The man who’ll speak for Canada

In Ottawa and many another world capital they’re asking about Sidney Smith. What’s he like personally? How, if at all, will he change his country’s foreign policy? Can he burst out of the shadow of the Pearson legend?

BLAIR FRASER November 9 1957

The man who’ll speak for Canada

In Ottawa and many another world capital they’re asking about Sidney Smith. What’s he like personally? How, if at all, will he change his country’s foreign policy? Can he burst out of the shadow of the Pearson legend?

BLAIR FRASER November 9 1957

The man who’ll speak for Canada

In Ottawa and many another world capital they’re asking about Sidney Smith. What’s he like personally? How, if at all, will he change his country’s foreign policy? Can he burst out of the shadow of the Pearson legend?


Two days before the election last June, during a meeting at Ottawa of the National Conference of Canadian Universities, a note was handed to the president of the University of Toronto, Dr. Sidney Earle Smith. The note came from a young political reporter, Tim Creery, of the Montreal Star, and it said:

“Hottest tip in town is that you will be Minister of External Affairs if the Tories win the election. Any comment?”

Dr. Sidney Smith, who is a round-faced, jolly-looking man with an upstanding shock of grey hair, gave his questioner a broad grin and scribbled his answer on the same sheet of paper:

“There are too many ‘ifs’ in this proposition.”

He had been making that kind of answer to that kind of question for more than thirty years, off and on. Half a dozen times during that period some group or faction in the Conservative Party has hit upon Smith as a possible dark horse or ace-in-the-hole. When he was a very young professor of law at Dalhousie University in the early 1920s Smith was asked to run in Hants County, N.S., in order to be groomed for the Conservative leadership of Nova Scotia. For the national Conservative leadership he was invited—sometimes openly, more often privately—to stand against Robert Manion in 1938, Murdoch MacPherson in 1942, John Diefenbaker in 1956 and (by a small group of malcontents planning a “palace revolt” that never came off) against George Drew in 1954. Also John Bracken, after he became Conservative leader in 1942, tried to persuade Smith into active politics as one of his lieutenants. To all these blandishments, with more or less reluctance depending on time and circumstance, Smith had said no.

In youth and maturity, Smith has been both a “jolly Rotarían” and a “good solid guy”

"Almost the only criticism leveled at Smith* his big quick smile and friendly manner, lightweight could have made his record Of

He didn’t regret it, then or later. After the election and the surprise victory of the Conservatives at least two dozen friends telephoned or wired him to ask, “Aren’t you sorry now that you didn’t try for the leadership last December, as some of them wanted you to do?” Smith’s answer was still no.

Even as a physical exploit Diefenbaker’s herculean election campaign had struck Smith with considerable awe. The thought of leading a minority government in a four-party parliament, especially to a man who had never in his life sat in any legislative body, was equally intimidating. Smith went to bed on election night with no taste of sour grapes in his mouth, sincerely glad that the task was Diefenbaker’s and not his.

For exactly twelve weeks thereafter the thought of public life in any capacity never crossed his mind. He took it for granted that his latest refusal to enter politics had been final, and he came back from vacation in late August to tackle a new season’s work as president of the University of Toronto.

Last year he hadn’t finished his annual report until December; this year he was determined to get it done in good time, so he worked on it through the Labor Day week end. Shortly after midnight on the Sunday he finished the first draft, and left it for his secretary with a note pinned to the manuscript: “I want to make this one a good job, as if it were my swan song.”

That was coincidence, not presentiment. He spent Labor Day morning checking over what he had written, finished by noon, went home early so pleased with himself that he decided to take the rest of the holiday off.

Lunch with his wife was interrupted by a long-distance call from the prime minister, but Smith went to the telephone without surprise. Diefenbaker was coming to Toronto the next day to address a learned convention to which the university was host; Smith assumed that this was what the call was about.

To his utter astonishment, the prime minister asked him to come into the new cabinet as minister of external affairs.

Another week went by before he accepted. He expected vigorous protests from the university if the president proposed to resign just as term was beginning; he was astonished again when the chairman and vice-chairman of the board of governors, when told in confidence of the cabinet offer, both told him he would have to take it. But it was the Canadian-British-American conference at Dartmouth University in September, where Prime Minister Diefenbaker also spoke, that tipped the scale of decision. Smith was on a panel with British and American spokesmen. He was so fascinated by this new view of the tensions and problems within the Atlantic triangle that he told the PM, a couple of days later, he would take the job.

since his appointment has been directed at Some think it can’t be genuine. But no continuous success in very difficult jobs”

It may seem odd that he hesitated so long to accept a post for which any politician would have given his eye teeth. Odder still, though, is the fact that this senior and most coveted portfolio should be given to a man with no political experience whatever, and oddest of all that the appointment should be greeted with a unanimous and nationwide burst of applause.

One explanation, and incidentally one of the important assets he brings to the Conservative cabinet, is that Sidney Smith is not a partisan figure. Like his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, he is acceptable to Canadians in all parties as their representative in dealing with other nations.

On the day he was sworn in as minister of external affairs, Smith met reporters as he left the Supreme Court Building where the ceremony had taken place. One of the first questions bore upon the Suez crisis of last autumn, the first time since the Chanak incident of 1922 that foreign affairs created a party issue in Canada.

Smith said he hadn’t much quarrel with the policy Lester Pearson had adopted at United Nations.

As the delighted reporters started to follow up this unexpected answer, Diefenbaker intervened. Rather tartly, it seemed to some listeners, he remarked that Conservative Party policy had not changed on the Suez issue. Without saying so, he left the inference that Conservative policy was defined in the Conservative resolution of last Decemher:

That this House regrets that your excellencies’ advisers—

1. Have followed a course of gratuitous condemnation of the action of the United Kingdom and France which was designed to prevent a major war in the Suez area;

2. Have meekly followed the unrealistic policies of the United States of America and have thereby encouraged a truculent and defiant attitude on the part of the Egyptian dictator;

3. Have placed Canada in the humiliating position of accepting dictation from President Nasser.

Some people concluded that there was a cleavage of view, already, between the prime minister and his new minister of external affairs.

Smith says very earnestly that this is not so, that he and John Diefenbaker have no difference of opinion between themselves about Suez. During the parliamentary debate last November, Smith read Diefenbaker’s speech with admiration, for its content and for its moderate language. Both men were outraged, though, by the implication they saw in Prime Minister St. Laurent’s remarks, that Britain in Suez and Soviet Russia in Hungary were two rascals of much the same stripe, continued on page 79 Beyond that, Smith for one did not go. l ike most Canadians, Smith talked a lot about the Suez crisis last autumn and winter, and made no secret of his opinions. All his friends know that although he thought well of Diefenbaker’s speech, some other Conservative speeches made his blood run cold. Smith has always been a Canadian first and foremost. Nothing could be further from his line of thought than the “Ready, aye ready” tone of some ultra-loyalists on the Tory back benches.

continued on page 79

continued from page 17

“Some of the Conservative speeches about the Suez crisis made Sidney Smith’s blood run cold”

Smith's view of world affairs and of Canada’s role therein was formed in a non-partisan school. When he went to Winnipeg in 1934, at thirty-seven the youngest man ever to be president of a Canadian university, one of the friends he made was the late John W. Dafoe, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. Smith was often invited to lunch at the Manitoba Club wfith the famous “Sanhedrin,” the little circle of wise men led by Dafoe and the late Edgar Tarr, which had probably more influence on Canadian policy than any group of private citizens in history.

Tarr and Dafoe were regarded as Liberals, Smith as a Conservative, but none of them paid much heed to party labels. One of Dafoe’s heroes was Sir Robert Borden, the Conservative prime minister whose aide he had been at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. In the 1930s, when Canada was following Mackenzie King’s policy of “no commitments,” he and Tarr as League of Nations men were sharp critics of the Liberal government. All of them, including Smith, had in common a strong belief in international co-operation, and an equally strong belief in Canadian independence. None had any sympathy with such traditional Tory doctrines as the “single voice” of the British “Empire” in foreign policy, or the old Orange toast, “One King, one flag, one language.”

Quiet murmurs of complaint

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the few quiet murmurs of complaint about Smith’s appointment to External Affairs came not from the Liberals but from within his own party. Some Conservatives have a dark suspicion that this new whitehaired boy is little better than a damned Grit. Others feel, like Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, that their man was too long engaged to the Conservative Party without being willing to get married.

Actually, Sidney Smith is a Conservative by birth. He hails from a part of the country—Cape Breton Island, N.S.— where a man can still say with a straight face, “I come of a Conservative family.”

Smith’s Conservative family lived on a rocky, barren little farm in Port Hood, a small island about a mile off the coast of Inverness County. Sidney was a remarkably bright boy. ready to enter college by the time he was fourteen. One of the things he has in common with John Diefenbaker is that when he reached this point, his father moved away from the farm to a college town. Windsor, N.S.

His mother hoped her son would be a Methodist minister, but Sidney graduated in arts (from King’s College) just in time to join the artillery at the age of eighteen. After three years overseas ("I held my own in the army—went in a gunner and came out a gunner”) Smith no longer

felt a vocation to the ministry; instead he turned to law.

When he graduated from Dalhousie Law School the times were not propitious for young and penniless lawyers. After a discouraging year in private practice he

took the advice of Dalhousie’s Dean of Law, D. A. McRae, borrowed the money for a postgraduate course at Harvard, and came back to Dalhousie as an assistant professor.

Two of his present cabinet colleagues

were law students under him. George Nowlan. Minister of National Revenue, took courses from Smith at Dalhousie; Don Fleming, Minister of Finance, a few years later at Osgoode Hall, Toronto.

Nowlan remembers him as a good and serious lecturer in class, but more a comrade than a professor type after hours. In those days Smith was about the same age as his students, many of whom were also war veterans. He and Nowlan lived in the same boarding house, and used to walk a lot together at the end of an evening’s work.

“I would go for a walk, come back and go to bed,” Nowlan says. “Sid would come back and do another two or three hours’ work.”

Nowlan recalls one evening in particular when he went to get Smith out for a walk. Smith was working and didn’t want to go. Nowlan, a powerful six-footer who played football for Dalhousie, grappled with Smith and bounced him off his own bed so hard that the bed fell down. History does not record what the landlady said.

Another story of those days tells how Professor Smith rode a bicycle down the corridor of a university building one Saturday afternoon, and very nearly ran down the president of Dalhousie. The president’s remark was heard by several who haven't forgotten it: “I wish that fellow Smith would grow up.”

Even now at sixty, Smith hasn’t grown up enough to lose his taste for boisterous fun. Contemporaries all say, with a certain awe, that he is “a wild man on a party”—likely to be the last in bed at three or four in the morning, and then the first out to breakfast. He likes to organize charades, in which he acts with limited talent but great enthusiasm, using everything in the house for costumes and props.

This merry temperament is one reason for Smith’s enormous popularity. He is much in demand as a speaker to service clubs and the like, to which he brings a gentle folksy humor and a colossal fund of anecdotes. (Like all true joke-lovers, Smith thinks a good story improves with age.) Needless to say, his jovial speaking style will be just as effective with political audiences.

“Some think Sid is corny”

Another political asset is an impressive memory for names and faces. Smith did not, of course, pretend to know all the twenty-two thousand students he has had under his charge at the University of Toronto and associated colleges each year since 1945, but he did know by name more than a thousand in the student body at any given time. He worked at it, of course, but the talent reflects a lively interest in and liking for his fellow human beings.

These good-fellow qualities have a negative side, though. Almost the only criticism leveled at Smith since his appointment (and there has been some, in a quiet way) has been directed at the big quick smile and the friendly manner. Some think it can’t be genuine. No one, some say, could really be as genial with everybody as Sidney Smith purports to be: he must be a phony. But the people who work with him say, a little incredulously, that this is not so. He really does like and enjoy people, they say, to an astonishing degree. His good temper is unvarying and apparently unbreakable.

“I have worked with him through several sixteen-hour days lately,” said one of his new associates in External Affairs. “He is genial in the morning, genial at noon and still genial at midnight.”

An old and close Toronto friend spoke more bluntly. “Some people think Sid is corny,” he said. “Of course he is—he dribbles corn. But he is a good solid guy just the same, and he’s done a lot for this university.”

That seems to be the answer to the other criticism of Smith’s Rotarian jollity —that it marks him as a lightweight. No lightweight could possibly have made the record of continuous success in very difficult jobs that Smith has had in the past quarter century.

After his brief spell of teaching at Osgoode Hall in the Twenties, Smith went back to Dalhousie as dean of the Law School. He arrived just in time for the stock-market crash and the great Depression, in spite of which the Dalhousie Law School doubled its enrollment under his guidance. Then he was offered the job of president of the University of Manitoba. This has never been regarded as an academic plum, but in 1934 it was a nightmare. Two years before, a venerable and trusted governor had been exposed as a thief—he had embezzled more than a million dollars of the university’s money, almost cleaning out its endowment fund and leaving it on the verge of bankruptcy. Drought and depression would have brought trouble enough to a small prairie college, but this legacy of doubt and mistrust made everything worse. In a convulsion of caution the Manitoba government had set up a division of authority between the president and the bursar of the provincial university, so that Smith was in a position of responsibility w'ithout power.

It was a spot so difficult as to seem impossible. Smith made it look almost easy.

Dr. W. L. Morton, in an official history of the university just published, described the choice of president thus: “The shaken fortunes of the university required not the cloudy benevolence of a scholar president but the brisk drive and the dapper confidence of an academic man of affairs. In Sidney Earle Smith, a genial personality with a quick firm mind, the board of governors found the man it sought. Dr. Smith possessed all the qualities of the new type of president which was emerging in Canadian universities— the administrator president, flexible to the ways of the world yet still academically acceptable, ‘a reconciler of irreconcilables.’

“President Smith brought the UniverMty of Manitoba the very things it needed: confidence, leadership and presence.”

He brought the same qualities to the University of Toronto, where he succeeded the late Canon H. J. Cody as president in 1945.

Toronto in 1945 was not the mess Manitoba had been in 1934, but it was and is a formidable job. The president has to handle sixteen affiliated institutions, ranging from the Ontario Agricultural College, at Guelph, to a botanical camp in Timagami; six federated colleges in Toronto, each with its own traditions, rights and properties; a budget of twenty million dollars and a staff of more than three thousand. He has to deal with a provincial government that has considerable but not absolute authority over the

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university. It is a task that calls for considerable talent in diplomacy, and the ability to stand up to men who have reason to think themselves important. Smith showed he had all these things.

“What impresses me most about Sid,” said a fellow worker of those days, “is the way he can dominate a group without ever giving offense or seeming at all arrogant. He doesn’t seem to throw any weight around, he never speaks harshly or pushes himself forward, and yet he just seems to take charge.”

It’s obvious that these are useful qual-

ities in a minister of external affairs. Already Smith has demonstrated that he can transfer them from a field he knows intimately to one in which he is still a newcomer and an amateur.

Three days after his appointment he had to leave for New York as head of Canada’s delegation to the United Nations. The UN, of all places in the world, had been Lester Pearson’s own particular stamping ground and Smith confessed, only half facetiously, that he felt like an interloper when everyone he met asked him, “How’s Mike Pearson?”

Yet, in this peculiarly difficult spot the new minister managed to make an impression. He spoke briefly and to the point. He worked sixteen hours a day without any fuss or sign of fatigue. His advisers noted with respect that he could go through large heaps of complicated material at high speed and emerge with a clear idea of what it was all about. They were happy too to find that he liked to be briefed at considerable length. Ever since June, with no minister at all except an excessively busy prime minister, External Affairs officials had been trying to

get every problem boiled down to the dimensions of one sheet of paper. Smith requested the opposite treatment. He wanted to see all the memoranda. He kept piles of them available so that he could chew at them at odd moments, like a ruminating cow.

In spite of his industry and intelligence it’s unlikely, of course, that Smith will be able to play as big a role on the international stage as his predecessor did. Pearson operated as a professional among professionals. “He is the best negotiator I have ever seen in my life without exception,” said a diplomat of considerable experience. Obviously a newcomer cannot acquire in a few months the skills that have been learned in thirty years.

However, Smith acquired some skills of his own while running the various universities he has headed, which will be very useful in his new job. It happens they are skills that are not common in the department.

The minister of external affairs is responsible for a staff of 1,291 people, nearly half of them abroad in fortyseven missions, eight consulates-general and assorted minor posts—sixty establishments in all. He disposes of an annual budget of fifty-eight million dollars, of which about one quarter is for administration at home and abroad, the rest for such projects as the Colombo Plan (thirty-four million), our share of special UN agencies, the truce commission in Indo-China and so on.

An operation of this size calls for a lot of plain, dull housekeeping. Few of the brilliant men in External Affairs have much talent for this sort of thing, and fewer still have any patience with it. Pearson belongs to neither group — he dislikes administration and has no great talent for it.

What with the minister’s natural distaste and the fact that he was completely absorbed in vital policy matters last autumn and winter, no major administrative decisions had been taken for months before the election. Since the election even less had been done up to September; there was an accumulated backlog of a whole year’s work in the humdrum fields of real estate and staff organization.

Smith tackled this accretion with a zest that delighted his officials. He seemed positively relieved, in his first few weeks in the department, to turn from the vast and complex problems of world affairs to things he knew something about.

For example, during his first week at United Nations several important decisions had to be made about the new Canada House that is being built on Fifth Avenue in New York. Civil servants brought the matter up rather hesitantly; it was the kind of thing on which, if they were lucky, they might have persuaded Pearson to spare as much as half an hour. To their surprise Smith spent two hours on it. By the end of that time he had reduced a complex background of fact into a brief list of points for decision and had decided what his own answer was to each of them. Nothing remained except to clear the whole thing with the prime minister.

It seems likely, then, that the Department of External Affairs under its new boss might be a slightly tidier place, even if a bit less glamorous and less active in the councils of the world. Otherwise it will probably remain as it was.

Foreign policy has seldom been a matter for partisan wrangling in Canada. Most Canadians, including Sidney Smith, have been not only content with the role Canada has played since 1939, they have been proud of it. If the new minister is able to do what he hopes to do, we can count on having more of the same. ★