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Biography of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal
Chapter IX. First Appearance in Parliament


Donald Smith's activities were now transferred to the House of Commons at Ottawa. When he first entered the House a new era had begun in Canadian history. The Dominion Parliament found itself compelled to deal with large issues. The incoming of the North-West country had changed the outlook, widened the horizon, presented new problems and had placed upon the Government a heavy burden of unfamiliar duties. It was just the opportunity of which a man possessed of Smith's experience and special ability could avail himself.

His first session there was important, for it revealed to a larger public those abilities which had been known to comparatively few. It was for him a trying experience. He was introduced to the House by Sir George Cartier, on March 29th, 1871, before the Manitoba Bill had received the Royal assent. From the very beginning he became a subject of interest and discussion. He had scarcely taken his seat when Alex. Mackenzie, the leader of the Opposition, raised the question of his right to sit there—the Act under which he did so not having as yet received the assent of the Imperial authorities. The leader of the Government made an explanation, and the matter ended; but it is worthy of notice that, though Mackenzie had raised the question of his right to be there, a great personal friendship grew up between these two men, which continued during Mackenzie's life. Often, when he became Premier of Canada, did Mackenzie and Smith exchange views on the questions of the day, and when, later. he was out of office, the ex-Premier was the guest of Smith at Silver Heights, Winnipeg.

As one might naturally expect, the affairs of the North-West received considerable attention during this session of Parliament. The new territory had just come into the Dominion. The memory of recent stirring events, the Riel rebellion, the military expedition, the establishment of a local Government, was still fresh in the mind of the members. Many times the excitement in the House was intense, and the new member on several occasions found himself the centre of interest. His maiden speech was made in defence of another member from the West, a Mr. Delorme of Provencher. This man had been one of Rich's friends, and he was accused of co-operating with the rebel during the recent troubles—he was practically charged with treason, as being a member of Riel's Government, and with murder, as being a member of the court-martial which had condemned Scott. Feeling ran high. Mr. Delorme declared the charges false, and that he knew nothing of the murder until two days after it had been committed, he had had nothing to do with Riel's Council and was a properly elected delegate to the convention which conferred with Mr. Smith, when he was sent as Commissioner by the Canadian Government. The incident is interesting because it was the occasion of Mr. Smith making his first speech in Parliament. That speech was characteristic of the man. It was a plain, succinct statement of the facts as he actually knew them to have occurred. The quiet, earnest manner of the speaker, his natural dignity and appearance of sincerity, carried conviction.

The following is an extract of the speech: ''It would he in the recollection of most of the members of this House, that a certain party in Red River got up a council last winter, which was called the 'Provisional Government.' It was composed of Mr. Rid and several French members. With that Council he was convinced the honorable member in question (Mr. Delorme) had nothing to do. I agreed to the public meeting which was held on January 18th and 19th, when members were freely elected to the Convention by both sides. The Convention met in February, and was occupied in discussing the so-called Bill of Rights. The discussion was as free and mire- strained .as any discussion in the House up to a certain point.

"The honorable member for Provencher (Mr. Delorme) was a member of the Convention and then, and not till then, had the honorable gentleman anything to do with the disturbance or insurrection at Red River. I never heard anything mooted against Mr. Delorme until the other day, and certainly had I believed there was any foundation for such a charge, I would not only have hesitated, but actually refused to have been in anywise instrumental in introducing the honorable member before this House, as I have done. I would have regarded it as unbecoming my position as a member of this house, and still more, as an insult to my honor, if I had thought that the honorable member had been in any way connected with the so-called court-martial. As to who constituted that court-martial I do not know, but that Mr. Delorme was one of those people who arrogated to themselves the power to sit in judgment upon a British subject and condemn him to death, I entirely deny. (Cheers).

"There was a further Convention and delegation, which was sometimes called the 'House of Assembly of Red River.' To that also, I believe, the honorable gentleman had been elected, but elected by his parish. I took some little part in bringing that Assembly together. A great deal has been said about that—a great deal erroneously. What was done at that time was this: There was at that time a gentleman from Canada condemned to death. Intercession had been made for him by several parties, but without avail. At a late hour in the evening I visited those who were then in power, and it was given me to understand that they were absolutely in favour of the union with Canada, and merely desired to have the people of Red River come to an understanding exactly on what terms and conditions they were to enter the Confederation. I assented, so far as my assent was necessary, on behalf of Canada, to this Council being called, and further said I would go amongst the people and induce them to take part in this Council or Convention, but absolutely and only with the view of making arrangements for a union with Canada. Of that Convention the honorable member for Provencher was also a member. I believe that having said this, I have said all that is necessary on the subject.

"There was in the first instance a Council called the 'Provisional Government'—the member for Provencher had nothing to do with that. In the Convention of which the honorable gentleman was subsequently a member, there were several who took part in it, not simply because they happened to be present, but they actually took a more active part in bringing matters forward than the French- speaking members, and there can be no imputation against their loyalty. (Cheers). Further, I might say that I fully believe there are none who deplore the sad events of last winter more than the people urf Red River, not only the English, but the French-speaking people of Red River." After some discussion, his views prevailed and the motion for a committee of enquiry was voted down.

His position as the official head of the fur-trade and his intimate knowledge of the conditions in the new country, gave him a great influence in Parliament. He knew more about these matters than the Government itself and his counsel was often sought by the authorities.

In this same session the question of the murder of Scott came up for discussion. It was a burning question. At this distance of time it is hard to realize how deeply the East was stirred by this outrage. The demand was insistent that the murderers should be hunted down and punished. The Government was in a delicate position. The Opposition was not unwilling to take advantage of the feeling roused. But there was danger in reviving the question. Riel had many friends among the people of the West. The relations between the French and English were still somewhat strained. To pursue a policy of arrest and punishment might rouse passions not easily quieted and produce a racial conflict. Nothing was more needed at this juncture than a cautious and pacific policy. Attacks were made upon the Dominion Government which were met by the Government's assertion that Canada had no jurisdiction in the North-West at the time of Scott's execution. The attack then turned upon the Hudson Bay Company, which was charged with conspiring to prevent justice being done to the murderers. Against this attack Mr. Smith, at whom the charge was evidently directed, took the floor in defence of the company and again proved himself well qualified to take care of himself in the House.

He arose in his place in Parliament and said: "Sir, I was present at Fort Garry when Thomas Scott was murdered. I did all in my power to save the life of the poor man. When I was vested with the chief civil authority after Riel's departure, a number of excited people—some forty or fifty of them—came to me, asking to be sworn in as special constables to arrest the murderers. They said, "We will go to shoot them down, but not to take them in any other way." In fact, they demanded a warrant to commit murder. I refused to give them such a warrant. They afterwards, it is true, obtained one; but by that time the murderers had escaped."

During this session he became recognized as one of the leaders of Parliament, and the expert exponent of North-Western affairs. He had won for himself a place in the esteem and confidence of the East, only equalled by that which he already held in the North-Vest and Prince Rupert's Land. When, during the next session, an Act was passed, providing that the territories outside of Manitoba should be governed by the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba and a Council of eleven members, Mr. Smith was appointed a member. One member, to reach this Council, had to travel 2,000 miles by dog train, from Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River, and his journey occupied fifty-five days of actual travel. Truly, it was a land of magnificent distances, and this fact shows how tremendously conditions have altered since then.


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