April 5, 2022

People Worth Writing About

Sir Clifford Sifton, Sir James Aikins, and Sir James Lougheed are all deserving of biographies.

People Worth Writing About

This may be the golden age of Canadian biography. Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau, John A, Macdonald and R.B.Bennet have all been featured in recent acclaimed biographies. What I would like to see, however, are more biographies and studies of other leading influential citizens to give our history more depth and texture. I offer as an example three major Canadian figures of one hundred years ago: Sir Clifford Sifton, Sir James Aikins, and Sir James Lougheed. I am struck by the similarities of their careers, how important they were in their time, and how forgotten they are today compared to their contemporary prime ministers and fellow “knights” SirJohn A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Sir Robert Borden. 

Sifton, Aikins and Lougheed, all of similar Protestant Irish background, were born and educated in Ontario.By 1882, all three were practising law in Manitoba. Sifton, twenty-two, was working with his elder brother in Brandon, a booming railway town. Aikins, thirty-one, had established a law firm in Winnipeg just as that city started to boom; Lougheed was twenty-eight, and newly arrived from Toronto when he started practising in Aikins’s firm.

Each would go on to have a major impact on the development of Western Canada, and indeed, the country.

Sifton’s career is the best known. A successful lawyer who engaged mainly in real estate law and speculation, he married into a prominent Ottawa family. He eventually entered politics as a Liberal. As Attorney General of Manitoba, he played a decisive role in the famous Manitoba schools question – a conflict over funding forRoman Catholic schools that served a predominantly francophone population– by crafting a historic compromise for Premier Thomas Greenway and PrimeMinister Wilfrid Laurier. Entering federal politics, Sifton was named minister of the interior. Under Laurier, he led the charge to settle the West through immigration. Knighted in 1915, Sifton also owned a string of influential newspapers.

James Aikins

Aikins meanwhile, became the top corporate lawyer in Western Canada, representing the CPR, a dominant influence in the West. He also represented the Federal Department of Justice (including during the trial of Louis Riel). Aikins married well (his father-n-law was a federal cabinet minister) and became wealthy from real estate and mortgage deals. He founded and endowed the Canadian Bar Association, serving as its first president for many years, and was an important community leader and philanthropist.Late in life, he entered active politics briefly as a Conservative, succeeding Sifton as MP for Brandon, and then leading the provincial Conservatives in an unsuccessful election campaign. Knighted in 1914, he was two years later namedLieutenant Governor of Manitoba, an office he held for a decade. By 1919, he was one of nineteen millionaires listed in Winnipeg.

James Lougheed

As for Lougheed, he left Winnipeg after only one year in the city and arrived in Fort Calgary just ahead of the CPR. He too married well, his wife being related to both Sir DonaldSmith and Richard Hardisty – the latter was then the richest man in theNorthwest. Lougheed established a successful law practice and invested in real estate. Thanks to his connections to Smith, he acted for the CPR. He eventually entered politics, succeeding Hardisty as a Conservative senator, and served as leader of the Opposition in the Senate during Laurier’s administration. He was an important Cabinet member under Prime Ministers Borden and Arthur Meighen, holding Sifton’s old post of minister of the interior.

The legacies of these three men are still obvious today. The Siftons owned Western newspapers like theWinnipeg Free Press and the Regina Leader Post to decades after Clifford's death, and his descendants remained prominent public figures. For instance, his son, Colonel Victor Sifton, was publisher of the Free Press until his death in 1961 and also served as chancellor of the University of Manitoba.

The Aikins law firm has been a major Winnipeg institution for 120 years, producing many eminent citizens and judges, including two for the Supreme Court of Canada. James Aikins' son,Colonel Harold Aikins, was a senior partner of the firm until his death in 1954and also served as president of the Canadian Bar Association.

The Lougheed name also remains well-known. James Lougheed's grandson, Peter Lougheed, served with distinction as premier of Alberta.

There are so many themes to explore in the biographies of these men, so many questions to answer. They all came from similar backgrounds, married well, and were influential on the national stage Were they in agreement about the big issues of the day, such as prohibition, immigration, labour, and conscription? How did each manage to forge a full career while also succeeding in politics and civic life? What were the impacts of their non-political roles in law, business, civic affairs, and philanthropy? The answers to these questions would undoubtedly offer Canadians valuable insight into tackling today's challenges.

It's been more than eighty years since the deaths of these great Canadians. Lougheed died in 1925, Sifton and Aikins in 1929. What they need are writers of stature willing to give them their due. Personally, I hope that eminent biographers such as Richard Gwyn, John English, and John Boyko will rise to the challenge and produce excellent profiles of Sifton, Aikins, and Lougheed. In hindsight, they are as important to our history as the better-known political leaders of the past.


James Arnett is a graduate of Harvard Law School He practised corporate law, was CEO of Molson Inc., and now chairs a large utility in Toronto. He is also a past chair of Canada's History Society and the current chair of its advisory council.

James Arnett small headshot

James Arnett

Author and Lawyer

Emerson James “Jim” Arnett was born and raised in Winnipeg and graduated in Arts and Law from the University of Manitoba and Harvard Law School, which he attended on scholarship. After practicing law briefly in the Department of Justice in Ottawa, and in private practice in Winnipeg, and after a brief stint in the advertising business in Toronto, he settled down to practice corporate law. He became a partner in Davies, Ward & Beck (a forerunner of Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg)in Toronto and then a senior partner in the Toronto and Washington, DC, offices of Stikeman, Elliott, a major Canadian law firm. He was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1979, served on the Council of the Section of Business Law of the International Bar Association and as Ontario editor of the Canadian Bar Review. He subsequently served as CEO of The Molson Companies Limited (now merged into Molson Coors), Chairman of Club de Hockey Canadien Inc., and as Chair of Hydro One Inc., a major Ontario utility. He has acted as an adviser to the governments of Canada and the Province of Ontario. He was Chair of Toronto East General Hospital (now Michael Garron Hospital) and Chair of Canada’s National History Society. He and his wife, Alix, have four adult children and live in Toronto.

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