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The Life of James Robertson

AMID the stress of missionary work the Superintendent found leisure for the study of public affairs and for the cultivation of an intelligent interest in the things pertaining to the development of national life.

In the performance of his duty it fell to him to criticise the Dominion Government’s administration of Indian affairs, and especially to call attention to the very grave scandals arising out of the practices of some of the Agents employed by the Government upon the Indian Reserves. In 1886, he made a public statement in this connection in the city of Montreal, which produced a profound impression. In that public statement he accused the Government of neglecting its duties to the Indians, declaring that, in many places, the Indians were starving, and also Agents were employed who were "drunkards, gamblers, and rakes." The press gave the widest circulation to his statement. It was challenged by politicians defending the Government of the day. The following extract from the Hansard of 1886 gives the discussion upon the floor of the House of Commons at Ottawa:

Mr. Paterson (Brant)—" The Rev. Mr. Robertson, taking cognizance of some statements made by a gentleman in contradiction of what he stated, says: ‘Mr. Andrews asks where are the Indians starving, searching refuse heaps and swill-barrels, and ravenously devouring crusts of bread and scraps of meat ? At Minnedosa, Broadview, Birtle, Fort Qu’ Appelle, Prince Albert, Battieford, Moosejaw, Medicine Hat, and the rest, I have seen them doing this. It might have been because they were curious, and preferred dirty crusts and decaying meat to tender, well-bled beef, but I did not think of accounting for it in that way. I know the eager look, the shrunken form, and the wolfish face that speak of want in the adult, and the wan, pinched look that speaks of starvation in the child; and I have seen them near Fort Ellice, Fort Pelly, File Hills, and other places, and have had my sympathies drawn out to the owners. I have seen Indians eating horses that died of disease, when the flesh was half-rotten. I have seen them picking up the entrails of animals about slaughter-houses when these were fast decomposing, ay, and eating them without cooking, or even washing. They may prefer such carrion to good beef, well-bled and cool when killed, but I doubt it.’ This is the statement of Mr. Robertson to which he attaches his name in public print."

Mr. Ferguson (Leeds)—" I happen to know something about Rev. Mr. Robertson which I do not care to disclose or discuss here, and which does not add much to the weight of his statements on this subject. I am not going to say anything further on the point just now."

Mr. Fairbanks—" I rise to call attention to a very improper remark by an honourable gentleman opposite. He has spoken in reference to the Rev. Mr. Robertson, a gentleman with whom I happen to have a slight acquaintance, having met him in the discharge of his duties, having listened to his preaching, and knowing him well by reputation. When an honourable member stands up in this place and makes a remark like this— ‘I know something about Rev. Mr. Robertson which I do not care to disclose or discuss here, and which does not add much to the weight of his statements on this subject,’ I submit that gentleman has either said too much or not enough."

Mr. Watson—" I would not have spoken at this late hour but for the insinuations on the other side of the House against the Rev. Mr. Robertson and the Rev. Jno. McDougall. . . . The Rev. Mr. Robertson I have known for ten years, and he is a man above reproach. He did not go to the Northwest on the same mission as the honourable member who has been slandering him - . . but for the purpose of doing good to the white settlers and Indians."

The General Assembly, taking up the question of Indian administration, passed a very strong resolution in support of Dr. Robertson’s position, and called upon the Government to put an end to the scandals and to remove the unworthy Agents. And so deep was the feeling aroused throughout the whole country, that the Government appointed a Commissioner to inspect the Reserves and to inquire into the abuses, with the result that the charges made by the Superintendent were abundantly substantiated, and the necessary reforms at once instituted by the Government.

By instinct and by habit, Dr. Robertson was a student, with all the Scotchman’s reverence for education. It is not surprising that from the very first he took an active interest in the educational affairs of Western Canada, and used his influence to establish on sound foundations both the University and the Public School system of education. He was for years a member of the Board of Education for Manitoba, and his advice was always listened to with respect. He strongly supported the movement to establish a Provincial University, in opposition to those who were pouring contempt upon what they termed a "University on paper." He was a staunch advocate of a national system of Public Schools, and by the advocacy of this system in Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assemblies, as well as in public addresses both in Eastern and Western Canada, he did much to strengthen public opinion in support of the principle that State funds should be appropriated to the support of only non-sectarian institutions. He saw clearly that for the future unity and homogeneity of the nation, the great agencies were the Church and the Public School. And at a critical period in the history of the great struggle to maintain our Public School system, the influence of Dr. Robertson did much to conserve for the Province this priceless possession. One phrase of his that appeared in his report to the Assembly of 1895 became a watchword in the campaign—" The dead hand has too long hampered the freedom of the living."

His desire to establish missions among the foreign peoples settling in the West arose out of, not only his loyalty to his Church and to her great mission to all classes of citizens, but out of this conviction as well, that it would be fatal to the national development to allow large sections of our country to remain untouched by the religious life of the majority of the Canadian people. At an early date in the history of the West he established missions among the Icelanders, Hungarians, Germans, Finns, and Scandinavians, not with the idea of making them Presbyterian, but simply to Canadianize these peoples and to develop in them the Christian ideals held by the people of Canada. The segregation of foreigners in large colonies he considered a mistaken policy.

After the establishment of the large Galician colonies in Western Canada, the Superintendent was anxious to find some means of approach by which these people could be reached. In faith they were about equally divided between the Greek and the Roman Catholic Churches, while the vast majority of those holding formally to the Roman Catholic Church practiced the Greek rite. The presence of large colonies of these people in Western Canada, for whose religious care no Church was making adequate provision, Dr. Robertson considered at once a challenge and a menace to Canadian Christianity. But for some years no avenue of approach seemed to open up. One evening there came to the Rev. C. W. Gordon’s study two Galician students who expressed their eager desire that something should be done for their fellow-countrymen both in the matter of education and in regard to religious privileges. Mr. Gordon introduced the two young men to the Rev. Dr. King, Principal of Manitoba College. That clear-visioned educationist and statesman saw immediately the importance of this opening. The Superintendent was approached. At once an arrangement was made by which these young men were entered upon the roll of Manitoba College. There they received the special attention and teaching of the Principal, the Superintendent assuming the responsibility for their support. This was the beginning of the important work which the Presbyterian Church is carrying on among the Galician people of Western Canada. Within a year, schools were opened up among these people, and, before two years had passed, as a result largely of the effect of these schools and of the pressure brought to bear by the Presbyterian and other Churches, the Government of Manitoba so modified its educational policy as to allow the extension of the Public School system to the foreign populations within the Province.

One of the striking characteristics of the Superintendent was his interest in contemporary thought. Pressed as he was with the almost overwhelming details of his immediate work, he snatched precious minutes to dip into and devour the newest books.

"I was often surprised," says Principal Gordon, "at the amount of reading he used to get through on the railway. It was his only time for study, and far too precious to spend on the ordinary style of railway literature. He generally carried with him some new book, and kept himself well up in recent criticism and theology. Any minister who has enjoyed a quiet hour's talk with him must have been struck with his familiar knowledge and firm grasp of current questions."

A similar sentiment is expressed by the Rev. Dr. Boss:

"Another thing that impressed me was his grasp of problems outside his own work. I delighted to turn his conversation to subjects that I had been studying, that I might look at them with his eyes. I was often surprised to find him at home in some things that one would scarcely have expected him to know, e. g., certain aspects of the Kenosis theory. He spent so much time travelling and his own work was so exhausting that he trained himself to take the heart out of a book in a little while, and all the time he was studying the subject in the light of the bearing which it had on some phase of life, thought, or work in the West. And the intense thought he had given to his own work had proved a splendid mental discipline for him."

He was interested in the study of Theology, but he was far more interested in religion than in Theology, and to those who knew him intimately it was always a pleasure to discuss theological questions and to note how Theology with him was ever related to the practical problems of living. This appears to have impressed President Falconer, who writes as follows:

"I was always much surprised at his grip upon theological problems and his modern attitude. . . . Religion was to him so much the dominant factor of life, and he was so sincere in his own, that he made Theology the living, real expression of this hidden religious life. That is what makes Theology vital; that will never allow practical men of Dr. Robertson’s stamp to degenerate into ecclesiastics. And, in a living essential Theology of this nature, lies our hope for the future."

And Dr. Pollock says:

"Men do not appear at their best at our Assemblies. All that I could perceive of him there, was that he was a man swallowed up, as it were, by a great work. The practical side of life seemed to have absorbed all other sides of it, and he was filled with one idea, the vastness of the West and its necessities. After I knew him better I found that he was a thinker as well as a pioneer and practical worker."

Dr. Robertson was far more than a Churchman. He was a citizen of Canada, with a very practical interest in the development of the resources and industries of the nation. He was a warm personal friend of many of the leaders in the commercial and the industrial world. No man in Canada was more thoroughly acquainted with the West and its varied resources than was Dr. Robertson, and not infrequently was his advice sought and followed by men representing the largest business interests of the country. It is well known that even so large and important a corporation as the Canadian Pacific Railway, with whose chief officers he maintained throughout his life the most cordial relations, was more than once guided by his judgment. On one occasion the advice of Dr. Robertson was considered sufficiently weighty to determine the direction of one of the Company’s branch lines. It was largely upon Dr. Robertson’s suggestion that the Canadian Pacific Railway initiated that most happy and popular institution of winter excursions to Eastern Canada. And it was largely due to the Superintendent’s ability to show the railway officials the important and favourable effect of Home Missions upon the material interests of the country in which their Company was so heavily involved, that they were prepared to grant missionaries transportation privileges, not only upon grounds of Christian courtesy, but also upon the basis of sound business principles.

Thus, such was his intellectual ability, his accurate and wide knowledge of Western Canada, his shrewd, practical common sense, and his lofty character, that Dr. Robertson was able to move amid the leaders of Canadian thought and enterprise as a man moves among his peers, and to command their entire confidence and respect.

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