Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
David Laird



(1833-1914)

"LONG courted; won at last.”

These words adorning an arch of welcome in Charlottetown during the visit of Lord Dufferin, in July, 1873, formed a naive admission from the coy maiden of the Gulf. With Prince Edward Island it was not so much love at first sight as, What are the terms of the marriage settlement? Nine years were occupied by the flirtation with the unknown stranger, Confederation, and only in the hour of her need did the Island consent to the nuptials.

It is true that David Laird said in his first speech in the House of Commons that the Island wanted to see how Confederation was to prosper. It is also true that the spirit of the Islanders, following 1864, was one of suspicion of Upper and Lower Canada, carried even beyond that Of the other Maritime Provinces. Though they had taken part in the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences, they soon withdrew from the scheme, and returned only when a railway burden threatened the Island’s solvency.

David Laird, as one of the Island’s most distinguished sons, reflected the prevailing sentiment of his day regarding union. He was not at either Conference, and the delegates were not long home from Quebec before he was in the fight against them. In 1873 he took the other view, though reluctantly, and lived to render signal service to the new Dominion. Laird was one of the noble company of able, intellectual men whom the Maritime Provinces have sent to Ottawa, men whose calibre has ever given the seaboard sections a high influence in Dominion councils and overcome the disadvantages of slow development.

Scottish ancestry and inherited sterling qualities gave David Laird a character that made for solidity and service in a pioneer commonwealth. His father, Alexander Laird, who came from Renfrewshire to a farm in Prince Edward Island in 1819, was a man of high character and influence. He satin the Island Assembly for 16 years, and for four years was a member of the Executive Council. David Laird was one of a family of eight, and was born at New Glasgow, P.E.I., on March 12, 1833. His higher education at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Truro, N.S., was aimed to fit him for the Church, but he entered journalism instead as founder and editor of The Patriot at Charlottetown. A man of Laird’s moral and intellectual strength was soon an influential citizen. He served in the Charlottetown city council, but did not enter the Assembly until 1871. He was elected to oppose the railway, then promoted by J. C. Pope and his government, which Mr. Laird held was beyond the Island’s resources.

[James Colledge Pope (1826-85) was instrumental in keeping Prince Edward Island out of Confederation in 1866, and in bringing it in in 1873. As Premier he moved the negative resolution in the former year, and becoming again Premier in 1873 he accepted the better terms offer under the Island’s financial needs consequent on its railway program. Pope entered the Island Assembly in 1858, and was Premier three times. Being elected to the House of Commons in 1876 he became Minister of Marine and Fisheries, serving until his retirement in 1882.]

Progress on the Island had been retarded by the feudal system under which the land was parcelled out in 20,000-acre blocks after the British occupation in 1763. Absentee landlords and disheartened tenants made a fruitful subject for politicians, but all efforts at relief had failed. The Islanders, therefore, turned with curiosity and not without hope to the invitation to join in the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences. Judge their disappointment when the Quebec scheme made no provision for a settlement of the land question and was interpreted as meaning for them actual loss.

The Island’s delegates had joined in the ecstatic prophecies at the conferences, but they were far ahead of their people. “It may yet be said,” declared T. H. Haviland at Charlottetown, “that here in little Prince Edward Island was that union formed which has produced one of the greatest nations on the face of God’s earth.” Edward Whelan,t an alert, eloquent Irishman, who had learned printing with Joseph Howe in Halifax, was similarly happy. At Montreal, after the Quebec Conference, he said the Island could support a population at least three times as great as it then contained, and he was satisfied the Province “could not fail to become very prosperous and happy under the proposed union.”

David Laird was one of the first to disturb the dream of the Island delegates. Just turned thirty, his six feet four inches and his uncommonly loud voice commanded attention at once in the battle against the Quebec scheme. Early in 1865, The Islander newspaper, which had been favorable to union, went to the other side, and George Coles and Edward Palmer, two of the delegates to Quebec, gave way to pressure and spoke against federation. Public meetings were held, and the Islanders were told they would be marched away to the frontiers of Upper Canada to fight for the defence of the Canadians.

Laird made an exhaustive speech against union at a meeting at Charlottetown in February. He objected to the terms of Confederation, and claimed each Province should have equal representation in the Legislative Council. As to the Assembly, he protested against Montreal having one more representative than the Island, and with “the refuse and ignorant of its purlieus and lanes being thus placed on an equality with the moral, independent and intelligent yeomen of Prince Edward Island.” He estimated that the Island would be $93,780 worse off financially each year under union.

The debate went on for several weeks, T. H. Havi-land being a leading defender of the scheme he had helped to found. Opinion was crystallized at a large meeting in Charlottetown where the following resolution was adopted:

“That in the opinion of this meeting the terms of union contained in the report of the Quebec Conference—especially those laid down in the clause relating to representation and finance—are not such as would be either liberal or just to Prince Edward Island, and that it is highly expedient that said report be not adopted by our Legislature.”

Before the end of March the Assembly by 5 to 23 had failed to approve the Quebec terms, and the idea was all but abandoned. A resolution adopted by the Assembly early in 1866 made the plan seem even more offensive. It said that, while union might benefit the other Provinces, they could not admit “it could ever be accomplished on terms that would prove advantageous to the interests and well-being of this Island, separated as it is and must ever remain from the neighboring Provinces by an immovable barrier of ice for many months of the year.”

Other temptations from the uniting Provinces followed. The delegates in England framing the B.N.A. Act in 1866 made an informal offer to J. C. Pope, who was there on a visit, of $800,000 for loss in territorial revenue and for purchase of landlords’ rights. Three years later Premier R. P. Haythorne rejected a further offer, on the ground that it was inadequate.

“No union” was still the cry in 1870, when the Islanders stubbornly opposed any change, while declaring their attachment to the British Crown. David Laird during the session of the Legislature set forth the Islanders’ views typically.

“It had been stated,” he said, “that in our present isolated position we should never have any influence, but that united to Canada we should be a part of a great nation. He would ask what constituted greatness? A large population did not constitute greatness, or China would be the greatest empire in the world. Neither did large extent of territory, or Russia would be great. Neither did wealth make a country great unless there was freedom. The greatness that was to be desired was to have freedom of conscience and to have every man educated. We should not be improved in these respects by joining the Dominion, and as far as wealth was concerned, we could also compare favorably with them. We could gain nothing commercially by uniting with the Canadians, as they grew everything we did, and we would aid them in building railroads which would be a means of conveyance for their produce and enable them to supply the different markets more readily than we could.”

One year later the cause of the Island’s change of heart loomed up in a project for a railway. This essentially modern instrument became a reality, though Arcadian simplicity still finds expression in L. M. Montgomery’s novels of Island life and in the prohibition until recently of the use of automobiles. The railway was to cost $25,000 per mile, but the prospect of a $3,000,000 debt made the bankers nervous, and within two years the Province appeared to face bankruptcy. David Laird had entered the Cabinet of R. P. Hay-thorne late in 1872, and, realizing the crisis, they accepted an invitation to visit Ottawa. Haythorne and Laird “stole away in the night,” as a critic said, by the ice-boat route to the mainland, and reached Ottawa on February 24, 1873. They had extended interviews with the Government, but their visit was barely noticed by the public. Terms were offered and they went home to submit them to the people. J. C. Pope outmanoeuvred them by promising to secure “better terms,” and won the general election without endangering the principle of union, which the majority now desired. Pope and Haviland then visited Ottawa, secured some slight changes, and the union scheme was adopted unanimously in the Legislature, becoming effective on July 1.

Pope had opposed union as had Laird, and the latter described the logic of events during the session of 1873. “The delegates went to Ottawa,” he said, “not to sell their country or barter away its constitution, but, in the embarrassed state of the colony brought about by the railway measure, to see what terms could be had.”

“In view of the present and prospective difficulties of the colony,” he added, “they (the delegates) saw that increased taxation or confederation was unavoidable. As a native of the country, if he saw any possible way by which they could hope to overcome these difficulties and remain as they were, he would feel glad, but as the railway debt would be largely increased in another year he saw no course open but the one they took.”

Under the agreement the Dominion Government took over the Island Railway, which was under contract, and gave $800,000 for the purchase of land from the proprietors and undertook various other expenses, as well as the subsidy of 80 cents per head as in the case of the other Provinces.

Considering the state of Canadian politics at the time, it is little wonder that the addition of Prince Edward Island to the union made slight stir. The Dominion was seething in 1873 over the charges and revelations oi the Pacific Scandal, under which the Pacific Railway Syndicate gave large sums to the Conservative party’s campaign fund. The scandal had reached its climax in the autumn in a long debate in the House on the report of the commission of investigation. The six members from the Island had taken their seats for the first time, under the leadership of David Laird. Their attitude in Federal politics was yet unknown and was awaited with some anxiety. It was now that the sterling qualities of David Laird were seen. He stood in the House like an avenging angel. He began his speech on November 4 with some timidity, as he said the Island members had not been present when the charges were made. At the same time, he added, the members had now taken their seats, and they would neither be faithful to their constituents nor to the trust reposed in them if they shirked the vote upon this question. He reviewed the case in a fresh and comprehensive manner, censured the conduct of the Ministers involved, declared the carrying of elections by the influence of money was a subversion of the rights of the people, and said he was ready to vote according to his conscience.

“Upon the decision that is given on this question,” he said, “will depend the future of the country, its intellectual progress, its political morality and, more than all, the integrity of its statesmen.”

It was generally conceded that Mr. Laird’s speech, along with that of Donald A. Smith (later Lord Strath-cona), had much to do with precipitating the Government’s resignation the next day. Sir George W. Ross, who was then a tyro in the House of Commons wrote years afterwards that the Island leader’s speech was anxiously awaited.

“Mr. Laird,” he said, “was regarded as a man of high character, and the Opposition could only hope that no consideration of personal or Provincial interest would sway his judgment. . . Was ever a maiden speech so fraught with doom? With great calmness and in a moderate tone he declared his opposition to the Government, and the Opposition benches rang with cheers.”

Donald A. Smith’s speech marked the revulsion of another strong mind, and the Government could do nothing but resign, without even a vote. Two days after Laird’s telling speech, so swiftly and unexpectedly did events move, Alexander Mackenzie was Premier of Canada and David Laird was his Minister of the Interior.

A new outlook now confronted the Island leader. The man who had resisted union with the other Provinces now became a keen instrument in the further expansion of the Dominion. It required men of his painstaking ability, humanity and integrity to lay the foundations for the great structure in the West. He served as Minister of the Interior until July 7, 1876, when he became the first Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories, and moved to the boundless and all but empty plain that he was later to see so potent a part of the Dominion. There was yet not a mile of railway, the inhabitants were mostly red men, and the wheat-growing possibilities were not even dreamed of. Seven years previously Louis Riel had mustered the half-breeds to resist the white man’s coming, butr stragglers were entering and the dawn of a new era was seen.

No doubt Laird’s appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories grew out of a visit which he paid to Winnipeg and the western country in 1874. On this occasion he was one of the commissioners appointed by the Government to negotiate a cession of Indian territory from the aborigines. It may be interesting to note that at the first session of the Dominion Parliament the Speech from the Throne dealt with the advisability of extending the boundaries of the country to the Rocky Mountains, and on December 4, 1867, the House went into committee to consider the proposed resolutions for a union of Rupert’s Land and the Northwest Territories of Canada. Of these resolutions No. 7 provides “That the claims of the Indian tribes to compensation for lands required for purposes of settlement would be considered and settled in conformity with the equitable principles which have 306

uniformly governed the Crown in its dealings with the aborigines.” This was simply carrying out the procedure laid down by the Proclamation of 1763. After Parliament took the necessary action, the Hudson’s Bay interest in the Territories was purchased and the Government began to make arrangements with the Indians for extinction of the Indian title.

Before Mr. Laird’s mission, three arrangements, which are known as treaties, were made, whereby the Indian lands in what is now a portion of Manitoba were ceded. The fourth treaty, which was negotiated by David Laird and Alexander Morris, covers about 75,000 square miles of territory, including the most fertile wheat lands in the Province of Saskatchewan. Mr. Laird reported that the information which he acquired at Qu’Appelle and Manitoba would aid him greatly in discharging the responsible duties of his Department. It did more than that; it paved a way for residence in the country and the acceptance of the highly onerous position of Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories. When he went to Battleford no arrangement had yet been made with the Indians for the cession of the territory as far west as the Rocky Mountains. In this situation his integrity and probity stood him in good stead. To the Indians Mr. Laird was the Big Chief. With their keen insight, they named him “The-man-whose-tongue-is-not-forked.” From his primitive capital at Battleford he moved among his white and red subjects, whom he ruled with a benevolent despotism. At times the outskirts of the old Northwest capital bristled with the tents of visiting aborigines. He had an intimate acquaintance with the Indian leaders, such as Crowfoot, the head chief of the powerful Blackfoot nation, and Red Crow of the Blood tribes, as also with his more immediate neighbors, James Seenum, Mistowasis and Atahkahkoops, three Cree chiefs, whose lands were in the vicinity of Battle-ford, and on numerous occasions he smoked with them the pipe of peace.

His most important negotiation with the Indians . was the treaty known as Number 7, with the Blackfoot tribes of Southern Alberta. These Indians were the most warlike of the Territories, and as the projected railway was to pass through their country, the negotiations with them were most important. To make this treaty Governor Laird journeyed hundreds of miles over the prairie to Fort Macleod. The conference with the chiefs took place at the Blackfoot crossing of the Bow River, and its success was the more gratifying because over the boundary United States troops were then in conflict with Indians.

“In a very few years,” Laird told the chiefs, “the buffalo will probably be all destroyed, and for this reason the Queen wishes to help you to live in the future in some other way.”

The prophecy was fulfilled, for it was not long before the Government had to supply beef for the Indians, whose nomadic herds had been swept away forever by the greed and waste of the hunters.

Treaty No. 8 followed in 1899, when Mr. Laird, then Indian Commissioner, journeyed more than 2,000 miles over lakes, rivers and trails north of Edmonton.

He negotiated with the Crees, Beavers and Chippewans for the possession of a territory 500 miles in length from the Athabasca River to the Great Slave Lake, to be held, in the picturesque language of the red man, “as long as the sun shines and water runs.” Cash grants each year to every Indian were promised, as well as special reserves of land. They are now living on reserves and reasonably prosperous and contented.

From his retirement from the Lieutenant-Gover-norship in 1881 until 1898 Mr. Laird returned to the editor’s chair in Charlottetown. In the latter year he yielded again to the call of the West and returned as Indian Commissioner. He was located at Winnipeg for several years, removing to Ottawa in 1909, where his wide knowledge was sought by the Government in an advisory capacity. Here he was serving when death overtook him, after a week’s illness, on January 12, 1914.

Among the builders of the Canadian federation David Laird stands out for integrity and sturdy independence. They used to call him “Dour Davie,” and some said cynically that he was so upright as to be impracticable. He was the keeper of an alert Presbyterian conscience, and the nation profited by the confidence his character inspired. His reluctance towards Confederation was typical of his environment, and has found echoes to this day in the pleas of Island members for a tunnel and other subventions from Ottawa. His Island home gave him a character which mere size or wealth in any country could not supply, and he used it faithfully as a pathfinder and placed the Dominion forever in his debt.


Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus