Founding The Union Club of B.C., A Political Act

Union Club History #6

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

Founding The Union Club of B.C., A Political Act

By 1875, British Columbia’s “union” with Canada was in trouble. In response to lack of progress on the railway, local businessman William Wilson spearheaded a group to form the “Carnarvon Club”, which by September had motivated enough members of the legislature to put forward a resolution for “separation” if the Carnarvon terms( i.e., construction of the E&N and adoption of the Bute Inlet route for the CPR) were not operable with a year.

One ironic twist was the fast-tracking of Sir John A. Macdonald to the Victoria nomination on a local slate with Amor De Cosmos for federal election in 1878. News had got through days earlier that MacDonald had lost his Kingston seat. With success for both at the local polls, and a member from Victoria now the Prime Minister, British Columbians had high expectations.  However, they were a long time being satisfied.

Finally in October 1880, the Macdonald administration confirmed agreement with the new CPR syndicate although there had been no movement on the E&N.  In Victoria Wilson convened a special public meeting of the Mechanics Institute.  J. H. Turner (now also Mayor of Victoria), and others noting the E&N situation and therefore abrogation of the Carnarvon Terms, this time proposed the reversion of Vancouver Island to Colonial status, “like Newfoundland”. In February 1881, the CPR bill was passed in Ottawa with no mention of the E&N.  In response, Walkem sought the legislature’s approval for a third petition to the Queen although he knew that behind the scenes Robert Dunsmuir was negotiating with Ottawa for suitable financial terms to construct and own the Island railway.

The roiling local politics of this brief but crucial period in British Columbia’s history threw the spotlight on several local organizations and individuals, in particular those of the  “radical camp”, a network of mainly businessmen and land speculators who were willing to push the Province to the brink of separation and Vancouver Island even to re-colonization.  Wilson, Walkem, and Beaven, operating through organizations such as the Mechanics Literary Institute and then their own “Carnarvon Club”, were supported by local groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Victoria Standard newspaper.

What was less evident and indeed behind the scenes were the many professionals and civil servants, mainly in Victoria, who were horrified at the prospect of a split.  Initially, seeing their civil service appointments and pensions threatened, they opposed union with Canada.  However having achieved assurances of their continued employment, a provision actually written into the Terms of Union (Articles 5 & 6 specifically confirm that Ottawa will pay the salaries and costs of the courts, and assume responsibility for the pensions for the civil servants and government appointees.) they remained staunchly in favor of the union.

The Union Club of British Columbia was founded in April 1879 by just such a group as the final push was on under Walkem and De Cosmos, working with MacDonald, to get the CPR underway. Victoria would not be western terminus of the CPR, and the E&N was put on the backburner.  Supreme Court Justice Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie was the Club’s first president. Founding members were Sir Frank S. Barnard, Cariboo MPP (later senator and B.C. Lieutenant Governor) and a friend and colleague of the vacillating Premier George Walkem, and retired Royal Navy Lieutenant Henry E. Croasdaile.  Early members were lawyer, Victoria City Mayor and former Victoria representative on the colonial legislative council Montegue Tyrwhitt-Drake, court registrar C. E. Pooley, B.C. Surveyor General Joseph Despard Pemberton, and Justice Peter O’Reilly. The owner and editor of the Daily Colonist, David Higgins was an early member; the editor of the Victoria Standard was most certainly not. Higgins as both a newspaper owner and local politician (ultimately Speaker of the House) had played a major role in the early Ottawa negotiations for union. Governors General the Marquis of Lorne and Lord Dufferin were early visitors to the Club.  Members and attendees at events were officers of the Royal Navy, senior civil servants and the hierarchy of the Anglican clergy.  By 1884 there were 149 Union Club members and 78 charter members.  The Union survived.

Next article:  What happened to the “other” Club?

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