Lord Strathcona: A Biography of Donald Alexander Smith


600 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55002-266-0
DDC 971.05'092





Reviewed by William A. Waiser

William A. Waiser is a professor of history at the University of
Saskatchewan, and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History
of Prince Albert National Park and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of
Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915–1946.


One of the most enduring images in Canadian history is the ceremonial
driving of the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway at
Craigellachie, British Columbia, on November 7, 1885. The man who
wielded the maul that morning in the Monashee Mountains was 65-year-old
Donald Smith, a founding member of the CPR syndicate who had risked his
wealth to see the transcontinental line completed. Smith’s service to
the country did not end there. As Donna McDonald observes in this first
major biography of Lord Strathcona since 1915, a third of his life still
lay ahead.

Scottish-born Donald Alexander Smith (1820–1914) joined the
Hudson’s Bay Company as an apprentice clerk in 1838 and within little
more than three decades was named chief commissioner. Smith’s
experience in some of the more remote parts of Canada, especially
northern Quebec and Labrador, gave him an appreciation of the vastness
and great potential of his adopted country. But it was his shrewd
investing—he was the HBC’s largest shareholder—that enabled him to
underwrite the young dominion’s greatest project, the Canadian Pacific

Smith played a pivotal role in defusing the 1869–70 Red River
Resistance when he was sent to facilitate negotiations with Métis
leader Louis Riel. His diplomatic skills would be formally recognized in
1896, when he was appointed Canadian High Commissioner to the United
Kingdom, a position he held until his death. He was also a reluctant
politician (representing Manitoba and later Montreal West) and in 1873,
in the midst of the Pacific Scandal, helped bring down the Macdonald
government. Smith’s most fulfilling role was that of benefactor. In
1884, he provided the funding that eventually led to the establishment
of the Royal Victoria College of Women at McGill University. He
performed similar charitable deeds after he was elevated to the peerage
in 1897 and assumed the title Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.

McDonald has written an engaging, generally laudatory biography that is
rich in detail and provides considerable insight into the sources of
Smith’s great wealth.


McDonald, Donna., “Lord Strathcona: A Biography of Donald Alexander Smith,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/4871.