SMITH, SIR FRANK
Publication29 March 2023
Born Richhill, Armagh, N. Ireland, 1822. Died Toronto, Canada, 1901
Author: Mark McGowan
When Patrick Smith’s wife died in Armagh in 1832, he uprooted his three children and emigrated to Port Credit, Upper Canada, where he established a farmstead. Three years, later Patrick sent his eldest son, Joseph, to the Talbot Settlement on Lake Erie to procure a larger farm. Joseph’s murder during this errand, and the death of his father, thrust thirteen-year-old Frank into the position of guardian of his sister and ambitious to acquire wealth to sustain the remnants of his family. He placed his sister with a local family and began work, first as a courier for the Canadian militia during the Rebellions of 1837 and then as an apprentice in the grocery trade.
Frank seemed to have a talent for retailing. In 1848, he opened up a general store on the Welland Canal works to capitalize on the provisioning of fellow Irish canal labourers and their families at Niagara. This business gave him seed capital to open up a wholesale business in London, Ontario, the following year. Frank Smith & Company expanded its interests by investments in railways, the liquor trade, and various other retail outlets.
In 1867, Smith opened a branch of his retail empire in Toronto, where he took up residence. His trade sales became the topic of wonder, particularly one sale that netted him $154,000 in a single day. His wholesale trade in Toronto gave him the opportunity to make further investments and control several major Canadian corporations: Smith was director of Toronto General Trusts, Vice-President of Dominion Telegraph, President and owner of the Toronto Street Railway, President of the Dominion Bank, President of the Northern Railway, President of the Niagara Navigation Company, and by 1879, the President of Home Savings and Loan. When he formally retired from business, in 1891, he was a multi-millionaire and one of the richest Irish Catholics in Canada.
Smith’s acquisition of wealth was not without controversy. His acquisition of the Home Bank, founded originally by Bishop Armand de Charbonnel of Toronto, was an initiative to assist Irish Catholic immigrants acquire a firm footing in their new home. Ironically, it was this same Irish community that worked in various capacities on the Toronto Street Railway, over which he became majority shareholder in 1881. Ironic because it was known as “Smith’s Goldmine”, the TSR made record profits for Smith and other shareholders, largely on the backs of his employees, who worked fourteen-hour days, for low wages, and without the opportunity to unionize. In March 1886, TSR workers attempted to join the fledgling Knights of Labor, a union uniting the trades and industrial workers. After three days of rioting and a lockout, Smith broke the union, but agreed to a modest increase in wages if workers returned. During a second disruption, in May, workers offered a rival “free bus company”, which ended abruptly when their car barns were mysteriously torched. Smith prevailed again. In 1891, he sold the TSR back to the City of Toronto, for $500,000. It is now the famous TTC (Toronto Transit Commission).
While managing his retail and financial empires, Smith was also active in local and national politics. From 1855 to 1858, he served on London’s city council and, in 1866, was briefly acting mayor. In the 1860s, Smith was a Reformer (Liberal) and was instrumental in forming the Catholic Convention, in 1867, and later, the Ontario Catholic League, to advance the political rights of Irish Catholic voters.
John A. Macdonald, leader of the Liberal-Conservative Party, and Prime Minister of Canada, recognized the need for his party to tap the Irish Catholic vote. He needed an Irish Catholic lieutenant to do it. In 1871, Macdonald had Smith appointed to the Canadian Senate, as a Liberal-Conservative, a turning of political stripe that was recognized as nothing more than Smith’s “self-interest,” according to the Irish Canadian, the leading Irish Catholic weekly of the day.
As a senator, Smith worked assiduously for, and was acknowledged as, the advocate for both the Irish Catholic community and for retailers seeking advantages in the Canadian marketplace. Shortly after his appointment he argued for the release of Fenian prisoners from Canadian jails, as a way for Macdonald to win sympathy and support within the Irish Catholic community. Smith himself was neither a Fenian sympathizer nor a supporter of Irish politicians who toured Canada to gain support for causes back in Ireland. During the controversial visit of William O’Brien in 1887, Smith made it clear that such agitators threatened to split the Irish community and interfere with “the happiness of Catholic people in Canada,” who were “true subjects” of the crown enjoying equality offered to all Canadians.
From 1882 to 1891 Smith served as Minister Without Portfolio in Macdonald’s cabinet and solicited patronage positions for Irish Catholics across all government ministries and served as an intermediary between the Catholic hierarchy and the government. True to his business roots, however, he strongly supported and became a major investor in the Canadian Pacific Railway, to which he became a supplier despite the obvious conflict of interest. He also opposed the Canada Temperance Act, primarily to defend the distilling industry in Canada. For his service to Canada, he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1894.
Smith was a political survivor in Ottawa. When Macdonald died in 1891, the new prime minister, Sir John Abbott, appointed Smith Minister of Public Works, which gave him greater opportunities to extend patronage to his two favoured constituencies. When John Thompson Abbott’s successor died, in 1894, the Governor General requested that Smith form a new government. Smith declined and his failing health may have been a factor. He did agree to join the new cabinet of Senator MacKenzie Bowell. This was evidence indeed of strange political bedfellows, with the Irish Catholic advocate serving under a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge, but it was also indicative of the space that Canada allowed for the kind of cooperation that was impossible back in Ireland. Smith died of rheumatism in 1901 and left a legacy as one of Canada’s leading businessmen and the Irish Catholic prime minister who never was.
Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles, Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company: Sunday Streetcars and Municipal Reform in Toronto, 1888-1897. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.
Michael Cottrell, “Political Leadership and Party Allegiance Among Irish Catholics in Victorian Toronto,” in Mark G McGowan and Brian P. Clarke, eds., Catholics at the Gathering Place: Historical Essays on the Archdiocese of Toronto, 1841-1991. Toronto: Canadian Catholic Historical Association & Dundurn Press, 1993): 53-68.
Mark G. McGowan, “Sir Frank Smith,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol XIII (1901-1910). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Pp. 965-8.