WEIR, WILLIAM, businessman, newspaper publisher, and author; b. 28 Oct. 1823 in Greenden, Scotland; m. first 1849 Elizabeth Somerville, and they had six sons and one daughter; m. secondly – Scoville; d. 25 March 1905 in Ottawa.
William Weir was fairly representative of the Montreal business community during the second half of the 19th century. Like many of his English-speaking counterparts he was born in Scotland and received a “good education” before entering the workforce. At age 14 he became a shop-boy in Brechin, a town near his birthplace. He stayed at this post for over three years before serving as a census enumerator in 1841 and as a clerk in 1841–42. In the spring of 1842 he set out for Lower Canada. On arriving, he went to live with an uncle who was a brewer and distiller in Lachute. He taught in nearby Chatham Township and then moved to Saint-Laurent, where he worked as a bookkeeper in the office of merchant Daniel McDonald.
In 1847 Weir established himself as a commission merchant in Montreal. It would appear that his early years in the city were not overly prosperous, for the nature of his business changed regularly. He became an exchange broker in 1849 and then turned to the sale of leather goods in 1852. Five years later he left Montreal, re-emerging in Toronto as publisher of the Canadian Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review. He also formed a partnership there late in 1858 or early in 1859 with Ebenezer Clemo* as “commission brokers and manufacturers’ agents.” When both the magazine and the partnership were terminated at the end of 1859, Weir returned to Montreal and tried to re-establish himself as a broker. As he wrote to businessman Isaac Buchanan*, he sought “a Partner with about $10,000 capital to do a regular discount and exchange business.” Weir apparently found his partner, since the firm of Weir and Larminie functioned from 1862 to 1864. Following its dissolution, Weir continued on his own. He called himself a broker until 1871, when he added the title banker. In the mid 1880s, with two of his sons, he formed W. Weir and Sons, which functioned until 1899.
What little is known about Weir’s career as a broker and private banker relates largely to the role he played in three specific issues which touched the central Canadian business community. The first of these concerned the establishment of protection for Canadian industry in the aftermath of the repeal of the Corn Laws. Weir, like other Montreal businessmen, signed the Annexation Manifesto in 1849 to protest the loss of protection for Canadian exports in British markets. As he put it, the signers were “the solid businessmen of Montreal . . . [who] held loyalty to their families and to their country above loyalty to their Queen.” Historian Benjamin Forster indicates that men such as Weir supported annexation because of the limited alternatives: “A return to the preferential system was impossible, a union of the colonies would be one of competitive not complementary economies, independence would leave the province too weak, protection would bring stagnation because of the small internal market, and reciprocity with the United States was only a stopgap.”
As the 1850s progressed, however, Weir came to look on protection with more sympathy. As late as 1857 he noted in the Canadian Merchants’ Magazine that “with our scanty population and limited wealth, [high tariffs] would not afford sufficient room for the disposal of our manufactures.” Instead, he wanted “free trade in manufactures with the United States or if that is impractical a reciprocal tariff.” When neither possibility appeared likely and after a downturn in the economy, he then, in 1858, accepted the proposition that “if we cannot secure an entrance into the market of the United States, we shall at least secure our own market for our own trade.” Now firmly on the protectionist bandwagon, Weir served as secretary of both the Association for the Promotion of Canadian Industry and the Tariff Reform Association, pressure groups established to secure higher tariffs.
By all accounts Weir was pleased with the higher tariffs brought in by the inspector general, Alexander Tilloch Galt*, in 1859. Accordingly, he described Galt as “the ablest Finance Minister of that period” even if other former members of the Association for the Promotion of Canadian Industry, such as Buchanan, were more frugal with their praise. Despite these differences, Weir and Buchanan struck up a strong friendship that would continue until the latter’s death in 1883. In the early 1860s they joined forces in a venture to manufacture paper, and in the 1870s Buchanan tried to persuade Weir to leave Montreal and join him in business in Hamilton. The two were also united by a common view of society under the influence of industrialization. Both favoured the introduction of the tariff in part to create a certain community of interests between workers and manufacturers. Given the rapid social changes then under way, Buchanan sought “a society without debilitating conflicts” while Weir promoted a policy not “in the interest of a class [but] in the interest of the country at large.”
Weir never entirely abandoned his interest in the tariff, and he would still be found lobbying the federal government on the subject in the late 1890s. Nevertheless, his intense involvement with protectionism ended in the 1850s, after which he turned to another matter that interested members of the Montreal business community. At issue was the poor health of the Canadian currency due to the importation of large amounts of American silver coin following the suspension of specie payments in the United States in 1862. Silver was being used with some regularity in retail transactions and in the payment of wages. The coins were not legal tender, however, and were not accepted by banks for deposit or for the settling of accounts. As a result, holders of the silver coins had to take them to brokers who would redeem them at a discount before circulating them once more.
To resolve this chaotic situation, the federal government, having already prohibited the import of further coins, exported $1 million worth of them in 1868. The following year private interests exported an even larger sum with Weir as their broker. These actions did not resolve the problem, which fell into the lap of finance minister Sir Francis Hincks*. Since Weir was widely recognized as a person with expertise on the subject, the two worked together during the early months of 1870.
Weir was named the government’s agent for the export of American silver coin, with the authority to put its plan into effect. For a limited time the government would accept these coins at a nominal discount. Following that period, however, there would be a more drastic reduction, which would be enforced by the levying of penalties on anyone who paid more than the rate set by Ottawa. In this way there would be an incentive to get rid of the silver; the coins would then be exported from the country by banks brought into the plan by Weir. Some opposition to the plan emerged. The Montreal Board of Trade in particular refused to admit the existence of a problem, and contended that “the convenience and simplicity of the use of American silver greatly counterbalance, if they do not outweigh, any evils.” Such opposition could not block the success of the effort, which saw the export of over $7 million worth of silver. Weir, quite appropriately, was awarded a silver tea service for his efforts.
Weir never entirely escaped from the role he played in the silver crisis. During the last decade of his life he would offer to deal with problems posed by the circulation of American silver in Canada. In 1895 he was named by the bankers’ section of the Montreal Board of Trade to a committee that was to discuss the problem with the federal government. The following year he wrote to the finance minister, William Stevens Fielding*, that he would be willing to play the same role that he had “in the case of the Silver Nuisance of 1870.” He tendered his services to Fielding once more in 1904, but the minister expressed little interest in his offer. By that time, Weir was an ex-convict and mentally unstable. Even his instability was linked to the silver crisis. As he had confided to Buchanan in 1875, “The struggle of 1870 left me much shaken by mental anxiety from which I shall never entirely recover.”
Weir’s status as a convict had come about as a result of his participation in the third of his major interests, the Canadian banking industry. During the 1870s and 1880s he had distinguished himself as one of a small number of English-speaking businessmen who became involved with those chartered banks, based in Quebec, which were largely run and patronized by French-speaking individuals. It was fitting that Weir, who considered himself a francophile, crossed over to work in the world of the French banks. Soon after his arrival in Lower Canada he had been led to “see things from the French Canadian standpoint,” having found the English to be “rude and overbearing” towards their compatriots.
Weir first became involved with the French banks when he played a key role in the reorganization of the Montreal-based Banque Jacques-Cartier [see Victor Hudon*]. This bank fell on hard times in 1875 as a result of financial mismanagement and was forced to suspend operations for a brief period. By the end of the decade, however, it had righted itself as new investors were found, notably a small group of English-speaking businessmen who were happy to acquire its depreciated shares. Weir was an influential member of this group, as was evident from his selection to a six-member shareholders’ committee appointed in 1878 to look over the bank’s books. Then, in 1879, he was elected to the board of directors, and he rose to the position of vice-president in 1880. On the basis of his experience with the Banque Jacques-Cartier, Weir encouraged the federal government to appoint bank commissioners “to examine and verify the statements [submitted by all banks] which . . . have come to be regarded as very unreliable.” He believed that had such commissioners existed, the difficulties encountered by the Banque Jacques-Cartier and several others “could have been prevented or greatly lessened.” Ironically, the submission of false statements would prove to be his own undoing.
By the spring of 1879, when a wave of bank failures struck Montreal’s financial community, the Banque Ville-Marie was in even deeper trouble than the Jacques-Cartier had been a few years earlier. Having long been in the practice of lending out its funds with little concern that someday they might have to be returned to depositors, the bank had to suspend operations when the panic struck. Although the bank reopened later in the year, it seemed that liquidation was inevitable after federal legislation setting out the process was passed in 1880. Rather than wind up the Banque Ville-Marie’s affairs, in early 1881 the shareholders reversed their decision to liquidate and chose to try to resume normal operations. The leading force behind this change of direction was none other than Weir, who had acquired a considerable number of shares in the course of 1880. In return for an investment which made him the bank’s single largest shareholder, he was first elected to the bank’s board of directors and then, in June 1881, replaced Louis Archambault as its president.
From 1881 to its demise in 1899 Weir operated the Banque Ville-Marie as if it was his private property. The French-speaking directors were eased out to make room for his friends, who took advantage of the bank’s resources for their own benefit. Oddly enough, Weir bragged that the bank made a policy of lending out all the deposits on hand. Any need to repay large numbers of depositors could only result in disaster. When reports that an official had absconded with funds reached the newspapers in July 1899, a run ensued that the bank could not survive.
The doors of the Banque Ville-Marie closed, never to reopen. The largely French-speaking clientele came away with less than 20 per cent of their deposits and with considerable resentment against the administration of a man who had long thought of himself as a francophile. Accordingly, numerous petitions were sent to the Department of Finance bemoaning the manner in which a French bank had been destroyed by an outsider. As for Weir, he went to trial in November 1899 on the charge of having submitted false information to the government. The crown claimed that the bank had reported a reserve fund of $10,000 when no such fund existed; the bank had also reported current loans of nearly $1.4 million when roughly $400,000 of that amount consisted of loans which were overdue and unlikely to be repaid. It took the jury only 15 minutes to convict Weir, who was sentenced to two years in jail.
The conviction was not the end of Weir’s legal problems, however. The crown also wanted to bring him and other directors to trial on charges of conspiracy. The trial was to begin in April 1901, but was delayed because Weir “was not, mentally, in a condition either to go to trial or to be used as a witness.” This view of Weir’s mental state was later confirmed by obituaries in various Montreal newspapers, one of which noted that “his mental condition had for some time been unequal to the difficulties of the situation.” His equilibrium had no doubt also been affected by the suicide of a son in 1900, said to have been brought on by his father’s disgrace. The conspiracy charges never made it to trial, so that following his release from jail in the fall of 1901 Weir lived out his last years as a free, albeit discredited, man.
Sixty years in Canada, which Weir wrote and published just before his death, recounts his life in this country. The work dwells on his efforts to protect Canadian industry and on his role in the silver crisis; it was no doubt designed to leave a legacy other than that of a banker convicted of improprieties. Weir was an exception among bankers in that he went to jail for his misdeeds. He was not out of the ordinary, however, in presiding over the demise of a chartered bank; such collapses were all too frequent during the second half of the 19th century. He was also in good company in his fight for protection of Canadian industry and against the circulation of American silver coins in Canada. While not among the leading figures in the Montreal business community, he was involved in activities and championed causes which made him one of its representatives.
William Weir was the publisher of the Canadian Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Rev. (Toronto) for volumes 1 (April-September 1857)–4 (January-June 1859), and the author of Sixty years in Canada (Montreal, 1903).
NA, MG 24, D16; MG 26, A; G; RG 19, 483, 3123, 3220. Gazette (Montreal), 22–28 Nov. 1899; 27 March 1905. Montreal Daily Star, 27 March 1905. Directory, Montreal, 1849–1905. [J. J.] B. Forster, A conjunction of’ interests: business, politics, and tariffs, 1825-1879 (Toronto, 1986). Ronald Rudin, Banking en français: the French banks of Quebec, 1835–1925 (Toronto, 1985).