Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

SIFTON, CLIFFORD (1861-1929)

Sir Clifford Sifton was a successful Manitoba lawyer, entrepreneur, member of the provincial and federal governments, and newspaper publisher. Of Protestant Irish descent, Sifton was born near Arva, Ontario, on March 10, 1861, educated there and in Manitoba, and trained as a lawyer in Winnipeg. He settled in Brandon in 1882, where he established a law practice and speculated in land during the early settlement years of the region. Elected to the provincial legislature in 1888, he became attorney general in the Liberal government of Thomas Greenway in 1891. He led a successful defense of the government's controversial 1890 legislation to create a system of national schools, and his efforts stimulated expansion of the province's railway network.

In November of 1896 he became minister of the interior and superintendent-general of Indian Affairs in the federal Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. There he devoted his great energies and organizational abilities to attracting settlers to the Prairie West. Through aggressive advertising in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe, he brought the potential of the Canadian Prairies to the attention of vast numbers of potential immigrants. He overhauled the system for getting immigrants to the West and actually settled on the land, and he pressured railway and other interests to make available vast tracts of land previously withheld from settlement. His policy of attracting large numbers of settlers from central and eastern Europe, particularly Slavs such as Poles, Ukrainians, and Doukhobors, was intensely controversial; nativist critics believed that the newcomers, who often settled in blocs, would fail to assimilate and would undermine the essential British character of Canadian society. Though unmoved by this argument, Sifton had his own prejudices, believing that these people were peasant races who would succeed in coping with the hardships of Prairie farming where thousands of Britishers had failed. As he later famously remarked, "I think a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality."

Sifton also was responsible for government policy in the Yukon during the gold rush beginning in 1897, and he was Canada's agentgeneral during the Alaska Boundary Tribunal of 1903. He was chiefly responsible for negotiating lowered freight rates into and out of the West in connection with the building of the Crowsnest Pass Railway in 1897 and was influential in shaping the government's railway legislation in 1903. In 1905, when the government was about to create the new Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Sifton disagreed with Laurier over the educational provisions of the proposed provincial acts and resigned from the cabinet. He remained in Parliament as a private member until 1911, when he opposed the government's policy with respect to reciprocity with the United States. He played a significant role in helping the Conservative opposition defeat Laurier's government. His last major involvement in politics came in 1917, when during World War I he actively aided in the organization and successful election campaign of a win-the-war Union government, dedicated to implementing a policy of conscription. Sifton was knighted in 1915.

In 1909 Laurier appointed Sifton to head the Canadian Commission of Conservation, a position he held until November 1918. The commission was influential in promoting the efficient management of resources. In 1897-98 he had purchased the Manitoba Free Press of Winnipeg to be the major organ of the Liberal Party in western Canada; it was an enormously profitable investment, both politically and financially, owing much to Sifton's selection of the brilliant John W. Dafoe as editor. At his death, in New York City on April 17, 1929, the paper was the most valuable item in the family's considerable portfolio. Sifton had become a figure of national importance, but his reputation rests most securely in his role in developing the Prairie West.

See also MEDIA: Winnipeg Free Press .

David J. Hall University of Alberta

Dafoe, John W. Clifford Sifton in Relation to His Times. Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1931.

Hall, David J. Clifford Sifton. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985.

Sifton, Sir Clifford. Papers. National Archives of Canada, Ottawa.

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