WILSON, ERASTUS WILLIAM, businessman and officer; b. 1 July 1860 in Belleville, Upper Canada, son of James Wilson, an iron founder, and Mary Ann Dowser; m. 1887 Sara Etta L. Bricker of Berlin (Kitchener), Ont., and they had two sons and one daughter; d. 15 May 1922 in Montreal.
Erastus William Wilson received his early schooling in Belleville and then went on to secondary school in Oshawa. He chose to enter the business world rather than to attend the University of Toronto, where his application had been accepted.
Wilson moved to Montreal in 1882. Two years later he began working for the Manufacturers’ Life Insurance Company [see George Gooderham*], and he would serve as manager of its Montreal office until 1911. After transferring then to the Canada Life Assurance Company, again as manager, he would later be in charge of its operations for the province of Quebec, and he continued in this position for the rest of his life. He would also be a director of Crown Trust Company as well as of Peter Lyall and Sons Construction Company.
In the course of his career, in addition to playing an effective role in the Montreal Board of Trade, Wilson was honoured by appointment as a member for life to the board of directors of the Montreal General Hospital and the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. He also participated as a mason in the activities of Royal Victoria Lodge No.57, of which he would become a past master. In 1895 he rose to the position of provincial grand director of ceremonies. He belonged to several organizations in the Montreal region: the prestigious St James Club and Mount Royal Club, as well as the Forest and Stream Club. In 1917 the king made him a companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. He would live in Westmount and have a summer residence in Dorval.
Wilson’s interest in the military life was evident from the time he came to Montreal in 1882, the year he enlisted as a private in the 3rd Battalion of Rifles (Victoria Rifles of Canada). Probably as a result of the quality of his performance and leadership, he rose through the ranks and obtained an officer’s commission in January 1892. He assumed command of the regiment on 25 Sept. 1903, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and he relinquished it four years later.
Wilson was promoted colonel on 1 June 1914 with his appointment as acting commander of Military District No.4 (Montreal). When World War I broke out on 4 Aug. 1914, he joined the staff of the minister of militia and defence, Samuel Hughes, in Valcartier, and in October he accompanied him to England as his orderly officer. On 20 November he took command of Military District No.4. He was made a brigadier-general on 1 Sept. 1915. The following year he was given command of the camp at Valcartier, and in June he was promoted major-general. He resumed command of Military District No.4 in 1917. In the summer of 1918 he went to England and inspected Canadian troops on the front lines with Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden* and the minister of the overseas military forces, Sir Albert Edward Kemp. He returned to Canada in August. When the war ended he asked to be relieved of his duties, but the military authorities persuaded him to remain at his post until the repatriation of the troops had been completed. He finally gave up command of Military District No.4 in October 1919. He died less than three years later, on 15 May 1922, at the age of 61. His two sons had both taken part in World War I. Erastus William had enlisted in the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles Brigade and served on its headquarters staff. Bradley Alexander had also joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Wilson made a success of his business and military careers. He even managed to attend to each of them during the war. This was no small task, and he accomplished it at the cost of his health. He performed his wartime duties to the satisfaction of the authorities, as his successive promotions demonstrate. As commander of District No.4, he played a significant role in recruitment. But like many other Montreal businessmen of the time, Wilson did not speak French, and his cultural and social world was an English-speaking one. His lack of sensitivity towards French Canadians hampered his work. He did indeed help Olivar Asselin* in recruiting the 163rd Infantry Battalion, as Rodolphe Lemieux* acknowledged in the House of Commons. On the other hand, on 12 July 1915 he supported the imposition of conscription.
Wilson tried, but failed, to create a strong, vigorous, and active civilian organization in the Montreal area for recruiting French Canadians. For this purpose he got in touch with three soldiers and with three French Canadian civilians, Senator Frédéric-Ligori Béïque*, Sir Alexander Lacoste, and especially Senator Raoul Dandurand*, but they were unable to respond favourably to his request for assistance. They did not find a francophone priest prepared to take charge of recruiting French-speaking volunteers, as Wilson had hoped, nor were they able to establish a fund similar to that of the Citizen’s Recruiting League, an English-language organization set up to promote the recruitment of men willing to enlist in the anglophone battalions operating in Military District No.4. On 14 March 1916 Wilson appointed a Methodist clergyman, the Reverend Charles A. Williams, as chief recruiting agent for his district, claiming that he had been unable to find a French-speaking priest to hold this position. Nonetheless, he might have chosen an officer or a layman instead, as was done in Military District No.5, based at Quebec. Lemieux referred to this ill-considered appointment the following year in the course of the debates on the Military Service Act in the House of Commons. During his time as head of the camp at Valcartier, Wilson could not understand the difficult position of the French Canadian commanders of battalions, who were reduced to the role of recruiting officers. This incomprehension became clear in 1916 in his evaluation of the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Hercule Barré, commander of the 150th Infantry Battalion, and his criticism of Lieutenant-Colonel René-Arthur de La Bruère Girouard, commander of the 178th Infantry Battalion.
In spite of these reservations, it must be acknowledged that Erastus William Wilson was a staunch high-ranking officer, dedicated to the cause of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and, as Lemieux said, in his daily life “a real gentleman.”
LAC, RG 31, C1, 1861, Belleville, [Ont.], dist.1, Sampson Ward: 14; 1871, Oshawa, Ont., div.2: 65–66; RG 150, Acc. 1992–93/166, box 10442-23. Le Devoir, 16 mai 1922. J.-P. Gagnon, Le 22e bataillon (canadien-français), 1914–1919; étude socio-militaire (Québec et Ottawa, 1986). Nicholson, CEF. The storied province of Quebec; past and present, ed. W. [C. H.] Wood et al. (5v., Toronto, 1931–32), 3.