He Thinks Before He Fights

Here is an intimate little sketch of Hon. E. M. Macdonald, Canada's Minister of Militia, which is particularly interesting—in fact, almost unique, in that it deals with a politician who does not seek publicity, and who keeps silent in the House when he might talk.

JOHN NELSON September 15 1925

He Thinks Before He Fights

Here is an intimate little sketch of Hon. E. M. Macdonald, Canada's Minister of Militia, which is particularly interesting—in fact, almost unique, in that it deals with a politician who does not seek publicity, and who keeps silent in the House when he might talk.

JOHN NELSON September 15 1925

He Thinks Before He Fights

Here is an intimate little sketch of Hon. E. M. Macdonald, Canada's Minister of Militia, which is particularly interesting—in fact, almost unique, in that it deals with a politician who does not seek publicity, and who keeps silent in the House when he might talk.


THE floor of the House of Commons resembles a battlefield. There is the same recurrence of attack and counter-attack; the same tactical moves for advantage of position; the same cut and guard, thrust and parry. The weapons are similar bayonet point and musket butt; scimitar and claymore; sometimes, it is to be feared, whizz-bangs and poison gas. All types of fighters find a place in the general melee.

And often, as in Flanders and France, no real ground, or permanent gain is made. It is a continual state of foray and trench raid, in which the regular troops stolidly hold the line, while the more adventurous “mix it” across the No-Mans-Land which stretches from the Speaker’s Throne to the Bar.

From the vantage ground of the galleries it is interesting to watch the political generals dispose their forces. Often the fight has been anticipated, and the places of the various participants carefully assigned in advance. But sometimes there is a savage attack from an unexpected quarter. An onslaught on ground imperfectly protected finds the defence with little ammunition, and leaves them with damaged morale. Then it is that the shock troops are rushed into position, and happy indeed is the political commander who can quickly impress men who are capable of relieving such a condition.

The premier swings about in his chair, his eye searching for some trusty lieutenant who can lead the counter attack. The selection is governed by conditions. He may turn to his right and call up the inexhaustible reserves of good nature and disarming sang froid, which always seem at the disposal of the Minister of Railways. But, if the counter sally is to be in kind, he is likely to beckon to his side from the left, the stout Minister of Militia. There is a short and hurried conference as to the general plan of battle, and the Minister of Militia returns to his seat, removes his letters and documents into safe seclusion, and having cleared his desk for action, proceeds metaphorically to buckle ón his claymore. And the galleries at once know that “Ned” Macdonald is the next man up.

His is a formidable task. He is to reply to the leader of the Opposition. And that skilful parliamentarian is just concluding a crushing attack on the government’s Petersen subsidy bill—an attack where his argument is marching as faultlessly as the ticking of a metronome, and his conclusions marshalling themselves as logically and as relentlessly as those of an adding machine. The premier obviously is disturbed, his supporters anxious,

“and e’en the ranks of Tuscany” (in the form of the Progressive members) “can scarce forbear a cheer.”

The Shock Troops

THE Minister of Militia rises. Instantly he is in action. He moves on to the field swiftly and adroitly, with a diverting movement on the enemy’s flank. This is no time for nice scruples. He boldly charges the Opposition by claiming the nonexistence of a combine in the shipping of the North Atlantic. Half a dozen opposition members are on their feet at once. Their militant leader protests against the mis-statement. Pages are hurried out for copies of Hansard. The action becomes general. In five minutes the crest of the attack is rolled back in a turmoil of denials and repudiations which absorb the attention of the House in unimportant details. Thus, in the ten minutes still left before the Speaker sees six o’clock, assailants become assailed, and the spearhead of the charge is lost or obscured in noisy local engagements in remote corners of the field. In the midst of it the House rises. When it resumes in the evening, the Minister proceeds deliberately and leisurely on general lines of strategy planned quietly over a dinner table with his colleagues.

All this indicates that resource which comes from long experience and which is often more useful in the House of Commons than brilliance. Hon. E. M. Macdonald has been so long in parliament that he no longer desires to “catch the Speaker’s eye.” He has no platitudes with which to exhort his fellow-members. In the ordinary way he leaves the vocal part of the conflict to younger men. But when an awkward corner has to be turned, when the position must be held by strenuous, back-to-the-wall, two-fisted fighting, the general staff still relies on the old Highlander. When the conflict deepens the lust of battle returns to his countenance. He may not have many arguments left in his arsenal, but he will use anything he can find there to the best advantage until he has time to get a fresh supply. He

will hold the ground. Like Marmion, he is “in close fight a champion grim, in camp a leader sage.”

His experience extends not alone over a long parliamentary career, but covers many hard-fought, and often unsuccessful battles. In 1894, when he first ran, he bit the dust. Two years later he suffered the same fate at the hands of the redoubtable Tupper. But the following year he was elected to the Nova Scotia legislature, and served there for seven sessions. Then in 1904 he came to the Commons and with the exception of the years 1917-1921, he has been there ever since.

Experience is Reticent

HIS reluctance, ordinarily, to engage in debate, is sometimes attributed to lethargy. That is far from the case. It is interesting and significant that Hansard contains no speech of the Minister in any of the Budget debates during his long period in parliament. Now the Budget debate, like that on the Address, is the annual free-for-all in which every member is supposed to participate. It affords an unrestricted field in which the back bencher, who often has difficulty in unburdening himself of many pregnant thoughts, within the exasperating limits of the rules of procedure, can indulge himself to the full. In all the years in which Hon. Mr. Macdonald has been in parliament he has never contributed to that oratorical orgy. His restraint is partly due to a firmly held theory that public affairs is the most intricate of all studies. He is old-fashioned enough to believe that ability to contribute constructively to legislative

debate comes only by long and attentive preparation. Though when he came to Ottawa he had already served for seven years in his own legislature he was an entire term in the Commons before he felt sufficiently assured of his grasp of Federal affairs to engage in the public discussion of them.

“I am amazed,” he declares, “at the assurance in these matters which some people display after being in the House but a short time. The theory that a man can blow into parliament, and especially into the cabinet without careful preparation for his duties, is thoroughly unsound.”

He, himself, served a long apprenticeship before accepting Ministerial responsibility. True, Hon. Mr. Fielding had priority which made him the logical representative of Nova Scotia in the ministry. But his colleague accepted without demur a situation which agreed so well with his personal views.

Those who marvel most at his reserve in the House, are the older members who recall the famous “Ginger group” which prior to 1905 used to be famous, both inside and outside of parliament. It included A. K. McLean, the late Frank Carvell, Fred Pardee, Leighton McCarthy, and “Ned” Macdonald. It was little less famous than the “Dark Lantern Brigade” as the Conservatives called the little band of which Mr. Macdonald was a conspicuous member. This functioned in the Public Affairs committee of 1910. The Laurier government had ridden out several election gales successfully and some of their opponents thought the approaching fight one in which the eternal cycle which attends political destinies should bring victory to their side. So in anticipation of an election the air was dark with scandals about the provisioning of the Arctic and other things. Mr. Macdonald’s group undertook to combat this campaign by methods as truculent as those directed on the other side by Mr. (now Senator) Reid. So the Public Accounts committee, where all government expenditures undergo rigid scrutiny became a turbulent theatre of the combat. The useful work which Mr. Macdonald and his colleagues did in that situation firmly established his authority in the party.

Echo of the Old Days

HIGHLAND people are susceptible to tradition and family history. Both, in Mr. Macdonald’s case, combined to make his entry to politics inevitable. His is a political family with a record stretching back to pre-Confederation days when Joe Howe was lord of the Maritimes and the political arena in Nova Scotia was producing giants. Edward Mortimer, who was the first representative for Pictou county'in the provincial legislature was sponsored for that office by George Macdonald, grandfather of the present Minister. So fond was Macdonald (who was a county squire) of his friend, that he named one of his sons after him. This son, uncle of the Minister, became the close friend and confidante of Howe, and stumped Nova Scotia with him against Confederation. Friendship triumphed even over political ideals, for Howe recanted and joined forces with Sir John Macdonald, he carried his friend with him. In one of the letters preserved in Pope's collection there is an interesting reference to this fact, where Howe stipulates that while the greatest secrecy must be observed with regard to the negotiations, he insists on sharing his confidence with Edward Mortimer Macdonald.

The latter was the owner of the Halifax Citizen, and sat in the first parliament of Canada which followed Confederation in 1867. One of his brothers was a member of the Nova Scotia legislature from 1856 to 1865, and became its Speaker.

Perhaps it is a blend of the grandfather squire and the political uncle and namesake, that impels the Minister of Militia to public service. They prompt in him, too, the wish, that more of the young men of the country should show the same readiness to serve their communities as marked the Bluenoses of another age. “I have long thought.” he says, “that the time is ripe for young men of ability to give themselves to public service. We are in a materialistic age. The instinct of young men is to rush off and make money as fast as they can. In the old days men went out deliberately with an ambition to engage in the politics of their country. We need such men now and the better trained they are the better for their country.”

His own son, J. W., has already taken that cue in

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HeThinks Before He Fights

both a military and a civil capacity. Volunteering for service during the Great War, he hurried to London, apprehensive lest he be delayed in seeing active service. To facilitate his movements, his father gave him a letter to a Canadian general in a high capacity in London, and to this general young Macdonald presented himself one morning with a request that influence be exerted to get him to France with as little delay as possible. The general liked the looks of the young Canadian, and inquired:

“Can you be ready this afternoon?”

“Certainly, sir,” was the reply.

“Well, go and get your traps together. I will see that you sail this evening.” Two days later, to his great delight, he was in the line.

He emerged from the war with honors, and in 1920 was elected to a seat in the same legislature in which his father, his uncles and his grandfather’s protege, commenced their public careers.

The son is Scotch only on the paternal side. But the war developed an incident that satisfied his father of his Highland instincts. “He wrote me from London just before he sailed for France that he had left his trunk for safe keeping with the secretary of the Gaelic society, Donald McLeod. Then I knew he was Scotch.”

It is not surprising that in a man of Mr. Macdonald’s training there should be a reluctance to accept that development of modern political life, the third party. The Minister regards groups as abnormalities which must pass with a return to settled conditions. He thinks it significant that in the United States even men of the prominence and standing of Roosevelt and LaFollette have been unable to win their countrymen to the idea. He thinks that stability in government can be obtained only when there is a return to the two-party system.

Perhaps this is not all due to family instinct. He was long under the spell of Laurier, and the influence of the old chieftain persists among his followers, even though it is now long since he passed into the shadows. To his faithful Nova Scotia supporter, Sir Wilfrid entrusted many confidential tasks, and on his last political tour of the west, Mr. Macdonald j was one of his party, and shared the j intimacies of his private car for two j months. Three weeks before the Great Commoner died, Mr. Macdonald saw him for the last time, and found him deeply engrossed in Wilson’s fourteen points and in measures for an adjustment of European affairs.

Macdonald’s Opinion on Tariffs

CRITICS of the Minister sometimes attribute his silence in the Budget debates to the protectionist view’s with w'hich he is credited. This is not correct. He declares he is neither a free trader nor a protectionist, because the tariff is something the adjustment of w’hich should be a matter of expediency.

“It is, after all, a tax,” he says, “and like every other form of taxation should be the subject of scientific investigation and precise information.” He thinks there should be a permanent board, possibly of civil service heads, w’hose constant duty it should be to assemble and collate all information on the subject, and that their findings should be those upon which tariff schedules should finally be based. Those articles which some may regard as manufactured goods, and therefore subject to import duty, he points out, for instance, may be rawmaterial to other manufacturers. So the whole subject should be approached in a scientific way.

“The cure for our ills does not lie in the tariff,” he declares. “The Canadian situation is psychological. It started with extravagance fostered by easy money that came to many during the war. * It w’as aggravated by a certain w'ar weariness, which was the reaction from that great struggle. And it has been greatly intensified by the problem grow -ing out of the deficits on our national railw’ay lines. A few’ good crops w-ould

go far to make a change, for, as I say, it is largely psychological.”

In private life the Minister of Militia is a lawyer, with a wide practice; his principal offices being in his home town, while he is a member of a large firm in Montreal, where some of his most prominent clients reside. Until he entered the Ministry in 1923 he looked closely after his legal business. Since then political cares and Ministerial responsi-

bility have lelt little time for private concerns.

In militia matters which now come directly under his control he has long taken a keen interest, and was closely identified with the force in his own county before taking over the department. In 1910 he was appointed honorary lieutenant colonel of the Pictou Highlanders, and three years later was made honorary colonel, a post he still holds.