of Canadian Biography has done up a sketch about me. Sometimes it doesn't
stretch enough but, mainly, it's true. And there's been a book written about
me --- though I've only read part of it ---- by Donna McDonald ---- Lord
Strathcona : A Biography of Donald Alexander Smith. I finally quit reading the book because Donna McDonald looked like she was going to make me into a plaster saint - a cross between Jesus Christ and Confucius.
A fellow I fired from being in charge of immigration in London, W.T.R. Preston
wrote a book about me, The
life and times of Lord Strathcona
it has it's vicious lies and insinuations and exaggerations --- he was trying to
get even ... trouble is though, it's mainly true
I'm known mainly as the long-bearded gentleman who drove the
last spike on the Canadian
Pacific Railway at Craigellachie,
British Columbia (I named Craigellachie after a haunted rock near my home in Scotland), in November 1885.
I've never been one to mask my accomplishments so I'll say that they amount
to a lot more than that. And it's better that I list them, rather than someone
like Bob Edwards, who I suspect laughs at me behind my back because I'm too
serious --- well, look here, life's a serious business. But I got the last laugh
on him when he did up a farcical story about me sending my regards to a common
horse thief by the name of McGonigle. I made him retract and apologize and to
agree that there'd be no more stories about me in The Calgary Eye Opener unless I wrote them.
I'm going to confess that, in fact, according to your ordinary morality I'm
a bad apple. But I'm tired of us bad apples being discriminated against. And
on top of that I'm proud of being a bad apple. And I'm a genius and an artist
in the trade. Here are my confessions.
I was born in 1820 in Forres on the northeast coast of Scotland, the son of
a maker of horse saddles, the town drunk and a bit of a local politician. My mother, Margaret, made up for my father - she taught me how to behave like a gentlema --- "speak softly and carry a big stick," she said. I loved my mother dearly. I am what is now called dyslectic
and suffered from Attention
Deficit Syndrome but all that was just taken for stupidity at the time.
I wasn't a good student at Forres Academy and I was very bored until I learned
to cheat on examinations. I quickly went from bottom of the class to the top
of the class. I copied the work of the most talented student in the class. I got better
marks than him because he was dry and long-winded --- I altered his work ---
I made his work shorter and sweeter. When asked a question I learned to answer
no more than I was asked -- a good way of hiding ignorance if there ever was
one. The Scotch, you see, are great admirers of brevity. But, one day, my academic
career came crashing down upon my head. The headmaster
of the academy, a brute of a man, asked a question to someone in the class ---
I couldn't tell to whom the question was being asked --- the boy on my left
or the boy on my right --- you see, the headmaster was cross-eyed --- no one answered --- the headmaster asked or shouted
again --- again, no answer --- suddenly the headmaster lunged not at the boy
on my right nor the one on my left --- but right at me --- too late I realized
--- that he was asking neither of them ---- he was asking me. We had to wear
stiff starched collars in those days --- he jammed his thumb between the back
of my collar and my neck and latched his forefinger on to the back of my collar
and sought to lift me out of my seat --- I was choking and it hurt like hell
and I lost my temper and punched the old tyrant in the mug --- and downed him
--- when he got up on his feet, he beat me black and blue with a bamboo cane and kicked me out of the academy and my beloved mother was very disappointed in me but
I never lost my temper ever again and I was always able to present a humble
face to the world about me.
My father got me a job working as a solicitor's apprentice
in the town office. My boss was the town clerk --- another real brute and a drunkard.
The bruises on my backside had not yet healed before he opened them again -
he beat me every time he got drunk with an iron poker . "I got here,"
said he. "By sheer talent and you, Little Lord Fauntleroy, got here by
influence. I'll show you." Nothing I did was good enough. But if an unexpected
problem arose, I solved it quickly ---- and he took credit for it.
The clerk collected the town taxes during the month of January of each year. Each year, on January 31, the two of us counted
the taxes received.
Contractors and employees were only paid once per year at the end of December. The funds
remained meantime in the form of coin, from the end of January until the end of December, in the town vault. Only
the clerk had a key to the vault. One Sunday, in July, the first year I worked for the town,
I took a long walk out on the moors. I spotted what looked like a shepherd driving a superb flock of
sheep. It turned out it was not a shepherd, it was the clerk. The clerk often
drank himself into a stupor in the town counting house. The next time he was
so disposed I stole the key from him, opened the vault and counted the monies
within. Three quarters of them were missing. Obviously, the clerk's scheme was
to use town funds to buy sheep, raise them, sell them --- replace the missing
funds and pocket the profit. He awoke from his stupor --- and I was standing before
him with the key in hand. The beatings stopped. He agreed to pay me half his
profits. For an eighteen-year-old in the Scotland of the day I was, secretly,
affluent. I hid away my ill-gotten gains and, after two years, I had a healthy
But I was terribly bored with my life, made eventful only by the nefarious
profit-taking I had glummed on to. About this time, we heard from Canada, from
my uncle, John Stuart, who managed a trading post in North America for the Hudson's
Bay Company and shared in its profits --- of his adventures among the aboriginals
--- of the money he made. I wrote him and inquired of the prospects in North
America for me. "The chief drawback is that you are dependent upon the
goodwill and caprice of one man, who is a little too much addicted to prejudices,
for speedy advancement; but this is probably true in many other spheres of commercial
endeavor ... There is, I may say, no man who is more appreciative of downright
hard work coupled with intelligence, or one more intolerant of puppyism, by
which I mean carelessness and presumption. It is foible to exact not only strict
obedience, but deference to the point of humnility. As long as you pay him in
that coin you will quickly get on his sunny side and find yourself in a few
years a trader at a congenial post, with promotion in sight." He was referring
George Simpson, the "Little Emperor of the North", the chief of
the Hudson's Bay Company in North America (have a look at James Raffan's excellent book
about Sir George Emperor
of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson's Bay
Company). Well thought I, if I can deal with this rascal of a clerk, I,
a hard-working fellow, can deal with Sir George.
The next morning I visited the mayor of the town, told him I had become suspicious
of my superior because I had discovered, just yesterday, that he had money enough
to buy a large herd of sheep. I thought we should go to the vault and count
the monies there. The clerk was arrested, tried and convicted and transported
to Australia aboard a prison ship. I was paid a reward of ten pounds and I told
the mayor I was going to use it to sail to the new world. In fact, I was able
to secure a position as a Hudson's Bay Company clerk at their head office in North America, at Lachine just up the St. Lawrence from Montreal. I took my reward and, surreptitiously,
my ill-gotten gains and paid them into a bank in London and boarded a Hudson's
Bay Company ship and sailed to Montreal where Sir James resided.
When he was not travelling, I worked in close proximity to Sir George -- he was as bad a bully as the Forres town clerk. He treated me terribly.
I decided I must get even with him. He was known as the Emperor of the North
--- he constantly traveled across the continent by great trading canoes. To
as far a Fort Vancouver, across the Columbia from present day Portland, Oregon.
Once he journeyed across the Bering Strait and across Siberia to Europe. And
he set many a record for speed --- he drove his voyageurs like slaves. He possessed
three native wives located at various outposts. So he was seldom in Montreal.
He was a small, stocky man. Bald. His wife was a tall handsome woman, his cousin
but twenty years his junior. I was a tall man of her age. I was able to seduce
her --- more to get even with the bully than anything else --- but she taught
me much about matters sexual. One of her trusted servants squealed to Sir George
that she suspected improprieties. Though I had covered my tracks very well,
Sir George paid little heed to any difference there might be between a suspicion
and a fact. I was banished to Mingan, on the barren North shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the post which was the very
worst of any in the company's domain. I am a man who needs excitement and I
suffer somewhat from the black dog of depression. To be stranded on a rockbound,
fog enshrouded rock, the company of a few scraggly tamarack trees was more than
my constitution could stand. After six months, I walked out of my prison over
six hundred miles to Montreal. Sir George sent me right back. I lasted another
six months and then I burned down the post.
Just before I fled Mingan, on foot, I espied a ship on the horizon.
The ship was transporting Richard Hardisty, the chief trader at Esquimaux Bay, Labrador,
and his daughter Isabella. Isabella, it so happened, was married to my cousin Jamie Grant who worked under Hardisty at Esquimaux Bay. I accompanied Hardisty to Esquimaux Bay and awaited
passage to Montreal. I helped Hardisty with a number of tasks about the post
and I obviously impressed him. I became almost a son to him and he reported
to Sir George that the fire was accidental and no fault of mine. Isabella, who I always called "Bella" and
I fell in love. I had little trouble disposing of Jamie -- a rumour here -- missing money there --- the fact Jamie was a hopeless drunk. The only people in my lifetime I ever loved and never betrayed
were Richard Hardisty and Bella and my mother, Margaret. Soon Isabella and I were living
together in what was called a marriage à la façon du pays (by
the custom of the country - Dr. Sylvia Van Kirk, has written all about these
marriages in Many
Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870),
there being no clergy in Labrador. We were not married in the "civilized"
sense until Queen Victoria had appointed me Lord Strathcona and the two of us
snuck down to New York and were formally married by my lawyer so that she could
properly become Lady Strathcona. Over the years certain persons commented negatively
on Lady Strathcona because she was one quarter native and because of our matrimonial
status. All came to regret doing so. Ever after I was always faithful to Bella.
When I was away from her, I wrote her every day.
Hardisty shielded me from Sir George Simpson and I stayed under his command
and, when he retired, I replaced him as Chief Trader of the Esquimaux Bay area. I did a good
job of it and I arranged for the company to acquire ships, cattle herds and
salmon canneries --- all profitable. After Simpson died the company promoted me to Chief Factor. I had to travel to Montreal often. All
my juniors, got into Montreal, at best, once a year. Their pay accumulated
in the company's coffers until they picked it up in Montreal --- sometimes it
sat for longer than a year. The company paid them no interest. I told them I
would invest their monies for them in profitable ventures. They trusted me ---
on the face of it --- I was a quiet, almost harmless soul. I did invest their
monies --- often in Hudson's Bay Company shares, in railway construction companies
and in my cousin, George Stephen's, bank, the Bank
of Montreal. The investments often produced dividends of 50% or more. I
faithfully paid my men back their paychecks plus faithfully, on the average,
3%. I, of course, kept the difference. I made so much money that I was able
to buy up a controlling interest in the Hudson's Bay Company. Those shares not
owned by me were owned by widows and orphans in England.
In 1670 King
Charles II had granted the company exclusive possession of all lands draining
into Hudson's Bay so that it controlled and administered all lands between Labrador
and the Rocky Mountains -- what was called in those days, "Rupertsland".
For 200 years, the business of the company had been the fur trade and only the
fur trade. It was a profitable business. It was supplied with furs by the native
populations of what is now Canada. The natives and the vast areas where they trapped were essential to the company's success. Should
the natives ever cease to be able to trap animals --- should the lands they harvested ever be occupied by others --- by farmers for
instance --- the company's business would be destroyed. So, from the beginning,
the company's propaganda department spread the word that the company's lands
--- plagued by frost and heat and insects --- were useless for anything except the trap line --- were incapable
of settlement. But, in the 1850s, political leaders in what is now Ontario realized
the lands had immense value --- a breadbasket for the world --- and they persuaded
the British government to force the Hudson's Bay Company to sell the lands to
the government of what had just become the government of a more-or-less united
Canada. All the old time company hands objected religiously --- but, quietly, I saw the
writing on the wall and acted accordingly. Canada could bring infrastructure
to our lands and make them infinitely more valuable than they were for the mere
gathering of furs. I saw the possibilities for agriculture and other ventures
in our lands and negotiated a first class agreement with Canada and it was
approved by the British Privy Council. The English newspapers of the day
had it that the Canadian government had forced the company to sell all of the
territory under its control for a pittance £300,000, about $1,500,000. What the press missed --- so ignorant were they
of the potential of western Canada --- was the fact that the Hudson's Bay Company
also received 5% of all lands from Lake Winnipeg to the Rockies. The widows
and orphans who owned the shares not owned by me only believed what they read in the newspapers --- they believed
their shares in the company were worthless. Was it my job, as the Hudson Bay Company's man
on the spot in Canada, to tell them otherwise? What would Conrad Black have
told them? Or Bernie Madoff? Or Kenny Lay of Enron? Or your run of the mill
developer of leaky condos in B.C.? Or the chairmen of every chartered bank in
Canada except Ed Clark of the Toronto Dominion Bank? No, I encouraged the British
press in their pessimistic view and I arranged for secret agents of mine to
buy up all of the stock of the widows and orphans at bargain basement prices.
For generations, the Hudson's Bay Company and the Roman Catholic Church had
warned the Metis that Canada, dominated by Catholic-hating Ontario Orangemen, sought to steal their lands
and abolish their religion. When the company turned over its lands to Canada,
Louis Riel II, the only
educated layman in the Red River Colony, led the Metis to seize the company
holdings at Fort Garry and set up their own Metis government. I believed that
Riel and the Metis were incapable of providing a proper infrastructure for the
development of our holdings. I made myself Chief Commissioner of the Hudson's
Bay Company in Canada and headed out with my Metis wife to Winnipeg to see Riel.
As I've said I have a quiet trustworthy manner about me. I am a consummate flatterer.
And I always look for the Mammon in a man's soul. Riel liked me immediately.
The other Metis trusted and obeyed the educated Riel. Riel told them I was their
friend and father. $5,000 was a huge sum in Red River in 1870 and I determined
that Riel could be bought for that price. If it had required $10,000, I would
have paid him $10,000. $5,000 was enough. Riel surrendered the Metis government to me
and fled to the United States.
The Canadian Orangemen wanted to treat all of Rupertsland as a colonial territory and
to milk it for all it was worth but I did persuade the Canadian government to
treat the eastern part of Rupertsland as a province --- it was Riel who named it "Manitoba";
to protect the Roman Catholic Church there and to award each Metis a substantial
grant of land. For the time being the majority of people in Manitoba were Metis.
They were impressed and trusted me and I became their leader, in fact. I defeated the Orange candidate for the the Manitoba Legislature for Winnipeg by 70 votes to 63 (no one seemed concerned that only 73 people were entitled to vote) and in the Manitoba constituency of Selkirk I licked another Orangeman and was elected to the Canadian House of Commons.
The lands granted to individual Metis could not be transferred until they were
surveyed. Meantime the Canadian Government would issue each Metis a promissory
note for their land, which was called "script". I made sure that the
Metis could easily sell the script to
third parties. Most of the 95% illiterate Metis had no idea what we meant by
the word "script" --- they thought it had only ceremonial value. I
was not about to enlighten them. My secret agents bought up the script from
By this time (1870) I had, you will understand, acquired a substantial fortune
but only substantial not immense. I wanted more. I had invested with
my cousin, George
Stephen and James J. Hill of St. Paul, Minnesota in railways. Particularly,
we had hornswaggled from its original Dutch owners a railway from St. Paul, Minnesota to Pembina, Minnesota right near Minnesota's border with Manitoba. We built an extension to Fort Garry or, as it was now called, Winnipeg. In 1867, the Americans
had built a railway right across the United States to the Pacific.This was the
age of the great railway titans --- Jay
Gould, J.P. Morgan
and J.J. Hill. Railways
were a way to make a big buck if there ever was one.
I wanted to build a transcontinental railway across Canada --- to the Pacific.
But I was late at the table. Prime Minister Sir
John A. Macdonald had already agreed to give the exclusive right to build
the "Pacific Railway" to Sir
Hugh Allan, the head of the Allan Steamship Line and the richest man in
My cousin George Steven had got me elected to the board of directors of the Allan Steamship Line. I was in the know and I knew that Sir Hugh had bribed Sir John A. But, because Macdonald's
Conservative Party supported the Hudson's Bay Company and had been generous
to us in the Rupertsland settlement, I was a strong Conservative supporter of
Macdonald and sat in the House of Commons as a member of the Conservative Party.
The Conservatives trusted no one more than they trusted me. As a director of the Allan Steamship Line, I could only oppose
Sir John A.'s deal with Sir Hugh secretly --- otherwise I would be revealed as a double-crosser par excellence. Nevertheless, if the bribe could be proven publicly, Sir John A.'s Pacific Railway
contract with Sir Hugh would, I thought, be likely taken away from Sir Hugh. Where could I
find clear public proof of the dastardly act and, once found, how could I present the proof
without ruining my reputation of being trustworthy. Even in those days before
typewriters, important business and political leaders used secretaries who wrote
and saved important correspondence. I turned, as I often did, to that most expeditious
of tools --- the bribe. Sir John's secretary was too honest to be bribed ---
not so Sir Hugh's. I obtained copies of all of the letters and cables between
Sir Hugh and Sir John A. --- they proved absolutely that Sir Hugh had paid Sir John $350,000
to gain the railway contract. Sir John used the money in an election campaign.
My agents turned the letters over to the opposition Liberal Party. I pretended
to know nothing about them. The Liberals released them immediately to the public
and introduced a motion of confidence in the government. Still, Sir John A.
Macdonald was so popular, that only one vote separated the Liberals and the
Conservatives -- my vote. I pretended to think long and hard on the matter ---
but --- of course --- I had created the crisis and knew exactly how I would
vote. I delivered a speech in the House of Commons --- long it was on biblical
quotations and appeals to conscience and, above all, patriotism. The Conservatives
thought they had my vote secured --- after all I was one of them --- but, suddenly,
I announced that I was voting in favor of bringing down the government. Sir
John A., who was into the drink that night, ran up in front of me --- I thought
he was going to strike me and spat "Judas - you are the greatest liar I
ever met" into my face. Beside him was Sir
Charles Tupper, his scarlet face screamed that I was a "blood-sucking
coward and an unspeakable traitorous fraud". I pride myself that I showed
not one glimmer of emotion in all this --- for to succeed in my trade requires
the hide of a rhinoceros. I would wait patiently to even the score with my abusers.
The Allan contract was, of course, voided once the public discovered the bribe.
The government fell into the hands of the Liberals under Prime Minister Sir
Alexander Mackenzie and I became a Liberal. The railway had to be built because
it was a condition of British Columbia's joining Canada in 1871. With Sir Hugh
Allan out of the way, I was confidant I would be able to bribe and flatter myself
into being given the railway. I anticipated that Mackenzie would be grateful
for my vote which brought down Sir John. However I discovered, to my dismay,
that Alexander Mackenzie was set on having the government itself build the railway.
Sir Alexander was a stubborn and honest Scottish stone mason. I soon realized
he was incapable of changing his mind and I was incapable of changing it for
him. For my purposes then, his government, in turn, had to be disposed of. I
secretly organized a syndicate of financiers led by my cousin George Stephen
and J. J. Hill which paid huge sums to the bankrupt Conservative Party --- enough
money to defeat the Liberals. The money was paid only after the Conservatives
had agreed that the syndicate could build the railway. My involvement was hidden
-- I, of course, was still a Liberal. The Conservatives won the next election
and the syndicate became the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The governments
contract with us provided that the government was to provide us with a subsidy
of $25,000,000. We were granted 25,000,000 acres of land. We were completely
exempt from taxation for twenty years. As my detractor W.T.R. Preston described
"Even to the railway promoters in the United States, accustomed
to the most liberal terms as the result of corruption and lobbying in the
legislative chambers of that country, the lavish terms of this agreement came
as a surprise."
We contracted out the building of the railway to various contracting companies
--- all owned by us. The railway itself was always on the brink of bankruptcy
--- the contracting companies always made enormous profits. As did our purchasing
companies and land companies.
We thought that we could use the land granted to us as security to raise funds
for the railway in London, England, the financial center of the world at that
time. But some of our shenanigans in the Minnesota railway manipulations
had gained us a reputation of sharp dealing. It looked like funds would not
be available. Construction of the railway had already started. Unpaid creditors
were howling at our door. I had become President of the Bank of Montreal which
was controlled by my cousin George Stephen (the Chairman of the bank). We looted
the bank's deposits to pay the most pressing of the creditors. It was time to
go to the government for more grants and subsidies. As I told cousin George:
"It is to the Government or the Penitentiary." So we had Jim Hill
recruit a crew of expert U.S. lobbyists to show us how to bribe our way into
the Parliament of Canada. We were successful --- we bribed Conservatives and
Liberals alike. We bribed Sir John Macdonald's vain second wife with a necklace
worth $200,000 and we bribed Charles Tupper who was facing bankruptcy on account
of foolish investments and now I had both in my grasp. Funds from the government
replaced the deposits in the Bank of Montreal and we went back to the trough
many times dispensing bribe after bribe along the way. Preston claims that:
"A saturnalia of corruption .... took possession of Parliamentary
life. It began at the head and gradually made its way to the rank and file.
The fundamental article of faith under the new conditions was that public
men should use their representative positions for purposes of public gain."
I suppose he is right. Meantime we built the railway (all of this is described
in David Cruise's and Alison Griffiths's "Lords of the Line"). I came out of the woodwork and drove the last spike. All of us in the syndicate
became immensely wealthy. Queen Victoria made me a Lord. The Conservatives appointed
me High Commissioner to the Court of St. James in London. I gave much to charity as my dear mother had taught me to do. I became the chairman of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which discovered oil in Iran and eventually became the huge British Petroleums.
How did I deal with my outstanding grievances against Sir John A. Macdonald
and Sir Charles Tupper for the insults slung at me in the House of Commons.
Macdonald belonged, as his name indicates, to the Clan McDonald. One night in
1692, 38 McDonald
men and 40 McDonald women were treacherously murdered by warriors of the Clan
Campbell at Glencoe Glen in the Scottish Highlands Glencoe became the McDonalds'
most sacred ground. I built a mansion overlooking the glen --- allowing me,
each morning, to gloat over Sir John A.'s murdered ancestors. As for Tupper,
in my will, I forgave the monies I'd given him. On my death my will and the
fact that I had bribed Tupper (I'd bribed many other politicians but
mentioned none of them in my will) would be fully publicized and Tupper's reputation
would be forever destroyed.
The great New York capitalist J.P. Morgan said that the secret of his success
was: "... to take a conflict of interest and exploit it." I did Morgan
one better. The secret of my success was always: "Create a conflict
of interest and exploit it."
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