Monday, June 24, 2013

Reading, 'Riting and Robson

This is the Leyland Apartments on Broadway, built in 1928.

In the Colonist in 1869, John Robson called for state-subsidized schools in every community and government boarding schools for children from sparsely populated areas. Robson felt that education was "the best safeguard against crime, indolence, poverty [and] intemperance". He considered it the duty of "every man, whether he has children of his own to educate or not, to aid in placing within reach of every child of the community a liberal and wholesome education". 

Robson believed that the education system in Ontario was the "most perfect in the world" and in the 1860s, he advocated to bring a similar system to British Columbia. He hoped that his would link B.C. to the rest of Canada and ensure immigration to the province. Robson did insist that the education be non-sectarian, so that it might counteract bigotry and cement together "socially, politically and religiously the heterogeneous population of the young colony". Although he felt that religious training should be done in the home, John did support the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in schools. He also endorsed the policy of having major Protestant denominations represented on local school boards and boards of examiners.

Parents in British Columbia had gotten used to supporting private schools or sending their children away to boarding schools. Robson repeatedly called for the establishment on high schools in order to establish local schools. He got his wish when the first high school in the province was opened in Victoria in 1876. Robson returned to New Westminster in the early 1880s and he complained that it wasn't fair for the entire province to pay for a free school for Victoria residents. The New Westminster high school had been a private one for many years but in 1884, it became a free school. But at the time of Robson's death in 1892, only two other cities in the province - Nanaimo and Vancouver - had high schools.

Robson also had plans for a provincial university and in 1890 his government passed an act to establish one. Unfortunately, the rivalry between Victoria and Vancouver and the University of British Columbia didn't open until 1915.

When Robson became responsible for education in 1883, there were 2,693 students enrolled in public schools. By the 1891-1892 school term, that number had swelled 10,733 students enrolled. However, few B.C. citizens shared Robson's view on education or his passion for it. This may have been what allowed Robson to centralize the school system to the point where critics accused him of running a political machine.

Even when he was premier, Robson attended public school examinations and closing exercises. (Our ninth premier admitted that he had the fault of "doing two or three people's work under the impression that nobody else can do it") And his critics were quick to agree. On November 4, 1890, The Victoria Daily Times suggested that his ministers were only able to provide nominal attention to their portfolios because they were busy with their own interests. 

Friendly journalists stated that Robson could not "dominate his colleagues" while his enemies labelled him as powerless puppet. Robson had opposed the party system but his administration would have been much easier if there had been a party whip.

Robson's tenure as premier was plagued by ill health, a failure to delegate responsibility, and an inability to command the consistent support of supposed allies in the cabinet and legislature. Robson wanted to rest so that he could preserve his health and in 1890, when he won a seat in New Westminster and an "insurance" seat in the Cariboo, Robson resigned the former. He explained that, in order to maintain his health and other responsibilities, he couldn't carry out the demands of such a large and important constituency.

Frederick William Robson, John's younger son, had suffered a long illness and died in April of 1891. It came as a quite a blow to the John and in the spring of 1892, his doctor advised Robson to take a year's "absolute rest from work and worry".  Robson tried to do this, tried to free himself from administration duties but citizens with problems -real or imagined - would bring their problems directly to Robson. 

This is the Duke residence at 24 East Broadway. Built in 1906, the house's first residents were Robert H. Duke and his wife Alzina. Robert worked as manager for Pacific Coast Fire Insurance Co.

Robson appointed Colonel James Baker as minister of minister of education and immigration in May while he lobbied for the position of lieutenant governor. He then set off for London to discuss an imperial loan and crofter immigration. Perhaps he hoped that the change of atmosphere would improve his health.

Portraits of Robson show him to be a gruff man and he had few personal friends. However, those who knew him say that under that cold exterior was a warm heart and kind manner. He was contradictory in some areas like when he presented himself as a man of the people yet moved in circles with prominent business leaders and railway executives. He had little sympathy for striking miners of Robert Dunsmuir's Wellington colliery or CPR trainmen. He believed in free schooling but thought students should pay for higher education and he never extended the benefits of education to the Chinese or the First Nations. He berated land speculators yet was one himself. However, he was consistent for 31 years of public service in his ideals surrounding land settlement, social and moral development and the promotion of liberal institutions. 

Robson may not have been an original thinker - many of his ideas were drawn from his experiences and influences while growing up in Central Canada. And he wasn't the only one to favour these ideals. However, John Robson - through his years of public service and his time as a journalist - was one of the most influential British Columbians of his time and a major contributor to the strengthening of connections in Canada in his adopted province.

On June 20, 1892, while in London, John Robson crushed the tip of his little finger in the door of a hansom cab. Blood poisoning set in and nine days later, he was dead. So Saturday will be the 121st anniversary of this great man's death. I hope you can think of him on that day.

I have to be honest with you. I didn't know a thing about John Robson before I started these entries but now I have a deep admiration for the man. I don't agree with everything he stood for - I may have if I had lived in his time - but I applaud the things he accomplished. 

Thanks goes to theDictionary of Canadian Biography Online website for informing me of this politician and to Bob_2006 at for the information on the houses.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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  1. At least he was consistent in what he believed.

    1. And, although his many of his ideals would not survive in today's world, he was progressive for his time. Thanks for being such a devoted reader Lee.