Friday, September 20, 2013

Honest John

During the first decade of the last century, my province was moving towards the formal adoption of the party system. MLA John Oliver had identified himself as a liberal by siding with Joseph Martin. This was in opposition to the coal miner millionaire, James Dunsmuir, who was Conservative in all but name and whose government ran the province.

Oliver was an anti-establishment figure, as we discovered on Wednesday. His brand of liberalism was formed by his rural conservative roots. He was nicknamed Honest John due to his principled pursuit of a legislative inquiry in 1902-03. Oliver wanted answers in the railway land grants scandal that helped bring down the Edward Prior government in June of 1903.

Richard McBride formed the next government and he immediately called an election - the first to be fought along party lines. There was no doubt that Oliver would campaign as a Liberal even though he and Martin had a falling out. On October 3, 1903, John Oliver was elected with an increased majority. He served as part of the Liberal opposition led by John Alexander Macdonald.
Oliver was a colorful and folksy figure but he also proved himself to be a forceful politician. He took pride in his position as MLA and watchdog for the opposition.

This was a period of economic growth for B.C. and the people loved the Conservatives who they credited for the prosperity. They easily won in the provincial election of February 2, 1907. However, Oliver was re-elected.

The Liberals were disappointed with McBride's popularity and the opposition lacked the resources to hold such a popular government accountable for its actions. Even more disheartening was the lack of support from the federal Liberal party. Oliver was desperate enough to write to Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier in June of 1909. He stated that the provincial Liberal party "would much prefer to fight than to lie down but . . . the latter course appears to be the only one open to us."

Honest John fought hard to help his Liberal party. He sought visits from federal cabinet ministers as well as newspapers with a Liberal bias. "We have an unscrupulous government with a large amount of money at their disposal and with full control of eighty per cent of the newspapers of the Province with an organization in full working order" Laurier did respond to Oliver's letter, but only with words of encouragement and advised that "it would be a mistake to lose heart."
In the fall of 1909, Macdonald was appointed to the bench, leaving a vacancy for the position of leader of the Liberal party. Oliver was already Macdonald's chief lieutenant and he was the obvious choice for the position. He was reluctant to take the position though. Laurier had encouraged him to seek the job and Oliver explained, "it is not a desirable thing to fall heir to at this juncture with the prospect of going into a fight crippled and almost helpless."

However, mounting pressure and the lack of any other candidates, convinced John Oliver to take the position. He had little time to prepare for the upcoming election and chose to make his critique of the government's railway policy the centrepiece of his campaign. Oliver disagreed with the recently negotiated contract with the Canadian Northern Railway for line from the Alberta border to Vancouver. He argued that the province was not obliged to assist a private railway and that the details of the contract should have been made public before the election.
Next week, I will tell you more about Honest John. (An honest politician, who would have ever thought!)

Thanks goes to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography website for the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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  1. Karen you have some pretty interesting pictures. It is interesting how creative people can be with things they don't use anymore. Nice piece as usual.

    1. It is amazing what you can find if you just look for it! thanks for reading Lee.