Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Smithe's Victory

This doesn't have anything to do with today's entry on William Smithe but I wanted to show you something. This is a picture I took of the Victoria Block on Pender Street. I wrote on the history of the building on January 5, 2011.
This is another photo of the same building that I took and published on February 29, 2012 where the structure has been renovated.
And this is a photo I found through the Vancouver Public Library photos online.  It was taken by King Studio in the 1920s.

Now onto more information about our seventh premier, William Smithe. Smithe returned to session in 1876, he assumed leadership of the opposition to Walkem's administration. Back in those days, political parties were a loosely knit group. Government supporters, sometimes even cabinet ministers, would regularly break ranks. This fluid atmosphere as well as the government's inability to negotiate with Ottawa for the start of the B.C.'s section of the Canadian Pacific Railway combined with accusations of fiscal irresponsibility forced the Cabinet to resign on January 25. 

There was some political manoeuvring and Smithe relinquished his position as leader of the opposition to Andrew Charles Elliot who became B.C.'s fourth premier in five years. Initially, Smithe was not included in Elliot's cabinet but in July of 1876, Thomas Basil Humphreys was dismissed and William joined the four-man administration as Minister of Finance and Agriculture.

Smithe didn't distinguish himself in the cabinet, which continued to suffer the consequences of a poor finances and the constant wrangling with Ottawa concerning the railway. In March of 1878, the government of Andrew Elliot generally met with defeat at the polls though Smithe managed to retain his seat. Once again, Smithe became leader of the opposition.

William Smithe became B.C.'s premier when Walkem's successor, Robert Beaven, met with the assembly in January of 1883. Out of 24 members, only 8 supported him. On the other hand, Smithe took office with the greatest majority since the confederation. He had the goodwill of an electorate that were fed up with the provincial government's inability to negotiate with Ottawa concerning the railway, the graving dock at Esquimalt and the lack of a train between Victoria and Nanaimo.

The problems that Smithe inherited were as much the problem of local politics as they were a history of bad relations with the federal government. Islanders were convinced of the economic boom that the mainland would receive with the completion of a transcontinental railway to those shores so they wanted their own graving dock to offset it. Mainlanders, on the other hand, were jealous and fed up with the Island's exaggerated strength in the government and objected to the expense of the graving dock. It was obvious that the province could not afford it. Those on the mainland were also vexed at Ottawa's continued delay in building the railway.

So William Smithe went to work. He moved swiftly to come to an agreement with his federal counterpart, Sir John A. Macdonald who was also eager to remove old grievances. The Macdonald ministry, in exchange for 3,500.000 acres of land in the Peace River district of British Columbia, agreed to open railway lines in the south of the settlement, assume construction of the graving dock and advance $750,000 for the building of the Island railway. A consortium led by Robert Dunsmuir and consisting of local businessmen and American railway financiers, Collis Potter Huntington and Leland Stafford, were given the contract to build the railway. The consortium was granted 2,000,000 acres of land on Vancouver Island and Dunsmuir obtained the mining rights.

Whew! In one stroke, Smithe managed to make both the Islanders and the Mainlanders happy and he put the province on a course of expansion that wasn't costing dollars but rather land. 

Smithe responded to strong pressure from the community and his government passed several acts regulating Chinese population. Some of these acts were imposing an annual licensing fee of $10 on every Chinese head over the age of 15 and preventing Chinese from acquiring crown land. They tried to impose an act stopping Chinese immigration altogether but Ottawa stepped in and disallowed that act. However, the feds did impose a $50 tax to all Oriental immigrants.

For all his good deeds, Smithe was as pro-white and anti Asian as most of his colleagues of the day. He also followed the sentiment of his community concerning the First Nations and made land grants difficult. To stay in power, a leader cannot take a stand that would alienate the voters. And in our present mindset, Smithe and his cronies seem to be overly racist but that was a different time.

The people approved of Smithe's  policies and re-elected him in the spring of 1886. The CPR completed the railway a year later (The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online stated that it had been completed in 1885 but that is incorrect - Vancouver was incorporated in April of 1886 and the first train arrived in 1887.) An expanding population were looking forward to prosperity and stability. Smithe broke the juggernaut of provincial and federal disputes and presided over a period of expansion and prosperity.

William Smithe was a quiet, unassuming man. However, he was witty and would sometimes use that to his advantage. An American newspaperman visited British Columbia in 1883 and asked Smithe if B.C. might one day annex itself to the Union in response to natural trading interests. Smithe answered that B.C. might instead annex Washington (state) and Oregon.

Financial success followed Smithe's political success for he built a large house in Victoria. Smithe was preparing to move his family there in the spring of 1887 when he became seriously ill. He died of nephritis on March 28, 1887 - three months before his 45th birthday.

A contemporary of Smithe, Peter O'Reilly, remarked just before his death that Smithe was 'by far the best man in the government' and would be a 'very great loss'.

Thanks to Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online for the above information. I hope you find the beauty around you. 

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