by Neil Forsyth
The Sifton family has played a very diverse role in Canadian history. A highly political family, they have produced three politicians, one of them a major figure. They have also had a long association with newspaper publishing, a variety of business enterprises, and broadcasting. The present generation, the fourth, has withdrawn entirely from politics and largely from journalism.
From the beginning, the Siftons were Liberals. John Wright Sifton (1833-1912) was a farmer and small contractor in London Township, Ontario. When Alexander Mackenzie was elected in 1874, Sifton's Liberal Party connections enabled him to obtain a series of Canadian Pacific Railway contracts in Manitoba. The 1878 Liberal defeat resulted in the subjection of his contracts to intense and damaging scrutiny. He moved to Brandon in 1881 to participate in the town's land boom, but instead participated in the bust that followed. He was twice elected to the Manitoba Legislature and served in the session of 1878-1879 as Speaker of the House; but he was defeated in four election campaigns, and eventually withdrew from politics and moved to California. On his return to Manitoba, he managed to obtain a sinecure through his political connections, and spent the rest of his career filling a series of undemanding patronage positions.
John Wright Sifton had two sons. Arthur (1859-1921), the elder, established a law practice in Brandon in 1881 with his brother Clifford before moving west in 1885. Entering the public arena in the Northwest Territories on the ground floor, and with some assistance from friends in high places, he had a phenomenally successful career. By 1907, he had become Chief Justice of the new province of Alberta. He subsequently entered provincial politics and almost immediately became Premier. From 1910 to 1917, he continuously held the premiership and three or four important cabinet portfolios. Finally, in 1917, he entered federal politics by joining the Union Government, successively holding four portfolios before the government was dissolved in 1920. He ended his life as first Chairman of the Canadian Air Board.
Brilliant as Arthur Sifton's career was, it was overshadowed by that of his brother Clifford (1861-1929). Possibly the best-known cabinet minister of Canada's first half-century, he is the subject of a recent biography by D.J. Hall. Sifton was Manitoba's Attorney-General from 1891 to 1896; responsible for education, he conducted the negotiations leading to the Laurier-Greenway Compromise of 1896. Laurier invited him into the federal cabinet, and from 1896 to 1905 he was Minister of the Interior and Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs. In the former portfolio, he was associated with the government's immigration policy, which succeeded in filling much of western Canada with settlers. His tenure at Indian Affairs attracted criticism, to which he responded through the Manitoba Free Press, which he purchased in 1898 and which continued to act as a Liberal organ long after his death.
Sifton resigned in 1905 after a dispute with Laurier, and turned to speculations in resource industries, transportation and other fields, usually with some success. By the end of his life, he had amassed a considerable fortune, but as a dynast he had a serious flaw. By some congenital weakness in his offspring, most members of the next two generations failed to reach their fiftieth birthdays. The repeated disappearance of family members at critical times undoubtedly limited the subsequent impact of the family on public affairs.
Clifford's five sons followed him into business. The eldest, John Wright, became Secretary-Treasurer of the Free Press. Henry Arthur, the third, was an unsuccessful Liberal candidate and President of Armadale Corporation, the family's holding company. Rather more colourful was the career of Winfield Burrows, the second son, who went to England during the First World War, initially to deal in war material. After the Armistice, he became involved with several companies bearing such unlikely names as the Anglo-Canadian Association of Roumanian Trade and the Venezuelan Estates & Oil Company, all of which failed. Often the failures were followed by lawsuits and the despatch of substantial cheques from the elder Sifton. Winfield also managed to interest Sir Clifford, who had great hopes for his son, in the projected Montreal, Ottawa and Georgian Bay Canal Company. The project, which would have involved the construction of a huge hydro-electric power and transportation complex, ultimately embroiled the Siftons in a decade of futile litigation and cost its investors their entire stake. Eventually, the chastened Winfield returned to Toronto, where he died in 1928 at the age of 38.