The Union Club and Confederation

Union Club History #5

This is the fifth in a series of historical bulletins which sketch the origins and history of the Union Club by members Douglas Franklin and Dr. Martin Segger.  They draw from the research for our nomination document seeking national heritage commemoration.

The Union Club and Confederation

The Union Club official histories cite a rather obscure exchange of opinion by the editors of the Standard and Colonist newspapers.  In the first (Standard 11 December, 1882) the writer accused the founders of the Union Club, which had just hosted a dinner for the Governor General, Marquis of Lorne, of creating a political vehicle to oppose the provincial government’s G. A. Walkem administration hardline threats to pull out of confederation if the original terms of the Union were not met.  The Colonist (editor David Higgins was obviously the author) replied on the following day insisting the Standard editor was just exhibiting sour grapes for having been refused membership (“blackballed”) and vigorously denied the assertion of political partisanship.  Indeed, the counter editorial pointed out Premier Walkem was a charter member of the Club.  Not giving up, the Standard responded (December 13) that Walkem and his friends were members but that they were hoodwinked into joining the Club by these “wirepullers”.

The backdrop to this public exchange was the vicious local politics emerging from ten years of infighting over Vancouver Island’s ever diminishing independence.  It was the near bankruptcy of the Island Colony that prompted its forced union with British Columbia by the British Colonial Office in 1866.  Confederation of the eastern Canadian colonies in 1867 was itself prompted in part by the post American Civil War depression.  While in the colony of British Columbia a vocal segment of Vancouver Islander’s preferred annexation by the United States, it was believed mainlanders ultimately pushed the again financially stressed colony of British Columbia into Union with Canada in 1871.

Economics then contributed directly to the failure of the Dominion Government to fulfill its obligations under the 1871 British Columbia “Union Act”, that is the terms of confederation and in particular the commencement within two years, and completion within ten, of a transcontinental railway.  John A. Macdonald was able to pass an 1873 order-in-council identifying Esquimalt as the West Coast terminus.  Unfortunately this was coincidental with the failure of the CPR syndicate, and just before revelations of the “Pacific Scandal” and collapse of his Government.

With no sign of any railway construction, and the new Dominion Government of Alexander Mackenzie seeking to renegotiate the timeline, local tempers began to fray.  Victoria businessman and politician, William Wilson, using the Mechanics Literary Institute (of which he was a director) as a public forum, started agitated for a political response.  Wilson had been very active in Colonial politics and along with his friend Robert Beaven had founded the “Confederate League” advocating acceleration of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation.  Also a leading businessman, Wilson headed up a consortium of local land speculators who had invested heavily in lower mainland and Vancouver Island properties in anticipation of the railway’s arrival.  In February 1874, when it looked like Premier Amor De Cosmos, also sitting as an Ottawa Member of Parliament from Victoria, might strike a compromise deal with Mackenzie, a band of locals headed by Wilson stormed the legislature.  De Cosmos resigned.  Negotiations with Ottawa then continued under the more resolute new B.C. government of the Irish-born lawyer and Cariboo representative, Premier George Anthony Walkem.  Another group of citizens under the leadership of Dr. J. S. Helmcken formed the “Terms of Union Preservation League” to guard against any further backsliding and started to organize citizen meetings throughout the province to petition Queen Victoria.  In response, Walkem received permission from the Legislature to travel to London where an approach to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, to mediate was favorably received.

The compromise “Carnarvon Terms” extended the time line for completion to the end of 1890, with mainland route-survey and work to begin on the Esquimalt-Nanaimo Vancouver Island portion of the railway at once.  However, in the spring of 1875, the Senate defeated the appropriation bill for the E&N financing.  The deal was dead.  Over the next four years, with an economic recession biting in British Columbia and no headway on the railway in Ottawa, provincial governments scrambled.

How the Union Club became the bastion of those defending the “Union” is a story with further twists…

Next article:  Founding of The Union Club of British Columbia, a political act.

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