the agitation of which Mr. D'Alton McCarthy
was the inspiration and protagonist against official re-
cognition of the French language in the Western Terri-
tories. In the memorable debate in the House of Com-
mons in 1890 on a motion by Mr. McCarthy to deprive
French of its legal status in the Territorial Legislature
there was a greater display of fervour and passion than
in any other to which I have listened. Mr. McCarthy
was assailed by both front benches and defended only by
the faithful O'Brien, by Mr. John Charlton, whose let-
ter expressing despair for the Liberal party under a



Catholic leader and connection with the Equal Rights
movement revealed his political temper, by Mr. Alex-
ander McNeill, whose personal devotion to McCarthy
was only less intense than his devotion to the British
Empire, and by a small group in Parliament responsive
to Presbyterian or Orange influences. For five days Mc-
Carthy sat silent, patient, unprotesting under the per-
suasive, insinuating, impressive reasoning of Sir John
Macdonald, the luminous, sympathetic, tolerant argu-
ment of Hon. Edward Blake, the cold, unfriendly logic
of Sir Richard Cartwright, the angry, bitter, arrogant
attack of Sir Hector Langevin, the nervous, elevated
eloquence of Laurier and many other speeches from
both sides of the Chamber aspersing his motives or
attacking his position with all the resources of persua-
sion, dissuasion and denunciation they could command.
I cannot remember that he ever showed a symptom of
feeling or interjected a word of protest until the attack
languished and he was free to reply. Then he spoke
for three or four hours with superb self-control, remark-
able precision of statement and complete concentration
upon fundamental facts and principles. If he did not
convince, he commanded attention and respect, and the
whole effect upon a hostile Parliament was singularly
pervasive and profound. Those I have always thought
were Mr. McCarthy's great hours in the House of
Commons. If he was overwhelmed in the division, he
triumphed in the debate, and the triumph was accen-
tuated by his high bearing and grave repose. The man
was in his cause. He spoke for it and not for himself.
At least that was the impression made even upon those
who were cold and unresponsive. No one was more
generous in praise than Laurier or more convinced that



the effect upon the country would be still greater than
the effect produced in Parliament.

There was a time when Laurier was not so far re-
moved from Mr. McCarthy in the House of Commons
and Sir William Meredith in the Legislature of
Ontario. In "The Day of Sir John Macdonald," by
Sir Joseph Pope, there is this passage : "About a month
before Sir John Macdonald died Mr. Laurier came to
his office in the House of Commons to discuss some
question of adjournment. When he had gone the Chief
said to me, 'Nice chap, that. If I were twenty years
younger he'd be my colleague.' 'Perhaps he may be yet,
sir,' I remarked. 'Too old,' said he, 'too old,' and passed
into the inner room." I think I know where Laurier,
if he could have disencumbered himself of obligations
and conditions, would have made his alliances when he
became Leader of the Liberal party. It is interesting
to remember that just before his death Mr. McCarthy
had agreed to accept from Sir Wilfrid Laurier the
office of Minister of Justice, which he would not accept
from Sir John Thompson. From the meeting at Tor-
onto in 1889 Laurier was firmly and finally settled in
the Liberal leadership. If his withdrawal ever was
imminent it was because entire devotion to the public
service entailed financial sacrifices too onerous for his
slender resources. But when one thinks upon the ques-
tions which disturbed and divided the country thirty
years ago, of Nationalism in Quebec, of Protestant
agitation in Ontario, of acute division over schools and
language in the West, it will be admitted that the
leadership of a Federal party was a delicate and diffi-
cult undertaking for a Frenchman, a Roman Catholic
and a citizen of Quebec.




Around no other name in Canadian history gathers
so much of praise and detraction, of confidence and
distrust, of story and legend as around that of Sir John
Macdonald. Those who loved him loved greatly;
those who trusted him trusted fully. But no man ever
excited greater ferocity among political opponents or
was the object of more continuous and relentless attack.
The association of George Brown and John A. Mac-
donald in the Coalition Cabinet which united the Prov-
inces was a truce but not a reconciliation. The personal
relationship between the two men was unfriendly before
the Coalition and more unfriendly afterwards. Both
had vital elements of character, but in impulse and tex-
ture, in mental and moral attitude they were destined
for conflict. This is only to recognize essential con-
stitutional differences and not to assign moral or intel-
lectual inferiority to either. Each was vitally ambitious
and in early manhood each saw a common goal in the
distance. Brown had the temper of an agitator and the
outlook of a reformer. Macdonald had genius for gov-
ernment. The one sought to accomplish his objects by
sheer driving power while the other conciliated, per-
suaded and prevailed. Macdonald would have said
with Cavour, "If you want to be a politician, for
mercy's sake do not look more than a week ahead."
Brown looked towards the hills whence came his
strength. One was a political evangelist, the other a
shrewd, wise, patient shepherd who gathered many



flocks into his fold and so long as they followed him
found humour in variety and harmony in contrasts.
Just as Gladstone was offended by the sardonic cynicism
and deliberate levity of Disraeli, so George Brown was
outraged by the flippancy, audacity and dexterity of the
Conservative leader. Looking backward to those days
one seems to see a camp meeting with George Brown in
the pulpit and "John A." making merry with the unre-
pentant on the outskirts of the congregation.

It was very, very hard for Liberals to laugh with
Sir John Macdonald. In his jokes they saw only coarse-
ness, buffoonery and irresponsibility. The truth is that
he was seldom coarse and he laughed at himself as freely
as he laughed at his political opponents. He had a
humour which the people understood. They forgave
much because he so frankly admitted human weak-
nesses and because looking into themselves so many men
knew that they had like faults and frailties. And be-
cause women know men better than they know them-
selves and better than men ever suspect there was
among women a passionate devotion to Sir John Mac-
donald such as no other political leader in Canada has
inspired. No man of ignoble quality ever commands
the devotion of women although perhaps the standards
of judgment which we commonly ascribe to women are
the standards which many women least respect.

Sir John Macdonald was a man with his feet on the
earth and his head not so far above it. He seldom
sought to climb to moral elevations where the footing
might be insecure. For a time he drank freely but any
whisper of censure only stimulated Conservatives to
fiercer personal loyalty. He said himself that the coun-
try would rather have "John A." drunk than George



Brown sober. He warned D'Arcy McGee that "this
Government can't afford two drunkards and you're got
to stop." His drinking was exaggerated, as were his
other faults and follies, by sleepless and insensate oppon-
ents. Very often the attack was so violent as to bring
chivalrous souls to his side and actually react in his fav-
our. Down to middle life and beyond Sir John Macdon-
ald had periodical "sprees" and nothing that he attempt-
ed was done badly. Sometimes he was disabled for pub-
lic duty. The authorities seem to agree that not only may
a "spree" come unaware but that it is as uncertain in its
going as in its coming. Begun in complete privacy it
may develop various phases and attract more public
notice than is desirable even though the performance
may be original and artistic. Unlike any other pursuit

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Online LibraryJohn Stephen WillisonReminiscences, political and personal → online text (page 12 of 25)