The Sphinx of Alberta

W. A. Craick May 1 1913

The Sphinx of Alberta

W. A. Craick May 1 1913

The Sphinx of Alberta

Canada prides herself on the fact that her democracy has evolved a type of public men that is creditable to modern civilization; History has cast a halo around great men of war, polities, and learning in the past in all the really great countrieá of the world. When one looks at close range at the living figures of his time he is most liable to adversely criticize these in comparison with the virtues of the past which have been added to “by their being far.” It has been the poicy of MacLean's Magazine to give character sketches of her living public men, and in this regard our readers have much commended us. The present character sketch is among Mr. Craick's best. He has just returned from a trip to Alberta, where, as he says, he saw the Sphinx in his home province.

W. A. Craick

THE square white-walled chamber gleamed brilliantly under a flood of fight spilling down from a spangled ceiling. Opposite the visitors’ gallery, the seven seats of the Opposition, stood out like lonely palm trees in the midst of an oasis of yellowish linoleum. The Speaker, debonnair, like all his tribe, swung to and fro in a big swivel chair. To his right the three ranks of desks, brokenly occupied by a listless crew of government supporters, imparted a lopsided appearance to the apartment. A sprinkling of onlookers in the galleries and a few weary-looking reporters aloft in the narrow recess above the Speaker’s dais, completed the scene.

A coup d’oeil from a vantage point, memory-staged the scene. Something in the picture held. A figure partially recumbent in the first front seat on the government side, with feet extended on the adjacent chair, body thrown back, elbows at rest on the arms of his chair

and hands clasped, completed the expression of perfect relaxation. The face in repose is thin, priest-like, ascetic and impassive; the eyes are keen and black. It is a face that catches and holds the attention, impressing onewith the strength of personality behind a sphinx-like mask that conceals the workings of an active mind. Among them all,—these legislators of the western province,—he stands forth as the predominating personality in the new white-walled legislative pile.

The semi-recumbent figure is the Hon. Arthur L. Sifton, premier of Alberta. Strange to say he is dignified even in this favorite, undignified attitude. A certain niceness about him, from the clean-shaven face to the immaculate button-boots, makes him appear quite proper in almost any position. His delicate hands, with rings on both little fingers, are as dainty as a woman’s. His double-breasted coat is a perfect fit. The

wing collar and the black tie are precision itself. Yet the impression is not that of the fop or the extremist. There is nothing loud or showy about his dress. In short he is a careful student of detail, taking pride in his sartorial ear anee.

mpassivity is not the invariable characteristic of Premier Sifton’s face. The Siftonian smile is notable. At a pointed remark from an opposition speaker, he swings round in his chair and, catching the attention of one of his colleagues, exchanges with him an amused glance. It is the eyes that give the smile its significance. An opponent might term the expression of the face sardonic. There is a raising of the eye-brows, a sparkle in the pupils and almost a sneer about the lips. The transition from grave to gay is rapid, like the passing of a ray of sunlight across a field in shadow, and as suddenly the former imperturbable look is resumed.

These momentary gleams of amused interest in the lunges of opposition speakers is an indication of the rapidity of the premier’s mental action. Gifted with really remarkable powers of intuition, he is a man who sees quickly, grasps comprehensively and acts with supreme confidence in his own judgment. His faculty for absorbing an argument in detail is noteworthy. He has been known to sit calmly through a three-hour oration from a member of the opposition, in which facts and figures were hurled at him in bewildering confusion, and then without note or memorandum, rise to make an elaborate reply. His impassivity irritates his opponents. He is not discourteous but he conveys the impression of being quite unconcerned, twiddling his thumbs or making meaningless hieroglyphics on a scrap of paper.

Alberta’s premier comes of a family, long gifted with an aptitude for dealing with practical politics. His father before him, the late Hon. John W. Sifton, was active in the public life of Manitoba as far back as 18/8 and for some years was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of that province. His younger brother, the Hon. Clifford Sifton, is one of the

notable figures in the larger sphere of national polities, whose services to the country have been of great value.


Arthur Lewis Sifton was born near London, Ontario, fifty-four years ago. His grandparents had settled in Middlesex County in the early thirties, having emigrated to Canada from Tipperary, but the Sifton family are of English, not Irish origin, notwithstanding. His father went west in 1875 to undertake some contracting work and took his wife and children with him. Arthur had by that time advanced sufficiently in his studies to be almost ready for the University, and after putting in a winter session at Wesley College, in Winnipeg, was sent back to Ontario to enter as an undergraduate at Victoria University, then situated in Cobourg. The family were staunch Methodists and believed in supporting those educational institutions which were conducted under the wing of their own chruch.

Graduating in arts in 1880, he began the study of the law in Winnipeg the same year and after taking the usual three-year course was duly called to the bar in 1883. He promptly hung out his shingle in the town of Brandon and started in to win a name for himself as a leader in municipal politics. He entered the council and wnile he retained his seat at the council table is said to have managed to keep the municipal pot boiling merrily. Then being young, optimistic and ventursome, he wandered away in 1885 to Prince Albert, then probably enjoying one of its earlier booms, and practised there for four years. Following this one finds him invading Calgary, where he continued to reside for quite a number of years.


On politics he continued to bestow an intermittent interest. This led finally to his being elected a member of the Council of the North-West Territories for the district of Banff. Judge Haultain was leader of the territorial government at the time and soon after the Calgary lawyer’s entry into the Coun-

cil, the latter was made treasurer and commissioner of public works. After holding office for two years only, so rapid has been political advancement in the West, he was transferred from the executive to the judicial department of the government as chief justice of the supreme court of the North-West Territories. This was but a short time before the autonomy bills of 1905 brought into being the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The changes consequent upon the foundation of the two prairie provinces had their effect upon Judge Sifton’s position. He was offered two alternatives, the leadership of the Liberal party in Alberta or the chief justiceship of the same province. He chose the latter as it meant practically a continuation of the kind of work to which he had already decided to devote himself. The story of how he was ultimately called from the dignified independence of the bench to take part once more in the turmoil and strife of party pol-

itics, is a familiar one to all Canadians who follow the course of public affairs. There was disintegration at work in the Liberal party of Alberta which spelled disaster. Only one man could heal the breach and that was Judge Sifton. He was appealed to, consented to come to the assistance of his former political friends, threw aside his robes and stepped down from the bench.


Much progressive legislation has been put through during the three years that ex-Judge Sifton has been at the head of the Alberta government. There is no province of the Dominion, with the possible exception of Saskatchewan, which has taken such advanced steps. That much of the legislation has been initiated by the premier himself is undoubted. From a long experience of Western conditions he has come to a thorough realization of Western needs and he b Ó not been slow to put into force thoc ; measures, which he has

deemed of value to the young and rapidly expanding province. Thus it is significant that, Alberta has to-day the first measure of direct legislation to be passed in Canada, that it was earliest m the field with a comprehensive workmen s compensation act, that its new system of agricultural schools has been prönounced the most effective plan of agricultural education yet devised in Canada, that its co-operative elevator act is an even more radical measure than the successful Saskatchewan act and that the provincial university is being developed along the most liberal lines.

But the premier did not come into office .without having to assume a heavy burden in the shape of the -Alberta and Great Waterways difficulty, which may yet prove a serious obstacle to progress. ¡With characteristic taciturnity and a dislike of divulging his policy until absolutely necessary, he has not yet giv,en an indication of what steps will be taken to get rid of this old man of the sea. His friends and admirers are confident that he can overcome the difficulty. His opponents hope to see it compass his overthrow.


The experience which Premier Sifton gained on the bench has had much to do with his success as an administrator. As a judge he was famed for his penetration and quick decision, coupled with a fearlessness that led him to enforce the law with the utmost rigor. It was largely through his firmness and zeal that cattle-rustling was stamped out in Alberta, while other forms of lawlessness had short shrift from him. When his energies were diverted to the making of laws, instead of their enforcement, he put these same faculties to good use in their drafting and enactment.

When Chief Justice the speed with which he rendered judgment was an astonishment to many members of the bar. He could estimate the value of an argument in relation to a case in point almost as soon as it was delivered and did not require hours of study to arrive at a decision. This was well illustrated in the lumber combine case of 1907, when the court listened to evidence and

argument for ten days. The final address of counsel was delivered, onlookers and participants were preparing to leave the room, when to the amazement of everybody the Chief Justice, instead of announcing that he would postpone judgment as was anticipated, rose in his place and calmly proceeded to deliver his finding. Though in many respects a most complicated case, the whole thing was over in twenty minutes.

There is one explanation which is sometimes advanced to explain Premier Sifton’s propensity for settling problems quickly. Realizing his power of summing up a situation with accuracy and despatch, it is said that he has gradually assumed a sort of mental indolence, which makes any long continued application to study distasteful. Concurrently he is equally averse to having the necessity for making a decision hang over him and so, to put himself entirely at his ease, he seizes his bête noir by the horns and has done with difficulties as they arise. By a strong exertion of willpower he settled the lumber combine case “right off the bat” and doubtless went home a much more contented man than had he used the excuse of requiring more time for deliberation, in order to save the trouble of immediate action. Be this as it may, Premier Sifton is certainly not to be described as a “plugger”, nor does he possess the power of long, concentrated application, which has given Hon. Clifford his advantage.


In the premier’s desk in his private office, there is a box, well-known to his friends. It has a glass top, through which one can see the even layers of an excellent brand of black cigars. The premier is an inveterate smoker and a connoisseur in the matter of weeds. He and his black cigars are seemingly inseparable. If he is not puffing at one of them, he is at least holding it in his fingers or picking it up from his desk, and the replenishing of his glass-topped box is a frequent necessity.


Apart from his love of tobacco, Premier Sifton has no other so-called bad

habits. No one has ever heard him swear and he has the reputation of never having taken a drink in his life. What is more, he has such an aversion to intemperance that he would not countenance a man even partially intoxicated in his presence. On this he is very decided. Apropos of his temperance

Erinciples, the story is told that when e was campaigning in the Banff district in 1902, his friends the late Malcolm Mackenzie and Paddy Nolan, accompanied him one day to the collieries at Bankhead, where he was to address a meeting of miners. Nolan was throwing money around with Celtic generosity, treating the men lavishly, but Sifton with characteristic distaste for such proceedings held aloof. His attitude was remarked by the men, who presently began to nudge each other and point to him. Nolan saw that his friend was not gaining anything by his adherence to principle and, to offset any possible loss of prestige, took a few of the miners into his confidence and whispered mysteriously by way of explanation: “He’s interdicted, boys. That’s

why he can’t join you.” This bit of information circulated rapidly, the candidate became an unconscious hero and his stock rose appreciably.

The Honorable Arthur has been induced on occasion to patronize horse shows where his brother, the Honorable Clifford, has exhibited some of his famous horses. He would endeavor to look interested in the proceedings, watch the jumping attentively and applaud the fraternal triumphs, but would fail on the whole to understand just why people should get so enthused over such a performance. Despite the rakish look, which the cigar and the tilted hat impart to his appearance, Alberta’s premier is not to Be classed as a sport. He plays no games himself and rarely goes to watch others play.


So far as it can be known of one so reserved, the premier has never speculated in real estate. Indeed his reputed ignorance of the business is so great that it is said he doesn’t even know the name of one of the subdivisions around Ed-

monton. Be this as it may, it is not a bad characteristic in the man who is at the head of the government of a province, in which real estate speculation has been carried on so extensively.

Premier Sifton, (or the Chief, as he is generally called around the Legislative Buildings, the name having clung to him from judiciary days), has made very few intimate friends. To the people at large, even to the large majority of his supporters in the Legislature, he is a riddle. They respect him personally, cherish a warm admiration for his abilities, but love him little. He is courteous but cold, polite but markedly reserved, a man with a mask to all but a small group of close personal acquaintances. Those who enjoy his confidence, men like the Hon. Charles Mitchell, fairly worship the ground on which he treads. His secretaries and those who work under him in his own department, are loud in his praises, calling him a prince among men. But one must needs be very intimate to get under the shell.

There are two places where the Chief is in his element and these are so opposite in character as to arouse comment. One is in the forefront of a spirited debate in the Legislature and the other is at an afternoon tea or evening reception in his own or a friend’s house. In both situations his sharp wits and sharp tongue find opportunity for agree-

able employment. He enjoys the flippant talk of the drawing-room, as he revels in the keen play of argument in debate, and it requires no second invitation to induce him to attend a society function.

As a platform speaker he possesses notable abilities. He is fluent, convincing and practised. His style is perhaps a trifle too caustic and aggressive to be generally appreciated. He likes to ridicule his opponents and often indulges in satirical references to their achievements, but as a party fighter he knows how to please his followers. The Chief is a strong partisan with an inherent dislike of Toryism and a prejudice against all Tories.

When necessity demands it, he can be as ambiguous as the best mugwump orator in the field. Prior to the Dominion election of 1896, he went down to Pincher Creek to address a meeting on the issues of the day. The greater part of his speech, which lasted for an hour and a half, was taken up with a discussion of the Remedial bill. After the meeting an old rancher came up to him in a perplexed state of mind and said, “Mr. Sifton, I’ve been living out here quite a long time now and I’ve sort of got out of touch with things down east. Our family used to be good Liberals in Ontario. Would you mind telling me now, which side you’re on in this Remedial business?”


Imagination, like hope, and all other racial gifts, is hard to kill: Some men and women hold it so sacred that neither the elements nor the wild flowers are ever quite forgotten; their clothes are never in the way of their wings and their feet are beautiful in the meadows. Indeed the fairy-sense, if I may so call it, will never die. It is innate as the religious sense itself. Although intellectualism may give us theology for gospel, academic technique for virile handcraft, school curricula for education, yet—and notwithstanding those fratricidal idolatrous twins, Science and Witchcraft—the fairy sense still lives. It is clothing itself anew in old dance song and handcraft; while the children rise to give it welcome.

—From The Contemporary Review.