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McGill's Greatest Law Student: The Unknown Scholar

(published in the McGill News, Fall 2003)

Who is McGill's most famous law graduate? Perhaps Canadian Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier or Sir John Abbott or Supreme Court Judge Pierre Basile Mignault?

There is no contest, however, as to who is McGill's greatest law student. Unfortunately his name seems to have disappeared in what historians call the mists of history (when their researchers can't find the answer). No doubt, too, he did not want to publicize what he had done to merit such fame – for it was he, who directly caused the resignation of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald (Canada`s first prime minister) and his government in November 1873, and then its defeat in the general election which followed in 1874.

The story is part of Canadian history.

To fulfill the promise to British Columbia, which joined Confederation in 1871, a railway was to be built across Canada to Vancouver. Macdonald as Prime Minister properly wanted a Canadian route but awarded the concession to Sir Hugh Allan, President of the Bank of Montreal, who was the strongest of the three contenders. Allan wanted the rail line to go through the United States as a concession to friend and fellow investor the American Jay Cooke. Macdonald opposed and Allan immediately used large funds and gifts of stock to buy off influential businessmen and the press in order to have the American route accepted. Allan spent over $365,000. As a matter of course he had also helped the Conservative Party in the election of September 1, 1872, apparently providing Macdonald ($35,000), Georges Etienne-Cartier ($50,000) and Hector Langevin ($115,000). Macdonald, Cartier and Langevin were each Conservative organizers in a number of constituencies and used the monies for electoral purposes.

Six days before the election, Macdonald who had overspent, sent a telegram which read: “I must have another $10,000. Will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me. Answer today.” Allan kept the telegram in his files and then gave it to his lawyer, John Abbott, for safe-keeping, and no doubt for future use to put pressure on Macdonald, if the occasion were to ever arise. Abbott had a law office but was also Dean Of Law of McGill (1855-1880). The Liberals smelling a scandal began assembling documents and a law student in Abbott's law office stole the telegram and it was eventually produced in the House of Commons by Lucius Seth Huntingdon, the Liberal member for Stanstead.

A vote of confidence in the House followed on November 1, 1873 and the government fell. Donald A. Smith, the independent member from Selkirk, Manitoba, gave the deciding vote after letting the government dangle in the wind by concealing his intentions during the debate, which raged for six days. The resulting general election, on January 22, 1874, was fought on the issue of the "Pacific Scandal" and Macdonald and the Conservatives lost.

Nevertheless, the various players in the epic were able to rise from the ashes. Macdonald became Prime Minister again in 1878 and died in office. The Railway did eventually go through Canada and the Dominion was saved. Donald Smith supported Macdonald in the election of 1878, backed the CPR trans-Canada railway project, drove in the last spike on November 7, 1885, made a fortune, was knighted in 1886 and became Lord Strathcona, in 1897. In 1891 Sir John Abbott became Prime Minister of Canada for a year on Macdonald's death. Sir Hugh Allan also made money out of the Railway, shipping, banking and everything else he touched. His large home is still seen today at the top of MacTavish Street (above Pine Avenue) and is the centerpiece of a large medical institute known as The Allan Pavillion. Langevin returned as a Cabinet Minister in 1878 and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1881.

Thus, in the end, all the rascals prospered. The only one who seems to have been unrewarded was McGill's most famous law student, who is still unknown.

Let this be is a lesson (albeit of philosophic complexity), to us all at McGill.

William Tetley Q.C., (B.A. McGill 1948)
practiced law from 1952 to 1970 was in the Quebec National Assembly and Bourassa Cabinet from 1970-1976 and from 1976 to the present has taught law at McGill Law Faculty.