Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Pluck must be partnered with a moral compass

According to Larry Cornies, Canadians have become "weak-kneed." We lack "political pluck." Cornies writes:

My, but what weak-kneed nation builders we’ve become.

Forget the formidable challenges that faced our forebears: stitching together a new federation from scattered and diverse colonies, or building a transcontinental railroad, or aspiring to be a nation that would one day stand upright, on its own, on the world stage.

Forget all that. These days, the prospect of merely reforming and renewing the upper chamber of our bicameral parliament is enough to make us cower like frightened turtles.

Cornies tells us, "the nation builders . . . seldom flinched when it came to difficult political negotiations or the job of building a better Canada . . . "

Wow! I thought flinching was in a politician's job description. When I started looking into our Canadian forebears, I found more flinching was the least of their crimes. Our forebears are no better than the folk in power today and possibly quite  a bit worse. I posted something on this -- No saints found despite newspaper's praise.

I learned Sir John A. Macdonald was a shakedown artist. A plucky shakedown artist but still a shakedown artist -- a crook. The following is from a page posted by the Canadian government.

In April 1873, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald was charged with accepting illicit funds from Sir Hugh Allan. In return for these payments, Allan was assured that he would be awarded the lucrative contract to construct the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. When evidence of the agreement was made public by Opposition members of Parliament and published in newspapers across Canada, the episode became known as the "Pacific Scandal."
A telegram from Macdonald to Allan's legal adviser read: "I must have another ten thousand; will be the last time of calling; do not fail me; answer today."

This is not to say Macdonald didn't achieve a lot of good. He did. After all he was one of the Fathers of Confederation. But he also did a lot that was bad. We should not forget this as Larry Cornies appears to have done.

But, when I think of important Canadian forebears, I don't think just of politicians but I also think of all those wielding power outside the political arena. For instance, I think of the chap Sir John A. was shaking down, a fellow by the name of Sir Hugh Allan. Hugh Allan is most certainly a Canadian forebear and a very determined one. Allan had pluck (spirit and resolve). Unfortunately, he didn't have a working moral compass. At the very least, he ignored it.

Richard J. Gwyn in his book, Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times 1867-1891, tells the following story: During a dinner at her home, Lady Macdonald asked Sir Hugh Allan for a donation for her church. "You can't take it with you," she told Allan. From the other side of the table her husband, Sir John A. Macdonald, quietly added, "It would soon melt if he did."

Curious as to who this fellow Allan was and why he enjoyed dinner at Macdonald's home, I began to read biographies on Allan. The words associated with Allan paint a sad picture: scandal, stock manipulation, haphazard bookkeeping, unwarranted dividends, debt, bribery . . . .  Allan called the rumours surrounding him "absurd" and "senseless." I suspect many, including Macdonald, would not agree.

Another term appearing again and again is "political patronage." Sir Hugh Allan controlled Canada's second largest bank. But Allan controlled more than the bank; Allan controlled influential people. For instance, the ex-finance minister John Rose was the bank’s London solicitor, in 1866 the future prime minister of Canada J. J. C. Abbott was kept on a $1,000 annual retainer as the bank’s Montreal lawyer and in 1883 both Sir Charles Tupper and Sir John A. Macdonald were special solicitors for the Winnipeg branch. Well known politicians pop up time and time again on the bank's employment rolls.

And the bank had another way to keep politicians on a tight leash: debt. For instance, Sir John A. Macdonald was probably the bank’s most prominent debtor.

Allan's corrupt ways spilled over to stain the manner in which employees were treated. A Royal Commission revealed the oppressive exploitation of workers by Allan. Many of the longshoremen employed by the Allan Line fleet of ships were compelled to work 30 to 35 hours at a stretch for the wretched wage of 20 cents an hour. Plus, the Allan Line, according to the Commission, retained one per cent of the workers' wages to provide the employees with insurance from Citizens’ Insurance Company. A company that had Sir Hugh Allan coincidentally at the helm.

The commission found that the longshoremen of the Allan Line paid a premium equivalent to an annual premium of $9.12 for protection lasting no more than ten hours a day during 365 days. Better coverage could be obtained elsewhere for $8.75, payable per quarter, and providing coverage for not only accidents happening during the ten hours of the work but all the accidents that could happen during the twenty-four hours of the day.

Sir Hugh Allan: a Canadian forebear. And sadly, he is but one embarrassment among many.

Some links to other Internet sites dealing with this topic:
Chartered Libertine? A Case Against Sir John Macdonald and Some AnswersA History of Canadian Wealth/Chapter XII
Charles Tupper and his "reputation for parliamentary blather"

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