Who was Donald Alexander Smith? - Lougheed House

Posted by | September 05, 2017 | 150 stories | No Comments

When examining the history of the Lougheeds it is interesting to note the family’s connection to Donald Alexander Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, and one of the British Empire’s prominent financiers, builders, and philanthropists. Smith, perhaps better known as Lord Strathcona, can be seen below as the central figure hammering in the spike in the famous “Last Spike” photograph taken on November 7, 1885 at Craigellachie, British Columbia upon the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Donald Smith was married to Isabella Sophia Hardisty, Isabella Hardisty’s aunt and namesake, and so when James Lougheed married Isabella in 1884 he became connected to one of the richest men in Canada.

So how did Donald Smith become a prominent figure in Canadian History? While Smith’s rise to prominence was notable, it is not clear that he benefited from immediate advantages in social or economic standing. After completing schooling at Anderson’s Free School in the United Kingdom he immigrated to Canada in 1838, and became an apprentice clerk for the Hudson’s Bay Company. While Smith came from a “respectable, steady family” his father made a modest living as a saddler and the family grew up without considerable wealth or connections to power.[1] Soon after beginning his apprenticeship, Smith was promoted to a clerkship within the Hudson’s Bay Company, and was given increasing responsibilities within the company. From the time that he entered the organization, Smith’s approach was disruptive; he did not hesitate to point out inefficiencies within the organization, and in 1843 he even came under criticism from then Governor of the organization George Simpson. Ultimately, this way of approaching problems did not prevent Smith from rising within the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he reached the position of Chief Factor of the district of Labrador in 1862.

During the 1870s Smith branched out from his involvement in Hudson’s Bay Company and established his political career while also developing several additional business interests. In 1870 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, and in 1871 he was elected to the House of Commons for Selkirk. While Smith was a conservative he was not overly partisan. Smith also had the benefit of simultaneously sitting in government, and indeed acting as a Chief Commissioner of the HBC after 1871, while being able to advance his business interests in a number of industries. In the 1870s, he incorporated the Bank of Manitoba and Manitoba Insurance Company, while simultaneously developing business interest in the Manitoba Western Railway and the St. Paul Pacific Railroad. In 1872, he was appointed as the director of the Bank of Montreal, and while pursuing all of these ventures he maintained his position of principle shareholder in the Hudson’s Bay Company. Thus, through a combination of aptitude and good fortune, Smith amassed considerable wealth while establishing himself as a figure in Canadian politics.

While Smith may seem to be a distant figure today, he played a prominent role in building and financing a number of corporate and political ventures during a time of rapid change in Canada. His life also seems to raise the question of how his personal talents allowed him to amass a fortune and achieve considerable power in the newly formed Dominion of Canada. What caused Donald Smith’s rise in Canadian politics and business? While the role of luck and talent are difficult to separate, it seems likely that Donald Smith was able to apply his personal aptitudes and talents at a time when opportunities for political advancement and business expansion were open. He died in 1914 as one of the richest men in Canada, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Chancellor of McGill University, and Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. While the cause of his considerable success may be difficult to determine, his influence on our collective history is certain.

– Sam, Volunteer Interpreter

[1] Donna McDonald, Lord Strathcona: A Biography of Donald Alexander Smith, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1996), 14.

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