Our Present Perplexities
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 12 Dec 1935, p. 156-168
Greenshields, Honourable Mr. Justice R.A.E., Speaker
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Item Type
The British Commonwealth of Nations today. Enjoying the heritage of a great past. Guarding the noble ideals which are our priceless inheritance. The greatest and most outstanding perplexity that faces mankind at this moment and which is apparent to the most superficial observer of today is that chaotic condition in which we find this world's affairs. The situation where the world granaries are filled to the roof with food, yet thousands are faced with almost starvation. The helplessness felt to bring about a remedy. Our age as pre-eminently a transition period, and how that is so. Differences between the world today and that of 50 years ago. Democracy come to say. The solemn duty of carefully determining how that democratic power may be best used. The power of individual example and of individual influence. An ever growing class of indifferent citizens. The need for an earnest and eager concern for the problems and perils that beset us.
Date of Original
12 Dec 1935
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Thursday, December 12th, 1935

PRESIDENT: My Lords and Gentlemen: The most famous street or possibly for some of us the most infamous street in Canada bears the name, St. James. This street actually runs some miles in length. The portion, however, referred to in our daily press so frequently consists of only four short blocks. These four short blocks have a rather cosmopolitan atmosphere. We have some very small stores, some small restaurants of the one armed variety and as well, some large banking and other financial buildings. Daily, the so-called fifty bold bad barons, referred to in the fables of steel, wend their way to the counting houses in this street. At its easterly extremity, fortunately, there is placed a large edifice of stone and mortar which prevents it being extended further. As a result Three Rivers, Quebec, and the lower St. Lawrence valley are prevented from being exploited by these buccaneers. Unfortunately for Ontario there is nothing in the form of a barricade at the westerly end of this street and our daily newspapers tell us the result. This citadel to which I refer is the Court of Justice of the City of Montreal. Its Commanding Officer is our guest speaker today, the Honourable Mr. Justice Greenshields, Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Quebec. He is going to talk to us today on "Some of Our Present Perplexities." I think Mr. Justice Greenshields is well known to most Ontario audiences as well as in his own home town. Therefore, I will not dwell on any biography in respect to our guest speaker today. I have very much pleasure in calling upon His Lordship.

HONOURABLE MR. JUSTICE R. A. E. GREENSHIELDS There are two opening statements I wish to make. The first is that I am deeply grateful to The Empire Club of Canada for the honour 'done me and the privilege given me in that I may today be actively identified, for a few moments at least, with an interesting weekly luncheon of this, your important and active organization. I am grateful to be with you today.

The second statement I wish to make commends itself for its truth. It is a statement I fancy that it is unneces sary for me to make. The truth of that statement you will readily discover. It is that I am not an after dinner speaker, not even an after luncheon speaker. With all my desire to cultivate such an art I haven't succeeded, and by way of explanation, if, not of apology I might say that the process, during a quarter of a century of actively, very actively, drafting judicial opinions, which by courtesy or misnomer may be called judgments, where it is necessary for exactitude of statement, where words only should be used that will convey a definite significance, I tell you, whether you believe it or not and you may believe it or not as seems to you best, it entirely or practically, or to a great extent at least, destroys the aptitude for after dinner, after luncheon, or any kind of extemporary speaking. So, Gentlemen, I know you are entitled to be critical, but I pray you to be kindly critical, and if I do depart from my usual custom and to some extent at least consult a manuscript, you will, I am sure, pardon me.

Now, Gentlemen, you know when your kind invitation reached me, with that innate, inborn modesty which I have struggled through a fairly long life to cultivate, (My friend here said, `Overcome') which I have struggled to cultivate without any success whatever, but which with fine ingenuity I have succeeded in concealing from all who meet me, I hesitated to accept that kindly invitation. I assure you, that that hesitation was more apparent than real. It was verily the merest camouflage to conceal an ardent desire to be with you and have you at my mercy for a few moments. (Applause) I can best describe my own condition by illustration, in recounting the incident which happened to a very highly respectable Scotsman from north of the Tweed, Mr. MacPherson by name. Like many other Scotsmen and like many others who are not Scotsmen, Mr. MacPherson was very fond of not at infrequent intervals imbibing large portions of his country's native brew. He had a peculiar eccentricity, an alarming eccentricity. Whenever he took a drink he would invariably shut his eyes. A young f riend had watched this peculiar operation many times and one day he allowed his curiosity to overcome his good manners and he said, "Mr. MacPherson, will ye no be tellin' me why ye close your eyes before you take the drink. Is it a wee prayer you are saying or what is the ceremony?" "No, my boy. No, my boy, it is no' a prayer I'm saying. It is no' a ceremony, but I will tell you. If I saw that whisky before I drank it my mouth would so water that it would spoil my drink." I want to tell you, my mouth watered to have been invited here. Now, Gentlemen, I am particularly gratified at being with you at this luncheon in this, your Queen City of the West. Many years ago, or as we say in law, at the time beyond which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, I came to your fair city. I came, I saw, I didn't conquer. I was conquered, but I made an acquisition, I made probably the most valued acquisition that my life has given to me. Strange to say, notwithstanding the passing of many years, notwithstanding the legal spectacular gymnastics indulged in in some of my courts with marriage laws in the Province of Quebec, I am still the proud possessor of what I at that time acquired.

Now, Gentlemen, you know a great wise philosopher, I don't know his name and I never knew his Greek, but he did say that there was nothing just so bad in this world as was expected and there was nothing so good in this world as was anticipated and he added, "The loftiest pine tree never reached the sky and no man's beard ever grew to the ground." Now, then, don't be disappointed, it won't be as bad as you expect it to be and it couldn't be much worse, I am sure.

I was cheered and I was comforted when I accepted the invitation to be with you today and on consulting a dear friend of mine or not consulting him but conveying to him the information that I was to speak before your Club - a friend for whose opinion I have the highest respect - I said to him, "I am going to offer an address, a halting, feeble, stumbling address to the Empire Club of Canada at Toronto." I read what he said: "I look upon The Empire Club of Canada at Toronto as perhaps the best audience from your point of view and from mine in Canada. Its members are educated, cultivated, cultured men who can appreciate real discussion but who also respond to that lighter touch which only cultured men dare employ or value."

Now, I was comforted. My diffidence, my apprehension, perhaps, was lessened although it was somewhat increased when I realized that the place I am now trying to fill, the task I am now attempting to discharge has been filled and discharged in the past by eminent men whom I cannot hope to emulate or rival in any way.

Now I have a word to say of you and to you and to your Club. I congratulate you most heartily on the name you have given to this, your organization. I know something of what your Club has done in the past. I know something of what your Club is doing and I am confident of what your Club in the future will do. I know that you will, by your precept and by your practice maintain the very highest and best traditions of the British Empire and of the great Anglo-Saxon race. (Applause.) Our Commonwealth of Nations presents a picture of a vast organization, political, economic, social, religious, an organization unrivalled, unparalleled in the recorded history of this world. Even the Holy Roman Empire, the great Roman Empire in its time, with all its ramifications, with all its then far-flung possessions fell far short of ours. Citizenship in that great Empire was sometimes a matter of heritage, sometimes it was dearly bought, but it ever was a valuable asset and it ever was a safeguard for liberty, such liberty as then existed. St. Paul knew whereof he spoke and knew well what he was doing when he claimed his Roman citizenship. His declaration called forth from the Roman centurian the words, "Take heed what thou doest for this man is a Roman citizen."

A Bombay policeman put it in another way but with equal emphasis and he disclosed the respect in which British citizenship is held. Being asked if he believed in the existence of a God, he said, "I am at the moment unable to say with any certainty but this thing I do say with certainty, from what I know and what I have heard if there be a God he certainly is an Englishman."

We are today in the enjoyment of a heritage of a great past and in very truth it behooves us to hold high the torch, well lighted, jealously,, devotedly, to guard the noble ideals which are our priceless inheritance. We must strive with unceasing heart to keep pure and unsullied the fair name and the good name of our beloved Empire. Let us unitedly work in that Empire upon which the sun never sets, that the Empire in the future as in the past, and notwithstanding the predictions of dictatorships, of the Italian dictator, may in the future and forever be a mighty current making for righteousness in this greatly upset, perplexed, chaotic and wearied old world. (Applause.) Never in the history of the Royal family of England was there witnessed such an outburst of wide-spread and universal, loving, affectionate devotion, devoted loyalty, as was evident on the 6th day of May last and the succeeding days. It all was inspired by the fact that His Most Gracious Majesty, our beloved King, was securely seated on the throne of his forefathers at the end of twenty-five years of more or less-probably more - very troublous times. And that unswerving loyalty and devotion to the person of a wise, good King and to his Crown has maintained our Empire secure and steadfast amid all the world-wide chaos and turmoil. Sure and steadfast stands England's Crown, while other crowns may totter and crumble.

But, now, Gentlemen, for a few moments only, to my subject, "Present Perplexities." I fancy you will agree with me that I had not very far to go to find one at least.

I might start with myself but I won't. If, indeed, I were to give even a passing notice to the many perplexities I could discover on the very short journey, I would trespass on your attention and on your patience and very soon exhaust the time which your President so wisely circumscribed for me. Perhaps the greatest, and you will pardon me if I stick somewhat to my manuscript because I feel what I say, perhaps the greatest and most outstanding perplexity that 'faces mankind at this moment and which is apparent to the most superficial observer of today, is that chaotic condition in which we find this world's affairs. There have been in the past many alarming and disturbing crises in the history of many individual states and countries. Fortunately, in the past these crises have been largely restricted to particular countries or nations. The present condition is practically if not actually world wide. It is not my intention to attempt to discover the cause of the present ghastly condition in which his old world finds itself, nor much less is it my intention for a moment to suggest something in the way of a remedy. It is true, it is lamentably true, that the world granaries are filled to the roof with food, yet thousands are faced with almost starvation. Seed time and harvest have never failed, yet penury and want stalk throughout our land. The Great Giver of all Good has given to His world in abundance, to feed and clothe His people, yet thousands lack proper food and many lack proper raiment. All this seems so utterly impossible of explanation that it is not to be wondered at that the greatest intellects of our time stand utterly aghast, completely helpless to bring about the remedy. I am not at the moment making a practical suggestion by way of remedial legislation. The greatest economists of our day wallow in words, stifle themselves with words they little understand. Trained political exponents dream dreams of a world restored to prosperity, yet chaos and confusion worse confounded still prevail. We are faced with a disturbing, perplexing uncertainty. Apart entirely from a financial question which is facing this and other countries, we have industrial difficulties, the problem of unemployment, the fact that an enormous portion of our youth and even of our adults are walking the streets without work, the fact that we have, perhaps, truly lost a whole generation. All these are pressing heavily and call loudly for a remedy, if one can be found. To the most superficial observer of this our day and age it must be clear we are coming to a new synthesis of men and nations. Since the dawn of the present century mighty cataclysmic forces have been released, factors having the most far-reaching and transforming influence upon life and thought. Monotonous as it may be, commonplace as it undoubtedly is, I do say our age is pre-eminently a transition period. We are passing from an old order, known and definite, to a new order, dim and uncertain. I venture to say and I say it with all respect, with all due respect and without confining my statement to my own country, the field of action today is conspicuously lacking - and what I say has been said in another form by others - in leadership that interprets the moral and social needs of our time with brave, clear, definitely determined policies with truth as their basis and wide human wellbeing as their aim. Loud-speaking reactionaries and subtle masters in compromise are oftener heard and indeed listened to with more attention than accredited leaders in whom the aspirations of mankind find expression. If this be true, I believe it is due largely to the fact that the monstrous, stupendous task of the moment, the pressing, perplexing problems of the future are so overwhelming that human wisdom fails before them and the mottoes of the past seem to offer little guidance and less assistance. The world we face today in very truth is not the world of fifty years ago. In every department of the world's work new situations have arisen, doctrines long accredited, political policies, systems, long accepted as perhaps unchallengable have had their sanctions challenged and their very foundations shaken. Ideals, lofty ideals, it is true, brighten the outlook sometimes with fitful gleam, but the ways are new and human nature is stubborn. Great dissatisfaction, great unrest disturbs the mind of man rather than encouraging hope to brighten. Such, indeed, is the situation as I see it in part at least today. It can only be changed for the better by men equipped with newer weapons of mind, heart and soul, rather than those who put their trust in the ancient armour of long since by-gone battles.

A severe critic, an aggressive censor of modern life, the Gloomy Dean, a charming man, offers the suggestion that the world failure in the crisis of today is more intellectual than moral. Perhaps he might acquit us of moral fall but most assuredly he would convict us of monumental stupidity. Would he not say we are more stupid than bad, we blunder more than we sin.

We stand today as it were, there is no doubt, on the shoulders of our forefathers. We are the legatees of all the past ages. For this reason, if for no other, our vision should be more far-reaching than theirs. We should see farther than they saw. We have their experience as a guiding lesson. That lesson should teach us to improve on their achievement and to avoid their fatal mistakes. We may not be much better than those who have gone before but if modern universities, libraries, laboratories and work shops are any good, if improved opportunity of learning stands for anything, we ought to be able to better avoid the pitfalls of the past.

There is one thing certain, Democracy has come to stay. Whether it is fortunate or otherwise, I will not pause to discuss. It is with us and it will probably stay. No, I am not so certain of the last statement but I am certain of this, it thrusts upon each one of us the obligation to most seriously consider, most carefully determine how that democratic power may be best used, for the saying is trite but true, that the possession of a privilege always and ever carries with it a great responsibility in the exercise of that valued, privileged possession. It behooves every one of us to ask ourselves how best we can fulfill the obligation resting upon us and thrust upon us in our democratic community. It is a solemn duty that we must fulfill. We must discharge it and it can only be rightly discharged when each one of us takes a keen, thoughtful, unselfish interest in everything that affects the welfare of the world. Public opinion is all powerful and each one of us, not only by the thoughts expressed but by the example we set, is forming or helping to form public opinion. Therefore, Gentlemen, never forget the power of individual example and of individual influence.

With all humility and with a spirit, critical it may be but most kindly critical, I say that today we have in our midst a class, and perhaps an ever growing class, growing in numbers at least, whom, for lack of a better word I will describe as the indifferent citizen. They are those self-satisfied, those complacent persons who, buried deep in the gratification of their own enjoyment and desires are impervious to any appeal for sympathy, service or sacrifice. They do not think, they do not care. Things are bad and they know it, but they will not put forth the slightest effort with a view to mending them. They want to be left alone and not to be bothered. Apathy, indifference, preoccupation with, absorption in their own selfish interests are the marks of the indifferent, selfish citizen. Irresponsible agitators are bad enough, Heaven knows, and in all conscience when misguided, but they are far preferable, in my opinion at least, to the man who never thinks about anything saving what touches his own personality, who lives in the little world of his own comfort and who regards earth-shaking events merely as disturbing elements in his own peace and pleasure. He has no eyes to see the signs of the times. He has no heart to feel the woes of the world. He cannot and doses not read the writing on the wall or foresee consequences. Yet this man is one of the many electors of this great land who chooses the government for the time being. He it is who influences and sometimes may even control events. He and his like secure the rulers to direct the affairs of the world and largely if not entirely determine its destiny, but save for a brief time in the excitement of an election, when the emotions and inspirations are at their flood tide and common sense and reason and judgment at their lowest ebb, does he ever give a thought to the importance and significance of things, the right or wrong of government policy. Not a thought does he give to the obligation and the task of citizenship.

Now do not, Gentlemen, I beg of you, I beg of you most sincerely, think that what I say is empty democratic rant and an expression of the hater of popular rule. Far from it. Even the most whole-hearted believer in government of the people, by the people and for the people must know that a foolish, selfish, unthinking democracy may be as dangerous to the public weal as any oligarchy, however harsh or false it may be. In all places of the community there is today a most desperate need for an earnest and eager concern with the problems and perils that beset us. Whatever our station in life may be it behooves us to think well, to well consider, to carefully study, to bring the whole power of a well-informed, well-trained, unprejudiced and unbiased mind to bear upon the many perplexing and bewildering questions that confront us today. In policies of government, in religion, in industrial problems, in social relations, in foreign relations, in fact in everything that belongs to human life and the great ordering and the proper ordering of that life, you and I ought to think seriously, persistently, unselfishly, how the best is to be made of this old world in which we Jive. With this world to all appearances apparently a wreck, you and I have much to do in the short time left, or in the time left to us however short it may be for some of us. We have to work to redeem it from destruction, to restore it along lines of strength, sanity and sanctity. We must gird ourselves well, first and foremost for the task of rebuilding the broken walls of a shattered civilization. We must take no part in the ignoble conspiracy of shutting eyes to the ghastly, chaotic state by which we are surrounded. Think, study, work for the saving of men and women from their tragic wrongs and their bitter sorrows. Travail in thought until a better world is born.

Now, Gentlemen, that is about all I am going to say on perplexities, and I haven't said anything. But in lighter mood and with the permission of your Chairman, I want to read something - it will only take two minutes. You know, "Age loves through ways of olden days with Memory's lamp to grope;

"While proud youth peers at future years, led by the torch of hope."

I like the lamp of memory and I will go back to an occasion.

It was the day after one of the banquets at which the Inns of Court entertained the visiting lawyers on the occasion of the historic meeting of the American Bar Association in London. A friendly group at luncheon one day with a distinguished English barrister discussed the relative merits of the orators who had proposed and replied to the various toasts on a preceding evening. One of our fellow guests, a lawyer from St, Paul, Minnesota, boasted that the American representative had on that occasion outshone in eloquence all his rivals. He said in part, "Your English lawyers, while they have a fine command of language, pleasant and well modulated voices and a masterly command of their subject, yet lack that fervour, that snap and that fluent and flowery eloquence, that enthusiastic eloquence which characterizes the oratory of the members of the American Bar." An English barrister seated beside me carefully placed his eye glasses on his nose, looked across the table and addressed the enthusiastic American somewhat as 'follows:

"Yes, Mr. Brown, I heartily concur with you in your very apt comparison for I have had occasion to note the special feature of American forensic eloquence to which you refer. Some years ago I happened to be in North Dakota and as I was interested in the administration of justice in your great country, I took advantage of an opportunity to attend a murder trial. The proceedings, as I remember, commenced on a Thursday. They lasted all day Thursday, all day Friday and all day Saturday. On Saturday in the evening the Court adjourned until Monday. All Saturday night all day Sunday and all Sunday night, the judge, the jury, the Sheriff and the prisoner played poker together. The trial was resumed on Monday, a verdict of guilty was rendered, and the Judge who was one of the most brilliant exponents of the eloquence to which, Mr. Brown, you have referred, addressed the prisoner as follows: "Prisoner, at the Bar: You have had a fair trial by your peers and you have been found guilty of the heinous crime of murder. "This lovely season of the year, when the hillsides about us are robed in the garments of living green and the little streams that take their rise in the crystal springs of the mountains flow and flow down through our valleys to mingle their limpid and unsullied waters with the mighty current of the rushing river, this lovely season of spring will give place to sunny„ smiling summer, when the husband will till his field with sure confidence in the bountiful co-operation of Nature and will call in melodious accents to his weary but willing steeds as they draw the plough through the rich furrows of a generous soil.

"Summer in turn will give place to the glorious autumn, when our forests are painted a thousand variegated hues and colours and when the happy husbandman will reap the reward of his labours and will contemplate with pride and satisfaction his barns and granaries bursting with plenty.

"Then will come the quiet season of winter, when the blanket of untrodden snow is spread over our sleeping fields and meadows and the lakes and the streams, and the rushing rivers then lie imprisoned in strong fetters of ice.

"Then once more in due course will return the lovely season of Spring, but you, you damned degenerate, you won't be here. You will be hanged tomorrow morning." (Laughter and prolonged applause.)

PRESIDENT: My Lords and Gentlemen: May I thank His Lordship first for his very kind words when referring to this Club. It is hard to say whether in his lighter vein or in that vein when he discussed so seriously our responsibility as individuals, he created the greater influence with us. This, I think, has been really a memorable occasion for this Club. I am particularly pleased that His Lordship has referred in such strong language to our ties in the British Empire and to our responsibility in keeping those ties intact. Your Lordship, on behalf of all those who have listened to you today I wish to extend to you our very hearty thanks.

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Our Present Perplexities

The British Commonwealth of Nations today. Enjoying the heritage of a great past. Guarding the noble ideals which are our priceless inheritance. The greatest and most outstanding perplexity that faces mankind at this moment and which is apparent to the most superficial observer of today is that chaotic condition in which we find this world's affairs. The situation where the world granaries are filled to the roof with food, yet thousands are faced with almost starvation. The helplessness felt to bring about a remedy. Our age as pre-eminently a transition period, and how that is so. Differences between the world today and that of 50 years ago. Democracy come to say. The solemn duty of carefully determining how that democratic power may be best used. The power of individual example and of individual influence. An ever growing class of indifferent citizens. The need for an earnest and eager concern for the problems and perils that beset us.