The many, mighty Siftons

Proud and clannish for six generations — often arrogantly so — they’ve nevertheless done more to shape Canada than any other family

BLAIR FRASER December 19 1959

The many, mighty Siftons

Proud and clannish for six generations — often arrogantly so — they’ve nevertheless done more to shape Canada than any other family

BLAIR FRASER December 19 1959

Next summer, as they have been almost every year since 1926, some three hundred people will be invited and about seventy-five will actually come to a meeting in London, Ont., of a very exclusive organization — so exclusive, in fact, that membership is impossible for anyone not born within the group. Its members' names range the alphabet from Anderson and Baker to Yager and Zimmer, but all have a common name in the family tree — Sifton. They are descendants of one Charles Sifton and his wife Rebecca Wright, an Irish Protestant couple who came to Canada from Tipperary in 1819. The annual meeting is the Sifton Family Picnic, organized by the Sifton Family Association.

As a family the Siftons have probably done more to shape the history of Canada than any other set of blood relations. For example:

Clifford Sifton, Sir Clifford as he later became, was the man who opened the Canadian west. As Sir Wilfrid Laurier s immigration minister at the turn of the century he spent public money lavishly (and some of it unlawfully, in European countries where any emigration propaganda was illegal) to bring "stout peasants in sheepskin coats," as he himself described them, to the empty prairie of Canada. He bought the Manitoba Free Press and hired the great John W. Dafoe as its editor, thus becoming the man behind the "Voice of the West” and founder of a newspaper empire that is still powerful. Both as publisher and as statesman he had a leading role in most if not all of the great events of a long lifetime, the formative years of modern Canada.

Arthur L. Sifton. Clifford's elder brother and then Premier of Alberta, led the western Liberals into Sir Robert Borden's Conservative Cabinet in 1917. creating the Union Government that imposed conscription on the nation for World War I. It helped to maintain Canada's war effort, and it also split the country wide open for the ensuing thirty years. Arthur was a leading member of Sir Robert Borden’s delegation to the peace conference in Versailles in 1919, a conference that was a major milestone in the long steep path to nationhood. (It was Borden's rigid insistence on Canada’s right to sign the peace treaty, as a separate belligerent and not a mere British colony, that first established Canadian independence.)

"They were hard men - and proud of it. They had no use for weaklings"

Clifford’s five sons did not follow their father, uncle and grandfather into politics but they did maintain and extend the family empire in journalism. The two still living, Victor and "young" Clifford (who now in his turn has become "old" Clifford) control chains of newspapers and radio stations from the Ottawa River to the Pacific coast. The brothers are no longer partners, but the papers, still spoken of as "The Sifton Press," are among the most influential in the country — Clifford’s Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Victor’s mighty Winnipeg Free Press and (by his new alliance with Max Bell) the Victoria Times, the Calgary Albertan, the Lethbridge Herald and the Ottawa Journal.

Old Sir Clifford and brother Arthur made the Sifton name both hated and admired. Clifford had done a great deal to make possible Laurier's victory in 1896, but he probably did more than any other one man to defeat Laurier in 1911. He broke with his chief on the issue of reciprocity with the United States, campaigned throughout the country against the agreement on which Laurier had staked his government’s life, and thus opened the split that brought Laurier down. Some L-iberals have never forgiven him this, and still revile his memory.

But Clifford Sifton had other claims both to fame and to notoriety. He was the man who opened the prairies, but he also grew rich at the same time, and in this coincidence lay the seed of an envious suspicion not yet dispelled. The Sifton fortune was not the largest in Canada but it was conspicuous. Sir Clifford and his five sons were devoted horsemen who had entries in all the leading horse shows and who rode to hounds in pink coats. He and his brother and their father before them were hard men who took pride in being hard, who had no use for weaklings or idlers and who never hesitated to say so. The Sitton clan is still reaping the rewards and the penalties of this quality.

Many other Siftons, twigs of the family’s more obscure branches, have won a certain fame in their times and places. Lance-Sergeant Lilis W. Sifton won a posthumous Victoria Cross at Vimy in 1917; he was the son of a farmer who (according to family legend) almost disinherited the boy for leaving the home farm to join the army. Paul Sifton. a great-great-grandson of patriarch Charles (though he was born in Illinois and educated in Missouri) was a successful Broadway playwright before he became a Washington lobbyist for the United Automobile Workers.

The Sifton Family Record (a thousand names, representing six generations) is studded with others who attained modest but substantial success in life. But the real eminence of the family, its place in Canadian history from the 1870s until

now, rests on the Manitoba pioneer John Wright Sifton, his two sons Arthur and Clifford, and on the estate that Clifford amassed and that his sons and grandsons maintain.

Old John W. himself came a long way from the Ontario homestead on which his father too had been a pioneer. (Charles, the Sifton patriarch, came to Canada with a grown-up family of five sons and two daughters; John W. was a grandson of Charles.) He was a private banker as well as a farmer, a backer of the men who found oil at Petrolia, in western Ontario. He built the first sections of the CPR west of Fort William, and the telegraph line from Winnipeg to Fort Pelly. It was in the course of executing these railway-telegraph contracts that he moved his family from Ontario to Brandon, Man., in 1874.

In his portraits John Wright Sifton looks a stately old man, rather like one of the more indignant Old Testament prophets. But according to that sardonic historian A. R. M. Lower, old John W.

was able “to secure, as a good Liberal, a succulent railway contract” from Alexander Mackenzie's Liberal government. (Until 1880. the CPR was a publicly owned road.)

Whether the contract w;as “succulent” or not there is no doubt that John W. Sifton was a pious Grit. An old friend said of him years later that he had "two causes which at all times outranked every personal interest—politics and prohibition." In a day when the Tories were led by the bibulous John A. Macdonald and the Ontario Grits by dry George Brown, there was only one party for a man of that temperament. Sifton plunged into active politics as soon as he went to Manitoba. He never managed to get a provincial prohibition law enacted, but as Brandon's first MLA he made western Manitoba as dry as the Canada Temperance Act permitted. He got to be speaker of the legislature, later a provincial minister of public works. It must have seemed to the people of Brandon that if the Hon. John Siftons two boys could do half as well as their father had done, they would do very well indeed.

In fact, of course, they both surpassed him. Arthur became a provincial premier, where his father had been only a minister. Arthur died a privy councilor, a man who had held several portfolios in a wartime federal government, whereas Father had been defeated when he ran for MP.

Like all the Siftons of his generation and older, Arthur looks to us like a Great Stone Face. Apparently this was no mere trick of primitive photography. John W. Dafoe said of Arthur Sifton that he “protected a naturally generous nature with a mask of stoical impassivity that would have done credit to a Mohawk chief undergoing the ordeal of fire.”

But by Sifton standards, Arthur was the lazy one. He was two years older than Clifford, yet they were in the same year at university, and classmates used to say "one Sifton (Clifford) was never absent from lectures, the other one was never present." Arthur did manage to become chief justice and then premier of the new province of Alberta; he was a distinguished member of Borden’s cabinet and a useful delegate at Versailles. He appears in Borden's memoirs as a cool, shrewd, hard-headed, mildly cynical counselor to the Tory prime minister who was fighting for Canada's independence. But compared to his hard-driving younger brother he seems, in retrospect, a rather easy-going fellow who had greatness thrust upon him.

Clifford was the dominant one. If it had not been for Clifford, the Sifton family’s place in history would be an obscure footnote and the Sifton Family Association a mere eccentricity.

Sir Clifford himself was mainly responsible for the legend that he started his career as a poor boy. When he began the practice of law in Brandon in 1882, a stripling of twenty-one. he had of course his own way to make. As he often recalled with pride in later life, he earned only four hundred and twenty-eight dollars in his first year as a lawyer, "and I lived on it too." But in fact the son of Hon. John W. Sifton. hanging out hishingle with the elder brother who had been called to the bar the same year, did not have to wait very long for clients.

This Horatio Alger myth, doubtless very satisfying to a man of Sir Clifford s hardy temperament, was actually damaging to him later. It gave rise in turn to another myth — that young Sifton, Laurier’s minister of the interior, “came to Ottawa without a dollar and left ten years later a multi-millionaire.” It’s true he was a rich man when he resigned from Laurier’s cabinet on an issue of principle in 1905, but its not true at all that he was a poor man when he became a minister of the Crown in 1896. Though he was only thirty-five he was already well-to-do. His fortune was based upon land holdings in the west, purchases that could fairly be called speculation but that also, with equal fairness, could be called wagers on the future of Canada.

Lady Sifton years later would recall those early days of comparative poverty in Brandon. She had to go without a new coat, she would say, because Clifford had to spend all his money paying taxes on his worthless, wilderness land. But even before they left Brandon the speculation had become an investment and was beginning to pay returns. The young Siftons were attracting notice, some of it acidulous, by the fine horses they owned and the fine carriage the horses drew.

Tn Ottawa the same theme was repeated w ith a sharper edge of malice. Old Sir Richard Cartwright, bitter and vindictive over not having been made minister of finance in the Laurier government and blaming Sifton for his exclusion. once said to a then-young Liberal MP as they watched Sifton gel into his carriage:

"Young man. do you note this display of affluence on the part of a minister so new and so young? Do you note those spirited horses, that silver-mounted harness. and the magnificent chariot behind? Shall I tell you what Sir John Macdonald would have said to one of his ministers if he’d appeared thus? Sir John would have said ‘My dear fellow, it is bad enough to do it. but for heaven's sake don't advertise it.' ”

John W. Dafoe in his biography of Sifton tells the following anecdote:

"Nothing could be more characteristic of him than the account of how. when he changed residence (after resigning from the government), he moved his securities from Ottawa to Toronto. The problem was to transfer securities for a very substantial amount from the vaults of a trust company in Ottawa to the vaults of a similar company in Toronto. If Sir Clifford had followed the customary course he would have turned the job over to the trust company, at the same time heavily insuring the securities: and the trust company would have transported them in a carefully guarded express car. But Sifton did the business differently. On a certain day he. in company with one of his sons, appeared at the trust company in Ottawa with two suitcases and a trunk, into which the securities were shoveled. He then departed for the station. The trunk was checked to Toronto and the suitcases carried into the parlor car. Upon arrival at Toronto the suitcases and trunk were delivered to the vaults of the trust compan> in Toronto which remained open to receive them.”

This incident was the origin of one of the commonest fables in the whole Sifton mythology, the story that "he brought an empty trunk to Ottawa in 1896 and took it away full of stocks and bonds in 1905, with his son Jack standing guard over it in the baggage car."

The essence of the charge was that Sifton had used his position as minister of the interior to dispose of public lands at low prices for the enrichment of himself. his friends and his relatives. Dr. Skelton (no friend of Sifton. as I've mentioned) sums it up thus in his life of Laurier:

"Wholesale graft was charged in the affairs of the Interior Department under Mr. Sifton's regime: timber and grazing leases that yielded rich profits to the concessionaires. sales of land to colonization companies at unduly low rates, a contract with the North Atlantic Trading Company, a group of Luropean shipping agents, kept secret because of continental laws against emigration propaganda, were all charged to be devices for enriching men on the inside. The North Atlantic contract was never proved to be other than what it purported, and the Saskatchewan Valley Land Company's operations were shown to have brought set tlemcnt and prosperity to a wilderness. There was ground, however, for the charge that in some timber and grazing contracts, if there had not been collusion, there had been neglect of the country's interests. The Liberal tactics were to deny any wrongdoing, to dig up old Conservative deals, and to attack prominent members of the opposition."

That is a Scot's verdict, to say the least, coming as it does from a Liberal-

minded biographer. The Conservatives, naturally, were more bitter and far more explicit. One Tory MP. H. B. Ames, used to tour the country with a magic lantern, showing slides that purported to prove how much land Sifton had "stolen." Debates in the House of Commons during the first eight years of this century are full of the most slanderous charges, the most vicious innuendo, much of it directed against the impassive, stony-faced figure of Clifford Sifton.

One reason why he was impassive was that by the time he left the Cabinet in

1905. aged only forty-four, he was already almost stone deaf. He could not hear the rhetorical thunder and lightning that the opposition launched in his direction. He would only learn what they were saying when he could read it in Hansard, and then from time to time he would deign to reply. Reading his occasional olympian rejoinders, even now after more than fifty years, one gets the impression that he could sweep his opponents aside almost at will, whenever he decided it was worth the trouble to do so. This was not often As Dafoe said, "Mr. Sifton accepted with humorous resignation the fact that he had been cast for the role of villain by the opposition.”

Sometimes he hit back with devastating effect. In the election campaign of 1900 he met Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, the ineffectual but eloquent son of the great Sir Charles, in a face-to-face debate in Brandon, flipper repeated, with much skill in innuendo, a charge then current that Sifton had got valuable mining rights in the Yukon for a former law partner. A. H. Philp.

Sir Clifford denounced pensions as a means of “penalizing the thrifty”

The truth was that Philp had tried to get favored treatment for a friend in the matter of Yukon leases and had been very sharply snubbed by his ex-partner: “I may just as well say without circumlocution or hesitation that my friends cannot get any better treatment in regard to mining claims than anyone else.” Sifton read this letter to the crowd at Brandon, but then produced another document. He recalled that a year before, Sir Charles Tupper the elder had made yet another charge in a speech in Brandon, also relating to Philp, and Philp had sued him for slander. When the case came to trial, Tupper settled out of court and signed a humble, indeed abject. apology. This was the document that Sifton now slapped down on the chairman’s table, and “in a voice that rang through the rink like a pealing trumpet,” said:

“If this gentleman (turning to Sir Hibbert) will place some of his statements in a categorical form in the same way. he too will have the pleasure of signing a document like this or of paying damages.”

Thus John W. Dafoe, whose biography of his publisher is almost a history of Canada for the period from 1890 to 1919. But Dafoe is also the authority for another story, which is not in his book, about how Clifford Sifton first acquired his most valuable single bit of property, the Manitoba Free Press ( for which he hired Dafoe as editor).

According to Dafoe, the Free Press had fallen by 1897 into the control, direct or indirect, of the CPR. as had several other newspapers across Canada. Sifton as minister of the interior had a lot to do with putting the Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement through parliament, which gave the CPR a subsidy of about three million dollars to build the spur line that developed the metal-mining area around Trail, B.C. Since the railways also agreed to establish low, fixed rates for hauling western grain, they now deplore the Crow's Nest Pass Agreement and wish they hadn’t made it. but in those days they thought it was a great coup. The CPR in gratitude, said Dafoe, let Sifton buy the Manitoba Free Press at a knockdown price.

During most of its life until then the Free Press had been a Conservative, or anyway an anti-l iberal, newspaper. With Sifton as owner and Dafoe as editor it became the voice of Liberalism in the west, but it always retained enough independence of mind to protect it from becoming a mere party organ. This of course was Dafoe's doing, but he himself gives much credit to Sifton for the free hand that Dafoe enjoyed during the thirty years he and Sir Clifford worked together.

The historic example of Dafoe's free hand was the election campaign of 1911, fought mainly on the issue of Laurier s proposed reciprocity agreement with the United States. Sir Clifford Sifton. who had always been more of a protectionist than most westerners and had got more so during his years in Ottawa and Toronto, disapproved of reciprocity and broke with his party to campaign against it. ( He also disliked and distrusted the U. S.. believing no agreement with that country would last longer than the whim of Congress might dictate.) Dafoe, of course, was a dyed-in-the-wool prairie Liberal and free trader who favored reciprocity as a matter of faith. So the 1911 campaign included the unusual spectacle of Manitoba's leading newspaper fighting hard for reciprocity, while its owner and publisher stumped the country against it.

How much internal struggle preceded that agreement to disagree, posterity will never know for sure. From conversations with Dafoe in later years, his friends inferred that the two men had quite a battle. But Dafoe’s own testimony for the record gives very high credit to Sifton:

“Nothing prevented him from taking possession of the Free Press and making it serve his will but his voluntary renouncement of power, in keeping with a general understanding, which was never reduced to a formula, as to the manner in which the paper should be edited and administered. Sir Clifford’s relation to the Free Press was never simply that of an investor. He was always deeply interested in its plans, its methods and its policies, and in time these became his first interest. But in all his active participation he never forgot his self-denying ordinance, by which he left the last word on policy to those responsible for the conduct of the paper. The Free Press, to his mind, must he the champion and advocate of the west’s interests, and the final judgment as to the nature of that advocacy he left to the parties into whose hands he had committed the charge of the paper.”

Reciprocity was the only thing that ever put the "self-denying ordinance" to the test. On the other occasions when Sifton disagreed with his party the Free Press was on his side. One was the occasion of his departure from Laurier’s Cabinet, when Laurier introduced the kind of school system for the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan that Sifton had successfully defeated in Manitoba. (After Sifton's resignation Laurier amended his hills, but Sifton did not come hack.) The other was the great conscription issue of 1917. when a large fraction of the Liberal party deserted Laurier to back Sir Robert Borden's Union Government, as a win-the-war collaboration. In this, both Sifton and Dafoe were prime movers.

And in the ordinary course, the political run of mine, both men were Liberals

in the old-fashioned sense. Dafoe was more a free trader than Sifton. hut both were free-enterprise men. For them, the word "liberal” had none of its modern, left-of-centre connotation. Back in 1927. when the idea of old-age pensions with a strict means test was new. Sir Clifford thus expressed his horror at this subversive notion:

“Let us stop the mania for pensioning everybody. It seems to me I never pick up a newspaper but I see a new scheme for the maintenance of idlers and loafers. You cannot make a nation great by penalizing the thrifty for the benefit of the thriftless.”

Even in 1927, this sort of talk had an ungracious sound when it came from a man who had millions: a man who owned a magnificent estate on the St. Lawrence, another stately home in Toronto, and during the war a third one in England; a man who could speak of keeping horses as another might speak of keeping cats. (“I can’t remember when we didn’t have a lot of horses around the back yard,” one of his sons said recently.) Sir Clifford died just before the great depression. but he was still a power in the land during the Winnipeg strike of 1919 (which moved the Manitoba Free Press to thunderous alarm and indignation) and the short, sharp depression that followed World War I.

J. S. Woodsworth, the founder of the CCF and a Labor MP for years before that, said in parliament in 1922, in a speech denouncing the “extravagance” of the ceremonies at the opening of parliament:

"Only now am I beginning to sense the fact that we have a governing class . . . As I saw Clifford Sifton and his wife, whom I had known as neighbors during boyhood days in Brandon. I wondered whether, after all. the majority of this grand assembly were not very ordinary folk. The whole thing appeared to me very false and superficial — an attempt to impress on our young democracy the vestigial remains of the feudalism of Europe.

“Then something like anger took possession of me as I thought of a recent speech of Sir Clifford Sifton to the Toronto Board of Trade. What he considered to he quality in immigration. Sir Clifford said, was ‘a sturdy peasant in a sheepskin coat with a stout wife and half a dozen children. The union man who will not work more than eight hours a day. and not that if he can help it. who will not save his money and who comes to the city to be fed. is quantity not quality. 1 believe. Whether he is British or not. we don't want him. He is no good.'

“Ah." said Woodsworth. "there we have stated with brutal frankness, almost with coarseness, the idea for the future of Canada held by Sir Clifford Sifton and his kind.”

Actually Woodsworth apologized to Sifton later for that speech. It was a personal attack, or sounded like one. and Woodsworth bore the Siftons no personal grudge—he had known them, as he said, as neighbors. But to the millions who didn't know them as neighbors they must have looked like symbols more of entrenched and complacent wealth than of free enterprise, a free press, or the kind of stern Methodist rectitude that Sir Clifford did in fact represent to the end of his days. He was just a little too young, lived just a little too late for the era when a rich man was accepted without question as virtuous, it