Donald Gordon, “The Great Scot” was born December 11, 1901 in Old Meldrum, Scotland, to John Gordon, a watchmaker and his wife, Margaret Watt. He was the eighth of nine children.
The Gordon clan began their exodus from Scotland around the time of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912; by 1914, Margaret had persuaded her husband of the attractions of Canada, and the family emigrated.
As an immigrant family in Toronto at the beginning of WW 1, the pickings were slim and young Donald led the way by finding a job in a box factory at six dollars a week. He supplemented this income by taking on any other jobs he could find. His early career was cut short by the truant officer who, heartily supported by Donald’s parents, insisted he continue his education. Donald, also continued to work as a paperboy, studied, and read in the evenings.
Donald’s first real job was at the age of fifteen when the Bank of Nova Scotia hired him – “at Ossington and Dundas branch…Junior Clerk at a salary of $300, per annum on June 5, 1916.” Donald Gordon had taken the first step.
Gordon was a hard worker and continued to study at nights and by correspondence and he excelled in the banking world, attracting the attention of his seniors as “being afraid of nothing and nobody” and soon moved into the foreign business section of the bank and travelled to the Caribbean.
June 1926 was a momentous time for the young Gordon as he married Maisie Barter on June 12th and became manager of his first branch on June 8th. His career and family both progressed. His first son, Donald Ramsay was born in 1929 and in 1931 he became the senior manager at the main Toronto branch of the bank.
Gordon’s legend in banking circles grew and late 1934 scouted him by executives from the government and he became the secretary of the Bank of Canada and was instrumental in setting up the Foreign Exchange Control Board. In face of the crisis of war and the volatility of prices, Gordon would eventually become Chairman of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, which successfully enforced price controls.
The Gordon’s welcomed a second son, Michael Huntley on October 19, 1936
By the end of World War 11 The Prices Board and the man who built it were becoming political issues and eventually Gordon resigned and returned to the Bank of Canada as Deputy Governor.
By the end of 1949, the life in Ottawa and with the Bank of Canada had worn thin and Gordon was looking for a new challenge when H.J. Symington, senior director of the Board of the CNR offered him the position of Chairman and President of Canadian National Railways.
Tragedy followed the family tom Montreal as Maisie died within weeks of their arrival. Donald Gordon turned to his work.
Gordon presided over a difficult period of labour troubles, a declining share of passenger traffic, the expense of modernization and demands to appoint moreFrench Canadians to senior management. Never one to leave things as he found them, Gordon immediately began to plan a major hotel complex for the old Mount Royal tunnel area of Dorchester Street. In 1953 “ Donald Gordon…bestrode Dorchester Street like a colossus, standing waist deep in 28 storey buildings while he built in half an hour a modern business and hotel centre.” The project was lacking a vital component – a name. In a charged atmosphere of controversy, the hotel was given a name – The Queen Elizabeth. The arrangements had been made through the PMO without Gordon’s knowledge, and although he bore the brunt of the blame for the “unsuitable” name for a Montreal hotel, he had nothing to do with it.
Within another month, Gordon became involved with William Zeckendorf in the Place Ville Marie project, which, with the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, would form the centre of a new downtown.
In the midst of all this, Gordon met and married Norma Hobbs, the daughter of a CNR executive and they had a son, Campbell.
By 1963 the problems between the CNR and the French Canadians had escalated; there were bomb in the train stations and Gordon drove to the office under police escort. The hiring practices of the company were denounced as discriminatory and with the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism looming on the horizon; Gordon was under the gun and was even hung in effigy in front of the Queen E.
Leon Balcer and Gilles Gregoire spoke favourably of Gordon’s part in the “ bilingualization” of the CNR, but Douglas Fisher refused to leave the issue of the CNR alone and switched his focus to the pace and method of the modernization of the railroad.
Fisher felt that the decrees from head office in Montreal were often issued without regard for the small communities, which endured the effects of the changes. Gordon felt that if the union leadership were in agreement with the changes, that was the main thing. These opposing views produced a final battle, which the railway chief lost. The Nakina crisis brought the CNR to a halt.
Ongoing labour unrest and the increasing load of managing the CNR, as well as health
problems began to take their toll on Gordon, and he made plans to hand over the reins. The Churchill Falls project, various directorships and Brinco beckoned and offered new and exciting challenges. On January 1, 1967, Donald Gordon resigned as President of the CNR, but retirement would be short. On March 8th he accepted the position of President and Chief Executive Officer of the British Newfoundland Corporation (BRINCO) and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Churchill Falls (Labrador) Ltd. Gordon, along with William Mulholland brokered much of the BRINCO deal, obtained financing for the project at home and elsewhere, and helped bring the project to a satisfying end.
By this time, Donald Gordon’s health was failing; he suffered from poor eyesight all his life and his eyes were deteriorating badly. He divided his time between his house at 172 Edgehill Road and his summer home in Georgeville. He made peace with his sons and enjoyed his grandchildren and began to receive honours such as the Order of Canada in 1968.
Donald Gordon died in his sleep at his home in Westmount on May 2, 1969 and with him passed an era. The entrepreneurs of the future would not be Donald Gordons. His roots went back to the Canada of the first war, he had been one of the great improvisers and if the country was bigger, richer and wiser, he could take some of the credit for that.
A fitting epitaph might have been the words of Walter Gordon, at the reception held at the Edgehill house after Gordon’s funeral. Old friends, business associates and family met for a drink and the sharing of stories, Walter Gordon looked around and said, “This is the part that Donald would like to be in on.”