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Manitoba History: Review: D. J. Hall, Cifford Sifton, Volume One, The Young Napoleon, 1861-1900

by Lovell Clark
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This handsome and scholarly volume covers the early career of a noted figure in Canadian history. Clifford Sifton rose to prominence almost meteorically, first provincially in Manitoba politics and then nationally in the Laurier cabinet from 1896 to 1905. Although out of the cabinet after 1905, and out of the Liberal party and Parliament after 1911, he continued to play an important role in public life. Along the way he founded a newspaper and business empire which gave him and his heirs a commanding influence both west and east.

Born of Protestant Irish stock in Ontario, and largely educated there (B.A., gold medallist, Victoria College, Cobourg), Clifford joined his father, John Wright Sifton, and family in Brandon in 1882, where he started a law practice. Elected to the provincial legislature in 1888, he later became Attorney General in the Liberal government of Premier Thomas Green-way and quickly made himself the dominant figure. Professor Hall devotes two detailed chapters to the political and economic scene in Manitoba during these years from 1891 to 1896. Relations with the C.P.R., the temperance cause, and law reform are some of the topics treated, but the main one of course is Sifton’s spirited defence of the Province’s school legislation of 1890 which had inflicted such injustice on the Roman Catholic minority.

Clifford Sifton
Source: Provincial Archives of Manitoba

Professor Hall’s discussion of the school question is, on the whole, quite fair—he is, after all, concerned to explain rather than to pronounce—but, naturally enough for a biographer, he presents the contentious issue from Sifton’s point of view, without sufficient qualification. The consequence is that the position of the provincial government on the school question, and of its leading member in particular, is made to appear as much more reasonable than it really was. More important, the essential bigotry of Sifton’s outlook, with its decidedly anti-Catholic and anti-French taint, is not clearly brought out. This is obviously going to be a consideration in his relations with Laurier later on, in 1905 for example, and it might have been well, therefore, to make it evident at this stage in Sifton’s career. One cannot help wondering if such a truer portrait would not also have been a more interesting one.

With the victory of Laurier and the Liberals in the summer of 1896, Sir Charles Toppers “coercive” method of securing redress for the Roman Catholic minority of Manitoba was replaced by Laurier’s “sunny ways’ The much vaunted “sunny ways” consisted simply of the following. Laurier made all his cabinet appointments except one, and he then proceeded to dangle that plum of the Ministry of the Interior before Clifford Sifton all summer and autumn. Sifton, who had declared many times that no changes would be made in Manitoba’s school system because no injustice had been done, now decided that perhaps some changes could be made. The result was the “Laurier-Greenway Compromise” and Sifton’s entry into the Federal cabinet. Our “Young Napoleon”—a label applied at the time by admiring friends and deriding foes—had vaulted into national prominence and power.

Professor Hall does not portray the somersault in such cryptic terms, but later on he does recognize what he calls the flexibility of Sifton’s principles. After recounting a series of concessions to the Roman Catholic minority which were hammered out with the aid of Sifton, Professor Hall comments:

After a decade of strife and three years after Laurier acceded to power, what had become of the principles which Sifton had defended with such vigour? An independent separate school system no longer existed. but neither did the pristine purity of the national school system which Sifton. when he was Attorney General of Manitoba, had said must not be compromised.

By the summer of 1899, with Sifton’s help. the Manitoba government had conceded almost every point demanded by the Dickey-Deslardins-Smith Commission in the spring of 1896, which Sifton and Cameron had declared could never be done without destroying the integrity of the national school system ... Sifton argued that he had protected the essence of the national school system. but his principles. to put it kindly. had become a great deal more flexible under the ‘sunny ways’ of Laurier than when staunchly braced against the stormy bluster of the Bowell and Tupper Conservatives. The real tragedy of the episode was the educational blow to the very children whom Sifton had argued the national school system was to benefit. Lost amid the swirling tides of conflict between church and state Protestant and Catholic, majority and minority. and Dominion and province was a decade of educational opportunity for thousands of French Catholic children whose schools were closed or rendered ineffective for lengthy periods. Equality of opportunity seemed as far as ever from realization.

These belated but entirely just comments on the school question, added almost as an after thought, suggest that the cause which Sifton had earlier defended so vehemently was not as principled as we had been led to believe. To say merely that Sifton’s principles were flexible (i.e. subject to alteration by the inducements of office) seems much too charitable. Perhaps they had not been principles at all; only prejudices amounting to bigotry.

As Minister of the Interior, Sifton is best remembered for his vigorous immigration policy of settling the prairies and for his administration of the Yukon during the hectic period of the gold rush. Both these topics are thoroughly and lucidly explored by Professor Hall, along with much else on the political and economic scene. The depression, which had hung over the country for years, was coming to an end and the “wheat boom” was beginning. Among Laurier’s ministers who were helping to promote and direct this prosperity, Sifton was clearly one of the ablest. His optimism in Canada’s future was boundless, as was his energy in the task of realizing it. His activist approach to the role of government in the development of the country was already beginning to distinguish him from his Liberal chieftain. In this respect and others, Sifton seems to have had more affinities with Macdonald than with Laurier. He considered the free trade theory which the Liberals had long espoused to have been “shattered” and was rapidly becoming a convert to the objectives of the National Policy. He was the chief negotiator of the Crow’s Nest Pass Railway Agreement of 1897 with the C.P.R. and regarded the famous “Crow” rates which it provided as a momentous step in “securing [the trade of] Canada for Canadians.”

When we leave Sifton at the end of this first volume in 1900, he is not only a man of national prominence but a wealthy one as well. He has secretly bought the Manitoba Free Press from the C.P.R. in 1898 and is making it a powerful organ in the West. John W. Dafoe, its famous editor and long time confidant of Sifton, is just over the horizon. Professor Hall has fairly launched the “Young Napoleon” on his career. Although the portrait of Sifton is not as vivid as one might expect, it is an interesting account of his life and times.

Page revised: 1 January 2011

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