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HARRISON, DAVID HOWARD, physician, businessman, rancher, and politician; b. 1 June 1843 in London Township, Upper Canada, son of Milner Harrison and Catherine Howard; m. 26 April 1866 Margaret Notman in Montreal, and they had one son and one daughter; m. secondly 1874 Katherine (Kate) Stevenson, and they had one son and two daughters; d. 8 Sept. 1905 in Vancouver.

When David Howard Harrison was almost two years old, his father moved to Perth County, Upper Canada, and established one of the first stores in St Marys. He became a successful businessman and a politician of some note. David attended the St Marys public school, Caradoc Academy, and Galt Grammar School before enrolling in the faculty of arts at the University of Toronto. In 1864 he graduated from McGill College in Montreal with a medical degree. He established a practice in St Marys, and later became coroner for Perth County.

Two years after he left McGill, Harrison married Margaret Notman, a native of Scotland and sister of photographer William Notman*. By 1871 their first child had arrived. Margaret died two years later, after giving birth to a daughter, Maggie, who would become the paternal grandmother of author Margaret Laurence [Wemyss*]. Harrison remarried in 1874, to Kate Stevenson of Sarnia. He had by then developed an active interest in the flax trade and in Conservative politics. He served for a time as town councillor in St Marys, but in 1882 he packed away his physician’s shingle to become a rancher in what was then northwestern Manitoba. With his father and his wife, he acquired and developed a sizeable amount of land in the vicinity of Newdale. A year later the newly formed municipality of Harrison was named after him.

In December 1882 Harrison had introduced himself by letter to Premier John Norquay* as the Conservative candidate for Minnedosa in the forthcoming provincial general election. He was elected, and by the following summer a warm relationship had developed between the two men. The premier’s summer residence at Salt Lake was close to Harrison’s lands and both would delight in hunting ducks and prairie chickens. Norquay appears to have cultivated Harrison’s fondness for Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald* and was attentive to his claims to patronage. Harrison’s rise to influence within the Norquay administration was meteoric. Norquay might complain that his colleague’s political style was usually “fast and loose,” but Harrison’s oratorical skill and varied experience, combined with the growing importance of the northwestern region of the province, made him a natural addition to the cabinet. As a result, on 27 Aug. 1886 he was appointed minister of agriculture, statistics, and health. Surprisingly, a full year before taking Harrison into his administration Norquay had written to the Macdonald government proposing his own appointment as lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories and suggesting that “Dr. Harrison could take my place and run the government here.” In the general election of December 1886 Harrison successfully contested the new riding of West Minnedosa.

Norquay won the election of 1886 because of a public pledge to end the monopoly of the Canadian Pacific Railway and because he had obtained “better terms” in the province’s financial relationship with the federal government. The terms had been negotiated, however, with a government committed to the preservation of the monopoly through the disallowance of provincial railway legislation. Norquay was eventually obliged to renounce his support of the federal government in the face of public pressure for the construction of the Red River Valley Railway. Yet it was the complex financing of another line, the Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway, that became the object of political controversy leading to Norquay’s downfall.

In an arrangement surrounded by intrigue, the major point of contention became the approval of a federal land grant to the railway company which Provincial Treasurer Alphonse-Alfred-Clément La Rivière* insisted he had received from Macdonald early in 1887. Using this grant as security, Norquay was to transfer provincial bonds to the contractors, Herbert Samuel Holt* and Donald Mann*, as payment for the work performed. But Macdonald denied ever having provided such approval and the Norquay administration, with an unenviable reputation for financial scandals, was plunged into a final crisis.

As the affair was made public, La Rivière and Harrison hastened to Ottawa in early December 1887 and tried unsuccessfully to resolve the issue. Macdonald remained firm, and although he had not authored Norquay’s predicament, he availed himself of the opportunity to undermine an administration whose integrity and political reliability he had long doubted. Harrison and his colleagues had also known about irregularities for some time. In a private audience with the prime minister, Harrison was enjoined by Macdonald to accept a compromise whereby Harrison would obtain the consent of both parties to a cessation of hostile provincial railway legislation in return for the termination of the CPR monopoly in 1891. Although he had doubts about the plan’s chances of success, Harrison agreed to advocate it. Macdonald also pressed for a coalition government of honest members drawn from both political camps – an idea increasingly popular with some Manitoba Conservatives.

When Harrison returned, he and Norquay engaged in a test of strength. The party was torn by the Macdonald-La Rivière controversy. Threatened with the resignations of their cabinet colleagues, Norquay and La Rivière submitted their own. Harrison was chosen leader of the divided party and became premier on 26 December.

The new premier’s cabinet included Charles Edward Hamilton as attorney general, David Henry Wilson as minister of public works, and Joseph Burke, an Irish Catholic, as provincial secretary and representative of the French element in the assembly. Harrison took on the portfolio of provincial treasurer and retained that of agriculture, statistics, and health. The cabinet faced its first major trial in the by-elections called to submit Burke’s nomination to popular approval and to fill a vacancy in Assiniboia. Both campaigns were hampered by the government’s lack of financial resources as well as its considerable vacillation and ineptitude.

Even as the speech from the throne was being delivered on 12 Jan. 1888, Harrison’s government began to unravel. Burke was losing his by-election, regarded as a test of the administration’s mandate to govern. In Harrison’s own words, those seeking to further their own ambitions by threatening defection from the party had “swarmed about [me] like hungry wolves.” Chief among them were Corydon Partlow Brown* and Edward Philip Leacock, who sought to control the balance of power in the assembly. Harrison had already lost the support of James-Émile-Pierre Prendergast* with Burke’s elevation to cabinet and the uncertain alliance of newly elected Duncan MacArthur in Assiniboia further imperilled the government’s slender majority.

In an atmosphere of deceit and suspicion an acrimonious caucus session was held the following day, described by Conservative mp Joseph Royal, as “one of the best circus’ many an mpp ever attended.” Harrison, with the support of the western wing of the party, and Norquay, with the support of the eastern, “quarrelled and recriminated and fulminated against one another.” Not only were the losses of the by-elections at issue, so too was the continuing agony of the bond transfer. These and other matters promised to split the party if debate took place in the assembly. With the treasury virtually empty and desertions providing a potential majority for the opposition, Harrison announced on 16 January his administration’s intention to resign. He left power three days later.

Although Harrison had sought to avoid a discussion of the Macdonald-La Rivière controversy in the assembly, he had failed signally in fulfilling his promise to Macdonald. To the lieutenant governor, James Cox Aikins, and the prime minister, the premier and his cabinet maintained that both parties had been opposed to coalition, but this was not entirely true. William Bain Scarth told Macdonald that Harrison “went back utterly” on his agreement to explore the possibility of a coalition. Thomas Mayne Daly*, an mp, complained to the prime minister that Harrison, despite his claims to the contrary, had not even discussed the compromise of 1891 with his caucus. In fact he consulted no one. “He is too . . . mean to be a leader of men,” Daly insisted, concluding that “Harrison will forever be blamed for not introducing that policy.”

The premier’s own aspirations and inflexibility may have made a coalition impossible, but he would have faced a serious problem in compromising on the CPR monopoly. Harrison’s western supporters were furiously opposed to the monopoly and Norquay had vowed to reject it as well. Perhaps to avoid a dangerous split, Harrison’s government had proposed in the speech from the throne to expropriate land and continue the construction of the Red River Valley Railway, measures which he felt certain would be declared ultra vires by the courts. And that, he told Macdonald, “would have been an end to the fight.” Both governments would have been absolved of further action, and the way would thereby be opened for the introduction of the compromise in a more favourable climate.

Macdonald found Harrison wanting in “tact and pluck” in the events which had led to the fall of his government. He later chided the former premier on a number of points. Harrison defended his actions, including his endorsement of Norquay’s return to the helm of the party following his resignation, claiming that he had supported him in the hope of drawing the factions of the badly fractured party together. To his dismay, his stand had had the opposite effect.

Harrison’s subsequent political involvement became more selective. After his resignation he had urged Macdonald not to retreat from his position on ending the CPR monopoly in 1891. “If a compromise is sooner effected,” he warned, “it will break us up.” But Ottawa’s settlement with his successor as premier, Thomas Greenway, followed shortly and Harrison was obviously irked. Writing to the prime minister in 1891 Scarth repeated Harrison’s claim that “he would work tooth and nail for Conservatives in local matters, but he would do nothing but vote in Dominion matters . . . owing to the way you had treated him.” Shortly before his death, Macdonald wrote to the former premier pointing out that it was only after his resignation and the formation of Greenway’s government that the financial difficulties of the CPR forced the company to abandon their monopoly. “Had you remained in power,” Macdonald insisted, “the credit would have inured to you instead of that very scaly gentleman.”

In any event, Harrison had by this time established himself as a successful banker in Neepawa. As the fall of 1891 approached he wrote jestingly to Conservative politician and journalist Charles Acton Burrows that “‘the Hope of the Conservative party’ is not working at politics just now – but trying to gather some shekels from the farmers as they sell their grain.” After moving to Vancouver in 1900, he became interested in various commercial ventures. He succumbed to a lingering illness five years later and is buried amongst his family in Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver.

Zenon Gawron

AO, F 67. Man., Legislative Library (Winnipeg), Biog. scrapbooks. NA, MG 26, A; RG 31, C1, 1871, Perth (South): 2; 1881, Perth (South): 7; 1891, Marquette: 6. PAM, GR 553; MG 12, E; MG 14, C14. Manitoba Free Press, December 1887–January 1888. Manitoba Sun (Winnipeg), December 1887–January 1888. Minnedosa Tribune (Minnedosa, Man.), December 1887–January 1888. Morning Call (Winnipeg), December 1887–January 1888. Canadian album (Cochrane and Hopkins), vol.3. Heritage, a history of the town of Neepawa and district as told and recorded by its people, 1883–1983 ([Neepawa, Man., 1983]). J. A. Hilts, “The political career of Thomas Greenway” (phd thesis, Univ. of Man., Winnipeg, 1974). Illustrated historical atlas of the county of Perth, Ont. (Toronto, 1879; repr., ed. Ross Cumming, Port Elgin, Ont., 1972). J. A. Jackson, “The disallowance of Manitoba railway legislation in the 1880’s: railway policy as a factor in the relations of Manitoba with the dominion, 1878–1888” (ma thesis, Univ. of Man., 1945).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Zenon Gawron, “HARRISON, DAVID HOWARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 17, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harrison_david_howard_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harrison_david_howard_13E.html
Author of Article: Zenon Gawron
Title of Article: HARRISON, DAVID HOWARD
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: December 17, 2014