Elora-born Robert Watson became a senator

Wellington County has, in the decades since Confederation, had less than its share of Canadian Senators.

There have been only three: Adam J. Ferguson, the Guelph lawyer and son of the founder of Fergus; James McMullen of Mount Forest; and Robert W. Gladstone of Guelph. A fourth could be added to that list. Robert Watson grew up and worked in Elora before moving to Manitoba in his mid-20s.

Robert Watson was born in Elora in 1853. His parents, George and Elizabeth, came to Canada from Scotland in 1847. The family lived in several houses over the years, most of the time in Salem and Elora’s northern suburb, Lot 18. The family lived very quietly. They left scant records of their time in this area.

George Watson was a millwright, a skilled occupation and one very much in demand in the 1850s and 1860s. He worked for much of his career for the Gartshore firm of Dundas. That company manufactured the bulk of the turbines and milling equipment in use in this part of Ontario. When he finished his schooling in Salem young Robert joined his father on the job, travelling around the area installing and repairing milling equipment. Soon he was a skilled millwright himself.

George Watson died in the mid-1870s. By then milling in Ontario was very much in decline. His son Robert saw the handwriting on the wall. After his father’s death George decided to head west, to the Portage la Prairie area of Manitoba. A brother soon joined him there, and together they constructed flour mills at Portage la Prairie and Stonewall. With parts and machinery difficult to procure in Manitoba, the brothers opened a machine shop that quickly became prosperous, and afterward a planing mill.

By 1880 it was clear that Watson had found a solid place in the local society, which was still very much in the pioneer phase. There were many opportunities to be exploited, and he was able to get in on the ground floor. In 1880 he married a young woman named Isobel Brown, an Ontario girl from the town of Lobo. Together they raised a family of four daughters and two sons. He also took his first plunge into elected office, winning a seat on the local council.

Robert Watson was quick to recognize opportunities. He invested in the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Coal Company, and soon became its president. Later he helped organize the Central Electric Company, becoming its president. That company became the largest customer of his coal company.

His political interests and activities in the early 1880s consumed an increasing share of his time and interest. In 1883 he ran for the federal parliament as a Liberal, winning subsequent elections until he stepped down in 1892. He petitioned tirelessly for a railway to Manitoba, supporting the efforts of the Conservative federal government and the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Watson was the only Liberal elected from the west in the 1887 federal election, no doubt due to his outspoken advocacy for the railway. He was also a supporter of Edward Blake as leader of the Liberal party.

Just prior to the 1892 provincial election he decided to switch to provincial politics, and sat for the Portage la Prairie riding in the Manitoba legislature from 1892 until 1899. Watson sat as a provincial Liberal, though at that time party labels were somewhat loose in Manitoba.

The Liberal leader, Premier Thomas Greenway, had originally been a Conservative, but his opinions changed as a result of local issues, and he, like Watson, became an outspoken advocate of provincial rights, much in opposition to the federal Conservatives.

After winning the 1892 election Greenway appointed Watson the Minister of Public Works. In the late 19th century that position was the key office in the distribution on patronage. Greenway, it seems, recognized Watson’s ability to line up support in quiet ways, and to advance the interests of the party. With Watson’s help, the Greenway government secured re-election in 1895.

Though a moderate by the climate of the times, Greenway lost the election of 1899 when protestant extremists decried his stand on separate schools. That had been the perpetual issue for years in Manitoba, and Greenway had previously been successful in straddling the issue.

In January 1900, only weeks after the provincial election, Wilfrid Laurier’s federal government  appointed Robert Watson to the Canadian Senate. There is little doubt that the appointment recognized Watson’s loyalty and his backroom work for the party over the years.

Interestingly, former premier Thomas Greenway had expected a Senate appointment, but was rejected by Laurier. Infuriated, Greenway began a campaign, ultimately unsuccessful, for an appointment for himself.

In the Senate Watson became a member of the committee for the internal economy of the Senate, and later became the head of that committee for years. In that capacity he was able to monitor the expenses of other Senators, and to exercise a degree of party discipline.

One of the perks of his office was to be selected a member of the Canadian delegation to the coronation of King George V in 1911. He was also a member of a parliamentary delegation to South Africa in 1924.

Other than those two trips, Robert Watson’s name rarely appeared in the newspapers. His political contributions were to his party, and were unknown to those outside the Liberal party and to many of those inside the party. He was well known to many Liberals during his lifetime, but was soon forgotten because his contributions did not generate controversy or produce significant legislation.

He had a stocky but imposing appearance, with a bushy moustache that in later years turned snow white. He bore an uncanny resemblance to another political figure from Elora, Charles Clarke, who culminated his career with a term as speaker of the Ontario legislature.

Senator Watson suffered a paralytic stroke early in 1929. He never recovered. Robert Watson died on May 19, 1929, three weeks after his 76th birthday. He was buried in his adopted home town of Portage La Prairie. He was predeceased in 1926 by one of his sons. His daughters all married. Two lived in Manitoba, one in Chicago, and the fourth in Manchester, England.

It appears that Robert Watson maintained few if any contacts with anyone in his old hometown of Elora (or Salem). That was not unusual for his time. Watson left Elora when it seemed that the village’s best years were over. The population of the town had peaked and was starting to fall when he left, and there were virtually no opportunities for someone of his energy and ambition.

Such was certainly not the case with his adopted home town of Portage la Prairie, where he took advantage of the numerous opportunities available to him. Robert Watson was one of a number of Wellington County natives who achieved fame and riches elsewhere. Indeed, it could be argued that the most important export of Wellington after 1870 was the exodus of skilled and ambitious people who scattered across North America. 


Stephen Thorning