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BC Premier #13 – James Dunsmuir

Look at me – posting in my BC Premier series two weeks in a row! Go me!

This week’s installments gives us James Dunsmuir, the 13th person to be Premier of BC and (possibly) the guy that Dunsmuir Street is named after.

Name James Dunsmuir
Born: July 8, 1851 in Fort Vancouver
Died: June 6, 1920 in Cowichan Bay, BC
Party: none
Held Office: June 15, 1900 and Nov 21, 1902
  • he and his wife Laura Miller Surles had twelve frickin’ children1. Twelve!  The youngest was born when he was 53.  53!
  • born to Scottish immigrants, Dusmuir grew up in a life of steadily increasing wealth, with his dad going from a being a miner to a mine supervisor to a mine owner2
  • at 16 Dusmuir started an apprenticeship as a machinist, but after his daddy discovered all that coal, he went to “Dundas Wesleyan Boys’ Institute in Dundas, Ont., for some higher learning and polish [emphasis mine]”4 and then went to Virginia to study mining engineering
  • he managed his dad’s mine in Wellington from 1876 to 1881 and although the mine did exceptionally well under his leadership, he lived very much in the shadow of his father; he became more responsible for the company after he transferred to the corporate office when his dad became a politician
  • his father’s sudden death in 1889 lead to family turmoil – although the company was being run by James and his brother Alexander, the father left his shares & voting power to his wife (James’ mom) Elizabeth.  After much legal wrangling, James managed to gain control over the entire vast company
  • in the early 1890s, Dunsmuir moved to Victoria and built a residence with “every modern convenience,” such as electricity
  • his political life:
    • elected as an MLA in Comox in 1898
    • became premier in 1900 – but he was really just keeping the seat warm as BC was trying to get its act together to introduce a party system
    • became lieutenant governor in 1906
  • it seems he was a bit conflicted on the issue of Asian immigration – he suggested that the federal government should increase the head tax on Chinese immigrants and promised to get rid of his Chinese workers  from his operations in Nanaimo when he was running for office,  but he also fought against anti-Asian legislation – not because he cared about Asian people, but because he used Asians as cheap labour in his mines and didn’t want there to be laws to prevent that.  Further, he docked the pay of Chinese workers to pay for the law suits to fight against government restrictions on the hiring of Asian workers.
  • he, like his father and many mine owners of the time, was fiercely anti-union and would fire and blacklist union organizers and hire scab workers during strikes
  • he also supported some laws that didn’t benefit him directly (and that even went directly against his own financial interests), such as redistribution that gave more political power to the mainland over the island (and he lived on the island), including the elimination of his own seat; a number of taxes on mines, as well as income tax.  Apparently he had something to do with the Master and Servant Act, which isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds.
  • he became a director of the Canadian Pacific Railway in a deal where he sold off some of his company and later sold his mining empire to the Canadian Northern Railway
  • he retired to a life of lesiure – hunting, fishing, golf, hanging around his giant mansion in Esquimalt
  • his end was rather anticlimactic:
  • “With his eldest son devoting his life to globe-trotting in an alcoholic stupor, a second son a victim of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, and his daughters, who generally had married into British-based, upper class, military families, leading frivolous lives, there was to be no worthy third generation of Canadian Dunsmuirs. The lifestyle and Old World pretensions so carefully cultivated by the family disintegrated before his eyes. After his death at his fishing lodge in 1920, the children squandered the fortune in one generation.”4

  • interesting fact: along with two of his employees, he “created British Columbia’s first telephone from information supplied by the Scientific American;”4 he used it to connect the mine in Wellington with the corporate office in Departure Bay

Image credits: Accessed from Wikipedia. In the public domain. w00t!

Footnotes:
19 girls, 3 boys
2after he discovered a bunch o’coal

References:
3Wikipedia, the reference of that had very little to say about Premier Dunsmuir.
4Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
5Miss 604’s blog posting on the Dunsmuir family.

2 Responses to BC Premier #13 – James Dunsmuir

  1. Kalev says:

    Wow… this series sure exposes a lot of BC’s incredibly racist history.

  2. This is a worth while read, thank you for sharing. Alcoholism is not an issue that is going away at any time in the near future.

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