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Biography of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal
Chapter XVII. Old Age Activities


He was now in a position that might well be envied. He held the confidence of all sections of the community, was recognized as an authority on political matters, had been chosen to be the Governor of a famous company, and had been honored by the Queen in the granting of a title. In addition to all this he had become immensely wealthy. The enterprises in which he had engaged had turned out to be most successful. He had large interests in the Hudson Bay Company, the Bank of Montreal, the Canadian Pacific Railway, and many other commercial undertakings. He was ranked as one of the wealthy men of the country. Had he been so minded, he could have spent the rest of his days in quiet leisure and enjoyed the fruits of a long and active life. But he was not so minded. Nothing was further from his purpose. The years had neither weakened his body nor lessened his interest in public affairs and the remainder of his life up to its last week was to be filled with public activities. No period of his life was more active or more fruitful of benefit to Canada than that portion of it which he lived after he had passed three score years and ten. He had a magnificent residence in Montreal, and though for the last eighteen years of his life, because of his official duties, he had made his home in London, he continued to cherish a kindly feeling towards the Canadian city. He was always willing to help in its development and in maintaining its great institutions. When Sir William Dawson, the famous Principal of McGill University, died, Sir Donald filled the post of Chancellor. Upon him devolved largely the task of choosing a successor. It was not an easy task, but he set himself to its accomplishment with characteristic energy and wisdom. He had a clear idea in his own mind of the man he wanted. He must combine in himself two qualities—administrative ability, and breadth of mind sufficient to include and understand all the interests which are connected with a great university. Sir William Dawson had done much for the university. his own great reputation as a scientist had made it known throughout the world. In face of incredible difficulties, he and his co-adjutors had succeeded in laying a splendid foundation. It was Sir Donald's ambition that the work to be done should be worthy of the beginning.

He gave his own time and personal attention to the securing of a successor to the Principalship. To this end he travelled to Great Britain in 1895-96. He visited all the great centres of learning, Oxford and Cambridge, in England; Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee, in Scotland. He interviewed the leaders in the educational world, made inquiries and gathered information from every source, and at last offered the position to Dr. William Peterson, Principal of Dundee. Dr. Peterson was a comparatively young man, under forty years of age, and his appointment met with some criticism, but the choice of the Chancellor justified his selection. He has risen to the occasion and has proved to be a great success, uniting in himself those qualities of scholarship and practical administration so necessary in the head of a great modern university.

Montreal also benefitted in the way of phi!anthropy by reason of his generous patronage. The great hospital built on the mountain-side was a gift from the great financier. It was erected to commemorate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and meant for its construction an outlay of one million dollars. But Sir Donald gave more than his money. He gave his personal interest and personal attention. He went to England and consulted Sir William Gull and other authorities on the plans, so that the hospital might represent the latest and most approved features in its structure and equipment. Later he was one of two to set aside eight hundred thousand dollars as an endowment fund. This is but one of his many benefactions and indicates the bent of his mind. No great and worthy cause solicited his help in vain.

During the political crisis which resulted in the return to power of the Liberal Government under the leadership of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir Charles Tupper, who had been the Canadian High Commissioner residing at London, was called back to Canada by his political friends, in the hope that he might be able to guide the Conservative party through its difficulties and perhaps ward off the impending disaster. He was persuaded to re-enter politics and became Premier for a short time. This necessitated his resignation of the High Commissionership and Sir Donald Smith was appointed to the vacant place. Although he had persistently refused to occupy any political position in Canada, he was not averse to this one. It harmonized with his ideas and gave him the opportunity he coveted of advancing Canadian interests at the centre of the Empire. For nearly twenty years, up to the time of his death, he filled the post and it may be said with truth that he filled it with such advantage to Canada that his record will hardly be excelled.

The creation of this office is a milestone in Canadian history. The reign of Victoria had seen a wonderful change in this transatlantic colony. When the young Queen came to the throne it was a comparatively unknown, obscure and insignificant part of Her Majesty's dominions. Its population was small and poor and scattered. It was divided into Provinces that were none too friendly with each other. The attempt to rule it from Downing Street, London, had proved a failure. The beginning of the Queen's reign was marked by actual rebellion in Canada. The great advance in modes of transportation had not yet begun and it was regarded as a far-off country—a land of forests and prairies, of savages and wild beasts, and with little prospect of development.


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