Sir Alexander Galt

Article by Jason Paul Sailer.  Re-edited by Chris Doering.

Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt wore many hats over seventy six years; politician, promoter, father, author, manager, railway man….  His portly, erect form was familiar for a quarter century of public life, during which he counselled various leaders and supported different ministries, but he never lost the respect of the common people. Galt was the generous, amiable personality of a robust, healthy man. He was a sincere and earnest speaker, with a well-modulated voice and an amazing mastery of facts.

Born in London, England on September 6th, 1817 the youngest of three sons of novelist John Galt & Elizabeth Tilloch.  His childhood and adolescence were steeped in the curious mix of adventure, literary creation, and speculative enterprises that he learned from his father. From childhood, Alexander must have dreamed of Canada, a country that promised adventure and swift success to the enterprising.  He would make his first introduction to Canada in 1834, as a junior clerk in the British American Land Company at Sherbrooke, Quebec.  He rose step by step until in 1844, he became Company Commissioner. He found its affairs in confusion, and by his ability and understanding brought them to order and prosperity.  His business success attracted notice, and in 1849 he was elected to Parliament for the County of Sherbrooke.  He sat through the stormy session of 1849, when the Parliament buildings in Montreal were burned, after the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill.  This seemed to sicken young Galt of politics for the time, for he retired to private life.

During the next four years Galt became President of the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway, and extricated it from its difficulties by amalgamation with the Grand Trunk Railway, and participated in the construction of the Grand Trunk railway line from Toronto to Sarnia.  From 1852 to 1859, he was a director of the Grand Trunk Railway.  By 1853 he was back in Parliament, where he found scope for his talents in financial, trade and commercial questions.  Upon the fall of the Brown-Dorion Government in 1858, Sir Edmund Head, impressed by Galt’s striking speech that year in favor of a federal union, asked him to form a cabinet, but, realizing that his independent course, while spectacular, left him without a following, he declined.  George E. Cartier, who was called on at Galt’s suggestion, took Galt as Minister of Finance, promising to adopt federal union as a Cabinet policy.

Before tracing more in detail Galt’s contribution to Confederation, we should take a moment to mention his services in forming Canada’s financial policy.  His first duty in taking office in 1858 was to restore the shattered finances of the Province of Canada.  At that time, revenues were low and expenses high.  William Cayley, his predecessor, insisted protection in the tariff to several manufacturing industries.  Galt went a step farther in 1859, and raised the tariff from 15 to 20 %.  The object of this tariff, he told the House on March 18, was “to encourage the industrial portion of the community and to equally distribute the taxes necessary for revenue purposes.”  He ridiculed the idea that British connection would be endangered, but before many months his policy had made trouble in the old country and in the United States.  Another important achievement by Galt at this time was the introduction into Canada in 1858 of the decimal currency system, which replaced the pounds, shillings and pence of the motherland.

There had been discussion of union of the British American Provinces for years, but Galt forced the issue by his speech in the Assembly at Toronto on July 6, 1858.  He then outlined roughly the plan of union which was subsequently adopted.  He declared that unless a union was formed the Province of Canada would inevitably drift into the United States.  He saw merits in the union of the two Canada’s, which had organized municipal government, settled the clergy reserves and seigniorial tenure questions, and made the Legislative Council elective.  Yet the present Government, the strongest for several years, was unable to carry their measures.  The present system could not go on, it was necessary to change the constitution, to adopt the federal principle.  Questions of religion and race now promoted disunion.  If they adopted the federal principle each section of the union might adopt whatever views it regarded as proper for itself.
At this time the climax of the deadlock had not been reached, but political rivalries and racial jealousies were fast bringing about an impasse.  Cartier implemented his promise, and Galt and John Ross were sent to England.  Their memorandum to the Colonial Secretary, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, urged confederation on grounds peculiar to Canada and considerations affecting the interests of the other colonies and the whole empire.  The memorandum set forth the desirability of uniting Canada, the Maritime Provinces, and Newfoundland.  Little encouragement followed this formal appeal.  The Colonial Secretary showed no enthusiasm for the union, and writing a month later said the Imperial Government could go no further at present, as they had received a reply on the subject from only one Province.

From now on, for the next two years, Galt was a virile leader in promoting the cause of union.  At the Quebec Conference, he played an important part in finally adjusting the financial relations of the Provinces under the union scheme, a point which at one time brought deadlock and almost wrecked the convention.  The spade work for Confederation in Canada had now been done, though much remained as yet to reconcile Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.  Galt had his part in the mission to London in 1865. All was then smooth, but in August, 1866, he startled the country by resigning as Finance Minister on the determination of the Government not to proceed with the Lower Canada education bill.  This bill was promoted by the Protestant minority of Lower Canada, and the Roman Catholic majority would not permit it to pass unless a similar bill with reference to the Roman Catholic minority in Upper Canada was also enacted.  John A. Macdonald, in voicing the Government’s position, said the policy advocated for the minorities would give the Maritime Provinces an unfortunate spectacle of two Houses divided against themselves.  Notwithstanding his resignation from the Cabinet, Galt’s abilities were requisitioned for the final stages of the Confederation bill, and he accompanied the Ministerial delegation to England in the fall of 1866 to draft the British North America Act.  He was reelected, and entered the first Confederation Cabinet as Minister of Finance, but in November, 1867, he again resigned from the Cabinet.  The portfolio of Finance was again offered him in 1869 if he would renounce his views in favor of the independence of Canada, but he declined.  In 1876, in a letter to Senator James Ferrier, he criticized Macdonald for his connection with the Pacific Scandal.  A year later the Mackenzie Government used Galt’s diplomacy with good result on the Fisheries Commission at Halifax, and in 1880, Sir John Macdonald made him the first Canadian High Commissioner to Great Britain, declaring him to be “the most available man for the position.”  To Galt, however, the post was a disappointment, as he felt he was little more than an emigration agent. After offering his resignation several times, he left his post on June 1st, 1883.

The 1880s also witnessed Galt’s return to the business world, this time in western Canada.  In 1881, while he was living in London, he had been informed by his eldest son, Elliott Torrance Galt, at the time assistant commissioner of Indian affairs in Regina, of the existence of coal deposits in the south of what is now the province of Alberta.  After inspecting the region, on 7 September 1882 Galt founded the North-Western Coal and Navigation Company Limited (NWC&NC) with William Lethbridge, a lawyer and partner in the firm W.H. Smith booksellers, as the first president of the company.  Although he never came to Canada, Lethbridge left a legacy in southern Alberta through the city that bears his name.  One of his aims was to supply coal to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which was still under construction west of Winnipeg, and to supply the settlers that would soon arrive out west.  To transport the coal Galt and his partners first set up a system of steamships the “Alberta”, the “Baroness” and the “Minnow” and barges on the Bow and South Saskatchewan rivers that operated in 1883 and 1884.  However, the rivers were shallow with numerous sand bars, and an unpredictable current that it sometimes took the steamships 5 days to travel between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat!  A more stable transportation system was needed, and the NWC&NC turned to a narrow gauge railway line.

In late 1883 Sir Alexander Galt travelled to London for a meeting of the NWC&NC directors.  He wanted to discuss the creation of a new company, the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC), to build a 177 km narrow-gauge line from Lethbridge to Dunmore Junction.  The AR&CC would eventually take over the land assets of the NWC&NC, and use them as security bonds & stocks to pay for the railway construction.  In October 1883 the federal government granted the NWC&NC the usual land grant of 3,840 acres per mile of railway built (but at the discount price of $1.00 per acre plus survey dues).  On April 19, 1884 the AR&CC was incorporated with capital of $1,500,000.00.  The same day, Parliament passed the charter bill for the new railway.  The second pillar of southern Alberta’s development was put into place when the line was opened by Lord Landsdowne, Governor General of Canada, on September 24, 1885.  Why did Galt decided to build a narrow gauge railway, instead of a typical standard gauge railway?  The main reason was cost!  Construction costs & equipment costs were much lower than standard gauge construction & equipment.

With the narrow-gauge line now operating, the Galt companies looked to expand the customer base for their coal beyond the CPR, and prairie settlers.  The copper smelters of western Montana were within the reach of a railway, and Galt decided to build a narrow-gauge line south into the United States.  Lack of money and political considerations altered the plan somewhat, and the result was a railway from Lethbridge to Great Falls.  It opened in 1890 as two lines: the Alberta Railway & Coal Company’s 108 km track from Lethbridge to the border at Coutts, and the Great Falls and Canada Railway (GF&CR)’s 215.6 km line from Sweetgrass, Montana, south to Great Falls.  As was policy, the federal government provided land grants for construction of this line as well on both sides of the International Boundary.

By controlling all of these economic threads, Galt hoped to ensure the success of his investments in southern Alberta.  Railways created markets for coal and brought settlers to irrigated lands.  The settlers created a new market for coal, and in turn grew agricultural products that were shipped out on the railway.  Sir Alexander Galt developed an integrated approach to his enterprises in southern Alberta.  Each supported the others by creating new business opportunities.

After 1890, Galt, whose health had become delicate, scarcely ever left Montreal and his residence on Rue de la Montagne.  Early in 1893 he had to undergo a tracheotomy because of throat cancer.  Unable to speak, he communicated by writing.  He died shortly before dawn on September 19th, 1893.  Two days later an imposing funeral was held in Montreal, but the service was celebrated in Galt’s own home by a Toronto minister, John Potts, an old friend of his, who also delivered the funeral oration.  He was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery.

Galt was seen as a complex man of worth who had succeeded brilliantly in several very different fields of activity. Dr Potts observed: “He belonged to a superior order. He was a deep thinker, a distinguished economist, an enterprising and courageous businessman.” Others called to mind his agreeable and flowing eloquence and the attention his speeches on financial matters commanded. “His writings bear the stamp of purity and elegance,” it was said.


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Great Canadian Plains Railway Society Archives


Delegates from the Legislatures of Canada, gathering on the steps of Prince Edward Island’s Goverment House for the Charlottetown Conference – September 1864. Alexander Galt is sitting in the front row on the left side wearing an top hat, Library & Archives of Canada C-000733


Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt Portrait, 1890. Courtesy of the Notman Archives, McCord Museum, Montreal