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ROGERS, ROBERT, businessman, political organizer, and politician; b. 2 March 1863 in Lakefield, Lower Canada, second son of George Rogers, a merchant, and Dora Moor; m. 13 June 1888 Aurelia Regina Widmeyer (d. 1934) in Clearwater, Man., and they had one son; d. 21 July 1936 in Guelph, Ont.
The son of immigrants from County Mayo (Republic of Ireland), Robert Rogers was educated in Lachute and Berthier (Berthierville), Que., and briefly attended the Montreal Business College before heading to Manitoba at the encouragement of John Joseph Caldwell Abbott*, a family friend and future Conservative prime minister. Like thousands of eastern Canadians, the 18-year-old Rogers arrived during the economic boom of 1881 that accompanied the passage of the Canadian Pacific Railway through Winnipeg. Rogers opened a general store in Clearwater, in the southwestern part of the province. Of immediate concern to him and other new settlers was the need for branch lines and cheap freight rates to develop the agricultural potential of the prairies. The CPR had a monopoly in western Canada and every attempt by Premier John Norquay* to alter the situation had been thwarted. In 1884 Rogers, with his eastern Conservative connections, was chosen by his community to lobby in Ottawa for a line. His success put him on the side of Norquay’s emerging alliance with the federal Conservative Party. In the 1886 election, during the first really partisan campaign in the province, Thomas Greenway*, the head of the Liberals, called him “the boy candidate.” After Rogers almost defeated Greenway in the riding of Mountain, the triumphant Liberals indulged in flagrant gerrymandering to make the constituency a safe seat.
Rogers unsuccessfully ran against Greenway again in the provincial election of 1892, and was defeated in Lisgar in the federal contest of 1896 by Robert Lorne Richardson* during Wilfrid Laurier*’s Liberal sweep of the west. Although a personal victory eluded him, from 1891 to 1898 Rogers helped to lay the foundations of the party’s future success, working towards the creation of the Manitoba Conservative Association, which would officially take place in 1899. In 1897, sensing an opportunity, the head of Manitoba’s Conservatives, Rodmond Palen Roblin, had offered the provincial leadership to Hugh John Macdonald*, son of former prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald*. On the strength of Macdonald’s name and with support from the temperance movement, the Conservatives won the provincial election of December 1899. Rogers was chosen to represent Manitou, which he would take again in 1903, 1907, and 1910. After attempting to enact controversial Prohibition legislation, Macdonald was manoeuvred out of the premiership by Roblin, Rogers, and federal party leader Sir Charles Tupper* and into an unsuccessful bid for a seat in parliament. Roblin became premier on 29 Oct. 1900 and Rogers entered cabinet without a portfolio; he was given public works on 20 December.
The two consummate politicians, Roblin and Rogers, along with cabinet members Colin H. Campbell*, John Andrew Davidson*, and David Henry McFadden, ushered in a period of prosperity for Manitoba, greatly expanding the province’s infrastructure. The administration undertook many large-scale construction projects and Rogers used his portfolio for patronage, a common practice at the time. Contracts and jobs were awarded to friends; some would later admit to giving kickbacks to the Conservative Party. Rogers’s newspaper, the Winnipeg Telegram, served as a party organ and he also employed foreign-language papers, one of which, the German Nordwesten [Northwest] (Winnipeg), was purchased by the Conservatives in 1911. The Telegram was in a constant war of words with the Liberal Manitoba Free Press; its editor, John Wesley Dafoe*, would later declare that “in an age when partisanship ran higher and political scruples were slacker than today, Mr. Rogers played the game hard and with success.”
The issue of elevated freight rates had been a thorn in the side of Manitoba’s farmers. In 1901 Rogers negotiated an agreement with the Northern Pacific Railroad to lease its lines across Manitoba, thus keeping them out of the hands of the CPR. They were then sublet to the Canadian Northern Railway [see Sir Donald Mann; Sir William Mackenzie*] to connect its previously separated routes. In return for the power to fix the Canadian Northern’s freight rates within the province and for the building of needed branch lines, the provincial government guaranteed the company’s bonds for construction in Manitoba, Ontario, and Minnesota, thus allowing the CNR to reach the Lakehead and lay the base for its transformation into a transcontinental line that would offer strong competition to the CPR.
Rogers and Roblin made the extension of Manitoba’s boundaries to Hudson Bay an election issue in 1903, 1907, and 1910. Their fight against Prime Minister Laurier, led by Campbell and Rogers, was often vituperative, especially in 1905 after the federal government announced the formation of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and provided them with greater subsidies than those received by Manitoba.
Under Rogers, the provincial telephone network, purchased in 1907, became the first government-owned and -operated system in North America; the government-owned grain-elevator commission, less successful, was established in 1909. Both provided ample opportunities for influencing voters and distributing largesse to Conservative supporters, but they were also important and well-meaning responses to major Manitoba issues. To increase settlement and augment the tax base, Rogers’s department also undertook the drainage of much of Manitoba’s seven million acres of swampland, the only crown lands controlled by the provincial government. Besides being a capable administrator of public works, Rogers was the manager of both the provincial and the western branches of the federal Conservative party. A master strategist, he excelled at organizing elections. Never an engaging orator, he left defence of government policies in the legislature to Roblin, while he directed the party’s actions from behind the scenes.
In 1911 Roblin and Rogers placed their political machine at the service of federal Conservative leader Robert Laird Borden in the critical fight against Laurier and reciprocity. Rogers was able to carry Manitoba, and his reward was a post in Borden’s new cabinet. The prime minister found the seamy side of politics distasteful, but he needed a man such as Rogers to run the party apparatus. Prominent Conservatives objected to the appointment; Sir William Cornelius Van Horne*, president of the CPR, which Rogers had opposed, declared to Borden that Rogers was “decidedly not the man for a place in a Cabinet such as yours.” Rogers resigned his Manitoba post on 7 October and was named minister of the interior and superintendent general of Indian affairs three days later. He was elected to the House of Commons on 27 October in a by-election in Winnipeg. On 30 March 1912 he was given additional responsibility as minister of mines. The resignation from Borden’s cabinet later that year of the powerful Quebec Conservative-Nationaliste Frederick Debartzch Monk* opened up a patronage-rich portfolio.
Rogers took control of federal public works on 29 Oct. 1912. Under his administration contracts were given for harbours, canals, grain terminals, and public buildings across Canada. Departmental expenditures would jump from $14,784,739 in 1910 to $29,283,316 in 1915. In Manitoba, after the Roblin–Rogers machine had helped the federal Conservative Party accede to office, the province’s boundary was extended from 52° N to Hudson Bay in 1912, adding 178,000 square miles to the province. Manitoba’s federal subsidy was made equal to those of the other prairie provinces. The building of a railway to Hudson Bay, which had been much discussed for the previous three decades, continued during Roger’s tenure, running northward from The Pas towards Port Nelson [see John Duncan McArthur*], until financial complications caused by World War I brought work to a standstill in 1917. One of the most notable achievements of his ministry was the timely reconstruction of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa after a disastrous fire on 3 Feb. 1916. The following year he attended the Imperial War Conference in London with Borden, John Douglas Hazen, minister of marine and fisheries and minister of the naval service, and Sir George Halsey Perley, minister of the overseas military forces.
Despite Rogers’s success in federal politics, there were problems in his home province. A scandal over the legislative buildings in Winnipeg [see Victor William Horwood] had driven the Roblin government from power in May 1915. When the news broke, Roblin had appealed to Rogers for assistance. Rogers met with Lieutenant Governor Sir Douglas Colin Cameron, who urged Roblin to accept an inquiry or submit his resignation – actions that Rogers believed were being directed by the Liberals. Rogers’s hint of an extension to Cameron’s term in office in exchange for the appointment of sympathetic members to a royal commission was rebuffed. After testimony confirmed the accusations of fraud and corruption, the Roblin administration resigned. Buoyed by this success, the Liberals believed that there was enough evidence of wrongdoing surrounding the relocation and construction of the Manitoba Agriculture College in south Winnipeg (1911–12) to warrant calling, in 1916, another royal commission. Its preliminary report, signed by Judge Alexander Casimir Galt, implicated Manitoba cabinet members Rogers, George Robson Coldwell*, and James Henry Howden. The following year a federal royal commission overturned Galt’s conclusion that Rogers was “deeply involved in this matter.” That Rogers personally benefited from his position as a provincial or federal cabinet minister was never proven, but his personal wealth, accumulated from his dealings as a grain merchant in Clearwater and in mining and lumber at Rat Portage (Kenora, Ont.), had been estimated in 1910 to be in the millions of dollars.
On the federal scene, World War I presented political problems for Borden’s government. The Canadian Expeditionary Force depended on new recruits to compensate for its heavy losses. By 1917 it was evident to the prime minister that conscription for military service was the only means of acquiring the necessary replacements. Borden believed that legislation to deal with the matter, as well as with the nationalization of railways that were facing bankruptcy, should be passed by a non-partisan coalition government. Rogers, ever the campaigner, favoured an election on the two issues, but his powerful Manitoba party machine lay in ruins. In an attempt to improve its prospects, Borden’s administration passed the Military Voters Act and, probably on Rogers’s suggestion, the War-time Elections Act, which enfranchised immediate female relatives of soldiers and disenfranchised enemy aliens and conscientious objectors. These measures were not sufficient to ensure a successful re-election. Over Rogers’s objections and despite Laurier’s refusal to participate, Borden negotiated a coalition with a group of pro-conscriptionist Liberals, led by Rogers’s chief political rival in western Canada, Laurier’s former minister of the interior and the owner of the Manitoba Free Press, Sir Clifford Sifton*. Rogers resigned from cabinet on 22 Aug. 1917, allowing Borden to ask the Liberals to join the Union government, an invitation Sifton had insisted would be rejected as long as Rogers was a member of the administration.
Rogers accused Borden of destroying the loyalty of his own supporters, but he was a party man above all else, and in the election of 17 Dec. 1917 he declined the Conservative nomination in his Winnipeg constituency, allowing a Union candidate to win. His sacrifice was great; it deprived him of his instrument of power, the department of public works, and it allowed mp Arthur Meighen* to confirm his position as chief Conservative in the west. At the war’s end, following Borden’s resignation in 1920, Rogers broke his silence and began a round of speeches urging a return to party lines. Meighen, Borden’s successor as leader of the Union government, wanted to create a permanent party of Liberals and Conservatives, and Rogers’s opposition to this proposal was so blatant that Meighen was advised by colleagues to seek a rapprochement with Rogers before calling an election. The prime minister refused to acknowledge that he needed an organizer of Rogers’s ability to win; Rogers did not consider Meighen capable of leading the party to victory. Neither recognized the growing strength of the agrarian revolt in western Canada. In deference to Meighen’s wishes, in the general election of 6 Dec. 1921 Rogers did not run in one of the Winnipeg ridings, which he could have won; instead he contested Lisgar which, like most rural western seats, was taken by a member of the Progressive Party.
Meighen also suffered defeat, and Rogers pressed for a leadership review. His request was supported by Montreal businessmen such as Lord Atholstan [Graham], who were angry over the nationalization of the railways, for which they held Meighen responsible. Only a rise in Conservative fortunes, aided by the ineffectiveness of William Lyon Mackenzie King*’s minority Liberal government, ended the Rogers–Meighen quarrel. During a Conservative gathering in Saskatoon in 1923 Rogers and Meighen were publicly reconciled. The following year, at the national Conservative convention in Toronto in November, Meighen’s leadership was endorsed and Rogers became treasurer of the Liberal-Conservative Association of Canada. In the 1925 election campaign, Rogers tried to use his Quebec connections with Lord Atholstan, important businessmen, and prominent Conservative politicians to gain support for Meighen who, as the man who implemented conscription, was unpopular with French Canadians. But Rogers was also busy in Winnipeg South, where he faced a character-assassination campaign from provincial Liberal leader Tobias Crawford Norris, who used the Manitoba Agricultural College affair as the basis of his attack. Both Meighen and Rogers were re-elected, but the Progressives held the balance of power. Meighen briefly formed a government in June 1926, but Rogers was not among his acting ministers. Within three months the administration was defeated and the country returned to the polls. Both men were unsuccessful in the contest of 14 Sept. 1926. Meighen resigned as head of the Conservatives on 7 October. At the leadership convention the following year, Rogers allowed his name to stand on the first ballot, and then backed Richard Bedford Bennett*, who emerged victorious. Rogers won again in Winnipeg South in the general election of 28 July 1930, but by then his health, fortune, and fight were gone. He served until the dissolution of the 17th parliament in 1935, but did not seek another term. According to the Globe, his death the following year at the Homewood Sanitarium in Guelph was “caused by the infirmities of advancing years.” The certificate indicated bronchopneumonia as the immediate cause, but also mentioned that he had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage.
Rogers’s career was always controversial because his political style was characterized by tactics such as vote rigging, gerrymandering, and the flagrant use of patronage, all common practices of the time; he used them to excess. His extreme partisanship, while similar to that of Sifton, his Liberal contemporary, was more relentless. Yet even his political enemies admitted that Rogers had a way with people, stemming from his warm and generous nature. The strong federal Conservative political structure he helped to create in the west remained in place for decades. Rogers never received proper credit for his other accomplishments. The public works he helped create across Canada, such as the grain terminals in Vancouver, were essential to the development of an expanding nation. His role in extending Manitoba’s boundaries greatly improved the province’s future. His support for his region has also been overlooked: whether assisting in the establishment of a viable competitor to the CPR or awarding wartime contracts to prairie-based companies, Robert Rogers was always an advocate for western Canada.
AM, G 1662 (Greenway papers); MG14, B21 (Colin H. Campbell corr.); B36 (R. A. C. Manning papers); B53 (Robert Rogers papers); C14 (Charles Acton Burrows papers); C23 (Charles Napier Bell papers). BANQ-CAM, CE 606-S28, 12 April 1863. LAC, R7693-0-0; R10811-0-X (mfm. at AM). Man., Dept. of Tourism, Culture, Heritage, Sport and Consumer Protection, Vital statistics agency (Winnipeg), no.1888-001484. Univ. of Man. Libraries, Dept. of Arch. and Special Coll. (Winnipeg), mss 3, Mf 15 (John W. Dafoe fonds). Winnipeg Free Press, 8 Oct. 1910, 29 Oct. 1917, 22 July 1936. Winnipeg Telegram, 5 March 1907, 9 March 1908, 22 Sept. 1916, 20 Aug. 1917. Winnipeg Tribune, 20 Aug. 1917, 1 March 1930, 22 July 1936. R. C. Brown, Robert Laird Borden: a biography (2v., Toronto, 1975–80). Canadian annual rev., 1902–34. CPG, 1911–34. Philip Eyler, “Public ownership and politics in Manitoba, 1900–1915” (ma thesis, Univ. of Man., 1972). Roger Graham, Arthur Meighen: a biography (3v., Toronto, 1960–65), 1–2. H. J. Guest, “Reluctant politician: a biography of Sir Hugh John Macdonald” (ma thesis, Univ. of Man., 1973). J. A. Hilts, “The political career of Thomas Greenway” (phd thesis, Univ. of Man., 1974). A. I. Inglis, “Some political factors in the demise of the Roblin government: 1915” (ma thesis, Univ. of Man., 1968).