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Roblin, Sir Rodmond Palen, farmer, businessman, and politician; b. 15 Feb. 1853 in Sophiasburgh Township, Upper Canada, son of James Platt Roblin and Deborah Anne Ketchepaw (Kotchapaw); m. there first 13 Sept. 1875 Adelaide Louise Demill (d. 1928), and they had four sons; m. secondly 5 Feb. 1929 Ethel M. Leggett (d. 1962) in Los Angeles; they had no children; d. 16 Feb. 1937 in Hot Springs, Ark.
Rodmond Palen Roblin’s loyalist family (possibly of Pennsylvania German descent) included successful farmers and businessmen as well as politicians such as his great-uncle John Philip Roblin*. They were Methodists and young Rodmond received his education at Albert College, a Methodist school in Belleville. He began his working life on the family farm, where he built a cheese factory, and he was soon procuring cheese from other farmers for export. While recuperating from a serious accident caused by a bolting horse, he decided to join the thousands of Ontarians who were heading northwest; he arrived in Manitoba, probably in 1877. After being employed as a labourer in Winnipeg, he bought land with his brother-in-law and hired a surveyor to lay out the townsite for what was to become Carman.
In 1879 Adelaide, whom he had married in 1875, and the couple’s infant son, Wilfred Laurier, joined Rodmond in Carman, where he had opened a general store. Like many other rural storekeepers in Ontario and Manitoba, Roblin lent money to his customers and purchased their grain. In 1884 he acquired a farm which he would later name Maplewood; he would expand it over the years and operate it on a large scale, using modern equipment and methods. The land would remain in the family until his son Arthur retired in 1948.
In addition to his farm, Roblin was involved in various other ventures, including buying and selling cattle and horses. Most important was his grain-purchasing business, which prospered during the 1880s and 1890s. A founder of the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange in 1887, he served on its board and on those of several grain-industry bodies. In 1893 he was a promoter and, with Nicholas Bawlf* and others, a member of the first board of directors of the highly profitable Northern Elevator Company Limited. Four years later he, Joseph Harris*, and a number of partners organized the Dominion Elevator Company, of which he was president. He also owned a gravel pit and invested in real estate, building Adelaide Block on Osborne Street in Winnipeg during 1906. To be closer to his growing business, he had moved with his family to the city in 1889 and the following year to the house he had built at 211 Garry Street, where he and his wife would live until her death in 1928.
Roblin had begun his political career as the warden of North Dufferin county in 1881; he then became reeve of Dufferin municipality and he was secretary-treasurer of the school board. He first ran for a seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1886. A recount revealed that he had lost North Dufferin by only five votes. He came from a family that had supported the Reform party in Upper Canadian politics and he had run as an independent Liberal. He successfully contested Dufferin in a by-election held in March 1888 and was acclaimed to the riding in the general election of July. He was welcomed as a bright new member of Premier Thomas Greenway*’s Liberal caucus. Within months, however, he broke with the premier over his railway policy which, he maintained, failed to create real competition for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
During the legislative session of 1890 Roblin opposed the government’s elimination of the official status of the French language. He was also the only Protestant mla to vote against the abolition of the joint Protestant and Roman Catholic school board that had been set up in 1871 and the creation of a department of education under a minister of the crown. He argued that the Protestant section, guided by the knowledge of its superintendent, John Beaufort Somerset*, had produced excellent schools in Manitoba and he gave other examples of systems where education was in the hands of educationists rather than politicians. In Ontario the placement of education under a ministry had aroused jealousy between the two religious groups which was “injurious to the Province and very disastrous to the nation.” His views, prescient though they were, were not shared by other members of the assembly and his motion to abandon the proposed change was defeated 27 to 8.
While not officially the Conservative leader at this time, Roblin became the de facto head of the small opposition group in the legislature. His skill as a debater and his strong personality made him a formidable antagonist of the Greenway government. However, in the provincial general election of 1892 his seat, Dufferin, was gerrymandered out of existence and, forced to run in Morden, he was defeated. Between 1892 and 1896, when he returned to the assembly as the representative for Woodlands, the Conservatives had been headed by several different members of its small caucus. He then led the Conservatives until 1897, when he stepped aside so that the popular Hugh John Macdonald* could take the party to victory. After Premier Macdonald resigned in the fall of 1900 to run in a federal constituency, Roblin became party leader once again and was sworn in as premier on 29 October; he took on the additional responsibilities of railway commissioner on 3 November and minister of agriculture and immigration on 22 December.
In constructing his first cabinet and those that would follow during his 14½ years in office, Roblin made some attempt to ensure that they reflected the make-up of the provincial population. He chose John Andrew Davidson*, from a solidly Conservative area, as provincial treasurer, and David Henry McFadden, a leading member of the Orange order, as provincial secretary and municipal commissioner. Others would join, such as George Robson Coldwell*, who would occupy several posts, including that of minister of education from 1908 to 1915; James Henry Howden, who from 1907 was successively railway commissioner, provincial secretary, and attorney general; and Joseph Bernier*, the first Franco-Manitoban to sit in cabinet since the passing of Greenway’s linguistic and educational legislation, who held office as provincial secretary from 1913 to 1915. But Roblin’s closest associates were Robert Rogers, minister of public works from 1900 to 1911, and Colin H. Campbell*, attorney general during the same period. It must be said, though, that Roblin dominated his governments, acting as their main spokesman and setting the tone for their activity.
The issues that Roblin faced would remain more or less constant throughout his tenure. Prohibition, the school question and the related problem of integrating many new immigrants, the demands of a well-organized farm movement, the role of public ownership in the economy, and the need for an infrastructure to support the province’s expanding population were all questions he handled, with varying degrees of success.
Disagreements over how best to control the liquor trade endured throughout Roblin’s premiership. Macdonald had passed the Liquor Act in June 1900 to introduce Prohibition [see Sir James Albert Manning Aikins*]; it included a provision for a one-year delay before implementation so that its legality could be tested. Attorney General Campbell sent it to the Manitoba courts where it was judged to be beyond the province’s powers and the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a similar decision, but in November 1901 the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council declared it valid. Roblin, who doubted that the act could be successfully enforced, announced in January 1902 that he would hold a plebiscite in April before enacting the legislation. A lively campaign ensued. On one side the powerful temperance movement was split: leaders of the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic argued that Roblin had betrayed the movement and that the plebiscite should be boycotted, while some temperance workers urged citizens to vote and to back Prohibition. On the other hand, groups such as the Manitoba License Holders’ Benefit Society warned of a huge drop in revenues and property values if the sale of alcohol was banned.
Prohibition was defeated 22,464 to 15,607, and thereafter Roblin pursued a policy of controlling the liquor trade by issuing licences and using the local option that allowed municipalities to bring in Prohibition if citizens voted for it. Although he often described himself as a supporter of temperance, he argued that these methods were more effective than a total ban and respected the rights of individuals to drink if they chose. By the end of his term in office, 80 per cent of the province was dry as a result of his approach. Adherents of the temperance movement never forgave him, however, and campaigned against him in all subsequent elections.
Roblin was careful to sponsor legislation that kept the province’s large farm community happy and voting Conservative. To this end, one of his first acts as premier was to break the CPR’s monopoly on freight rates, an irritant to farmers which many western political leaders had tried, unsuccessfully, to remove. On 15 Jan. 1901 he signed an agreement with the Northern Pacific Railroad under which Manitoba would lease its lines in the province – a total of about 350 miles of track – for 999 years. These lines were in turn transferred to the Canadian Northern Railway [see Sir Donald Mann; Sir William Mackenzie*], at the time a small company on the verge of a spectacular expansion. The agreement gave the government control of Canadian Northern’s freight rates in the province. Roblin’s plan was passed by the assembly and ratified by the House of Commons, where it was supported by the minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton*, and other prominent Liberals who admitted that it would have enormous benefits for western farmers. In October 1902 Roblin lowered the freight rates by four cents and the CPR was forced to follow suit.
On 20 July 1903, concluding his first electoral campaign as premier, Roblin enjoyed a landslide victory, winning 31 seats to the Liberals’ 9. His party obtained a majority of the popular vote and he took his own riding with the largest margin of any candidate in the province. Over the next four years his government introduced amendments to the Liquor Act which restricted the wholesale distribution of liquor, reduced the number of licenced establishments, and raised the drinking age from 16 to 18. Winnipeg hotels would be required to have at least 50 rooms in order to operate a bar.
Roblin was premier during a period of enormous growth and prosperity. In response to the massive influx of immigrants, his government constructed large numbers of schools, colleges, and other buildings. The Manitoba Agricultural College, built in 1906, was the first of many large public-works projects. This ambitious program would culminate during 1913–14 with a magnificent new legislative building [see Victor William Horwood]. In addition, the administration erected hospitals to care for the insane and for victims of tuberculosis; it provided, with the Good Roads Act of 1914, for the establishment of a road network; and it enacted the first workers’ compensation legislation in Manitoba. It paid for these initiatives by using federal transfer payments, borrowing on the London financial market, and collecting corporate and railway taxes and liquor-licence fees.
The extension of Manitoba’s northern boundary to the 60th parallel was a change Roblin had been unable to bring about while the federal Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier* was in office. During his meeting in 1901 with Frederick William Gordon Haultain* of the North-West Territories, who sought provincial status for his region, they debated union with Manitoba, but it came to nothing. Even after the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan had had their northern boundaries fixed at 60° north latitude in 1905, Manitoba’s remained unchanged. The new provinces were also granted much more favourable compensation than Manitoba had received in lieu of control over their natural resources. It took until 1911 for Roblin’s government to obtain equal treatment for Manitoba. Agreement on this and other issues was held up by the fierce political partisanship of the Liberal prime minister and the Conservative premier.
Roblin attained national and international prominence in September 1906 when he announced that his government would require all schools to fly the Union Jack or lose their funding. Conservative newspapers viewed the decree as beneficial, inspiring patriotism and encouraging the assimilation of new immigrants. Many Liberals said that it impinged on local freedoms and was unnecessary. A more important school issue was that of compulsory attendance. For the next nine years the Liberals would campaign on the promise of instituting the measure. The Roblin government resisted, arguing that sparse settlement and weather conditions that were often extreme made it impossible to enforce such a regulation. Catholic parents who sent their children to parochial schools which they financially supported were afraid that the legislation of compulsory attendance would compel their children to be educated at secular public schools.
Under the Laurier–Greenway agreement which had resolved the Manitoba school question in 1896 [see Greenway; Laurier], some religious instruction was permitted in public schools, and wherever a specified number of pupils spoke a mother tongue other than English they could be taught in that language as well as in English. This provision was intended to benefit French-speaking students, but by the first decade of the 20th century numerous other groups had become eligible. By 1909 there were 268 teachers giving instruction in English and in French, Ukrainian, German, or Polish. Although the province had difficulty in providing training facilities to meet the demand for bilingual teachers, by 1915 their numbers had risen to 450.
Roblin was the first of several Canadian premiers to purchase a telephone company in an effort to provide cheaper and more extensive service. In late 1907 and early 1908 the government completed the acquisition of the Bell Telephone Company of Canada’s Manitoba network [see Charles Fleetford Sise*] for $3.4 million. By 1912 Manitoba had more rural telephones than any other province, having built lines into districts where Bell would have found it uneconomical to do so. But the premier’s promise of low rates proved impossible to keep and cost overruns had forced a rate increase in 1911 despite a huge public outcry. Telephone technology was changing rapidly and the expense of equipment upgrades had not been foreseen. In addition, a royal commission established by the Roblin government in 1912 revealed the need for stricter methods of accounting and administration. The first public utility commission in Canada, created that year, was charged with overseeing the rate increases.
During 1907 and 1908 Roblin and his ministers had struggled to find a compromise between the demands of the Manitoba Grain Growers’ Association for changes to the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange and the reluctance of exchange officials to make the alterations. In 1906 the association, headed by Edward Alexander Partridge, had formed the Grain Growers’ Grain Company Limited, which had been admitted to the exchange. When it was learned that the GGGCL wanted to provide dividends to farmers, the exchange argued that the proposal was incompatible with its charter, and it suspended the company’s membership. A compromise brokered by the government allowed the company to retake its seat on the exchange in April 1907, but radical farmers continued to push for amendments to the exchange’s charter that would give the government increased regulatory powers. Roblin’s administration passed the legislation demanded by the farmers in February 1908; the exchange responded first by ceasing to trade and then, several months later, by reorganizing. Roblin’s willingness to accede to the farmers’ insistence despite his long business relationship with the exchange demonstrates the enormous political power that grain growers wielded at the time.
Organized farmers also pressed for the establishment of provincially owned elevators at every shipping point and federal facilities at the Lakehead in Ontario [see Clarence Decatur Howe*]. In December 1909 the Conservatives announced that they would introduce a publically owned elevator system. The Manitoba Elevator Commission was not financially successful and in 1912 Roblin declared that the elevators would be leased to the GGGCL.
Roblin’s party had obtained solid majorities in the general elections of 1907 and 1910 and they won a number of hotly contested by-elections between 1910 and 1914. Their success was in part due to the popularity of the premier and his policies, but the party machine was also a formidable instrument. The Conservatives used provincial civil servants, such as members of the Manitoba Provincial Police, to work on their campaigns, and later commissions of inquiry would establish that public money had been used to pay party workers and furnish alcohol and bribes for voters. Indeed, some historians have concluded that the Conservative Party became a mere tool of the corrupt and freewheeling organization constructed over the years by Roblin’s minister of public works, Robert Rogers.
In the manner of most parties before World War I, Rogers ensured that, when in power, the party benefited from government construction projects by extracting donations from the contractors, who often submitted inflated invoices to cover these payments. Both Conservatives and Liberals had employed this method to raise the huge amounts of cash necessary to win elections. Government contracts and jobs were given on a partisan basis and party supporters expected to be rewarded. By Roblin’s time, however, there was a growing desire expressed by the public and many politicians to put an end to corruption and patronage.
In the federal election of 1911 the Manitoba Conservative machine and Roblin’s passionate speeches had been major factors in the victory of federal Conservative leader Robert Laird Borden, as had the provincial organizations in Ontario under James Pliny Whitney* and in British Columbia under Richard McBride*. Roblin was offered a cabinet post in the new government, but he declined and Rogers went to Ottawa instead. Outstanding differences between the Manitoba administration and its federal counterpart were quickly settled and the province’s boundary was extended in 1912. Catholics had been concerned that Manitoba’s school legislation would now be applied to the new provincial territory. Rogers negotiated a compromise whereby the Roblin government promised tolerance on the school issue. However, several French Canadian Conservative Nationalistes led by Paul-Émile Lamarche and allied with Borden’s government were dissatisfied with the guarantees and voted against the boundary extension. In an attempt to mollify them, Roblin and Rogers arranged for the introduction of the so-called Coldwell amendments [see Coldwell] to the Public Schools Act. These changes would make it easier for the Winnipeg School Board to take over Catholic institutions and run them as public schools, relieving the taxation burden for Catholic parents, who had requested assistance. In the end, Catholics gained little from the measure.
1912 should have been Roblin’s final year in politics. He was ill and felt that he could not continue. He had an obvious and able successor in Campbell, and he could legitimately claim that he had accomplished a great deal. Dinners were held in his honour and on 14 June 1912 he was awarded a kcmg. But Campbell was tired and ill, too, and early in 1913 he suffered a stroke from which he would never recover. He retired from politics that fall and died a year later. So Roblin entered the final year and a half of his political career in poor health and without his most trusted advisers, a situation which greatly weakened his cabinet. He appointed Walter Humphries Montague, a veteran Conservative mp, as minister of public works, but Montague was also unwell.
In the general election of 1914 education and Prohibition were once again important issues, along with new demands being made by the reinvigorated Liberals under Tobias Crawford Norris, such as the introduction of direct legislation, which Roblin rejected as ill-conceived and un-British, and women’s suffrage, of which he disapproved. His argument, common at the time, was that women should remain above the rough world of politics and concentrate on maintaining the stability of the home. His government continued to refuse to implement compulsory school attendance and the Coldwell amendments had earned the vehement opposition of the Liberals and the Orange order. The Conservatives were returned with a five-seat majority on 10 July (it grew to eight when the results of three northern constituencies were counted), but the Liberals were steadily growing in strength and Norris had successfully built a coalition out of groups such as temperance workers, suffrage supporters, and the Orange order, all of whom had grievances against the ruling Conservatives. John Wesley Dafoe* of the Manitoba Free Press (Winnipeg), always a strong critic, attacked the government every day.
Then, during the 1915 session, the Liberals uncovered evidence of wrongdoing in the contracts for the new legislative building. Roblin refused to set up an inquiry but the lieutenant governor, Sir Douglas Colin Cameron, is believed to have taken the unusual step of giving the premier the alternative of either appointing a royal commission or tendering his resignation. Roblin chose the former and, on 12 May, in the face of damning evidence, he and his government resigned. Thomas Kelly, the main contractor, had overcharged for work and paid the surpluses to the party. In the general election of 6 August the Conservatives were reduced from 28 to 5 members and the Liberals formed the government. Roblin did not stand.
The fierce partisanship and corruption of politics in these years led to the discrediting of Liberals and Conservatives. Both parties had greatly diminished numbers in the decades after 1920 when Manitobans elected the determinedly non-partisan governments of Progressive John Bracken*. Although it was never suggested that Roblin had personally profited from the corruption surrounding the project, he was formally charged, as were ministers Coldwell, Montague, and Howden, with conspiracy to defraud and with attempting to destroy government records. The trial took place in July and August 1916, but the jury was unable to agree on a verdict. A new trial was ordered, but a year later the charges were finally dropped because of the ill health of Roblin, Coldwell, and Howden (Montague had died in the interim).
Roblin went back to the grain business after leaving politics and he was president of Dominion Elevator for a time. Although the scandal had nearly wiped out his party, reducing it to a handful of members (the next Conservative government would only be formed in 1958 under his grandson Dufferin Roblin*), he was still treated with respect. When his wife, Adelaide, died in January 1928, the assembly adjourned for a day and members of all parties attended the funeral. He operated an automobile dealership, Consolidated Motors Limited, with his sons until his death in 1937 from a heart attack. It occurred a day after his 84th birthday while he was on holiday in Hot Springs, Ark. He was buried in Winnipeg.
Sir Rodmond Palen Roblin was an energetic and progressive premier at a time of dramatic growth in Manitoba. He saw a large role for government in the economy and put laws and infrastructures in place to support the expansion of the young province. He was socially conservative and did not support innovations in the way government worked or in such areas as women’s suffrage. His dramatic fall from power has eclipsed his many accomplishments and the positive aspects of his career have been largely forgotten.
During Sir Rodmond Palen Roblin’s lifetime, ministerial and prime ministerial papers were treated as private personal documents and AM holds only a few such papers for this era. Moreover, there is a rumour that Roblin destroyed the greater part of his correspondence and of other documents during the time he was being prosecuted. The Colin H. Campbell papers (MG 14, B21), held at AM, are the most useful archival documents.
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