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Manitoba History: Review: Donna McDonald, Lord Strathcona: A Biography Of Donald Alexander Smith

by Anne Morton
Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg

Number 43, Spring / Summer 2002

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Donna McDonald, Lord Strathcona: A Biography Of Donald Alexander Smith. Toronto & Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1996, 600 pp., illus. ISBN:1-55002-266-0, $34.99 Cdn.

It was for too long something of a national embarrassment that we had no full-length biography of Lord Strathcona (1820-1914) more recent than the one by Beckles Willson, which appeared in 1915. True, Pierre Berton’s work on the Canadian Pacific Railway brought Strathcona back to our attention. Peter Newman has carried a torch for him for years. But in the decades between Willson and this book there was not, so far as I am aware, any attempt at a scholarly biography of Strathcona other than the one left uncompleted by W. L. Morton.

It may be that as a capitalist and an imperialist Strathcona has not been much in vogue. There is also a major problem with sources. Strathcona’s life in business and politics is well documented but the accidental burning of some of his personal papers during his lifetime, coupled with the deliberate burning by descendants of the many that did survive him, has left any biographer at a considerable loss. And Strathcona requires of his biographer an acquaintance with topics that include the Hudson’s Bay Company, Canadian and American railways, Canadian and imperial politics, not to mention the intricacies of marriage law and the beginnings of British Petroleum. A man whose interests moved from seal oil in Labrador to oil in the Persian desert must be a daunting prospect to an academic world growing increasingly specialized.

So it is not really a surprise that Strathcona’s long-awaited biographer should not be an academic. McDonald took up the challenge when her publisher, Kirk Howard, on the strength of her having written a book about the painter Juliana Horatia Ewing, kept suggesting other women as potential new topics. When she protested that she could write about men too, Howard offered Lord Strathcona. Presumably this book was a long-felt want on his part as well.

McDonald has brought considerable gifts to her task. Not only is she not an academic but she is also, although a Canadian, resident in London. Readers may remember her as the London correspondent of Stereo Morning. She thus has a fresh point of view on the familiar themes of Canada’s past. I particularly enjoyed her account of the birth of the province of Manitoba. This comes across as not so much a stirring saga but a comic opera, marred by the occasional lurch into bloodshed, in the course of which Strathcona distinguished himself by keeping his head while all about him were losing theirs. McDonald is not one to pass up an opportunity for comic relief. She gleefully quotes, for example, a headline to a story in the Saint Paul Daily Globe on the Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway: “St. Paul to Join Hands with Winnipeg and Also to Clasp Alexandria and Intermediate Points in Fond Embrace.” [p. 275]

Her thumbnail sketches of the varied men and women encountered by Strathcona are sharp and witty. Here is Major Rogers, winner of a $5,000 reward for discovering a pass through the Selkirk Mountains:

In the autumn of 1882, Rogers, with his wild whiskers and rough clothes, burst in on an elegant dinner party at George Stephen’s Montreal mansion to report that he had indeed found the pass which now bears his name. He put up with being stuffed into one of Stephen’s evening suits so that he could join the dinner guests; he tried to hide his disgust at the quantity of food on offer, his own belief being that a man only needed a few beans and a plug of tobacco to survive; he did his best to keep his profanity under control. There was, however, one thing he refused to do and that was to cash the $5,000 cheque. Framed, it hung in his brother’s house in Minnesota, admired by his nephews. In that form, as far as Rogers was concerned, its price was beyond rubies. [p. 303]

And here is Lady Aberdeen:

The tendency not to look before she leapt, coupled with a fine disregard for how things could be paid for, had enabled her to bring her husband close to bankruptcy, the shock of which cause her to suffer a nervous breakdown ... both men [Strathcona and Sir William Butler] had obviously seen enough of Lady Aberdeen to know that Canadians would not be allowed to sit idly by if the governor-general’s wife thought they should be engaged in improving activities. [p. 395]

Most impressive of all is the way McDonald handles the problem of structuring the biography. This cannot have been easy when dealing with a man who grew up in a small Scottish town, spent his life until almost the age of 50 at fur trade posts in Quebec and Labrador and then enjoyed over 40 active years as a major figure on the national and imperial stage. McDonald is able to cope by never losing sight of the fact that she is writing the life of a man and not the history of a country. Strathcona, or Donald as she refers to him, remains in the foreground. The role of events and other people is a subordinate one, dedicated to revealing Strathcona’s personality to us. Risking one’s fortune on the building of a transcontinental railway is of course a bigger thing than chastising an employee for using too many nails in putting up a cask [p. 109] or counting the eleven cups of coffee consumed by an Inuit guest [p. 69] but they all tell us something about the man.

McDonald has her own point of view about Strathcona, and a fond and admiring one it is, but it is not her style to tell us baldly what to think. This is a book that has to be read attentively so as to catch the way in which seemingly insignificant references blossom into something more important later on. In a description of Strathcona’s native town of Forres, for example, we are told about the luckenbooth pins, shaped like a pair of interlocked hearts and given as love tokens. Strathcona bought one of these for his wife in 1865 [p. 124] and she wore it for the rest of her life, as we can see in the photograph facing page 193. So that what first appears as a bit of local colour later becomes a symbol of a long and loving marriage. Similarly, accounts of Strathcona’s physical clumsiness culminate in the description of the single most famous act of his life—the driving of the last spike. This should be known perhaps as the second spike, as his first attempt mangled the spike so badly that it had to be discarded. (The bent spike was to be covered with diamonds and presented to his wife as yet another love token.)

Two of the most interesting things about Strathcona are his money and his marriage. In dealing with these, McDonald pauses near the end of her narrative and allows a perspective to open on the past. Strathcona is famous for being rich. He had pots of money, he gave a great deal of it away, in a program of thoughtful philanthropy, and yet still there was plenty more where it came from. As a boy of 18 he had become a clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Company. This would have given him the expectation, if he were sensible about his money and did not have too large a family, of not much more than financial security in his old age. How did he manage to do so much with what were originally such limited opportunities? In reflecting on the motto Strathcona chose in 1901, Agmina ducens or ‘In the Van’, McDonald offers the explanation that “as soon as he was convinced of the worth of an idea, he acted on it.” [p. 443] On its own, this may seem rather lame, as attempts at explaining genius in any field tend to be, but coming near the end of a book in which Strathcona’s intelligence, energy and self-belief have been displayed in episodes both great and small, it is effective. This sense of a man who did not hesitate between perception and action comes across vividly in two of the book’s many illustrations. One reproduced in colour on the front flap, is the well-known painting by Hind showing Strathcona as a red-haired fur trader at North West River in 1860; the other is a 1908 photograph of the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Canadian High Commissioner, etc., etc. The red beard may have turned to white, the beaded moccasins may have been replaced by highly polished shoes but the effect of gathered force is still the same.

Strathcona dressed appropriately, whether for the bush or the board room, because he was a man who respected conventions. Yet he knew there were times when conventions could be respected too much. How else could he have lived for over 40 years with a woman to whom he was married in every way that counted, except legally? (What with one thing and another, the couple did not undergo a legal ceremony of marriage until they were grandparents in their seventies.) Isabella Hardisty (1825-1913) was described by Strathcona as his “stay and comforter throughout a long life.” [p. 492] A woman of much intelligence and self-confidence, qualities she seems to have inherited from her maternal grandmother, a woman of the country known as Jeanny Sutherland, she yet did one stupid thing in her life. This was to take up with the hot-tempered and abusive James Grant. She had the courage to leave him and, along with their small son, Jamesie, seek the protection of young Mr Smith. Soon afterwards, Isabella conceived her only child by Donald, a daughter named Maggie. As McDonald’s describes Lady Strathcona’s death at their home in Grosvenor Square, with her husband at her side holding her hand, she looks back to their beginnings in North West River: “She had seduced him and made him love her and he had never stopped doing so.” [p. 492] Bold words, but they carry conviction. Donald Smith is not likely to have made the first move towards a woman in distress.

At one point McDonald describes Strathcona, at a banquet in St. Paul in 1893 to celebrate the completion of the Great Northern, as being “[a]mong the plump and lusty mid-westerners ... a thin and reticent mystery.” [p. 377] This book is nothing so deadly as a definitive biography. McDonald allows Strathcona his mystery and never attempts to reduce the man to a book. As a result, having read her biography, one is not inclined to shut it up and put it on the shelf with the feeling that there’s Lord Strathcona over and done with. This is a book that compels you to think about what sort of man Strathcona was and to go on thinking about him.

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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