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I had originally planned to do an episode in which I look at my own ranking of the prime ministers of Canada, but I realized that its subjective and my own ranking of the prime ministers won’t be the same as anyone else’s. Not to mention it can be hard to rank prime ministers. Kim Campbell often gets put at the bottom but she was in a no win situation after taking over from an incredibly unpopular prime minister. Sir John A. Macdonald is often ranked near the top despite the things he did to the Indigenous and the Chinese.
So instead, I decided to just dive right into part 2 of From John to Justin, looking at the opposition leaders who never became prime minister.
Interestingly, we don’t see our first opposition leader who never became prime minister until over a decade after Canada became a country. For the First Canadian Parliament, from 1867 to 1872, there was no official opposition party. George Brown was the de facto leader of the Liberal Party during that time, while Sir John A. Macdonald led the country. As such, there is no official opposition leader.
In 1872, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald once again retains power and the Liberals are again led by a de facto leader, but this time in the form of Edward Blake.
The first truly Official Opposition came in 1873 when Alexander Mackenzie led the Liberal Party, soon to become prime minister later that year.
Finally, on May 4, 1880, we have our first official Leader of the Opposition who would never become prime minister and it is Edward Blake.
Sometimes we may think that for someone to lead the Opposition and never become prime minister, somehow that means they have failed. The truth is that Edward Blake didn’t fail in life, and he succeeded at many different levels.
Born on Oct. 13, 1833 in Adelaide, Upper Canada, his father was William Hume Blake and his mother was his father’s cousin, Catherine Hume. The Blake family was extremely close-knit and Edward’s paternal grandfather also married a cousin from the Hume family. The couple would come to Canada in 1832 and settled on a farm prior to the birth of their son. Edward was born in a log cabin but the frontier life did not suit William and soon he relocated his family to the city. William would go on to study law in Toronto and became one of the leading lawyers in the Province of Canada. In 1849, he would be elected in the riding of East York to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. He served until 1850 and in 1852 became the Chancellor of the University of Toronto, serving until 1856, a role his son Edward would take on from 1876 to 1900.
Needless to say, Blake had an upbringing where politics was front and center in his life. He was also educated primarily at home. His mother would say later that he received quote:
“A desultory sort of education for some years, and in the morning while dressing his father gave him his Latin lesson.”
A tutor would also teach him various subjects, along with his mother.
Blake would enter Upper Canada College in 1846 with the dream of becoming a lawyer like his father. While at Upper Canada College, he would drift for the first few years before getting things together and becoming head boy in 1850, while winning several prizes and becoming highly thought of by his teachers.
He would graduate in 1854 and articled at his father’s law firm. In 1856, Blake would enter into a partnership with Stephen Jarvis, and his brother Samuel Blake, to form Blake & Blake. That firm still exists to this day as Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP. In a 2019 survey, it was named the strongest law firm brand in Canada.
In 1856, he would marry Margaret Cronyn. The couple would often travel together, and she would travel with him on his political tours around the country and abroad. Together, they would have seven children, four of which survived both of them. One daughter, Sophia, would marry George Wrong and together they would have a son, Hume Wrong. He would go on to become the Ambassador to the United States, and was a key architect of the North Atlantic Treaty that would give rise to NATO.
The legal career of Blake quickly grew and between 1857 and 1867, he was involved in 241 cases in the Court of Chancery. On Nov. 20, 1858, the Toronto Globe announced that he had, quote:
“Great oratorical powers.”
It also stated that he had the potential to take his father’s place as a preeminent lawyer in the province.
In 1863, Blake would join several graduates in the University of Toronto Senate in rejecting recommendations from the education superintendent Egerton Ryerson that would have divided government funding for the university among the denominational colleges in the province. This issue, which would be a victory for Blake and the others, helped him rise in prominence in the eyes of the public.
Coupled with the prosperity of his growing law firm, he began to take an interest in politics.
Even George Brown, a Father of Confederation, was taking notice. He would say in March of 1867, quote:
Blake was also able to stand out in a crowd. Tall for the time, with broad shoulders and a round face, his gold-rimmed glasses helped give him a unique look. He also had a powerful voice that ensured he was always listened to when talking in a crowd.
In 1868, Blake was recruited by George Brown to join the Ontario Liberal Party. Now serving in provincial politics, Sir John A. Macdonald took notice and attempted to recruit him as a judge but it did not come to pass as Blake saw the motivations of Macdonald to be purely political rather than based on Blake’s merit as a judge, and he rejected the offer.
In 1869, he would introduce to the assembly resolutions that opposed altering the terms of the British North America Act without a prior consultation from the provinces. This was done as a protest against the better terms many in Ontario felt Nova Scotia had received from the federal government. This allowed Blake to be seen as a potential leader of the opposition in the legislature against the Sandfield Macdonald government. When the issue of the Red River Resistance and the murder of Thomas Scott raised intense emotions in Ontario, nearly bringing down the Sandfield government in the March 1871 election. On Dec. 18, 1871, along with future PM Alexander Mackenzie, Blake launched an attack on Sandfield over the issue of parliamentary supremacy that brought down the government. By Dec. 20, Blake was the new premier of the province.
He would only serve a short time until October 1872 when he decided to leave provincial politics and focus on the federal level. He could have stayed in both the provincial level and the federal level but the dual mandate had recently been abolished, forcing politicians to choose one level or the other. He would tap Oliver Mowat to replace him. Mowat would spend the next 24 years as the premier of the province.
Now a member of the Liberal Party of Canada, he would play a critical role in the demise of the government of Sir John A. Macdonald in the Pacific Scandal.
I covered the Pacific Scandal in my episode about Sir John A. Macdonald, but here is a quick rundown. The scandal involved bribes being accepted by 150 members of the Conservative government to influence the bidding of a national rail contract for the building of the trans-continental railway. Two groups were competing for the contract, the Canada Pacific Railway under Hugh Allan and the Inter-Oceanic Railway Company under David Lewis Macpherson.
In 1873, it became known that Hugh Allan had given a huge sum, roughly $360,000, in political donations to the re-election campaign of the Conservative government in 1872. While Macdonald claimed to be innocent, there were claims that the money was used to bribe voters in the 1872 election. Soon enough, evidence came to light that showed receipts of money from Allan to Macdonald and others. The entire affair would lead the resignation of Macdonald as prime minister, and the eventual temporary demise of his government in the 1874 election.
As the Conservative government was falling, Blake was offered the role of Prime Minister of Canada, but he chose to turn it down due to the death of his infant daughter, the death of his father in 1870 and his own ill health at the time. Although some sources say that due to these matters he was passed over, rather than declined, and it was something he regretted for the remainder of his life.
When Alexander Mackenzie became Canada’s second prime minister, Blake was given the role of a minister without a portfolio.
The next five years were not easy for Blake. He would often have intense bouts of anxiety over his social and political isolation in Ottawa, and a loneliness he felt there. He also overworked himself immensely, leading to exhaustion and severe headaches.
In February of 1874, Blake resigned from cabinet after intense campaigning in the previous election exhausted him.
Lord Dufferin, the Governor General at the time, would state quote:
“The elections having proved that his friends were strong enough to stand without him, Mr. Blake’s health is precarious. He is making a considerable fortune at the Bar and his nature is too sensitive for public life.”
Throughout 1874, Mackenzie would attempt to bring Blake back into the cabinet. At the same time, he was worried about Mackenzie accepting the terrible terms related to the railway from the British Colonial Secretary. Mackenzie was beginning to tire, holding the title of Prime Minister and Minister of Public Works and Blake would write a letter to him on Sept. 6, 1874 suggesting he resign as prime minister and stay on as Minister of Public Works, with Blake taking over as leader. Mackenzie said he would leave both if he stepped down.
On Oct. 3 in Aurora, Ontario, Blake spoke in a speech that many saw as a direct challenge on the leadership of Mackenzie. The speech was laced with snide remarks towards the leadership of Mackenzie, while also speaking of proportional representation, compulsory voting, Senate reform and other matters. He also seemed to speak against the compromises made for the administration of British Columbia into Confederation and the railroad, which he called a deal that approached insanity.
The speech was incredibly popular and was printed in the a Toronto newspaper and the public reaction to it threatened the stability of the party.
In an effort to appease Blake, who was still seeming to be gunning for the top job, Mackenzie made him the Minister of Justice on May 19, 1875 after Blake declined the offer of becoming the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
While Justice Minister is one of the highest profile, if not the highest profile, position in the government outside of Finance and the Prime Minister’s office, Blake was unhappy with the position. He was now subject to the same criticism he levied at the government as a lawyer outside the government for one. This was shown when he made a judicial appointment that was deemed designed and offensive in a letter sent to him. He responded, quote:
“Speaking for myself I took office with reluctance, I will have it with pleasure and while I am obliged to hold it my effort will be, as it has been, to do the thing that is right according to my lights. I may err in judgement but I hope not in intention.”
As the Minister of Justice, Blake would nominate the first members of the Supreme Court in September 1875, with the judges sworn in on Oct. 7.
That same month, a public controversary would erupt when Sir John A. Macdonald suggested at a banquet in Montreal that Blake was neglecting his duties as Justice Minister in favour of his private law practice. Newspapers then began to claim that Blake, who had strong ethics according to all those around him, was promoting judges whose salaries he could alter.
Blake came close to leaving cabinet over the matter but he was persuaded to stay. In regards to his law practice, he took steps to negotiate a new partnership agreement that allowed him to retire from it temporarily but allow him to retain a share of assets and profits of the practice.
After spending some time in England negotiating matters related to the Supreme Court Act, Albert James Smith was put in charge of the Justice Minister. Upon Blake’s return in 1876, he reversed the sentence of death for two men who were convicted of the murder of an Ontario farmer. This caused a huge bit of anger among the public and Blake would gain decide he needed to resign. He would write to Mackenzie, stating quote:
Once again encouraged to remain as Justice Minister, Blake said that if he were to submit his resignation again, it would be accepted without hesitation.
Over the next year as Justice Minister, he would introduce several changes to the law of Canada including the Collection of Criminal Statistics Act of 1876 and the Weights and Measures Act of 1877.
By October 1876, his health was on the decline again and it was said that with his severe headaches, he was near nervous exhaustion. Blake again attempted to resign as Justice Minister on April 30, 1877 but despite the previous understanding, Mackenzie protested and Blake agreed to remain in the position for a few weeks longer.
In May of 1877, Blake, along with Mackenzie, were offered knighthoods but both turned them down. He would also be appointed as the president of the Privy Council in 1877, serving until 1878.
Finally, on Dec. 11, 1877, Blake finally resigned as Justice Minister, the same year that Wilfrid Laurier entered int the Liberal cabinet.
In the 1878 election, he ran for re-election but was too ill to campaign and instead went to Europe with his wife. He would lose his seat in that election as the Conservatives came back into power.
Over a year later, on Nov. 18, 1877, Blake would find himself back in politics with his election in a new riding by acclamation. With Mackenzie now under pressure from his caucus to resign, Blake was rejuvenated and ready to lead. On April 29, 1880, Mackenzie resigned and Blake became leader of the Liberal Party later that day.
As leader, Blake saw that the party had to recruit Roman Catholic voters in Ontario and Quebec, which he did by attacking the Orange Order Incorporation Bill in 1884, but it came at the cost of some Ontario Liberals.
As the leader of the opposition, he would go into the 1882 election and actually help the Liberals gain 10 seats from their previous total, but it was not enough to unseat the Conservatives, who had a majority government with 133 seats.
After the North West Resistance of 1885, Blake knew he had to take the right stance because of Quebec and its admiration for Riel. In early 1886, he would take a position that Riel had engaged in treason but that he was insane. This would avoid outraging Quebec but it disappointed followers in Ontario.
As the Leader of the Official Opposition, he would launch into long speeches regarding what he saw as needless spending on the railroad and the undermining of the moral fibre of the nation through the creation of a railroad monopoly.
In 1885, a bill was put forward to establish dominion qualifications for voters in federal elections, which was resisted by the Liberals. Blake would lead a debate in the House of Commons that lasted months and included a 57-hour filibuster.
Once again, Blake found his health declining. After the election loss of 1882, he would attempt to leave as leader soon after but stayed on. He would then attempt to resign in 1884 due to illness but after staying in Europe for a time, he reversed his decision.
In 1887, he once again helped the Liberals rise in seats, this time by six, while the Conservatives fell by 10. Once again though, it was not enough to prevent another Conservative majority.
After that second election loss, Blake chose to resign from federal politics. This makes him one of only three Liberal Party leaders to never become prime minister, and the last one until the 21st century when the Liberals had two leaders fail to become prime minister, more on them in later episodes. Blake would choose a man named Wilfrid Laurier as his successor, who would become prime minister in 1896 and serve for the following 15 years in that role.
For the next few years he remained in Parliament but did little until his retirement in 1891. After leaving politics, he devoted himself to his legal practice and he would even represent the CPR in a suit against the government over the quality of government-built sections of the line.
By the 1890s, Blake was living in Ireland and in 1892, he would enter the British House of Commons as a member of the Irish Nationalist Party. He would continue to serve as a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom until 1907, during which time he was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Financial Relations between Great Britain and Ireland.
During that time, Laurier would attempt to bring his mentor back to Canada by offering him appointments to the Supreme Court in 1896 and 1905, and as Chief Justice of Ontario.
Following a stroke on May 24, 1907, he was paralyzed on the left side and decided that the time was right to return to Canada for a quiet retirement.
On March 1, 1912, he would find himself unable to get downstairs in the morning. After some help, he was able to get to his sitting room. At 6 p.m., he asked to be taken to the bedroom but he collapsed while walking across the room. Doctors soon arrived but they announced that Blake’s heart was failing him. He would die later that day.
His last words that day were apparently, quote:
“I am feeling very sick nurse.”
He would die later in the evening.
The Winnipeg Tribune would run the headline quote:
“Honorable Edward Blake, Canada’s Greatest Citizen, is Dead.”
The Ottawa Journal would announce, quote:
“The passing of the greatest parliamentary figure in the history of Confederation is a term that applies to Edward Blake.”
Speaker T.S. Sproule would state, quote:
“I had the privilege of sitting in the House with Mr. Blake for many years and although we differed strongly in our views of political questions, I am delighted to say that we were the best of personal friends. Edward Blake was undoubtedly one of the greatest men Canada ever produced. He was a statesman born to political leadership.”
So what would Blake have been like as prime minister. That can be hard to say but one thing I want to do with Part 2 of From John to Justin is look at what could have been.
The most significant change with Blake as the Second Prime Minister of Canada would be with the railroad. He was clearly against the concessions made to British Columbia and the expenditures put towards the railroad. It was one reason he wanted to take over leadership from Mackenzie. If Blake became prime minister in the 1870s, it is possible that he would have taken a different route with the railroad, which would alter the fabric of Canada in later years. While Macdonald came back into power in 1878 and work on the railroad began quickly, Blake as prime minister may have delayed it. This could have changed the fabric of the prairies. Alberta and Saskatchewan would have still become part of Canada, but due to a delay in the railroad, that would have delayed settlement, which would have likely caused a delay in their provincehood in 1905, and possibly even their borders. So while Canada would still exist as it does now, with its same borders externally, the internal borders may have changed. Of course, if Blake somehow won the 1878 election as prime minister, it would have changed everything. British Columbia would have seen the failure to build a railroad as a broken promise and may have left Confederation, the Prairies would have been much slower in settlement and possibly the Indigenous could have resisted being put to reserves longer, and formed into a cohesive force that would allow them to proclaim self-government or their own nation within the prairies.
While Blake was clearly skilled, his own issues regarding criticism, his push to overwork himself, and his insistence on dominating party matters as party leader hurt him. His long speeches, lasting six hours in some cases, would leave his own party members with little to say.
Sir Richard Cartwright would describe Blake as a man who left his supporters with nothing to say, and that Blake had a general ability but was intensely ambitious, exceedingly sarcastic and absurdly sensitive to criticism who often behaved like a spoiled child.
John Charles Dent, a 19th century historian, would say that Blake possessed, quote:
“A manner as devoid of warmth as is a flake of December snow, and as devoid of magnetism as is a loaf of unleavened bread.”
Information comes from Biographi, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Winnipeg Tribune, Ottawa Journal, Calgary Herald,