After Alberta’s first premier resigned over the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway Company scandal, a new person was called to take over as premier, Arthur Sifton.
Arthur Sifton was born in Arva, Canada West to John Wright Sifton and Catherine Watkins. His mother had been born in Ireland and come to Canada with her parents, while his father had been a farmer in Ontario. His father John was a prominent individual who campaigned for the Liberal party and its prominent leaders George Brown and Alexander Mackenzie. When Mackenzie became Prime Minister in 1874, Sifton was given contracts to build two rail lines in Ontario and Manitoba as a reward for his loyalty.
In 1875, the family moved to Manitoba so John could take up the contracts. In 1879, he was elected to the Manitoba Legislature and served as the Speaker of the Assembly from 1880 to 1882.
Both of John’s sons, Arthur and Clifford, would become prominent men themselves. Clifford Sifton would be elected to Parliament, serving from 1896 to 1911. During that time, he was made the Minister of the Interior from 1896 to 1905, during which time he encouraged massive immigration to Canada. He also presided over the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905.
As for Arthur Sifton, he attended public schools in Ontario and when his father moved the family to Manitoba, Sifton went with him and completed his high school education in Winnipeg.
He would move on to attend Victoria College where he was not a good student and often skipped classes. His classmates described him as,
“intellectually, morally, physically and erratically preeminent in virtue and otherwise, especially otherwise.”
He attended the college with his brother Clifford, despite being two years older than him. While Clifford was never absent from lectures, Arthur couldn’t be bothered at times.
After graduating with his law degree, Sifton moved back to Manitoba where he articled with Albert Monkman and ran his Brandon law firm branch.
On Sept. 20, 1882, Sifton married Mary Deering and the couple had two children. This year was also when he first made a move to elected office when he served on the first city council of Brandon as a temperance supporter.
With a commitment to methodism that he inherited from his father, Sifton was a life long temperance supporter and a leader in the federal campaign to bring in the Canada Temperance Act of 1878. During that campaign, he addressed 16 different meetings to gain support for it. A legal challenge would eventually bring down the act though.
He served on council until 1883 and one year later, he passed the bar exam in Manitoba.
Oddly, in 1885, Sifton dissolved the partnership he had formed with his brother Clifford at their law firm and suddenly moved his family to Prince Albert. At the time, Prince Albert was not booming like Brandon, nor was it getting any connections to the national railway system anytime soon.
It is not known why he suddenly left Brandon and there appears to be no evidence of the brothers falling out.
In Prince Albert, Sifton practiced law and became a notary public. In 1889, he moved his family again, this time to Calgary. It is believed that this move was made to improve the health of his wife with the dry air of the area. While in Calgary, he opened a law office and worked in the office of the city solicitor.
In 1892, he was appointed to the Queen’s Counsel.
In 1896, his brother became the minister of the interior and Sifton advised his brother on the Liberal Party affairs in western Canada.
In that capacity, he suggested to his brother that the North West Territories needed a chief justice and he suggested himself for the role. He said,
“There is no one else in the Territories eligible except myself.”
Despite his connection to his brother, the position was not created at that point and Sifton would have to wait to be a Chief Justice.
Two years later, Sifton re-entered politics, likely in an effort to increase his chances of becoming a judge in the North West Territories. He would run in the territorial election that year, representing Banff against Robert Brett. Brett had served there since 1891, in a career that would take him to becoming the Lt. Governor of Alberta from 1915 to 1925.
During the election, an anecdote states that Sifton was taking part in a campaign forum with Brett. His opponent was late so Sifton did his speech, then offered to do Brett’s speech since it was always the same and Sifton had memorized it. He then gave the speech and when Brett arrived, he gave the exact same speech.
In the election, it seemed as though Sifton was on his way to victory with a lead of 36 votes. By the time contested ballots were cast though, he was done by two votes. Sifton challenged this result in court stating it was corrupt and was successful.
Now in the Legislature, Sifton became a prominent Liberal in the government and was appointed as a minister and would successfully win the 1901 election.
Only a few months later, T.H. Maguire, the chief justice of the North West Territories retired and Sifton’s brother Clifford offered him the position, which he accepted.
While many considered the appointment to be nepotism, Sifton became a respected judge in the court.
Sifton would say,
“I like the work better than I anticipated and most people appear to be satisfied now.”
During his time as the Chief Justice of the North West Territories, he would usually hear cases in Calgary, but did travel to places such as Maple Creek, Cardston, Pincher Creek, Edmonton and Red Deer on occasion.
As Chief Justice, he was practical and did not set any important points of law or precedents. He was also known for smoking a cigar while a case was being argued in front of him.
MP T.M. Tweedle said,
“When he was on the bench, there was no judge in Canada who could more quickly pierce to the heart of a question.”
He served as the Chief Justice of the North West Territories until Sept. 16, 1907 when the Supreme Court of Alberta was established.
At this point, he became the Chief Justice of Alberta. In that position, he was still highly respected and gained the nickname of Sphinx for his inscrutability as a judge. Barristers found him difficult to read and he often made his judgements quickly.
Macleans wrote years later of him,
“He is small and bald and has eyes that sometimes make you shiver. Even when he laughs at a joke and he does laugh at all the visible ones and some that are not visible as well, you somehow feel that the sunshine in his face does not come from a warm heart. It is this iciness that makes people describe him as having a poker face.”
He was also known for being somewhat harsh, especially when dealing with the theft of livestock. In those cases, he would often sentence perpetrators to three years hard labour.
The Ottawa Journal wrote years later,
“He was a terror to evil-doers and all old-time ranchers credited him with making the business safe.”
An article in 1917, he was described as a man who never talked unless he had something worthwhile to say.
We get a glimpse at his method and mind in a diary entry from May 1904 in the case of R. v Charles McLaughlin. In it, he lists the characteristics of the defendants, including their literacy level, temperament and religion. In the case, he found Francis Marret not guilty due to insanity, and McLaughlin guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison.
He continued as Chief Justice of Alberta until May 25, 1910, when he took over as premier upon the resignation of Alexander Rutherford.
Sifton had his work set out for him, needing to re-unite the party. He would take on the portfolio of Public Works and Provincial Treasurer. Sifton appointed those who were against him to cabinet, helping to alleviate the pressure on the party and preventing it from splitting further.
In order to serve in the Legislature, he had to run in Vermilion in a by-election prior to the election campaign.
In Vermilion, many questioned why Sifton was running in their riding. An editorial in the Edmonton Journal on June 28, the day before the byelection criticized the premier for being a parachute candidate.
“Premier Sifton’s record as a justice of the supreme bench has nothing to do with the issues before the electors of Vermilion,” the editorial stated. “He has nothing to offer in the matter of good citizenship that his opponent cannot duplicate, and he is in the position of being uninvited in the division in which he seeks election.”
As the election day came on June 29, Sifton was elected with a good majority. Sifton received 1,018 votes, or 58.9 per cent, compared to the 710 received for George Clark of the Conservative Party.
Macleans would describe him as,
“A certain niceness about him, from the clean-shaven face to the immaculate button boots, makes him appear quite proper in almost any position. His delicate hands, with rings on both little fingers, are as dainty as a woman’s. His double-breasted coat is a perfect fit.”
After becoming premier, he smoothed out the divisions in the party after the scandal and resignation of Rutherford. This involved getting those loyal to Rutherford to his side, which he did by keeping Duncan Marshall on as Minister of the Agriculture. In all, only one member resigned, Ezra Riley. Over time, Sifton would give Rutherford allies more cabinet positions.
He would attempt to break with the railway policy of the previous government, but this was prevented by the courts, so he continued on with the previous policy. He was also unsuccessful in transferring the rights to the province’s natural resources from the federal government to the province.
Nonetheless, he was successful in other areas. His government would build several agricultural schools as well as three experimental farms. His government also allowed municipalities to levy property taxes, while imposing a provincial tax on undeveloped land to prevent land speculation.
His government, taking a cue from the growing United Farmers of Alberta, introduced the Direct Democracy Act in 1913. This Act allowed Albertans to call a referendum by submitting a petition that had ten per cent of the vote casts in the previous election, which was a huge number of signatures to get at the time.
As premier, Sifton was not known for being dynamic, and due to a heart affliction that plagued him much of his life, he often had low energy, leading some to call him lazy.
Prior to the election campaign of 1913, the Liberals conducting gerrymandering to put the odds in their favour in terms of ridings. The bill to create the new ridings was pushed through the Legislature and was given Royal Assent on the same day that the writ was dropped, March 25, 1913. The new ridings were not equal in population in many cases. One riding, Clearwater, had 74 people in it, while Calgary Centre had 20,000. The northern half of the province, more likely to vote Liberal, had 30 seats, while the southern portion of the province had 26.
The major issues for the campaign were the growing debt of the province that had grown from $2 million to $27 million, and the lack of infrastructure building in southern Alberta.
The Liberal campaign was dubbed as Siftonism by his opponents, stating it was a disease that had to be cleaned in Alberta. The media picked up on this and used it to attack the Liberal Party.
In the April 17, 1913 election, the Liberal were able to retain their hold on the Legislature, picking up six seats to finish with 39. The party also lost 10 per cent of the popular vote in the election.
The Edmonton Journal wrote,
“The government went into the fight with a strong organization and unlimited campaign funds. The power of patronage it exerted unscrupulously to its own end.”
The world was a very different place when the 1917 election rolled around. The country was embroiled in the First World War and Alberta was heading into another election.
Arthur Sifton continued to lead the Liberal Party and the province. Over the previous years, he had dealt with the rise of the United Farmers of Alberta, as well as the growing issue of prohibition. In 1914, due to a petition with 23,656 names on it, a referendum was called on the subject of prohibition. This referendum passed easily and in 1916, the Prohibition Act was enacted by the Alberta government.
Almost immediately, convictions for all crimes fell by almost 50 per cent, which lent weight to the arguments of those who supported prohibition. Sifton also dealt with the growing importance of women’s suffrage. In 1913, after the election, a delegation of women came to the Legislature ask for the vote. Sifton responded,
‘Did you ladies wash up your luncheon dishes before you came down here to ask me for the vote. If you haven’t, you’d better go home because you’re not going to get any votes from me.”
One year later in October 1914, another delegation arrived with 40,000 signatures. In February 1915, an even larger delegation arrived at the Legislature and occupied the seats of the MLAs, demanding that they be given the right to vote.
At this point, Sifton could see that the times were changing and in the spring of 1916, he introduced legislation to give women the right to vote in the province, which passed.
Macleans described Sifton at this time,
“Alberta is a hard province for premiers, it takes some guessing, but Premier Sifton has always been one guess ahead. He possesses in full measure the brains which made his brother, Sir Clifford, famous.”
The main issue of the campaign was conscription, which was very popular in Western Canada. Sifton did not follow the federal Liberals in opposition to conscription and instead supported Prime Minister Robert Borden’s push for it. The Conservatives in Alberta also supported conscription.
This may have been the only time in Alberta history where the main issue of the campaign was agreed upon by the two main parties.
Sifton would state that the election was being held during wartime because of the Conservatives since the election didn’t need to happen until May 18, 1918. Michener would say to this,
“Premier Sifton is blaming the opposition for holding this election now. The premier’s explanations are something like the money brought from Africa, far fetched and full of nonsense.”
In the June 7, 1917 election, Arthur Sifton and the Liberals were returned to power with 34 seats, a drop of five seats from the previous election. The Liberal Party did not know it, but this would be the last time to date that the party would win another election in Alberta’s history.
With his party divided due to the Conscription Crisis, and Sifton as an ardent supporter of conscription, he was asked by Prime Minister Robert Borden to join the Unionist Government.
He agreed and his time as the premier of Alberta came to an end after seven years on Oct. 30. Due to the somewhat chaotic nature of Alberta politics, to this day, his seven years 157 days is sixth most among all premiers in Alberta’s history.
Leaving his post as premier, Sifton was incredibly popular. The Free Press Prairie Farmer wrote,
“The men who sat behind him in the Legislature I wouldn’t say loved him, but they worshiped him. He was head and shoulders above everybody else.”
As soon as he resigned as premier, he was made the Minister of Customs for the Union Government in Ottawa.
On Dec. 17, 1917, Sifton had his election in Medicine Hat where he defeated his competitor by 2,124 votes.
Now elected to Parliament his time at the federal level was short. By this point he was 58, and his health was not the best. He needed a car to take him from his Ottawa residence to the House of Commons, a distance of only a few hundred metres, and due to his low energy he was not given any major portfolios, only minor ones where he had little impact.
“Sifton carried a burden of ill-health along with one of the ablest minds in the country, having attained wealth and position and wearing a smile that said all is vanity. For he knew, even when he came to Ottawa, that his time was short.”
Despite this, he was highly regarded by his colleagues. Borden would say of him,
“There was no one in whose judgement I placed firmer reliance.”
In 1919, Sifton was one of four Canadian delegates to the Paris Peace Conference that would work out the terms of the end of the First World War. On June 28, 1919, he was one of only two Canadians to sign the Treaty of Versailles.
In January 1921, Sifton became ill and took leave from his duties. While many expected him to recover, his health worsened.
On Jan. 21, 1921, he passed away at the age of 62. Borden would say the country lost,
“a public servant of the highest ability and of the most conspicuous patriotism.”
Throughout Ottawa, flags were put at half-mast to honour Sifton
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Biographi, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Journal, Free Press Prairie Farmer, Alberta Archives,
Leave a Reply