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Biography of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal
Chapter XXI. The Deceased Wife's Sister Bill


His elevation to the peerage gave to him the right to take a seat in the House of Lords. There is probably no chamber in the world which, on special occasions, presents such a spectacle of gorgeous splendor as that gilded chamber. What a change from the rude hut, built of logs, in which he had passed so many years, to this place, the scene of wealth and magnificence and nobility. There, on great occasions, would be seen the flower and cream of Britain's nobility and the most eminent men in all ranks of life. Into this great legislative hall, this assembly of illustrious men, representing the proud traditions and inheritance of the British people, Lord Strathcona came and took his place. Others were there by virtue of their birth. It was for them an inherited privilege, but his presence there was the recognition of those sterling qualities which he had developed in a hard and strenuous life. It was, besides, an acknowledgment of the great services he had rendered to the Empire, the bold constructive genius which, in a new land, had found and used its opportunity, and the generous philanthropy, which had marked his possession of great wealth. Alone and unaided, he had pushed his fortunes till he found himself an honored member of the greatest aristocratic assembly in the world.

Early Settlers in Western Canada

In his new position he was not idle. He would have been false to his own nature and to the habit of his long life if he had become merely an indifferent spectator. In accepting the honor, he also assumed the responsibility which attached to his position. For some time he took no part in proceedings. For nearly two years he was a silent member of the house. He was not one to thrust himself forward and he waited for the occasion and in the summer of 1898 it presented itself and he made his first speech as a peer of the realm. It is worth noticing that when he rose to make his first speech in the House of Commons at Ottawa, it was to speak to a crowded audience on a question of national interest. So by a remarkable coincidence, when he first addressed the house of Lords, the chamber was crowded with the aristocracy, the galleries being filled with peeresses and ambassadors and representatives from all nations, while among other distinguished visitors was the heir to the throne.

The subject on which he spoke was one that was the cause of much social friction and heart-burning, and in the Colonies caused much discontent. According to the English civil and ecclesiastical law, marriage with a deeased wife's sister was interdicted and the children of such a marriage were in Great Britain declared illegitimate. For a generation a bill known as "The Deceased Wife's Sister Bill" had been before the Parliament, but had failed to become law. The situation was ludicrous and is a striking illustration of the anomalies of the English law, for while such marriages were illegal in England and the children illegitimate, in the other parts of the Queen's dominions they were, under laws signed by Her Majesty, declared legal, so that what was all right, proper and legitimate in Canada was all wrong, improper and illegitimate in England. Time and again the Bill had been presented to the Parliament and debated, only to be rejected, amid the outspoken derision of all civilized nations.

It was on this question that Lord Strathcona first spoke in the House. It was a question of such social interest that the mere fact of its introduction was sufficient to draw an audience and the fact that it was to be introduced by the new Canadian peer, whose deeds were widely known, gave additional interest to the occasion. It is worth while to quote some parts of his address. It was, even for him, an exceedingly momentous and trying occasion and he acquitted himself with credit.

"My lords," he began, 'I have very great diffidence in appearing to address you at this time. It is the first occasion on which I have had the privilege of addressinng you as a member of this House. Notwithstanding, it is also with very great confidence that I come before you, my lords, for I know that you will have much consideration for one in the position I occupy." He then proceeded to explain the purpose and object of his bill, after which he continued: "Why should the children of such marriages, when they come home, bear a mark of disgrace? Why should they be legitimate in one part of the Empire and illegitimate in another, when marriage is perfectly legal under laws passed by local Parliaments and assented to by the Queen? Is this a creditable state of things in our present civilization? For some years past the different parts of the Empire have been drawn close together. The troops of the colonies have fought shoulder to shoulder with those of the Motherland. Her Majesty's subjects in the Colonies have shared in the joys and sorrows of the Motherland. Clad people from every part of the world where the British flag is paramount came last year to London to do honor to their beloved Sovereign. In fact, we are doing our best to develop the Empire of which we are so proud and to strengthen the ties which bind us together, and the removal of this grievance cannot fail to further consolidate the union. Let me, therefore, appeal to your lordships to express your approval of this measure, which seeks to remove what is regarded as a grave anomaly in the Colonies, to remove a restriction which operates against one of their most sacred rights, and to free the children of your colonial brethren, who contract perfectly legal marriages, from the stigma which now attaches to them when they come to their Motherland. I may also be permitted to address a word to the most reverend and the right reverend lords in this House. It is that the clergy, both of the Established Church, of the other Protestant denominations, and of the Catholic Church in Canada, and I believe also in the other Colonies, have accepted this Bill, and unquestionably many of them approve of it. I would now, my lords, desire to say that I stand here—it is by the gracious will of the Sovereign that I have the privilege—as a Colonist, as one of those coming from the Colonies. Every man in the Colonies looks upon himself as being as much of an Englishman as if he were born within the bounds of the United Kingdom. He glories in the name of Englishman, and he has the aspirations that you and all those who are loyal to the Empire have. This measure affects—and affects very gravely—many in the Colonies, from the Ministers of the Crown to the artisan, and many of them the most worthy and most loyal. No, I would withdraw this last expression, 'the most loyal.' Throughout the Dominion of Canada—indeed, my lords, throughout all the Colonies—there is now but one standard, but one measure of loyalty. Such being the case, and feeling as they do that they are, equally with these in this country, members of the great Empire to which we all belong, I am confident that you, my lords, will on this occasion send those who are in the position I have referred to a message of good will, that you are desirous of doing full justice to them."

The Bill passed the house of Lords, but failed in the Commons. Two years later Lord Strathëona made another attempt, and, in an impressive speech before a distinguished audience, made another earnest appeal: "This measure has not been sprung upon Parliament suddenly. It is in no sense a movement of impulse. For twenty-four years the Colonies have been pressing the matter upon the attention of the Imperial authorities. It affects, my lords, the most important and sacred of all contracts and affects communities not less attached to the Christian religion than those of the Mother Country. The present time seems to me a singularly appropriate one for such action on the part of your lordships, as I have ventured to recommend. For the last few years there has been a great awakening of Imperial sentiment. The different parts of the Empire have vied with one another in demonstrating their loyalty to the Crown and to the Empire. They have shown not only the desire, but the determination to share both in its joys and in its troubles, and we have at the present time, in South Africa, an object lesson to the world of the practical unity of the different parts of the British Empire, which has awakened enthusiasm both in the Motherland and every part of the world where the British flag flies never witnessed before. Your favorable decision would be regarded in some parts of the Empire as a message of good will to our fellow subjects, who are so closely connected with us by common ancestry, by common patriotism, by common love for the Empire, to which we are all proud to belong, and by common loyalty and veneration for our gracious Sovereign."

The Bill again passed the House of Lords by a majority of eighty-five, but the Government refusing to take the matter up in the house of Commons it was again deferred and it was some years before it was finally passed and the anomaly removed. But the speeches of Lord Strathcona and their reception indicate both his unfailing interest in Canadian affairs and the high place of influence he had reached in the Imperial Parliament.

We have spoken of Lord Strathcona as an "Imperialist." As there are several varieties of Imperialism, it may be well to have a clear understanding of what he meant by it. He made a reference to it in an address which he delivered in 1900 as Lord Rector of Aberdeen University.

"We have glanced at some of the milestones along the road which has led to the cross roads we are now facing, and the question before us is, which of them must be taken? Shall it be the one which points to the maintainence of the existing order of things, or the other which will lead to closer unity for Imperial purposes, for commercial purposes and for defence? There seems to be a general feeling in favor of the latter, which will assure the different parts of the Empire full liberty of self- government, while giving them a voice in the Imperial policy, the desire for which is becoming stronger every year. There are some who think the solution of the problem is to be found in the representation of Canada and the Colonies in the Imperial Parliament. I am not one of those who share that view, at any rate, until a truly Imperial Parliament to deal with Imperial affairs can he established.

"In times to come, it is within the bounds of possibility that there may be local Parliaments to deal with local affairs in England, Scotland and Ireland; and we may also then have a Parliament with representatives from the different parts of the Empire, which will be Imperial in name and in its work. We are approaching a period when all parts of the Empire will seek to have a voice in the foreign policy and in other subjects affecting the well-being of the community in general. That some way must be found of meeting the aspirations of the Colonies does not admit of doubt. I have made some reference to the question of an Imperial Parliament. That may be the ultimate solution, or it may not. But in the meantime the constitution of an Imperial Council in conjunction with the Colonial Office, consisting in representatives of the Imperial Government and the Colonies, has been mentioned as a preliminary step, even if the Council were only consultative at the commencement." This address reveals that practical turn of his mind and also the breadth of view and judicial habit which he brought to the consideration of all great questions. Though a very old man, he was as mentally alert as ever and kept in close touch with the political and intellectual movements of his time.


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