Back to the Beginning…the First Speech at the Empire Club of Canada

May 16, 2016

The Empire Club of Canada keeps and honours its name for historical reasons

The Empire Club of Canada was established in 1903 as a result of a political discussion which created considerable unrest in Canada. Growing dissent against the British was influencing Toronto’s political and social landscape. In an attempt to refrain from a hasty, myopic severing of ties with the British Empire, a group of men under the leadership of Brig.-Gen. James Mason, discussed the creation of an organization that would promote public discourse and discussion about key issues of the day, both at home and abroad.

With this mandate in mind, the group gathered to draft the constitution for a new club to be named The Empire Club of Canada. Canada’s “Imperial bond” with Britain was the cornerstone of the Empire Club of Canada, as its founders believed it would be beneficial to Canada to maintain strong political and economic ties with the Empire. This organization, with a plan of weekly luncheons, which would be addressed by prominent individuals who spoke with authority on the issues of the day, and would also have the distinctive basis of the British connection in its work and policy. Membership was restricted to British subjects—there was no legal Canadian citizenship at the time—who would pay dues of one dollar a year, with a maximum membership of 500. Within a month, membership exceeded 300. A year or two later, the club had a waiting list of those wishing to join.”


When Brig. General the Hon. James Mason started planning for the first meeting of the newly-established Empire Club, he was already very busy as General Manager of the Home Bank, formerly the Toronto Savings Bank, which was still a fairly big player in the young City of Toronto.The Club’s first President wanted to hold the inaugural meeting of members on December 3rd of that founding year of 1903 and invite well-known lecturer and preacher the Rev. Professor William Robinson Clark as the first speaker, as he had helped to set up the Club and had very strong ties to future Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Clark was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1829 and had emigrated to Canada in 1882, at the age of 53, to accept a professorship at Toronto’s Trinity College where he taught “Mental and Moral Philosophy”, a distant precursor to ethics. He was also a professor of theology at Toronto University, and a well-known speaker around town. And so it was that he came to be the first speaker in the history of the Empire Club, an institution that he would himself preside over immediately following James Mason, and not surprisingly his historic speech dealt with the reasons the Club had been founded. Entitled “The Empire Club of Canada and its Ideal of Imperialism”, the address is an argument for rejecting the American model of republicanism and staying true to the founding nations of Canada, particularly Great Britain with its well-tested democratic institutions. Here is a short excerpt from the first speech ever pronounced at the Empire Club podium:

“I can quite understand that to many persons the formation of a club of this kind will seem a very little thing. A number of gentlemen come together for lunch and to listen to one of their members, or some distinguished guest, address them, and this does not seem a very important matter. I am not of that opinion. I have not the least doubt that this Club will become of great influence and power in this Dominion, because it is founded upon a distinct and well understood and realized principle, namely, that the highest interests of the Dominion of Canada are identical with the interests of the British Empire.”

In short, The Empire Club was established by a group of men who were concerned that Canada would eventually join the United States, and fought to instead keep it aligned with one of its founding countries, Great Britain. In those days and in that context, it was quite naturally faithful to the Empire. Today, as we near the end of our 112th season, we still toast the Queen of England in recognition of that fundamental historical link which was at the origin of our birth. Does that mean that the men and women of the Empire Club must still all believe today in the concept of Empire with all of the colonial vestiges that are attached to such a notion? The answer should be obvious to anyone…of course not. We respect our history and have a great admiration for both of our founding nations, including Great Britain and its extraordinarily perennial monarchy, but the men and women who make up the Empire Club today come from all backgrounds, all creeds and political belief systems…what unites us today is what was already at the very core of our founder’s ambitions…to bring issues of import before the general public and to discuss them so that Canadians could  and can make better and more informed decisions in their lives. That is why the Empire Club is still strong and still a part of the fabric of Canadian life after tens of thousands of speeches given throughout its entire history. The name may strike some as anachronistic, stuck in 1903 values, but most recognize that it is a reminder of how enduring an institution the Club is and what a fundamentally important role it has played in the history of our nation.

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