Original article by Gord Tolton. Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.
On August 6th, 1820 the person who would become Lord Strathcona was born, in a small cottage next to the old Castle Bridge over the Mosset Burn in Forres Scotland. After attending school at Anderson’s Institute (now Anderson’s Primary School), he worked in the town clerk’s office unit 1838. His uncle, John Stuart, a Canadian pioneer and fur trader who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, was a great influence in his life. And it was he who persuaded the young Smith to go to Canada and take up employment as a clerk with the HBC Company at Hamilton Inlet Labrador.
In 1869, now a “Special Commissioner”, appointed by the Canadian Government, Smith was dispatched to the Red River area of Manitoba, to quell the uprising of the Louis Riel and his provisional government rebels. This event had been caused by the transfer of rights to “Rupert’s Land” for the sum of £300 000 by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the government of Canada. Smith was imprisoned by Riel at Fort Garry until February 1870 but it was not until two years later that he was officially thanked for helping to avert bloodshed in the area.
In 1870, as a member of the Northwest Council, he passed the “Smith Act” prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors because of Indian problems. In 1871, the year when the Manitoba Act was passed, bringing the province into the Dominion, Smith was elected member for Selkirk in the Canadian House of Commons. The same year he was also appointed Chief Commissioner for the Hudson’s Bay Company affairs in the Northwest.
In 1874, Smith was determined to complete the “St Paul and Pacific Company” railway to the Canadian border and he hoped that the Dominion Government would pay for its completion to Winnipeg. In 1877 he perused his cousin, George Stephen, later to become Lord Mountstephen (or Mount Stephen), to join his railway group. In 1879, the “St Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway Company” was incorporated with George Stephen as President and Donald Smith as principal director.
In 1880 a syndicate was formed with the aim of completing a Canadian transcontinental railway. On December 10th the Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s contract was presented to the House of Commons with George Stephen as one of the eight signatories. Donald Smith was not one, at his own request, but was still deeply involved.
On May 2nd, 1881 building of the railway commenced and averaged 2.6 miles per day. On November 7th 1885, at 9:30am, the railway was completed when Smith drove the last spike at Craigellachie British Columbia. In 1886, Queen Victoria bestowed Donald Smith with a knighthood in the Orders of St Michael and St George.
In 1887 Smith returned to politics as well as continuing his charitable and benevolent works. He lobbied for protection of the bison, and at one point owned one of the last herds. In that same year, he and his cousin George Stephen, set aside $1 000 000 to erect a free hospital in Montreal, commemorating Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Situated on the flanks of Mount Royal, the Royal Victoria Hospital was completed in 1893 and both men later endowed it with a further $800 000.
In 1897, Donald Smith earned the name Lord Strathcona when he was created a Peer of the Realm in June, taking the title “Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal of Glencoe, Argyllshire and Montreal Canada”. Concerned about Britain’s efforts in the Boer War, in 1899, he created the “Strathcona Horse”, a mobile force of 600 Canadian Roughriders (or Rough Riders) led by Colonel Steele.
Lord Strathcona never forgot his home in Forres. Amongst his many deeds was a contribution of some £8238 towards Leanchoil Hospital in that town, which admitted its first patient on April 24th 1892, and was named after his mother’s birthplace. He was given the Freedom of the Royal Burgh of Forres in 1900. In 1902, he laid the foundation stone of the Forres United Free Church and also that of the new St Lawrence Church.
Lord Strathcona died on January 21st 1914 at 28 Grosvener Square in London.
Editor’s note: Donald Smith held 200 shares of the North West Coal & Navigation Company, Ltd, as of February 1891. He was also a close friend and confidante of Sir Alexander Galt. Likely the connection of Smith and George Stephen introduced Galt to many English shareholders in the Southern Alberta ventures.
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