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CAMERON, Sir MATTHEW CROOKS, lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 2 Oct. 1822 in Dundas, Upper Canada, youngest child of John McAlpine Cameron of Inverness-shire, Scotland, and Nancy Foy of Northumberland, England; m. 1 Dec. 1851 Charlotte Ross Wedd (d. 14 Jan. 1868) of Hamilton, Canada West, and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 25 June 1887 in Toronto, Ont.

Matthew Crooks Cameron’s parents came to Upper Canada in 1819, and settled in Dundas where his father became a merchant and postmaster. The family moved to Hamilton in 1826, when John McAlpine Cameron was made deputy clerk of the crown for the Gore District, and Matthew received his first education at a local school. He attended the Home District Grammar School when his family moved to York (Toronto). His father was appointed first permanent clerk in the House of Assembly and by 1834 had entered the service of the Canada Company in its Toronto office. Matthew was thus the son of a family with some means and status in Upper Canada.

Cameron went to Upper Canada College in 1838, but his studies there were interrupted in 1840 by an accident while he was out shooting with two school friends. His ankle shattered by a careless shot, he suffered complications that led to the amputation of his leg and caused him pain for the rest of his life. David Breakenridge Read*, who was in residence at the college while Cameron was a “day boy,” recalled the change in his temperament. From being lively, fond of sports, and not particularly studious, he became “of a serious turn of mind.” After a period of convalescence and adjustment to the use of crutches and an artificial limb, he decided not to return to the college but to pursue a legal career as his two older brothers had done.

Cameron articled with Joseph Clarke Gamble and William Henry Boulton* in Toronto, and proved a diligent student with an aptitude for law. He was called to the bar in 1849 and began practice as Boulton’s partner. In 1850 he was in partnership with William Cayley, who served as inspector general in the Conservative ministries from 1845 to 1858. Although he practised with Cayley at times during the 1850s and early 1860s, from 1859 to 1878 Cameron was also the senior partner in important law firms that included Daniel McMichael, Edward Fitzgerald, and Alfred Hoskin. Moreover, Cameron had begun to go on circuit as soon as he was admitted to the bar, and had quickly gained a high reputation throughout Canada West as an honest and skilful lawyer in both civil and criminal cases. He was unusually successful even against such formidable rivals as John Hillyard Cameron*, Philip Michael Matthew Scott VanKoughnet*, or John Hawkins Hagarty*. Cameron was tall and slender, with a commanding presence and impressive manner of speaking. He had a tremendous capacity for work despite his physical disability. These qualities, combined with his air of sincere conviction, mastery of the law, and power of logical analysis, made him particularly effective before a jury. John Charles Dent called him “for many years the best-known Nisi Prius lawyer” in the province. He was created a qc on 27 March 1863, and elected a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada in April 1871.

Cameron gave his whole attention to his legal work for ten years after 1849, except for his service in 1852 as a government commissioner to inquire into the frequent accidents on the Great Western Rail Road. His first interest in public life was shown in 1859 when he was elected to represent St James’ Ward on the Toronto City Council. Two years later he was defeated as a candidate for mayor of Toronto but was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Ontario North, defeating the incumbent Joseph Gould. Reflecting his family background, education, and associations with men such as Boulton and Cayley, Cameron was a strong Conservative. He supported the government of George-Étienne Cartier* and John A. Macdonald*, voting for the Militia Bill of 1862, the defeat of which brought about the downfall of that government. He opposed the Reform ministry then formed by John Sandfield Macdonald* and Louis-Victor Sicotte. As an amendment to the address from the throne in 1863 he proposed a motion favouring representation by population to remedy the injustice suffered by Canada West in the present system. Although the motion failed to pass, it was a shrewd move tactically for it divided the Upper Canadian Reformers who were eager for “rep by pop” from Sandfield Macdonald who was pledged to the counter principle of a “double majority.”

In the elections of June 1863, Cameron was defeated in Ontario North by William McDougall*, a Reformer. McDougall became provincial secretary in the coalition of June 1864 formed to work for federal union and, when he sought the necessary re-election in Ontario North, Cameron decided to run against him. In the by-election of 30 July Cameron regained the seat although government leaders including John A. Macdonald and George Brown* used their influence on behalf of McDougall. In a letter to Macdonald on 9 July 1864 Cameron explained his motive in running: “While I admit the propriety of your doing nothing against a colleague, I regret you should have thought it necessary, actively, to interfere to the prejudice of a Conservative who seeks nothing in the contest except to relieve your Government and the country from the reproach of having so objectionable a politician in your Council.” Another probable motive for his candidacy was his opposition to the coalition and its proposed federation which he distrusted; he was to remain an anti-confederate Conservative while in the assembly from 1864 to 1867.

When the federal scheme took shape at the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences of 1864, Cameron confessed his dilemma to John A. Macdonald, with whom his friendship remained firm. Macdonald, like Cameron, strongly preferred a legislative union but tried to reassure him that federation was the “only practicable plan” to protect local interests. Cameron was never convinced that confederation was the solution to the colonies’ problems. When the Quebec Resolutions were before the Canadian legislature in early 1865, he condemned confederation as an “extravagantly expensive arrangement” as compared with a legislative union. Constitutional change he held to be unnecessary; material progress and provisions for defence could be achieved in the existing system if assemblymen would cease impeding the “wheels of government” by their “factious conduct.” He was not “dazzled” by the prospect of a great nation: “We can never be so great in any way as we can by remaining a dependency of the British Crown.” The resolutions, he claimed, “individualized” the provinces, increasing the elements of contention as well as the possibility of dismemberment from the empire and drift “into the vortex of annexation” to the United States which would be the “greatest injury” that could happen. When the legislature approved the resolutions on 11 March of that year, Cameron was alone among the Conservatives from Canada West in opposition. He then seconded an unsuccessful motion by John Hillyard Cameron to submit the scheme to the people before its enactment.

With confederation an accomplished fact in 1867, Cameron felt it his “duty” to make it work. He accepted office on 20 July 1867 as provincial secretary and registrar in the first Ontario coalition ministry under Sandfield Macdonald and in August ran both provincially in Toronto East and federally in Ontario North. Although he assisted the coalition candidate, Thomas Nicholson Gibbs, in defeating George Brown in Ontario South, Cameron was himself unsuccessful in Ontario North. He was returned in Toronto East, however, and retained the seat in the elections of 1871 as well as those of 1875 when he defeated provincial treasurer Adam Crooks. His quick perception of issues and clear, straightforward speech made him as powerful in legislative debate as in pleading at the bar. Representing, along with John Carling* of London, the Conservative interests in Sandfield Macdonald’s coalition, Cameron quickly became the chief Conservative spokesman in the assembly, though he declared that he had taken office to “quell the partisan spirit which in the past had done a great deal of mischief in the country.” In 1868 he opposed an extension of suffrage on the basis of income as “revolutionary”: property had always been the basis.

Cameron was both a strength and a weakness to the Macdonald administration. He assisted in passing legislation to promote settlement and mining in northern Ontario and especially in piloting through the house the controversial School Act of 1871, which aimed at making elementary education free and compulsory. He took a sensible stand when Edward Blake*, leader of the Liberal opposition, introduced a motion in 1871 which would in effect have chided the Canadian government for its inaction in the “cold blooded murder” of Thomas Scott* by Louis Riel at the Red River Settlement. Cameron argued that the offence was beyond the jurisdiction of Ontario and that it would be “unwise” to interfere with another government’s prerogative. His amendment was carried.

On the other hand, he caused the premier embarrassment by accepting a retainer on behalf of Patrick James Whelan*, on trial in 1868 for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee*; his action precipitated a resolution by Blake that “No Minister of the Crown shall act as Counsel against the Crown, on a Crown prosecution.” Blake’s resolution was withdrawn after Sandfield Macdonald promised no further “offences of this kind.” Cameron’s avowed conservatism, coupled with the independence inherited from his Highland ancestors, contributed to tensions within the government and made it hard for Macdonald to preserve the “Patent Combination.” A debate of 1868 over the request by the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway Company to use a narrow gauge is a prime example of the ministers in public disagreement. Arguing against Edmund Burke Wood, the provincial treasurer, Cameron insisted that the narrow gauge be permitted because it was less expensive and the area the railway would serve needed transportation.

Transferred to the Crown Lands Department on 25 July 1871, Cameron left office on 19 Dec. 1871 with his colleagues after defeat in the house on their railway policy. Coalition government was at an end in Ontario. Macdonald had lost ground in the spring elections of 1871. Faced by strengthened Liberals and several independents, he had been unable to maintain control of the legislature. Discouraged and gravely ill, he seldom appeared in the house before his death on 1 June 1872. The formation of a Liberal ministry by Blake in December 1871 and its reorganization by his successor Oliver Mowat* in October 1872 marked the permanent establishment of party government in the province. The Conservatives assumed the role of official opposition. With Sandfield Macdonald dead and John Carling gone to the House of Commons, Cameron was unquestionably their ablest member. He became the first leader of the Ontario Conservatives.

Their weakness in the assembly put the burden of criticizing government measures largely on Cameron. He assailed vigorously Mowat’s “desecration” of the bench in returning to politics, the political favouritism he detected in the sale of timber limits, and the move of the agricultural college (later the Ontario Agricultural College) from Mimico to Guelph which he alleged took place for political reasons. He charged that the reservation by the lieutenant governor of bills to incorporate the Orange order was inspired by the premier’s desire to “stand well with both the Roman Catholics and Orangemen” and “put a difficulty in the way” of John A. Macdonald in Ottawa. Reservation transferred the problem to the prime minister who had to be as careful as Mowat in avoiding the alienation of either Catholic or Protestant voters. When Mowat later-provided for incorporation of the Orange order by a general act, Cameron called it an affront to Protestants, and as the dispute dragged on he felt it had become a “struggle for civil and religious liberty” against undue Catholic influence.

The chief issue in his campaign of 1875, the first straight party fight in Ontario, was the government’s extravagance in contrast with the earlier economy of Sandfield Macdonald. But Cameron was handicapped both by the discouragement of the Conservatives over their federal defeat in 1874 and by his own failure to present a positive policy. The electorate showed its approval of Mowat’s increased provincial spending by returning him to office with a safe majority. In the new house Cameron nevertheless returned to the cry for economic retrenchment. When asked to approve the creation of a department of education he deplored the expense of adding a minister. He feared, too, that the connection of politics and education would lead, as had recent liquor licensing changes, to an increase in the evils of patronage, and his “Conservative principles led him to oppose altering any system which had worked well in the past.” Similarly, “out of true Conservative principles,” he always defended the privileges of the University of Toronto and Upper Canada College.

Cameron was not the antiquated bigot depicted by the Globe. He supported reform to enable the payment of witnesses in criminal cases and to provide better protection to married women in conveying their property. Although he disapproved of secret voting in principle, he did not divide the assembly on the bill which introduced the ballot in 1874. Still, the belief was growing that he was too much the old high Tory for late 19th-century Ontario. The Toronto Nation commented on the decadence of the Conservatives under his leadership. Even the Conservative Leader acknowledged his shortcomings as a party leader, complaining that he spent too much time on his “briefs” and not enough in the legislature, and that he did not consult the caucus sufficiently. Moreover, some of his tactical moves had turned out to be blunders: his 1872 motion for an inquiry into a possible offer by Blake to induce Wood’s resignation from the Sandfield Macdonald government in 1871, and his suggestions of impropriety on the part of Archibald McKellar*, first following the “Proton Outrage” investigation of 1872 [see Abram William Lauder], and again in 1874 concerning mismanagement of the agricultural college at Guelph. An incident in 1876, however justified, when Cameron led the Conservative members into the lobby to protest proposed amendments in the election law, became something of a joke when it was dubbed the “March of the Cameron Men.”

Very different was the satisfaction felt in both political and professional circles when Cameron was sworn in on 27 Nov. 1878 as a puisine judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench, and when he was made the chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas on 13 May 1884. According to D. B. Read, he brought insight and conscientiousness to his judicial work, and rendered several judgements of historic importance. On 5 April 1887 he was created a kb. Less than three months later he died.

Cameron’s many activities had been an expression of his Scottish and intellectual heritage, and of his political and business interests. He had been a member of the Caledonian and St Andrew’s societies, president of the Ontario Literary Society, first president of the Liberal-Conservative Association of Toronto, and a director of the Dominion Telegraph Company, Confederation Life Association, and Isolated Risk Fire Insurance Company of Canada.

Cameron’s forte had been law. His eminence at the bar or on the bench was unquestioned. As a politician he had set an example of the highest personal integrity. But for all his ability and devotion to his party he had fallen short of being a successful leader. Although in private life kindly and possessed of “the magnanimity of a Scottish Chief,” he could not bring himself to employ the hand-shaking and other arts likely to win votes. In the house he often seemed unnecessarily blunt. Thus his opposition to a tile drainage bill in 1878 because it would benefit only a few, and his comment in 1876 that the Conservatives would give justice but no more than justice to Roman Catholics, were less than conciliatory to the farmers who still made up the majority, and the Catholics who formed one-sixth, of the Ontario electorate. Most important, in his attachment to Britain and the empire, his Anglicanism, his preference for the proven system over the new, and his aristocratic temper, he was distinctly in the old Tory tradition. This had gone out of fashion in the post-confederation era of more moderate and flexible parties, broadly based and capable of comprehending diverse interests, such as John A. Macdonald’s at Ottawa and Oliver Mowat’s in Ontario.

A. Margaret Evans

Ont., Legislative Library, Newspaper Hansard, 1867–77 (mfm. at AO). PAC, MG 26, A. Can., Prov. of, Parl., Confederation debates, 448–63, 744–45, 975–77. Canada Law Journal, new ser., 23 (1887): 243–44. Globe, 11 July 1874, 27 June 1887. Leader, 14 Dec. 1874. Nation (Toronto), 31 Dec. 1874, 15 Jan. 1875. Canadian biog. dict., I: 740–42. CPC, 1877. Dent, Canadian portrait gallery, III: 100–3. Read, Lives of judges, 404–24. A. M. Evans, “Oliver Mowat and Ontario, 1872–1896: a study in political success” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1967). B. W. Hodgins, John Sandfield Macdonald, 1812–1872 ([Toronto], 1971). Joseph Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G.C.B., first prime minister of the dominion of Canada (2v., Ottawa, [1894]).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

A. Margaret Evans, “CAMERON, Sir MATTHEW CROOKS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cameron_matthew_crooks_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cameron_matthew_crooks_11E.html
Author of Article:   A. Margaret Evans
Title of Article:   CAMERON, Sir MATTHEW CROOKS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   May 26, 2024