The Last of THE OLD GUARD
Minister of Finance forty years ago, member of seven Dominion cabinets, Sir George Foster at eighty' three is a living linK with the Dominions political past
M. GRATTAN O’LEARY
WHEN THE MacdonaldLaurier era passed away it left a tradition. That tradition is the Right Honorable Sir George Foster. Entering upon his eighty-third year, he is the ripe fruit of nearly half a century of public life, the last of Sir John A.’s “Old Guard”; Canada’s Perpetual Politician.
When Sir George Foster came into the world, Lord Elgin was governing Canada. Victoria was but in the morning of her reign;
Wellington was still alive; Gladstone and Disraeli were barely heard of. Away back in 1871, before Mackenzie King or Arthur Meighen was born, he was professor of classics and ancient literature in the University of New Brunswick; two years after the Franco-Prussian war he was studying in Germany; in 1882—forty-eight years ago—he entered Parliament; and exactly forty-one years ago he was Minister of Finance.
Consider the political history Foster’s span of life encompasses: Macdonald, Mackenzie, Abbott, Thompson, Bowell, Tupper, Laurier, Borden, Meighen, King. From the first to the tenth premiership. Ten names of history, and his own not among them. It is one of the curiosities, if not one of the tragedies, of politics.
Yet the compensation of a great achievement remains with him. If his twilight years be haunted by ghosts of lost opportunities, if he thinks of himself as the man who was always only potential, he may console himself by reflection upon his unique record. It is the record— equalled by no man in any
British country of having served in the cabinets of seven Prime Ministers.
Always the Fighting Captain
SIR GEORGE began as Minister of Finance under John A. Macdonald. He remained in that office with Abbott, Thompson, Bowell and Tupper; was Minister of Trade and Commerce under Borden and Meighen. If he was fated never to be commander-in-chief he was always the fighting captain.
Foster launched his parliamentary career as an Independent Conservative. Actually, he was a prohibitionist first, a politician afterward. Like Newton Wesley ,Rowell, who was against him in the famous Globe libel suit but who later became his colleague, Foster in his youth was a crusader for temperance. He went up and down the Maritimes thundering against the saloon, a sort of Protestant Father Matthew; and his first great
speech in Parliament, in 1883, was in support of a prohibition resolution.
Parliament did not accept prohibition; it did accept Foster. Two years later, while he was still in his thirties, and before Laurier had become leader of the Liberal Party—Blake did not retire until 1887—he entered Macdonald’s cabinet. In 1888, when he was forty-one, he became Minister of Finance.
He owed his promotion to his eloquence. In a day when oratory was still a parliamentary art, when the House of Commons knew the mighty march of a Blake, the silver tongue of a Laurier, the corroding invective of a Cartwright, and the theatrical passion of a Chapleau, Foster could cross swords with them all. He had not Blake’s range of mind, his grasp and marshalling of intricate detail; he could not play on crowds with the charm and magnetism of Laurier; but he had distinctive qualities of his own which gave him mastery of Parliament. A duel between Cartwright and Foster was a parliamentary event. That “lean and hungry Cassius” was the way Cartwright referred to him, and Foster, with a tongue as bitter as any that the House of Commons has seen, lashed back with phrases that flashed and seared like lightning.
A Master of Satire
"POSTER in those days was no respecter of persons. A master of satire, he would sneer at the “dull pompousness” of Blake, scoff at the most venerable of Liberal front benchers, refer to Laurier as “that man with the English head and the French heart.” His assaults upon the great French-Canadian, scattered throughout Hansard, are among the few great philippics in our literature of politics.
He was never a great executive— not even under Macdonald. Minister of Finance for years, there is not an achievement in his regime that sticks conveniently in the memory. He fathered the present Bank Act, borrowed money successfully in England, took some steps to further trade with the West Indies; but did little more. Always the Prophet, he was never the Man of Action. He could rise anywhere at any time and translate logic and economics into ethical emotion. But finance unfortunately was not a matter of emotion, or of oratorical periods, or the right hand descending on the left. It was the matter of urgent business.
There was a day when he almost grasped the premiership. Sir Mackenzie Bowell, just, amiable, chivalrous, lacked the qualities of leadership. He was intellectually inferior to Foster; was incomparably less able as a parliamentarian; lacked his prestige and experience. But Foster somehow fell short. He just missed the prize.
This was the episode of the “Nest of Traitors.” On January 2, 1896, two days after Parliament had met, and with the Speech from the Throne, sanctioned by the whole ministry, delivered,
seven of Bowell’s ministers walked out of his cabinet. At their head was Foster. It was then that poor Bowell, indignant and a little bewildered, declared that he had been living in a “nest of traitors.”
Foster, speaking for the bolters, declared to Parliament that they had not resigned because of any difference of principle; they had simply lost confidence in their chief s capacity. Those who were on the inside charged against them that they had realized how perilous a task they faced in carrying the Remedial Bill—that ill-fated measure by which it was sought to disallow a Manitoba provincial statute abolishing separate schools, and which was responsible for the Conservative debacle in the election that followed—and were unwilling to attempt it unless under a leader who would make it possible to rekindle party loyalty and revive party discipline, or else under a leader younger than Bowell or Tupper. Foster was younger than both of them.
Yet in the end, with a truce patched up, and the bolting ministers back under Bowell, it was Sir Charles Tupper that was sent for.
IN THE election that followed—the fateful struggle of 1896—Foster was a redoubtable warrior. Next to the old war-horse, Sir Charles Tupper himself, he was the mightiest of the Conservative swordsmen. It was no fault of his if the legions of Toryism were everywhere rolled up as a ribbon. Carrying his own seat, and restored to the affections of his party, he came back to the House to become the financial critic of His Majesty’s Opposition.
It was a rôle in which he revelled. It ; was said of Gladstone that he could make I the multiplication table sound as musical as a sonnet. There was something of that gift in Foster. When the budget speech is delivered in Parliament now, it is customary to adjourn the debate for the benefit of the financial critic. They never had to adjourn a debate in those days after ’96. The cheers for Mr. Fielding would still be reverberating through the House when Foster would be upon his feet, plunging with effortless ease into a maze of statistics. Hour after hour he would go on, rallying his followers, calling them back from flight, painting a picture of gloom and disaster from the follies and misdemeanors of the Government. Solemnfaced, sombre in dress and appearance, with long beard and thin forefinger pointed in terrible accusation, he was an impressive figure.
Foster was both hated and feared. Not all of his opponents went the length of the orator who from a public platform referred to him as a “slimy eel of Hell,” but few of them neglected whatever they could summon in the way of less vicious vituperation.
And Foster had his dark days. There came the time when the Union Trust land investigation lowered his fortunes; and again a libel suit which he lost to The Globe when Rowell was against him. The suit was on a claim that The Globe had insinuated that Foster had practically misappropriated funds of the Foresters and lost them in the Union Trust Company. Foster in those bitter years held little of resentment; was more the philosopher than he was given credit for by his foes.
A newspaper man, sent to Osgoode Hall to report The Globe libel suit for an Ottawa Liberal paper, tells how on the night of the conclusion of the trial he met Foster at the Toronto station. The reporter had already wired the decision of the Court adverse to Foster, who had not even taken the trouble to enquire what it was. The two chatted amiably on the train and met the next morning in Ottawa. On his way home Foster saw the Liberal bulletin at the newspaper office. A few days later he met the reporter.
“Ah,” he said genially, shaking hands, “Why didn’t you tell me about that decision?”
“Well, sir, I really thought you knew, and I didn’t care to hurt your feelings.” Foster laughed.
“Feelings!” he repeated. “You are the first Grit that ever said I had any.”
A well-known Liberal has told the story of Foster’s exit from the House after the Royal Commission investigation into the Union Trust.
“Mr. and Mrs. Foster,” he said, “went together down the terrace in a fog of rain into the shadow of the night under one umbrella. And I said to myself as they went, dejected and pitiful: ‘Well, that’s the final exit of Foster from political life.’ ”
But Foster could always come back. Sir Robert Borden might have C. J.
Doherty succeed him as his first lieutenant, and his star might become temporarily eclipsed, but always he emerged from the shadow. Something made the rank and file feel that without him the Conservative Party would be like the Liberals without Laurier, or in an earlier day their own party minus the old chief, Macdonald. Perhaps they were almost right.
Back From the Wilderness
AFTER 1911, when Conservatism returned from the wilderness, Foster didn’t go back to Finance. That post went to a new and younger man, a former Liberal, too, Sir Thomas White. It may be that Foster felt the change, just as his old antagonist Sir Richard Cartwright felt when Laurier shunted him to Commerce; but he never complained. He knew little of business and probably liked it less; but he would be loyal. Sir Robert Borden in any case was not a Mackenzie Bowell.
So Foster took his post in the Department of Commerce. He went on a six months journey to the Orient, trying to convert the yellow races from rice to Canadian flour; made treaties with Australia, or tried to make them; got a ten-year preferential agreement with the West Indies; became a member of a Royal Commission to study Empire trade; put through amendments to the Grain Act. It was as much as any Trade Minister had ever done before him.
But his strength remained in Parliament. The Laurier opposition after 1911 was potent in debate. Sir Wilfrid, Lemieux, Michael Clark, Hugh Guthrie, Carvell, MacDonald, Murphy—these were shock troops that any Ministry might fear. The one man who did not fear them, who was a match for them , all, was the veteran Foster. Day after day the old “Rupert of debate” who had felt the steel of Cartwright and Blake, and who had even fought in England by the side of the great Chamberlain under the flag of Tariff Reform, held the ministerial gate against the foe. No man ever rose at a desk in Parliament who could mpre superbly play upon the emotions of a party. If patriotism—patriotism over such a measure as the Naval Bill— demanded that the party’s desks be thumped, Foster would see to it that they were thumped without stint.
The War Coalition
A\ 7HEN the war came, Foster—now * v Sir George—was an old man. He was nearing seventy. But it is certain that few men in Canada did more to promote sane thinking and to steady the soul and mind of the nation. If those war years sounded the death knell of such a slimy thing as patronage, credit in large measure must go to Foster. One recalls a speech, one of the most powerful and moving of his career, delivered in 1916, imploring that “in the terrible glare of the present struggle the two parties will agree to do away with the evil.” In that same speech, he said:
“When the trenches call for munitions and supplies, when the blood of the country is oozing from its veins in the struggle to preserve its ideals and its liberties, when those who are at home are contributing with generous self-sacrifice and without murmur or repining, I say that to me as a member of the Government, to you as supporters of the Government . . . the call comes to cut off every unnecessary expenditure, to refuse every improper demand.”
He had no patience with the easy optimists who were talking about the prosperity after the war, who predicted twelve or fifteen million population for Canada within three years after peace.
“The optimist speaks of the unexampled prosperity that is to follow the war. I would like to think so, but I can’t. The prediction that Canada will have from twelve to fourteen million inhabitants within three years after the war is a mischievous exaggeration. The first trying period of readjustment will come immediately after the actual fighting ceases and an armistice is declared.”
It was a prophecy that was to be abundantly fulfilled.
When Union Government came, and Sir George saw the old party in whose ranks he had fought for more than a generation merge with his traditional foes, he did not complain. It was the fortune of war. It required political philosophy and something of patriotism to make common cause with men who had visited him with evil tongues and days; Calder, the Grit Machiavelli of the West, Crerar, the avowed apostle of Free Trade, Rowell who had won the libel suit against him for The Globe. But he would be loyal. lí Arthur Meighen could become a confederate of Frank Carvell, he could make a colleague of Rowell.
Perhaps, too, this man who could always sway a party but never lead one, was not as cold as he seemed. There was a day when, Union Government no longer useful, the Premier called a caucus to see what could be done with the Coalition to make it a permanent party. It was not Sir Robert Borden then, but Sir George Foster who held the floor. He made a long and moving speech upon the vicissitudes of men who, like the Premier and himself, had carried the burden and the heat of the day. When Foster had finished there were tears on case-hardened faces and the caucus adjourned. Asked later for a copy of his great speech, Sir George said he had not even prepared any notes; when he went into the caucus he had not intended making a speech; he did not remember what he had said.
Such is the man who will be remembered in history as having just missed the premiership, who marched and bivouacked with Macdonald, who was the great antagonist of Laurier, whose birthright it has been to spend his long years and tremendous talent in public service rather than in private gain.
A Political Companion
rT"'HERE is but one other political figure -*■ on this continent comparable to Sir George Foster. It is Elihu Root. Root has lived under nineteen presidents. He was a great Secretary of State, a great senator, and now, in his eighty-fourth year, striving for international peace, he is revered by his country. Sir George Foster is almost as old a man as Root and has been in public service much longer. And he, too, deprived like Root of the greatest prize in the gift of his countrymen, has lived to win their pride and affection.
Sir George has mellowed with the years. All the old fire and eloquence of youth are there, all the old rich and spacious rhetoric, but missing are the flouts and jeers, the bitter taunts that cut so deeply in the days long gone. The Elder Statesman and Philosopher has succeeded the militant politician. In the Senate today, as in the halls of Geneva, they all listen to Foster. Widely read, widely travelled, rich in his experience of life and peoples, the old partizanship has vanished from his utterances, and in its place is a deeper and more wholesome creed. Long may he be spared as the last of the brave “Old Guard,” as a link with the past, as the Nestor of the public life he has so long and brilliantly adorned !