DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

SCHWATKA, FREDERICK – Volume XII (1891-1900)

b. 29 Sept. 1849 in Galena, Ill.


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

CROSS, CHARLES WILSON, lawyer and politician; b. 30 Nov. 1872 in Madoc, Ont., son of Thomas Cross, a merchant, and Marie Mouncey; m. 1 Jan. 1900 Annie Louisa Lynde in Edmonton, and they had one son and two daughters; d. 2 June 1928 in Calgary.

Charles W. Cross was educated in Toronto at Upper Canada College, the University of Toronto, and Osgoode Hall. Lured by a western economy beginning to boom, he moved to Edmonton in 1897 and opened a law firm. Active in the Liberal party, by 1905 he was generally viewed as Edmonton’s second most influential Liberal after Frank Oliver*. He was chosen by city council in February that year as one of a three-man deputation being sent to Ottawa “to look after Edmonton’s interest” in the negotiation of the terms by which the North-West Territories would become one or more provinces.

Though he was only 32, Cross was named attorney general when Alberta’s first cabinet was announced by Premier Alexander Cameron Rutherford* on 6 Sept. 1905. Second in command to the premier, he had never faced the voters, but in the provincial election on 9 November he was returned handily as the mla for Edmonton. He would be re-elected to the Legislative Assembly four times and would be a central figure in the two major controversies of the Liberals’ 16-year tenure.

In his initial term Cross could take pleasure in the assembly’s selection of Edmonton to be the provincial capital. Although much of the legislation he introduced as attorney general was conservative, he was responsible for the first workmen’s compensation bill in 1908, which addressed some of labour’s concerns.

The government was rather more generous in its guarantees to railway companies than it was to workers. The Alberta and Great Waterways Railway received the most favourable terms of all for its planned line linking Edmonton and Fort McMurray. Boosters argued that the connection was essential if the oil-sands and other resources were to be developed. The election of 1909 returned a large Liberal majority, with Cross winning easily, but the size of the guarantee to the A&GW and the creditworthiness of the company became the dominant issue in the legislature. It divided the Liberals, with critics both among dissident party members and in the opposition suggesting that some cabinet ministers had a financial interest in the company. Premier Rutherford tried to fend off censure by appointing a royal commission, made up of David Lynch Scott, Horace Harvey*, and Nicholas Du Bois Dominic Beck of the Alberta Supreme Court, to investigate whether any members of the government had a personal stake in the A&GW, but the split in Liberal ranks and the public outrage were so great that he stepped down before it could report. His successor was chosen by the party leaders in Ottawa and Lieutenant Governor George Hedley Vicars Bulyea, and their goal was to pick someone who could pull the Liberal factions together. On 1 June 1910 the new premier, Arthur Lewis Watkins Sifton, named a cabinet that included only one minister from the previous administration. Charles Cross, so recently the heir apparent to Rutherford, was left an ordinary mla.

The majority report of the commission, signed by Harvey and Scott and filed later in 1910, was critical of both Rutherford and Cross, claiming that they had risked millions of public dollars. Promoters of the A&GW had provided them with “misleading, unreliable, and in many respects absolutely false” information, which they had failed to verify. It concluded, however, that “the evidence does not warrant the finding that there was or is any personal interest on the part of Dr. Rutherford or Mr. Cross.”

Cross remained unrepentant, defending the former government’s aid to railways, including the guarantee to the A&GW, as necessary if the mineral resources of northern Alberta were to be developed. His stance had the support of the Edmonton Board of Trade but not of Frank Oliver, who became his bitter political enemy. Cross led an important faction within the Liberal legislative caucus, and Premier Sifton attempted to fashion a railway policy that would placate both it and the opponents of lavish government aid to privately owned lines. On 4 May 1912 Cross once again became attorney general. He announced that he was re-entering the cabinet because “Premier Sifton’s adoption of the great railway program of 1912, which requires construction of about 1450 miles of new lines in the next three years, made it proper for me to support and join his government.”

He remained a powerful minister until the Alberta party, like Liberals throughout English Canada, divided in 1917 on another issue: conscription. He stayed loyal to Sir Wilfrid Laurier* even as Sifton left for Ottawa to join a conscriptionist cabinet and Charles Stewart* succeeded to the premiership. Cross joined with his former enemy Frank Oliver to oppose the Union government. Though Stewart left him in his portfolio at first, he tried to get him to resign and become the province’s agent general in London. Cross refused the offer, so the premier fired him on 23 Aug. 1918.

Cross’s expulsion left Alberta Liberals more divided than ever, just as the United Farmers of Alberta [see Henry Wise Wood*] were beginning to consider nominating their own candidates rather than simply trying to influence those of the old parties. In the election on 18 July 1921 they reduced the Liberals to only 15 of 61 seats. Cross was one of the survivors, but his days as a key figure were over. He had been virtually silent in the debates after his ouster from cabinet and during the UFA period was more concerned with his law practice than the legislature. Moving to federal politics in the general election of 1925, he was returned to the House of Commons in the riding of Athabaska. He lost the seat to a UFA member in the 1926 election and died of a heart attack two years after.

Cross had been a notable lacrosse player in his youth, and in later years he was on the executive of the Canadian Amateur Athletic Union. Of Scottish ancestry, he was a member of First Presbyterian Church in Edmonton. The main focus of his life, however, appears to have been politics, and in particular the arrangement of government assistance to railways. His legacy was a controversial one: he could claim a good portion of the credit for the many miles of line in Alberta, but his critics could argue that too many miles had been built and that the taxpayers had been left responsible for huge debts from the socialization of risk for private endeavours.

Alvin Finkel

Calgary Herald, 4 June 1928. Edmonton Bulletin, 6 May 1912, 24 Aug. 1918. John Blue, Alberta, past and present, historical and biographical (3v., Chicago, 1924). Edmonton: the life of a city, ed. Bob Hesketh and Frances Swyripa (Edmonton, 1995). The formation of Alberta: a documentary history, ed. D. R. Owram (Calgary, 1979). Howard Palmer with Tamara [Jeppson] Palmer, Alberta: a new history (Edmonton, 1990). L. G. Thomas, The Liberal party in Alberta: a history of politics in the province of Alberta, 1905–1921 (Toronto, 1959).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Alvin Finkel, “CROSS, CHARLES WILSON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cross_charles_wilson_15E.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/cross_charles_wilson_15E.html
Author of Article:   Alvin Finkel
Title of Article:   CROSS, CHARLES WILSON
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   September 29, 2023