Stewart of Alberta

"Charlie” Stewart left school at thirteen to run a farm; today, as a Minister of the Crown, he administers an area of 2,500,000 square miles

A. G. DEXTER October 15 1929

Stewart of Alberta

"Charlie” Stewart left school at thirteen to run a farm; today, as a Minister of the Crown, he administers an area of 2,500,000 square miles

A. G. DEXTER October 15 1929

Stewart of Alberta

"Charlie” Stewart left school at thirteen to run a farm; today, as a Minister of the Crown, he administers an area of 2,500,000 square miles


A GENERAL election was in the offing. Sir John A. Macdonald, the Grand Old Man of the Conservative party, was touring loyal Ontario. He addressed a political picnic at Carlisle, a few miles north-west of Hamilton, and afterwards mixed among the people. Sir John had ever an eye for the young folk, and on this occasion he noticed a ten-year-old lad, whose sturdy figure and cheery smile attracted him.

“What is your name, my boy?” asked the great statesman.

“Charlie,” replied the lad.

“Well, Charlie,” said Sir John, to the unbounded amusement of the bystanders, “you’re a fine boy, and you’ve got a big enough head to be a politician some day.” Sir John patted the tousled curls and went on his way, laughing and chatting.

Thirty-nine years later “Charlie” Stewart was premier of Alberta, and today he is a cabinet minister responsible for the administration of a territory greater in extent than continental Europe, and containing riches in minerals, timber, fisheries and fertile lands which no one, as yet, has been able to compute.

Few who heard Sir John chaff the boy remembered, but the lad never forgot. After all, how could there be anything more than foolery in such words? Was not “Charlie” the son of a stonemason, bred in the little village of Strabane, a mile or two away, and likely to end his days as his father before him, a useful, hardworking member of the little community in which he had first seen the light of day?

And as for “Charlie” himself, he gave no promise of outstanding success. He was an industrious boy, satisfied to do the work his father gave to him each day— a lad apparently without imagination, who never shrank from hard labor in the fields to steal away and dream of future triumphs. Nor did he ever change. For as this sketch will show, “Charlie” Stewart never reached out after place or preferment. They came naturally to him. Nor did he ever seek to appear to be different from other men or of superior clay. To him life was a great adventure, to be lived with hope, but not with regrets. And he took it in that spirit. He met failure and success with the same imperturbable good humor, and today would be as happy and contented among his boyhood friends at Strabane, or on his farm in Alberta, as he would be representing his country in the General Assembly of the League of Nations at Geneva.

The story of “Charlie” Stewart is one which must be an inspiration to the youth of Canada who are deprived of the great advantages of higher education and the support of powerful friends in high places. It is a story that proves Canada to be indeed a democratic country, where the path to the highest offices in the gift of a nation is as open to the man of humble parentage and lowly beginnings as to the sons of the great and wealthy.

Ontario Days

CHARLIE” Stewart was born in 1868, the year after Confederation, in the little village of Strabane. His mother was a Canadian by birth; his father was a Scot who had come to Canada from Dundee when thirteen years of age. His father was a stonemason by trade, but there was not enough work to yield the funds necessary to raise a family, so between jobs he worked a hundred acre farm. “Charlie” went to school at Strabane, but being the eldest boy he was frequently left in charge of the farm while his father was absent working in neighboring villages. He still retains a vivid memory of the schoolmaster.

“Our teacher,” he remarked, “got his early training pulling pine stumps, and believe me, he was strong on the hide. Nevertheless he was a great man, and I have never forgotten many of the lessons that he drove home with a hickory switch.”

When “Charlie” was thirteen years of age, the father went away on a job which would require much time, and so the lad was taken from school and made responsible for the farm. He put in the crop, singlehanded, and thereafter was in charge of operations—his school days ended.

Frequent visits to his native county arouse poignant memories in the cabinet minister of today who toiled in the fields of old Ontario in those far years.

Stonemasons were scarce and most of the old stone buildings in Strabane, Carlisle, Ancaster, Waterdown and even in Guelph were built by his father. Perhaps the finest building he erected was the town hall at Ancaster, and it stands today a monument to the skill and craftmanship of his hands.

In 1883 the Stewarts moved north to the Barrie district, then in process of settlement, and there one year later Mr. Stewart, senior, died, leaving his wife and family to the care of his sixteen-year-old son. Few boys have been compelled to shoulder greater and more crushing responsibilities at so early an age.

For fifteen years young “Charlie” struggled along, improving the farm and adding equipment and buildings. Then in 1898, on a hot sweltering day, the sky darkened and great black clouds rolled up from the south. A cyclone struck the district of Barrie and. when it had subsided, the unceasing toil of fifteen years had been practically obliterated. The farm buildings were destroyed; the very house in which the family took shelter partially collapsed, although no one was injured; the crops were utterly ruined.

Out West

OF ALL the misfortunes which have befallen him since then, none left him more bruised in heart and broken in spirit. The very countryside ceased to appeal. At that time the railway companies were drumming up harvesters to help with the western crop. “Charlie” had now grown to be a man of thirty-one years of age, was married and had a young family to take care of, as well as his mothers and sisters and brothers.

The new land beckoned, and making the best provision he could for his dependents, he booked as a harvester. Adversity had not dulled his inborn cheeriness. His mind reacted to the optimism of the prairies; it was the country he had yearned for blindly, gropingly, and he realized as soon as he began work in Saskatchewan that the east would claim him no more.

However, there was the family to consider: he was not a young man who could pack his belongings in a carpet bag and leave for distant fields, however green and alluring. The Ontario farm had to be put in shape and sold, and this took time and patience. It was in 1905 that he sold all the family possessions in Barrie, arranged for the keep of the family, and struck out, almost penniless, to make his fortune in the new west. He took up a homestead at Killam, Alberta, built a sod shack and went to work.

He soon found that there was great need of equipment and supplies, and no revenue from the land. He must turn his hands to other work and make enough to start the farm on a proper basis. As a lad, he had learned the trade of stonemason and bricklayer from his father and so he left the homestead and went to the nearest town or city where work offered.

“You see,” he remarked, “the farmer who cannot turn a hand to something else is liable to be hard hit at any time.”

With him a dollar earned was a dollar saved. He had no bad habits, and was willing to sacrifice comfort and enjoyment for the sake of the homestead. He slept where he could, cheaply: fed where the food was plentiful but not too dear.

He could not foresee the future, but had he known, this indeed was the royal road to success. Then, or a little later, E. J. Garland, now one of the leading western members of parliament, was digging sewers and planting trees in Calgary, to earn the wherewithal to break his homestead: Charles Dunning, now minister of Railways and Canals, was toiling and saving to make good on a homestead in northern Saskatchewan: W.R. Motherwell, Minister of Agriculture, was multiplying the hard-won dollars he had earned trucking for the troops in the Northwest Rebellion: and Robert Forke, now Minister of Immigration, was “busting” the virgin sod on a homestead in Manitoba. Mr. Stewart, to be sure, was following a safe trail to win and hold the confidence of his fellow citizens.

In two years he had earned enough to pay for the breaking up of his farm and the building of a house. His family were safely moved west and happy in new surroundings. Then one summer day came a hailstorm, and his crop was a total loss. One break of luck often brings a man so low that he may never hope to rise again. But two reverses will try the stoutest heart. Money was needed; the barren winter had to be faced. Mr. Stewart took the next train to Calgary, and got a job bricklaying on the Central School then being built. A week or two later, just when he had got nicely started, a dispute arose between the men and the contractors, and a strike was called. Mr. Stewart believed in trade unions and does today, but he had no time to waste on strikes; he did not care about hours of labor, so long as there was work to be done and money to pay for it.

However, he went on strike with the others and promptly sought another job in a different line of business. Within a few hours of laying down his trowel, he was an agent for the Massey-Harris company, with a large area reserved for him in eastern and central Alberta, centring upon his home town of Killam. He was a success in this new venture, and there followed three years of activity, for which he was well paid. He met everyone in the district and began to take an active interest in municipal and provincial politics. Meantime the farm had grown from the original homestead of 160 acres to 1,000 acres of well-tilled soil.

Alberta Politics

IN 1909 there was a provincial election and Mr. Stewart was offered the Liberal nomination. He accepted and received an acclamation. Hon. Arthur Sifton was then premier of Alberta, and he quickly marked out the new recruit for advancement.

In 1912 came the first important upward step. Mr. Stewart was made a minister, and given the task of organizing a new department—municipal affairs. Up to that time the form óf rural government in the province had not been fixed, and it was Mr. Stewart’s task to devise the system of government which, once adopted, would be permanent and unchangeable. He had a clear recollection of the system in operation in Ontario, and was strongly of the view that the simpler the form of rural administration the more efficient and satisfactory it would be. In Ontario there are, in all, four systems of government operating continually, the Federal, provincial, county and municipal. Mr. Stewart decided to eliminate the county system and to divide the functions discharged by the county council between the province and the municipalities. A bill was drafted and he piloted the measure through the legislature. Today it is the law of the province.

‘T am proud of that work,” he said, when chatting with the writer a few weeks ago. “We have too much government in this country. It is inefficient and expensive.”

No sooner was this work done than he was given another important task. He was made Minister of Railways and instructed to deal with the railway situation in northern Alberta—the Peace River country. The result was the building of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia railway, which was recently taken over jointly by the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways.

In 1917, Premier Sifton was called to Ottawa to join the Union government. He chose as his successor Mr. Stewart, and for the four years following he filled this position. All his life a staunch Liberal, he saw the tide of Progressivism steadily rising, but. declined to strike the colors of the party. In 1921 his administration was engulfed, although he was elected, personally, by acclamation, and a farmers’ government took over the reins of office. There followed five months of inactivity.

Then there came a federal election.

Mr. Stewart was not a candidate, but the Liberals were elected, and he was invited to join the federal government, as Minister of the Interior. He accepted, and has continued to hold this portfolio, with the exception of a brief interval in 1925, when the Meighen shadow government was in office.

Held Many Offices

AÆR. STEWART was now in his early i V± fifties, when most men think rather of scaling down their responsibilities than of adding to them.. He was known as the Minister of the Interior but he was, also, Minister of Mines, Superintendentgeneral of Indian Affairs, and Acting Minister of Immigration.

What did these new duties involve? As Minister of the Interior he was directly responsible for the admistration of the public domain owned by the Dominion, and in this category falls the greater part of the three prairie provinces, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and the Arctic regions. All told this estate exceeded 2,500,000 square miles, embracing arable lands, timber lands, grazing areas, water powers, coal, gold, silver, oil, gas, and other minerals, and fur bearing animals. Every year thousands of sales took place, thousands of leases were executed. Purchasers got into trouble; homesteaders would not fulfill their duties. Never a week went by without the nr aster being confronted with a hundred and one questions of administration to be decided. Then there was the mines department, which operates in all provinces, encouraging mining development.

As Superintendent-general of Indian Affairs, he was responsible for the welfare of 105,000 Indians scattered throughout the Dominion. The duties of a Minister of Immigration, of course, require no explanation.

Mr. Stewart’s period in office has extended from the lean years of 1921 to the unprecedented prosperity of today, and the policies of the department have kept pace with the general development of the Dominion. As Minister of the Interior Mr. Stewart is responsible for the development of the Flin Flon and Sherritt-Gordon mining properties in northern Manitoba; the launching of several newsprint mills, and the harnessing of a dozen important power falls.

But undoubtedly the major achievement in regard to the control of the public domain has béen the advancement of negotiations with the three prairie provinces to a point where it now appears to be certain that the natural resources within their respective boundaries will be turned over to the provincial governments before the end of the present parliament.

One word about “Charlie” Stewart, the man. He may or may not be familiar with Kipling, but in one respect at least he fulfils the poet’s measure of a man. He has known great place; he has walked with the kings of men; he has spoken for the people in negotiations with the industrial captains of the day. But he has never lost the common touch, nor his love for the common man.