John Stephen Willison.

Reminiscences, political and personal online

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be retained only by methods which were beyond toler-
ation and by dependence upon instruments which
could not be employed without complete humiliation
and disgrace. But he was not willing to resign
nor convinced that the outlook was hopeless. He
persuaded himself that it was better to save something
by negotiation than to lose all in a battle which was
going badly. With the sanction, therefore, of Sir Wil-
frid Laurier and Sir Richard Cartwright and two or
three of his own colleagues, he approached Sir James
Whitney with proposals for a coalition. Mr. Goldwin
Smith in The Weekly Sun had suggested coalition, and
he was persuaded to revive the agitation on assurances
that Ross had become a convert and that The
Globe would support The Sun's argument. The
Globe's first article in accordance with this agreement
was an appeal for union as unequivocal as Mr. Gold-
win Smith could have desired, but which in the judg-
ment of many Liberals emphasized too strongly the
hopeless position of a Government with only three of a
majority in the Legislature. A second article fol-
lowed, more guarded in language, but in definite advo-
cacy of coalition.

Sir George Ross foresaw that the position would be
embarrassing if Whitney should not entertain his
proposals, and he was anxious that neither The Globe
nor himself should be irrevocably compromised. For
my part I was convinced that the Government should
resign, and I had no thought that Whitney would



coalesce. Ross and Whitney were incompatible in
temper and method. The Conservative leader was
open and eruptive. The Prime Minister was adroit
and acute. Ross was often brilliant, Whitney seldom.
But Whitney had more quality than he ever revealed
in Parliament or on the platform. Whitney trusted
Hardy, and they were much alike; he distrusted Ross,
and they were greatly unlike.

Among Liberals there was a common conviction
that the Conservative party never could attain office
under Whitney. This, too, was the impression of
many Conservatives. I remember that a few days be-
fore polling in 1905, when I was convinced that the
Conservatives would have a majority of forty, an active
and influential Conservative met my confident predic-
tion with the blunt but unflattering rejoinder that

"only a d fool would think that Whitney could

ever beat Ross". This curious undervaluation of
Whitney perhaps partly explains Ross's confidence
that the project of coalition would be entertained and
explains also the favourable attitude of some Conser-
vatives towards the proposal. But there was never
even a momentary prospect that Whitney would enter
a coalition. If he ever seemed to hesitate it was be-
cause he desired to understand fully the position of his
opponents. When this was disclosed he rejected the
offer with decision and emphasis, as he resolutely re-
sisted subsequent attempts by a group of influential
people outside the Legislature to bring the leaders of
the two parties together in a union cabinet.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier sanctioned the advances to
Whitney, but he cannot have believed that Ross
would succeed. He was greatly concerned over the



situation in Ontario, and very urgent when the Union
proposal was rejected that Ross should resign office
and enter the federal Cabinet as Liberal leader for
Ontario. Laurier contended that if Ross were to
persist in the attempt to govern with an inadequate
majority he would destroy his own reputation, be-
queath the party an accumulating heritage of scandal,
and provoke a public feeling which would not dis-
criminate between the Government at Toronto and the
Government at Ottawa. He was anxious for Ross,
anxious for himself, and anxious for the Liberal party,
but the Provincial leader would not listen nor would
he ever believe that he could be defeated in a general
election. When a party has governed continuously for
a third of a century it is not surprising if its leaders
become convinced that they have an hereditary title to
office. Even during the electoral campaign of 1905
Ross believed that he would hold the Province,
and he infused his courage and confidence into many of
his candidates. But the defeat was overwhelming;
the ruin so complete that the wreckage still embarrasses
and encumbers.

When Sir George Ross was in London for the coron-
ation of King Edward VII. Mr. Joseph Chamberlain
through a casual inquiry learned that he was the fourth
successive Liberal Premier of Ontario, and thatfor more
than thirty years the Conservative party had been ex-
cluded from office in the Province. Turning upon
Ross with courtesy but with energy, the Imperial
statesman insisted that the British system of govern-
ment required regular alternation in office between the
political parties, and that only by such changes could
the initiative and capacity of rival statesmen be fully



employed in the public service. But Ross was not af-
fected by the advice of Mr. Chamberlain, nor would
he listen to the appeal of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, although
he admitted that questionable expedients and corrupt
expenditures were necessary at the moment to success
even in constituencies which were historic strongholds
of the Liberal party. If he had resigned in deference
to wholesome public sentiment he would have pro-
tected his own reputation and dignity, and the restora-
tion of the Liberal party in Ontario would have been
a far less onerous undertaking for his successors. But
he had an excess of courage, and he was so effective in
debate and so persuasive and convincing on the plat-
form that he could not forsake the field and refuse a
battle in which he did not doubt that he would pre-

There was nothing spontaneous in Sir George Ross's
speeches, and yet there was a simple, easy, natural
spontaneity in their deliverance. Although he pre-
pared with infinite labour, his sentences were spoken
as simply and impressively as though they were the
coinage of the moment. When he read a speech, as
he did sometimes, he was heavy and unimpressive. If
he made the same speech without production of the
manuscript he was happy, alert, stimulating and in-
spiring. Few public men speak without exact and
laborious preparation. Blake, Cartwright, and Mowat
were as dependent upon manuscript as was Ross, but
they never achieved his natural spontaneity. Sir John
Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and Alexander
Mackenzie avoided verbal preparation, but they never
spoke more naturally than did Ross when he was using
the literal language of the manuscript. There was



spirit in his sentences, occasional flashes of satirical or
impudent humour, a suggestion of complete candour,
passages of orderly eloquence, not so perfect when dis-
sected, but singularly impressive as delivered with ap-
propriate inflextion and gesture. His voice was not
musical, but there was a penetrating quality, a curious
sharpness in attack and an intimate cadence in appeal
and defence. Few men could handle a public meet-
ing with such skill, or so restrain and conciliate hostile
elements. He was so nonchalant, so reliant, so easily
confident in his message and in himself that only the
irreconcilable suspected and only the unwary inter-
rupted. If his speeches were prepared his humour
was spontaneous enough, and when he could not sub-
due with banter he would silence and humiliate with
contemptuous ridicule or a sudden savage retort from
which there was no recovery.

His speeches reveal an amazing power of absorp-
tion. They suggest greater knowledge than he pos-
sessed. He read many books and something of all re-
mained in his memory. He could expound the science
of banking better than the bankers. He could advise
manufacturers and instruct farmers. He had an in-
stinct for assimilation and exposition. He had lan-
guage for the other man's knowledge and expression
for his experience. He let off cargo as easily as he
loaded. There is not much in his speeches that will
survive, for the true flavour of literature is missing, as
is almost inevitable in material for the platform. But
for immediate effect Sir George Ross was the best
speaker of his time in Canada or at least Sir George
Foster alone among his contemporaries was as uni-
formly attractive and effective on the platform and in
Parliament. 326


Sir George Ross was not fortunate in his term of
office as Prime Minister of Ontario, nor was his repu-
tation enhanced in the Senate, but these are incidents
in a career which was distinguished for patriotic ser-
vice and a living interest in movements of high social
and national value. There were tests he did not meet,
but he was not narrow in sympathy or outlook. His
reconstruction of the educational system of Ontario
may have been faulty, but the defects were insignificant
in a solid body of achievement. He was eager to stim-
ulate native literature. He made valuable contribu-
tions to biography and history. A gallant spirit pre-
vailed over severe physical affliction, and he held for
thirty years without a single defeat the constituency by
which he was first returned to Parliament.

For years after he became leader of the Conserva-
tive party Sir James Whitney was a lonely figure. He
lived in a village between sessions of the Legislature.
Even while the House was sitting he had few friends
outside the Chamber. He was seldom seen at a club
or at a private dinner. He would go often to the
theatre, and he could enjoy a harrowing melo-drama.
He read the Sunday editions of the American news-
papers, from the first page headlights to the comic
supplements. But he also read many books, and few
men had a wider or more exact knowledge of British
political and constitutional history. In social inter-
course he could be charming and companionable, gen-
erous in judgment, and tolerant of differences of opin-
ion. When he first appeared in the Legislature his
speeches were singularly moderate and judicial. But
in the long struggle for office he developed irascibility.
He became convinced that the balances were weighted



against Conservative candidates, that the returns of the
ballot boxes did not express the intention of the voters,
that there was careless toleration of evil political prac-
tices by the comfortable classes, and that even the
churches were acquiescent and cowardly. One sus-
pects that he also resented the attitude of many Con-
servatives to whom his personality made no immediate
appeal and who withheld the sympathy and support
which was so freely accorded to Sir William Meredith
and Sir John Macdonald. It cannot be said that he
had strong support in the Legislature, although the
Opposition under successive Conservative leaders was
not so contemptible as the country was led to believe.
For years there was a general -impression that the
Conservative party in the Legislature could not form
a Cabinet out of the material available and that there
was no alternative but to prolong the tenure of Liberal
administration. Conscious of this feeling, Whit-
ney often displayed resentment and anger in his
speeches. Indeed he was often heartily abusive but
never grossly personal in attack. He was never so
abusive as when he defended an associate or repelled
aspersions upon his own motives. Unlike Sir George
Ross, he spoke without preparation and was often car-
ried into violence and extravagance of statement. But
he was so transparent that the people understood and
rejoiced in his tempestuous ebullitions. He travelled
the Province over, without parade or pretension,
often alone and unsupported, often weary but aggres-
sive, resolute, independent and defiant.

From day to day while I was its editor The Globe
reported his speeches as fully as they were reported by
any Conservative newspaper, to the distress of Liberal



ministers, who often protested that if the paper would
treat him with salutary neglect he never would rise
above his natural insignificance. But I was concerned
only for The Globe's reputation as a newspaper and
could not be convinced that the speeches of the Con-
servative leader should be ignored. There was no
thought of conciliating Conservatives nor any desire to
assist Whitney into office. The time came when
defence of the methods employed in behalf of the Ross
Government was impossible, but there would have
been a suspicion of betrayal if, as editor of The Globe,
I had attempted to exercise the freedom which I believ-
ed the circumstances demanded. Connected with the
sensational incidents in which Mr. Gamey was the
central figure there is much that has not been disclosed.
Neither upon the one side nor upon the other was there
a complete revelation, and if the judgment of the Royal
Commission was according to the evidence the investi-
gation was incomplete and inconclusive.There could
not be a more tangled story, and it was just that Mr.
Gamey and the Ross Government should have suf-

As Prime Minister, Sir James Whitney required
and enforced simple integrity in administration and in
legislation. He came into office unfettered by pledges
to any group or interest. In appointments to office he
did not forget the faithful workers of the party, but he
protected and trusted the permanent Civil Service.
He provided liberally for the University of Toronto.
The appropriations for primary and secondary educa-
tion were substantially increased. He was not too
generous towards agriculture nor was he very sympa-
thetic towards revolutionary panaceas for the re-



generation of mankind. He suspected the idealists
and hated evangelical profession and pretension. He
thought he was a Tory, which he was not; he was stern
in word and compassionate in action. He guarded his
own integrity with such anxious vigilance that his col-
leagues were sometimes subjected to inconvenient re-
straint. For he fully trusted only himself, not so much
in doubt of associates, as in the resolute determination
to know every detail of administration and the reason
for every departmental decision. Although he dis-
trusted "public ownership" he sanctioned a great pro-
ject of municipal co-operation which has been of un-
doubted advantage to Ontario. He was not a pro-
hibitionist, but he required stringent enforcement of
the license regulations and agreed that if a public
sentiment should develop strong enough to assure gen-
eral respect for a prohibitory enactment the Legisla-
ture must give effect to the will of the people. He
was a British subject of intense conviction and devo-
tion. He would flame into anger over any suggestion
of withdrawal from the Imperial connection. He was
deeply anxious that Canada should grow closer to the
Mother Country and bear its legitimate proportion
of the burden of Imperial defence. He said to me just
after the general election of 1908, in which the major-
ity for the Government was overwhelming, "Ontario
does not think I am a great man. It does think I am
honest. And honest I must be." But that was not a
hard task for Sir James Whitney. He was invincibly
and belligerently honest, and his character and ex-
ample, whether or not he was a great man, are among
the best possessions of the Province.

There died the other day a colleague of Sir James



Whitney of remarkable quality. Hon. W. J. Hanna
was less than sixty years old, and five years ago
he would have been said to have a great reserve of
strength and energy. But the strength was exhausted
too soon by the energy which could not be restrained.
He was not perhaps an orderly worker, but at times he
had almost a demoniac power of concentration. At
his best he stood to the level of great men, but he re-
vealed himself reluctantly, and much that the gods
offered he cast aside. He could have been counsel for
the Grand Trunk Railway, but he chose instead the
fretful irritations and the meagre emoluments of pub-
lic office. He could have been Chairman of the Fed-
eral Railway Commission, but Sir James Whitney
would not agree, and Mr. Hanna in simple loyalty to
a political comrade accepted the decision. When he
took the office of Food Controller he expected that
criticism and unpopularity would be his portion. He
did not attempt to conciliate critics by promises of im-
mediate reduction in prices. Believing that the
chief objects were to increase production and pro-
vide food for the allied countries and the allied armies
he was unmoved by all the clamour for arbitrary regu-
lation of producers. He was primarily concerned to
increase production not to reduce prices., and although
his office exercised a greater control over prices than
was generally believed it was by open co-operation and
quiet pressure rather than by vexatious and repressive
regulations that effective results were secured. The
statement he issued when he resigned office was a con-
clusive vindication of the system of control which he
devised and a message of high significance for the



There was a quality in Mr. Hanna which few men
possess. He could labour and sacrifice and conceal
what his hand was doing with infinite reserve. He
was restless when he was praised but grateful when he
was understood. For the causes to which he was de-
voted he had enthusiasm that could not be controlled.
These causes were chiefly connected with the erring
and the unfortunate, the maimed and the broken in the
battle of life. No man ever saw more good in those
upon whom the strict moralists laid their censure, or
ever was more eager to restore the penitent who would
not look towards the uplands. He believed in the es-
sential divinity of man and in compassion saw the law
of justice. On the prison farms which he established
he was happy as he was nowhere else, and these are his
praise and his monument.

As he sought to restore those who had come under
social and legal condemnation, so he was anxious for
the estate of women and the dignity and independence
of labour. Of idleness and inefficiency he was intol-
erant. Perhaps he hardly distinguished laziness from
actual criminality. But he could not be reconciled to
social conditions under which work was denied to
those who were willing to do it, which condemned
men and women to live in unwholesome surroundings,
and which laid upon the backs of honest and thrifty
people burdens greater than they could carry. It may
be that he had no great reputation beyond Ontario.
More than once he stood upon the threshold of national
politics. If he had greatly desired he could have sat
in the Federal Cabinet. But it was ordered otherwise,
and he was content. He disliked the meaner side of
party warfare, the littleness and ugliness of personal



controversy, the demagogic ranting which disgusts hon-
est men with public service. But he could have been
a great Minister of National Welfare, if by abuse and
misuse that term has not become misleading and unat-
tractive. He was peculiarly, perhaps, the servant of
Ontario, but his achievements, little as he did to attract
attention to himself, have national significance and
should have national recognition.

As I reach the end of this story I think of men for
whose friendship I am grateful, of incidents insignifi-
cant in themselves which linger in the memory, of
things said that one cannot forget, of things written
that one would not recall. Alexander Russel, the
famous editor of The Edinburgh Scotsman, declared
that the life of a journalist is a warfare upon earth.
But the conflict is absorbing and if one advocates many
causes which deserve to succeed and do not, one also
fights many battles which he deserves to lose and does
not. The journalist must develop philosophy. He
must harden his hide and soften his heart. If he lets
the sun go down upon his wrath he will have much
sorrow and will make much sport for his contempo-
raries. He must learn that "wisdom lingers" and that
prophecy is the pastime of fools.

For thirty years I looked every day through scores
of exchanges. Nothing in the day's work was more
interesting, more instructive or more effective in re-
ducing conceit and restraining arrogance. I was often
told that I wasted time upon the exchanges. I do not
think so. They expressed Canada, town, village and
country, and often in an unpretentious weekly publi-
cation one found a word of inspiration or a revelation
of feeling of national significance. Often, too, there



was humour in the exchanges, conscious or unconscious,
as interpreted in different surroundings or from a dif-
ferent outlook. I recall an account in a Brampton
paper of a wedding which ended with the impressive
sentence, "The happy couple took the Chicago flyer
for Guelph." Once a Fort William paper stated that
a Pole had been shot in the foreign quarter. A Dur-
ham exchange reported the farewell sermon of a Meth-
odist minister from the text, "Sleep on now and take
your rest." Another journal published in Grey Coun-
ty had this item, "Mr. John Albrecht, Mr. George
Schenck's hired man, had the misfortune of cutting
off one of his big toes on Thursday. We think it was
an axe that did the terrible work. Dr. McLean was
called and dressed the wound." A Nova Scotia ex-
change gave the prayer of a little girl, apparently be-
longing to a Liberal family, who said, "Now, O God,
take care of yourself, for if we lose you we shall only
have Laurier left to take care of us and he is not doing
as well as papa expected he would do." The Kincar-
dine Review mentioned a colonel who could not join
the Strathcona Horse because he was an ass. The
Catholic Record of London, expressing regret for the
death of a bank director, through the eccentricity of a
typesetting machine was made to say that he had been
"added to the rest account." A Winnipeg paper in-
tended to say "women clothed with sanctity," but
actually said, "women clothed with scantily." There
was the Montreal story of a dispute between a French
Roman Catholic and a Scottish Presbyterian. Final-
ly the exasperated Scotsman said, "To hell with the
Pope." The Frenchman retorted, "You say, to hell
wis zee Pope, den I say, to hell wis Harry Lauder."



One acquired, too, a beautiful collection of anony-
mous letters. It is, perhaps, not easy to be reconciled
to such letters, for only an irredeemable coward, unfit
for the decent earth which he encumbers through the
mercy of an indulgent God, sends even to an editor
unsigned letters which are meant to wound and fester.
But one does become reconciled to the ways of such
creatures and as the years pass there is genuine delight
in rereading their curious messages. I find an old en-
velope addressed to "J. S. Willison, proprietor of Cox
and J affray's morals and daylight editor of The
Globe." A letter which preserves the balance reads,
"The daily sight of the knightly editor defending
Rogers is enough to make angels weep." Another let-
ter reads, "You can beat Ananias ; better not yell poli-
tical purity so long as you have stinking fish in your
own basket." Of like implication was a letter I re-
ceived four or five years ago, just a few minutes before
I had to address the Canadian Club of Vancouver,
"You are the biggest liar in Canada. It is a wonder
you were not shot long ago." At least there is com-
fort in the reflection that one is not an amateur. An-
other of which I have lost the connection but which is
signed "A Conservative," reads, "It must be something
of a wrench to have to do this sort of thing, so long as
one retains any pretensions to decency in public affairs.
Surely the Prussian taskmaster could not be harder
than this indicates. I take it that there was no escape,
or you would have ignored the rascal in politics, even
if you could not call your soul your own sufficiently to
deal with him as the general interest dictates. And,
believe me, the policy of our party so dictates, what-
ever may be your instructions from your immediate



masters." But I could multiply such letters into a vol-
ume and possibly other editors with greater virtue than
I possess have not been neglected by these curious
guardians of the public morals.

How many vagrant stories, gathered in a third of
a century, lie at the back of one's memory. Many
years ago Mr. David Glass was prominent in political
contests in London and Middlesex. Once he was
speaking in London South and was interrupted by a

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Online LibraryJohn Stephen WillisonReminiscences, political and personal → online text (page 23 of 25)