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Biography of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal
Chapter XIV. Trials of Strength


It must not be supposed that during these years he had been free from criticism. His public career had been by no means peaceful, and he had aroused personal feelings which at times were bitterly hostile. The regular routine life of the Hudson Bay trader was very different from the life of the seventies and eighties. He had had physical difficulties to meet then, and had shown good mettle. When he emerged from his life in the wilds of Labrador and Hudson's Bay he brought with him a body splendidly preserved and developed, a mature character, and a mind keen and alert. But so far his contests had been with the forces of nature, with wild beasts and with men of simple habit and ordinary ability. He had had no trials of strength with men of a different calibre, trained in active public life and conversant with big concerns. That kind of testing was to come to him now, and he stood the test well. His opponents on the floor of the House, or in Council, or in great commercial schemes, found in him a strong and worthy antagonist. In manner mild, pleasing and conciliatory, he could on occasion make effective use of the language of denunciation or scorn. His was a case of the "velvet glove and the iron hand." And he was not to be put down, or easily changed from his purpose, for he worked out a course and held himself to it. His strong, rugged character, his indomitable will, his shrewdness and sagacity, together with his cheery optimism, won for him public confidence, so that he was appointed to carry on delicate negotiations and to occupy positions of great responsibility.

As we have seen, Mr. Smith had not been long in Montreal as Governor of the Hudson Bay Company before the Dominion Government completed an arrangement by which it gained possession of the lands formerly controlled by the Company. The agreement was made in London, but the actual transfer was not an easy task. In the North-West the twelve or fifteen thousand people who had made it their home regarded themselves as directly connected with the home Government, and they strongly resented the bargaining which severed that honorable connection and handed them over to the, Dominion of Canada, making them, so to speak, "a colony of a colony." They not only resented it as a matter of actual sentiment, but were not unwilling to resist the new dispensation by physical force. The situation contained possibilities of trouble, and the Dominion Government was in difficulty, for it was anxious not only to possess the land, but also to retain the good will of the people living on it. Some of the things done may be open to criticism, but it was a wise move when Donald A. Smith was chosen to go to the Red River Settlement to represent the Government and to pacify the people and allay their fears. This was his first appearance in the world of diplomacy and affairs of state importance. In carrying out his commission, it was inevitable that he should incur criticism and arouse personal animosities. In fact, he had made enemies in the North-West, and afterwards in Parliament, and later in the railway world. his connection with the Hudson Bay Company was a feature that told against him, because it was felt on the one hand, that the Company had taken an unwarrantable liberty in transferring the people, as so many cattle, without consulting their wishes, and on the other, that the Company was in some way interested in fomenting disturbance and putting obstacles in the way of settlement. Doubt and suspicion prevailed and the greatest caution was necessary to prevent an outbreak. Nothing in the career of Mr. Smith reflects greater credit than his discharge of this difficult and delicate mission. For two months he lived to all intents a prisoner in Fort Garry, which was the centre of disturbance. There he met, and worsted Louis Riel, who wielded an extraordinary influence over the settlers. There he manifested those diplomatic and media tonal talents which later caused him to be chosen to act in situations even more critical. He showed a rare skill in handling every weapon of negotiation and controversy and it is not too much to say that the peaceful termination of the ominous state of affairs was due to his wise and judicial conduct of the business which had been entrusted to his keeping. Louis Rid was displaced from his commanding position and the country was brought, without conflict, under Canadian administration.

From that time forward, he was to play a prominent part in public affairs and to become a figure of national importance. He achieved distinction in the Dominion Parliament and was a participant in many a strenuous political struggle. He met with strong and determined opposition. The prejudice which existed with regard to the great Company of which he was the head, vented itself against him. Those were the days of Macdonald, Mackenzie, Sir Geo. E. Cartier, Sir Francis Mucks, and others of equal calibre. Amongst these leading men he easily took his place. He was not an orator in the accepted sense of that term, but he was a lucid and convincing speaker. His speeches were models of simple, direct statement and were full of incontrovertible facts. At the close of one of his speeches, Sir John A. Macdonald, who had previously described him as "a mild old gentleman, easily alarmed," is reported to have said, "Smith is a far better speaker than I gave him credit for. He has coolness and resource and plausibility, and just that amount of venom when attacked which a good statesman ought to have." That description sets forth admirably the character, not only of his speeches, but of himself. Cool, resourceful, plausible— those were his predominant qualities, and he needed them in his Parliamentary career. He was the centre of many an exciting debate, and the object of many a strong attack. His connection with the Fur Company, with the Reil regime and, later, with great railway projects, thrust him to the front in many a sharp conflict. And he was well able to take care of himself. He was not at all pugnacious, had no love for wordy or any other kind of conflict, but was not to be imposed upon and which he did enter the lists, his antagonist felt the full strength of a strong arm.


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