Clifford Sifton

Clifford Sifton (1861-1929) was a politician who did more than anyone else to turn the Canadian West into a premiere agricultural area.

Clifford Sifton's father, John Wright Sifton, was a farmer, oil man, and banker and a devout Methodist. Of Irish origin, he moved his family to England and then to Canada, where Clifford was born in a farmhouse near Arva, Canada West (Ontario), on March 10, 1861. Clifford's older brother, Arthur Lewis Sifton (born October 26, 1858), was also destined to play an important role in the early political life of western Canada.

In 1874 John moved the Sifton family again, this time to Selkirk, Manitoba. Clifford and his brother attended two Methodist institutions, Wesley College in Winnipeg and Victoria College in Cobourg, Ontario. Clifford graduated in 1880 as the gold medalist. The two brothers articled (were apprentices) in Winnipeg and set up law practice in the town of Brandon, Manitoba. Clifford's father broke ground for his sons in politics, running for office six times, although with only moderate success.

Clifford won his first provincial election in Brandon North as a Liberal in 1888, eloquently denouncing the monopolistic privileges of the powerful Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). As attorney general of Manitoba, 1891-1895, he inherited the volatile, complex school issue that turned on the rights guaranteed to French and Catholic Manitobans to support their own schools. His passionate opposition to religious instruction in the schools brought him to national prominence. The issue was tearing Manitoba apart and presenting an intractable thorn in the side of the French and Catholic prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier. In 1896 Sifton worked out a "compromise" that effectively curtailed the separate schools but managed to save face for the prime minister.

Laurier was impressed and brought Sifton into the federal cabinet as minister of the interior and superintendent general of Indian affairs. Despite a deafness that afflicted him all his life, Sifton's high energy, mastery of political organization, and incisive analytical mind set him apart, even in Laurier's talented cabinet. He negotiated the important Crow's Nest Pass Agreement with the CPR. He was responsible for the administration of the Yukon during the turmoil of the Klondike Gold Rush, and he was the agent in charge of presenting Canada's case to the Alaska Boundary Tribunal in 1903.

Despite his successes, Sifton found it necessary to silence some of his critics in the highly partisan world of the press. He purchased the Manitoba Free Press newspaper in 1897 and hired as his editor John W. Dafoe, one of the ablest journalists in Canadian history (and a future biographer).

Sifton's greatest accomplishment was the organization of a massive immigration into the Canadian West. From 1880 to 1891 over one million Canadians and immigrants had left Canada for the United States. Sifton had an unbounded confidence in the future prosperity of the Canadian West, and he determined to ensure that Canadian (that is, British), not American, institutions be established on the northern prairie. A born organizer, he eliminated the bureaucratic fumbling that frustrated settlers trying to buy land, simplified procedures, centralized decisions, and orchestrated a massive publicity campaign in Europe and North America. He dispatched lecturers to fall fairs in the United States and distributed pamphlets and ads in thousands of American newspapers. Six hundred U.S. editors (in an early version of the modern "media tour") were given free trips to Canada, as were British members of Parliament (MPs). Agents scoured Britain, Germany, and other European countries to publicize the "golden fields" of the West and to lure the "peasants in sheepskin coats" of present-day Ukraine and Romania to the Canadian West. Despite repeated attacks by nativists, Sifton's "stalwart peasants" turned some of the most difficult areas of the West into productive farms. Sifton's campaign stands as the greatest and most successful public relations campaign in Canadian history, bringing more than two million newcomers to Canada between 1896 and 1911.

Sifton resigned from the federal cabinet on February 27, 1905, following a dispute with Laurier over school policy for the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In 1911 he broke with the Liberal Party on its policy of "reciprocity" (free trade) with the United States, supporting the protectionist Conservatives. Though he did not run for Parliament again, he remained an influential presence in public life. He was chairman of the Canadian Commission of Conservation from 1909 to 1918, promoting conservation measures far ahead of their time. He was knighted by King George V on January 1, 1915.

Sifton died on April 17, 1929, in New York, where he had gone to consult a specialist in heart disease. Despite the suspicion of many contemporaries that he was fabulously wealthy, he left an estate officially valued at $3.2 million, though the government valued it at much more. He was highly secretive about his business affairs, and his biographers have still not discovered how, in the words of one critic, he came to Ottawa a poor man and left it a rich man. Many considered him ruthless and unprincipled, but Sifton was a man of exceptional achievement. He had a deep and persistent faith in Canada's future, and he left an imposing monument in the settlement and development of one of the world's greatest agricultural areas, the Canadian West.


Further Reading on Clifford Sifton

J.W. Dafoe's Clifford Sifton in Relation to His Times (1931) is a personal and sympathetic memoir. David J. Hall, Clifford Sifton, 2 vols. (1981, 1985), is a thorough, scholarly, and readable biography and contains a detailed bibliography. The best general history of Canada in Sifton's time is Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook, Canada 1896-1921: A Nation Transformed (1974).

Additional Biography Sources

Hall, D. J. (David John), Clifford Sifton, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1981-1985.