Premiers. Coal barons and coal disasters. Firebrands. Death. Champions of the working class. Champions of Women’s Suffrage. Party leaders. Cabinet veterans. Speakers. Underdogs. Coalition Makers. Scandal. Crushed Grapes. “The Greatest Canadian”. A pirate. A less than sober coronation. As we look toward Nanaimo’s January 30thbyelection, I graze through the history of one of BC’s most intriguing ridings.
How Victoria was Crowned by Nanaimo
When former Vancouver Province ace reporter and award-winning author Don Hauka steps out his front door in the Royal City and gazes south, he likely has trouble mustering kind thoughts about one of Nanaimo’s earliest representatives who influenced the course of history, while under the influence.
Hauka lives on 5thStreet in New Westminster. The street is much wider than other streets because it was to be the boulevard leading up to the provincial legislature that was supposed to be built there when the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia united in 1866.
Captain William Hales Franklyn, representative from Nanaimo, was a former ship’s captain who wound up in the Harbour City after having thrown one of his passengers into irons. He favoured New Westminster as the capital of the newly unified colony. Victoria was regarded by Nanaimoites as its “cruel stepmother”. According to
famed BC historian Margaret Ormsby, he intended to make a strong statement in favour of the mainland capital, but on the day of the debate, he was a “little shaky” owing to some refreshments consumed. His seatmate, Victoria supporter William George Cox, seized on the opportunity. The ship’s captain rose reading from his prepared text comparing New Westminster on the Fraser River to Calcutta on the Hoogley River, arguing that New Westminster would enjoy Calcutta’s prosperity. However, as he finished the first page, Cox shuffled the papers to put page one back at the top, which Franklyn re-read, repeating his parallel to Calcutta. This happened a third time and hilarity and mayhem ensued. In the meantime, Franklyn had put his spectacles on the table whereupon Cox removed the lenses from their frame so that Franklyn “could not see the Hoogley or anything else”. The House was in an uproar as the hapless Franklyn twisted in the wind. Speaker John Helmcken, a firm supporter of Victoria’s bid, moved a recess then, when the House reassembled, he ruled that Franklyn could not make a second speech. Victoria went on to win the vote 13-8 and the rest is history. Franklyn was removed from his post not long after by a disappointed Governor Seymour who favoured New Westminster. And 150 years later, Don Hauka is not prepared to forgive Franklyn’s bumbling nor Victoria’s treachery.
Sheesh, all that before Confederation. What about the next 150 years?
With the Nanaimo byelection taking place January 30th, it caused me to reflect on Nanaimo’s history in provincial politics. The following is a glimpse – a few stories and a little colour. I am not pretending to be an expert when it comes to Nanaimo’s history, but I lived in the area for over 15 years and certainly find it interesting. I encourage comments to add insight and missing facts, especially where I have missed the mark. There are few riding histories that I’m aware of that connect modern-day politics to BC’s beginnings as a province. Nanaimo is a good place to start. Political junkies, enjoy.
(A quick note on ridings. The names have bounced around over the years. There has always been at least one core Nanaimo riding and sometimes two or three that represent the area. The name ‘Newcastle’ was used for many decades in riding names and is tied to Newcastle Island in Nanaimo, which in turn drew its name from the heart of coal mining in the UK. For this post, I relied heavily on the Electoral History of British Columbia 1871-1986 and refer to other sources throughout the post)
A future Premier elected right off the bat
In the first election as a province, Nanaimo elected a premier. He wasn’t the premier then and there, but John Robson would ultimately become premier of BC and have its highest peak and one of its most famous streets bear his name.
Robson was a lively force. A newspaper editor, he was cited by contempt by Chief Justice Matthew Baillie Begbie, and was a burr under the saddle of Governor Douglas. He moved his newspaper from New Westminster to Victoria and sold it to the rival Daily British Colonist (precursor of today’s Times-Colonist). He was a strong supporter of BC joining Confederation, and when BC joined in 1871, he ran and won in Nanaimo with 57 votes to his opponent’s 33. He only served one-term representing Nanaimo but he went on to an important career in provincial politics representing other areas, ultimately assuming the premiership in 1889. He died in office, in 1892, when he hurt his finger in the door of a carriage during a visit to London and succumbed to blood poisoning.
Robson was one of two premiers who represented Nanaimo during their career.
Democracy and the Dunsmuirs
Nanaimo before and after Confederation was a coal town. There are many good books and sources about Nanaimo’s coal history, especially by author Jan Peterson, who has written six local histories. In fact, I would defer completely to Peterson on any historical points.
An excerpt from a column in the Times-Colonist by Peterson describes the origins of coal in Nanaimo:
A chance encounter between Snuneymuxw Chief Che-wich-i-kan [or Ki-et-sa-kun] and a blacksmith in Victoria set the wheels of development in Nanaimo in place. Che-wich-i-kan, historically referred to as “Coal Tyee,” had gone to Victoria to have his gun repaired. He commented about black stones being plentiful in his area. This conversation was repeated to HBC authorities, who then invited the chief to bring some of his black stones to Victoria. In return, he would get a bottle of rum and have his gun repaired free. The date was December 1849. The following spring, Coal Tyee returned with a canoe laden with coal. A company clerk, Joseph William McKay, was quickly dispatched to Nanaimo.
The Snuneymuxw negotiated a treaty with the Crown in 1854. According to the Snuneymuxw First Nation website, “In order to access the coal, the Colonial authorities knew that under British Common Law, and as a matter of practical reality, they had to conclude a Treaty with the Indigenous owners of the land, which in coal-rich Nanaimo were the Snuneymuxw. The goal of treaty-making was to achieve, through recognition and respect of Snuneymuxw, access to the coal deposits.” (A few years ago, Vancouver Island University created the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation to further explore issues related to the 1854 treaty).
From there, Nanaimo became a coal town with the Hudson Bay Company benefiting, along with the companies that followed. Today, underneath Nanaimo there are coal tunnels and shafts in every direction, remnants of the Age of Island Coal.
Another local book, When Coal was King, by VIU professor John Hinde, outlines the rise of the Dunsmuirs. Robert Dunsmuir and his wife emigrated to Vancouver Island from Scotland in 1850 as an indentured miner for the HBC. The voyage to the west coast took months and numerous members of the crew deserted to take part in the California Gold Rush. Thus, son James was born at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia in 1851. Dunsmuir’s uncle worked for the HBC in Nanaimo and there he went. When his uncle’s contract expired, he tried to convince Robert and his family to return to Scotland. They decided against it and stuck it out in Nanaimo.
He laboured for almost twenty years, prosperous but not extravagant. He discovered the Wellington seam in 1869 and formed his own venture, beginning production at new pits at Wellington in the Nanaimo area, in 1871. By the 1880s, Dunsmuir was dominating the coal industry on Vancouver Island at a time when coal was the world’s dominant fuel. On August 13, 1886, John A. MacDonald drove in the Last Spike of the E&N Railroad at Shawnigan Lake, built by Dunsmuir, which Hinde calls “the deal of the century”. The railroad was the subject of considerable political controversy, which Dunsmuir shrewdly exploited. Vancouver Island today in many ways remains the architecture of the Dunsmuirs.
Historian Jean Barman writes, “The Dunsmuirs’ total concern with profit extended to their treatment of employees. The accommodation rented to workers was primitive, lacking even running water… Death and injury were commonplace because of company negligence”. The Dunsmuirs’ approach of hiring cheaper labour and working conditions led to confrontation, which was dealt with ruthlessly.
Dunsmuir had a rags to riches story and his riches were astonishing for that time. Dunsmuir would move to Victoria and build Craigdarroch Castle as his residence. Though his political base and wealth derived from the coal pits of Nanaimo, his influence went much further beyond.
One of his key managers, and son-in-law, John Bryden was elected to succeed Robson in 1875. Bryden resigned due to business pressures the next year, but would return to elected office in 1894 and 1898. He was a Dunsmuir man and strongly advocated for the coal industry. A summation of his political career is found in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:
His electioneering statements and legislative voting record indicate that he was in favour of economic development, an advocate of temperance, opposed to gambling, unwilling to extend the franchise to women, and above all a rigid supporter of the right of employers to hire Chinese labourers. Although he received public criticism for his support of capital in general and the Dunsmuir empire in particular, Bryden seems to have been well respected by his election opponents.
In his capacity as shareholder, he launched a successful constitutional court action that allowed the Dunsmuir empire to continue hiring Chinese labour, which were paid much lower wages. This was one of many issues that sparked labour revolts.
Robert Dunsmuir himself was elected in 1882 along with William Raybould when the seat carried two members. Dunsmuir immediately joined the Cabinet of Premier Alexander E.B. Davie. There were no conflict-of-interest laws in those days. Dunsmuir’s business interests continued unabated, as did his political power, though sons James and Alexander took on more responsibilities with the business and it thrived.
In the 1888 session, Dunsmuir was accused of favouring BC’s annexation to the United States. MLA T.B. Humphreys (Lillooet) went as far as moving a motion of censure. The matter was deflected to a select standing committee, which exonerated Dunsmuir.
Dunsmuir’s political success left Nanaimo mineworkers and labour activists “dejected”, writes Ormsby, which is understandable. The polarization between the richest man in British Columbia, and his organization, versus mineworkers marching toward increasingly radical politics, was growing. It would manifest itself in terms of strikes, riots, and arrests for many years, but it would soon show itself at the ballot box.
However, Robert Dunsmuir would never taste defeat. He died in 1889. In fact, Raybould also died during the same term of office, probably the only time in BC history that both members (of a two-member riding) died.
It would be a short wait before Labour forces made their mark at the ballot box. And it wasn’t the end of the Dunsmuirs in politics either.
Nanaimo: the origins of BC’s Labour politics
Remembering that party politics were not formalized in BC until the election of 1903, there were basically three types of candidates – those who supported the Government, the Opposition, or Labour.
The first Labour MLAs elected to the BC Legislature were elected from Nanaimo in 1890. Thomas Forster won Nanaimo in a tight three-way race 160-157-154. Thomas Keith was acclaimed in the adjacent Nanaimo City riding. The Electoral History of British Columbia (1871-1986) states:
Forster and Keith were both nominated by the Miners’ and Mine Labourers’ Protective Association (MMLPA) and campaigned on the “Workingmen’s Platform” of the Workingmen’s Campaign Committee (Nanaimo Free Press, 19, 28, and 31 May 1890).
In 1894, Labour candidates had a setback. With three Nanaimo area ridings in the 33-seat Legislature – North Nanaimo, South Nanaimo, and Nanaimo City – all three Labour candidates were shut out. This election marked the return of Dunsmuir’s son-in-law John Bryden to elected office, and also saw the election of William Walkem, a physician who had narrowly lost in 1890. Walkem’s brother, George, had served as BC premier from 1878-1882.
While Bryden was returned in 1898, Walkem was defeated handily in South Nanaimo by Ralph Smith, a Labour-Oppositionist candidate, which meant he had the backing of Labour and those that also opposed the government. Smith had run in 1894 but had lost to Bryden.
The election of Bryden at the same time as the election of Labour MLAs demonstrates the support that each side of the management-labour divide had in the City overall – a divide that has ebbed and flowed over Nanaimo’s history. Of course, when looking at early voting results, it’s important to be mindful that the electoral franchise was very limited during those days. These early results are completely absent of female participation, among other restrictions.
Ralph Smith’s story is an interesting one. He was a coal miner from Newcastle who
emigrated to Nanaimo in 1891. His victory in 1898 in Nanaimo was followed by a massive win in 1900. Shortly after that election, he decided to seek federal office in 1901
and would ultimately serve as a Liberal MP. He returned to provincial politics in 1916, from a Vancouver riding, and served as Minister of Finance under Premier Harlan Brewster, but he died in office. Prior to his death, a provincial referendum resulted in 65% (of men) voting to extend the vote to women.
His wife, Mary Ellen Smith, ran in his vacant seat and became BC’s first MLA and first female cabinet minister in the British Commonwealth.
But back in Nanaimo in 1901, Smith’s departure opened the door for one of the most significant politicians in British Columbia – James J. Hawthornthwaite. Elected as one of the first Labour-backed MLAs in BC history, he would co-found the Socialist Party of British Columbia.
He came to BC in the late 1880s and found his way to Nanaimo to work as a real estate agent for the New Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Co. Ltd. Its owner, Samuel Robins, was a bitter rival of the Dunsmuirs. Hawthornthwaite was influenced by Ralph Smith, who was then secretary of the Miners’ and Mine Laborers Protective Association, and would marry the daughter of Mark Bate, Nanaimo’s first mayor who served 16 terms between 1875 and 1900. Bate is the focus of one Jan Peterson’s local histories.
Hawthornthwaite was elected as a Socialist, along with neighbouring MLA Parker Williams. The two of them enjoyed electoral success between 1903 and 1912.
Hawthornthwaite was the “socialist intellectual”, says historian Allen Seager. His politics would diverge with his former ally Ralph Smith but “his approach did not alienate him from the mining population; his speeches earned him great applause at public meetings”, writes Hinde. Williams, on the other hand, was a Welsh miner and trade unionist. He made his way west finally settling in Cedar. While Hawthornthwaite focused on Socialist theory, Williams “concentrated on wages, safety, and the right to organize”. Hinde writes that William was “unpolished and crumpled”; one local writer declared, “No amount of grooming and combing would transform Parker Williams into Beau Brummell”.
In the 1903 election, the first that political parties contested in British Columbia, the Socialists were centre stage. The Conservatives led by the youthful Richard McBride held 22 of the 42 seats, the Liberals 17. The two Nanaimo Socialists held two seats, along with other independent Labour allies in the Legislature, which gave them an important role with a government that had a thin majority.
Author John Hinde describes Hawthornthwaite and Williams as “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” Socialists. Hinde continues, “The main weapon in the Socialists arsenal was the ballot, the ‘Gatling gun of political power’”.
Hawthornthwaite’s bio in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography supports this view of evolutionary change:
Hawthornthwaite’s contributions were far more constructive than revolutionary and had included rudimentary farm security legislation in 1901 and a workmen’s compensation act in 1902. When Conservative premier Richard McBride* took office in June 1903, he had only a small majority so he turned to Hawthornthwaite for support. Thus, Hawthornthwaite was able to push for additional legislation, including improved safety standards and labour reforms in the mining industry. The premier used members of the socialist caucus to sound out the opinion of the popular class on a narrow range of issues. In return, Hawthornthwaite and his associates eschewed detailed criticism of McBride’s policies of development. There were limits to such arrangements. For example, McBride allowed members of the socialist caucus to lead the fight for women’s suffrage, but applied no party discipline to bring it about, though he personally supported enfranchisement of women as part of his “white B.C.” policy. In addition, administration of labour legislation sometimes made a mockery of the reforms enacted during McBride’s premiership. Hawthornthwaite’s correspondence shows that the enforcement by government officials of different parts of the Coal Mines Regulation Act depended on his persistent efforts and those of other elected officials. Nevertheless, and although accumulated grievances in the Vancouver Island coalfield would later boil over into violent confrontation, for a time the socialist alternative of a “strike at the ballot box,” the slogan of the socialist Western Clarion(Vancouver), had unexampled success.
In 1907, McBride won 26 seats, a stronger majority, though the Socialists ran 20 candidates and elected three, including the two Nanaimo MLAs. Hawthornthwaite would resign his seat in 1908 to contest the federal election in opposition to Ralph Smith, who was running with Wilfred Laurier’s Liberals. Smith won, but Hawthornthwaite won back his provincial seat in the subsequent byelection.
In 1909, McBride dominated with 38 of 42 seats. But yet again, Hawthornthwaite and Williams prevailed, holding between them as many seats as the decimated Liberals.
Then in 1912, McBride did it again. He won 39 of 42 seats. The Socialists held two seats in Nanaimo, Parker Williams, but this time, it was John Place not Hawthornthwaite that was Williams’ seatmate. As a sidenote, the Nanaimo MLAs split from the Socialist Party of Canada at this time, and moved to a different banner – the Social Democratic Party. Hawthornthwaite moved on to other business interests, which drew criticism from some Socialists, and he also had a close friendship with McBride.
Williams had a different style than Hawthornthwaite. A Vancouver Sun profile in 2017 included some vignettes from his political career:
Following a bitter coal miners’ strike on the Island between 1912 and 1914, he not only went after the Conservative premier, Richard McBride, and Attorney General William Bowser, he went after their parliamentary colleagues for toeing the government line. “What do you expect from 40 spineless shrimps of the 5-, 10- and 15-cent politicians who sit in the House and do the bidding of McBride and Bowser?” thundered Williams. “They care not what happens to the people so long as the party machine works well.”
One of his finest moments came in January 1914, when he shamed the government over the death of a young man who had been sentenced to a year in prison over a protest during the coal strike. Badly treated in prison, the boy fell ill, but his parents weren’t notified until after he died. “I ask for the stunned mother and father no sympathy from this House,” said Williams, his voice choking with emotion. “They will carry their agony to their grave. But this I shall say: that the root of all this sorrow and this suffering will be found in the incompetency, inadequacy, callous and domineering methods of the government in handling this situation from the beginning.”
World War I intervened and the politics of British Columbia would change. In the 1916 election, William Sloan of the Liberals gained a Nanaimo seat while Williams was re-elected in Newcastle. The miners vote was beginning to be diluted by demographic change. Williams would resign a year later to take a provincial appointment and who ran to replace him? Hawthornthwaite stepped back in. This would be his last term. It was said that he had been stirred politically by the Bolsheviks and may have met Lenin in his travels.
In Politicians of a Pioneering Province, former Vancouver Province reporter Russell Walker described Hawthornthwaite:
At times we had the pleasure of reporting genuine orators. One such was James H. Hawthornthwaite, Socialist, Cowichan-Newcastle… When [he] rose to speak there was invariably marked attention on all sides. He spoke almost with a bite to his words, sometimes with a harsh, choppy delivery, no doubt for emphasis. But smooth sentences flowed like lube oil under pressure, and if the Socialist member for Cowichan-Newcastle had been enunciating Liberal party policies, Premier Oliver could have called a general election any time and been sure of a majority.
In 1920, in the riding of Cowichan-Newcastle, Hawthornthwaite would be defeated by Federated Labour Party candidate Sam Guthrie, thus ending his political career.
Sam Guthrie was just getting started. The Scottish miner was a union leader during the Great Strike of 1913 in Ladysmith. Ladysmith was a coal mining town, directly linked to the mines at Extension, near Nanaimo. While there was no loss of life during the strike, there were assaults, lootings, and property damage. Fifty men were sentenced to prison, including Guthrie who received a two-year ticket to Oakalla, but was feted as a labour martyr upon his return. Guthrie’s true labour credentials bested Hawthornthwaite in 1920, but Guthrie lost in 1924 to a Conservative. He returned to the Legislature as a CCF MLA from 1937-1949. The local NDP club in the Ladysmith area was called the Sam Guthrie Club for many years. (A news clipping from 1974 outlined the Club’s activities, but in a related item, apropos of nothing, the Ladysmith Chronicle reports on Leonard Krog having his new hubcaps stolen and replaced with old hub caps. Some might claim the parallel to missing his cabinet post in 2017 and having it replaced with caucus chair. )
The rise of Labour politics in Nanaimo is discussed extensively in this article by Allan Seager.
Back to the Dunsmuirs
With all this talk of Socialists, we must take a moment to return to the election of the second Premier of BC who represented Nanaimo, James Dunsmuir, son of Robert Dunsmuir and heir. Unlike Robson, he was premier while representing Nanaimo. He would also serve as the Province’s Lieutenant-Governor.
Wikipedia summarizes it well enough:
Dunsmuir entered provincial politics in 1898, winning a seat in the provincial legislature, and he became the 14th Premier in 1900. His government attempted to resist popular pressure to curtail Asian labour and immigration, not for humanitarian reasons, but to ensure a cheap labour pool for business. It also promoted railway construction and accomplished a redistribution of seats to better represent population distribution in the province.
Dunsmuir visited England and the United States in 1902, but disliked politics after his return and resigned as Premier in November 1902. In 1906, he became the province’s eighth Lieutenant Governor. He retired in 1909 and lived out his remaining years at the baronial mansion that he had constructed at Hatley Park.
In fact, Dunsmuir’s first win was in Comox in 1898, another coal producing area. He contested South Nanaimo riding in 1900 and won by a mere 24 votes (249-225) over the Labour candidate, reflecting the divide in the community. It also represented the fact that the Dunsmuirs did have support to counter opposition from mine workers and rival mining interests. He went from there to the Premier’s chair in the final term of the BC Legislature before party politics took hold in 1903.
Says Dr. S.W. Jackman in Portraits of Premiers, James Dunsmuir became Premier “more or less by default”. Premier ‘Fighting’ Joe Martin had the largest faction following the 1900 election, but could not command a majority. The Opposition leader, Charles Semlin, had lost his seat. Jackman writes, “Dunsmuir had gone into politics somewhat
reluctantly, was one of the few candidates who might possibly become Premier with any sense of real honour and dignity… He was certainly no politician – in public his manner was somewhat cold, and rather reserved.” He took office on June 16, 1900. His administration was not especially noteworthy and he did not particularly enjoy his duties. His secretary, R. Edward Gosnell observed, “The fates threw him into prominence which, by choice, he would have avoided. He had neither a liking nor an adaptability for public life…”. Jackman opines that Dunsmuir “ought never to have been a Premier at all; he did not like the job for he was totally out of his element, he hid not understand politicians and he never properly grasped the methodology of legislative government. In a way, he was a typical example of … the rich tycoon”. He resigned in 1902 following a triumphant trip to King Edward VIII’s coronation where he and his wealth were embraced in high circles. He would be appointed Lieutenant-Governor in 1906 and serve to 1909.
I should note, given that I lived in the area for 15 years, that James Dunsmuir founded and named Ladysmith. The town was laid out in grid format to be a bedroom community for miners, who would commute to the nearby Extension mines by rail. The coal was shipped out via Transfer Beach in Ladysmith Harbour. During the time that the town was being built, the British won a key battle in the Boer War – the Battle of Ladysmith. In a fit of patriotism, Dunsmuir declared, “I shall call this place Ladysmith!” (I’m imagining that part). In any event, the streets of Ladysmith bear the names of Boer War generals like Baden-Powell, Methuen, and Roberts, for a battle taking place in faraway South Africa. It hearkens back to a time of unquestioning support of the Crown and Mother England.
The era of the Liberals in Nanaimo: 1916-1952
Nanaimo has always been a left-wing, workers’ paradise!
There’s a hiccup in that narrative. While we have extensively covered the coal-dusted ground upon which Socialist-Labour pioneers like Hawthornthwaite, Williams, Place, and others trod, there was an extensive period where the Liberals triumphed.
Two MLAs dominated Nanaimo politics during that time: William Sloan and George Pearson. Sloan had been a Liberal MP in Comox-Atlin (Comox-Atlin, what a riding!) from 1904-1909, stepping aside to make way for another candidate. He resurfaced politically in the 1916 election in Nanaimo. He was a minister of mines, fisheries, and provincial secretary for Liberal governments that served during the entirety of his provincial career. He died in 1928. His son, Gordon Sloan, would serve as the province’s Attorney-General under Premier Duff Pattullo and lead Royal Commissions on forestry in later years.
Succeeding Sloan was George Pearson, who represented Nanaimo from 1928 to 1952. Pearson won six consecutive times. The first win was in an election where his Liberals were hammered. After 12 years in power, it was time for a change, and Simon Fraser Tolmie’s Conservatives took the reins. Pearson and the Liberals would return to power in 1933. The George Pearson Hospital in Vancouver was named for him as was the Pearson Bridge in Nanaimo. He served as Minister of Labour and was particularly adamant in his support for the internment of the Japanese population following the attacks on Pearl Harbour.
According to Margaret Ormsby, George Pearson played a key role ending the Liberal government of Duff Pattullo, and the formation of the Coalition government that ruled from 1941 to 1952. The day after the 1941 election, which was a minority Liberal government (21 Liberal, 14 CCF, 12 Conservative, 1 Independent), Pearson “argued that the Premier no longer controlled a majority of members in the House”. Shortly thereafter, the leader of the Conservatives, Pat Maitland, called for a coalition government, which he said should include the CCF. CCF leader Harold Winch, now Opposition Leader, rejected the idea.
Pattullo called a cabinet meeting with his post-election cabinet, but Pearson refused his offer to make him Minister of Education and Provincial Secretary, indicating that he felt there should be “an arrangement” with the opposition parties to form a stable government. Then Finance Minister John Hart said he favoured a coalition. As events unfolded, the Liberals announced a convention. A resolution hit the floor proposing the creation of a coalition government, which was carried decisively. Pattullo rose and left the hall. Pearson “worked his way to the front of the room” and nominated John Hart. Pattullo resigned as premier and Hart formed a coalition government, with Nanaimo’s Pearson at the centre of the action.
While Sloan and Pearson were triumphing during this 36 year stretch in the Nanaimo riding, the Cowichan-Newcastle riding to the south had a different tradition. As mentioned, Sam Guthrie represented the riding from 1920-1924 then as a CCF MLA from 1937-1949. Guthrie lost to Conservatives in 1924 and 1928, and in 1933, lost to an Independent Conservative, Hugh Savage. This is a footnote of history as Savage was backed by an organization called the OGM or Oxford Group Movement, noted in BC’s Electoral History 1871-1986. Guthrie’s final campaign was also in 1949, losing not by a whisker, but to Andrew Whisker, a Coalition candidate. By my count, Guthrie made it to the ballot 8 times, winning half the time.
During this time of Liberal wins in Nanaimo, it seems strange that the fledgling CCF did not gain a foothold in the city that spawned Socialist MLAs during the Conservative floodwaters of the McBride era. The CCF’s first contested election was 1933 and it served as BC’s Official Opposition between 1933-1937, and from 1941-1952 during the Coalition years. Yet, the CCF could not win in Nanaimo. Even a young accountant named Dave Stupich could not pull it off in 1949, losing to George Pearson. It turns out the ‘NDP town’ was never a ‘CCF town’. Not at all.
We wuz robbed !
Given the ProRep referendum, you can wonder why anyone from the NDP would support electoral reform when you look at the sad tale of 1952.
Quick history lesson: Coalition government rigs the rules thinking that by giving voters a second and third choice, this will be good for Liberals and Conservatives, who were back to contesting elections under their own labels in 1952. You see, they wanted to gang up and stop Harold Winch’s CCF at any cost. Then, along came the Socreds.
When the first preference votes were counted in the 1952 election, Winch’s CCF led in 21 seats to the Social Credit’s 14, in the 48 seats Legislature. A clear win. The Social Credit had never fully contested a BC election before. The Liberals and Conservatives were eclipsed by populist alternatives. However, this time, the election wasn’t over at the first count. In Nanaimo and the Islands, as it was then called, Stupich held a 369 vote lead over Progressive Conservative Dr. Larry Giovando. However, when the Liberal was dropped from the ballot, Stupich’s lead melted away and Giovando won by a margin of 5,144 to 4,581.
Not only did this delay Stupich’s political career, it had an enormous impact on BC. This was one of three seats that slipped away from the CCF while the Social Credit gained five seats through successive counts. The final count was 19 Social Credit, 18 CCF, with the rest split between the Liberals, Conservatives, and an Independent Labour MLA (who was not partial to joining with the CCF). Paddy Sherman’s Bennett describes the machinations that followed. The Socreds did not even have a leader during the 1952 election. W.A.C. Bennett was elected leader by a vote of the new caucus afterward. Bennett then jousted with the Lieutenant-Governor and gained power, against the strenuous objections of CCF leader Harold Winch. I wrote this all up in a previous blog post: “History tells us, be careful what you wish for”.
But for one seat, the CCF would have likely been invited to govern, especially when they had won the popular vote by a significant margin.
Then in 1953, it happened again to Stupich!
Stupich had a big lead on the first count, with Socred Earle Westwood second, and Giovando third. Clearly the Liberal voters preferred Giovando to Stupich because he vaulted to second and then edged Stupich by 18 votes on the final count. Robbed again!
The Socreds won a majority in the Legislature this time. The Progressive Conservatives were reduced to one seat – Giovando.
You have to think Stupich was quite delighted to see W.A.C. Bennett scrap the preferential balloting system and go back to first-past-the-post.
Dr. Larry Giovando was a well-respected physician in Nanaimo. In the Legislature, he doubtlessly had a lonely time as the sole Progressive Conservative. He assailed W.A.C. over “fancy bookkeeping”, though Sherman notes that Giovando would leave the PC’s “in a huff”.
1952 also saw the election in Cowichan-Newcastle of Robert (Bob) Strachan. He held the seat, and variations of it, until 1975. He was the longest serving Opposition leader in BC history (1956-1969). He left politics in 1975 for an appointment as BC’s Agent-General in London. Like many trade unionists, he had emigrated from Scotland and found his way to resource communities in BC, where he would rise to be a union leader. He had a long tenure in Opposition, where he endured four straight general election defeats. He was the basketball equivalent of the Washington Generals to W.A.C’s Harlem Globetrotters. But Strachan hung in there for a term in government under Premier Dave Barrett, and was Minister responsible for the creation of ICBC.
Now that first-past-the-post was back in play, it should have been time for the CCF to prevail in Nanaimo. After all, they were winning elsewhere on the Island. It turns out that Nanaimo continued to be a free enterprise paradise. Social Credit’s Earle Westwood, who lost in 1953, prevailed over Stupich in 1956 and 1960. These marked Stupich’s fourth and fifth losses to start out his political career. In 1960, the CCF won 16 seats in BC but they could not crack Nanaimo. In that campaign, Nanaimo lawyer Ted Strongitharm ran for the Progressive Conservatives. His son, Bruce, was a longtime Chief of Staff to the BC Forests minister, and showed me the campaign brochure where his Dad promised to build a pedestrian bridge to Newcastle Island. Now, there’s an idea! Strongitharm would mentor a young lawyer at his law firm – Leonard Krog.
During the 1950s and the 1960s, the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives tried to revive their fortunes. How long could this Social Credit Party last, anyways, before people returned to the old brands? The Progressive Conservative leader for three of those elections, Deane Finlayson, was from Nanaimo, though he didn’t contest seats there. Finlayson was a 33-year old Nanaimo insurance agent, who had managed Giovando’s successful 1952 campaign, when he became leader prior to the 1953 election. The Party was desperate to dump outgoing leader Herbert Anscomb and after party heavyweights like George Pearkes declined, the youthful Finlayson stepped up. He ran in Oak Bay in 1953, a by-election in Victoria in 1953, and in North Vancouver in 1956 and 1960, as leader.
The results were dismal, though the assessment of Finlayson has always been sterling. He had a reputation for honest speech, was commended for his WWII service in the RCAF, and had a lifetime of community service. In business, he developed the Island’s largest mall, Woodgrove, and built much of Hammond Bay, in the Nanaimo riding. In the process of adding Finlayson to this post (which was a terrible oversight), I found a thesis outlining the demise of the Progressive Conservatives: From Rule to Ruin, for you political junkies out there). Finlayson’s biography is here.
Like many Socreds of that age, Earle Westwood was a small businessman and local leader. A funeral home operator, Mayor of Nanaimo, and School Board Chair. He served in cabinet under W.A.C. in ministries such as Trade and Industry, Commercial Transport, and Recreation and Conservation. He was from a pioneering Nanaimo family.
Finally, in 1963, under the banner of the NDP, Dave Stupich wins. Avenging his near losses, he edged Earle Westwood by 18 votes.
It wouldn’t get much easier for Stupich in the short-term. Enter the Pirate.
At the time of the 1966 election, Frank Ney was a Notary and co-owner of Nanaimo Realty. He had already been involved in countless community initiatives. I’m not sure when it started, but he is renown for dressing up as a pirate. (He would also chair the committee in 1967 that led to Nanaimo’s world famous bathtub races). He replaced Westwood as the Social Credit standard bearer and took on Dave Stupich. As often happens in politics, the luck evens out. Stupich won another nail-biter, this time by 45 votes.
Now Mayor of Nanaimo, Ney returned for a rematch in 1969. He defeated Stupich by 469
votes and went on to serve as both mayor and MLA concurrently. The Liberal in the 1969 race netted 722 votes. Did he play a role in defeating Dave Stupich? I don’t know, you would have to ask him.
That young whippersnapper’s name is Bob Plecas. 50 years later and he’s still causing a ruckus in BC politics.
So, to recap the amazing political success of the lefties in the main Nanaimo riding, between World War I and 1970, lefties (ie. Dave Stupich alone) won two out of 16 elections. They did much better in the southern Cowichan-Newcastle riding, winning almost all of the time, but in the main Nanaimo riding, it was hardly the Socialist stronghold that it had once been in the early 1900s.
At that point, the screen goes dark for free enterprisers.
The Barrett Years to the End of Stupich
Sporting a .250 batting average heading into the 1972 campaign, Stupich had Ney walk the plank, winning by 4000 votes, joining in the tide that swept in BC’s first NDP government. The Pirate carried on as mayor, serving 21 years in total.
Stupich was chosen as the Minister of Agriculture with a mandate to protect farmland. In their biography of the Barrett government The Art of the Impossible, Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh write, “Stupich seemed like the ideal man to lead the change. An accountant with a degree in agriculture, the Nanaimo MLA was a Barrett loyalist, a veteran of the legislature, and a former agriculture critic with a wealth of contacts around the province.”
Stupich was quick out of the gates and announced that legislation to protect farmland and compensate farmers would be ready for a fall session in 1972. Says Meggs/Mickleburgh, “Stupich not only failed to seek a cost analysis of the compensation pledge – an astonishing oversight for an accountant – but began to execute a deliberate strategy of public statements designed to lock Barrett and the cabinet into a compensation plan before either had a chance to review the bill.” It was a daring or reckless move by Stupich, depending on your view.
Stupich made an “extraordinary keynote” to farmers that fall stating, “My advice to developers right now is not to gamble by investing their money in farmland.” Stupich asserted that a freeze had been put on rezoning agricultural land (which was not true). His comments triggered a province-wide rush to rezone. On December 21, with Barrett out of town, an “angry cabinet” was convinced by Stupich to freeze the sale of all agricultural land until further notice. Continuing to borrow from Meggs and Mickleburgh’s account, NDP heavyweight Bob Williams later described the ordeal as a “tough, bitter battle” to rein in Stupich. The internal debate revolved around compensation, while the external debate was plunging the new government into major controversy. The end result was the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), an enduring legacy of the Barrett government.
By 1975, the ALR had been implemented which Meggs/Mickleburgh say did much to restore Stupich’s reputation as a policy-maker. 1975 was a year of great change in BC politics. The Social Credit Party was in a revival led by the younger Bill Bennett with Grace McCarthy barnstorming among the grassroots. Polarization intensified and ‘fear of the NDP’ drove moderates into the arms of the Socreds. Three Liberal MLAs joined Bennett’s team along with one Progressive Conservative MLA, and, ultimately, one NDP MLA too. The drumbeat became louder for a ‘snap election’ to catch the opposition off guard. In fall 1975, Barrett readied his team and shuffled his cabinet. Stupich was appointed Minister of Finance. The snap election was called, but when the votes were counted in December, the Barrett government had been trounced. Stupich won with a reduced margin, defeating future Nanaimo mayor Graeme Roberts.
The loss was devastating for the NDP, but it cannot be said that they coasted during their term in government. They had a very active and aggressive agenda, which was halted abruptly when they were defeated. Dave Barrett lost his seat and plans were made to return him to the Legislature. Vancouver East MLA Bob Williams agreed to step aside, with Stupich playing a key role, arranging financing to cover off Barrett while he was out of a job, and to help compensate Bob Williams after he had resigned. How? Through the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holdings Society (NCHS).
The NCHS was a Nanaimo institution that was built on bingo proceeds. Stupich, an accountant, engineered it into a political fund that supported NDP. It operated like a parallel political fund to the NDP itself. Rod Mickleburgh described its purpose in a Globe & Mail article (2000)reporting on the testimony of Dave Barrett, where it was used for many purposes such as Williams’ compensation, funding political activity, Barrett’s federal leadership campaign, and Stupich’s leadership campaign. The NCHS mess would not catch up with Stupich until much later.
Stupich consolidated his hold on the riding with smashing wins in 1979 (5,000 votes) and 1983 (4,000 votes). It was a time of ever-increasing polarization as the third and fourth place parties (Liberals and PCs) melted away with voters essentially being forced to pick sides between the NDP and Socreds. In Nanaimo, most chose the NDP.
What are the reasons for Nanaimo being a competitive playing field in the 1960s compared to being an NDP stronghold in 1970s and beyond? Was it demographics? Riding boundary changes? Sophisticated organizing and party machinery? Social Credit alienating labour? All of the above?
Maybe it was a bit of Tommy Douglas’s magic? The former Saskatchewan Premier was the first leader of the NDP, though he lost his Saskatchewan seat. A seat opened in Burnaby-Seymour and he carried on through the 1960s. He lost that seat in 1968 to
Liberal Ray Perrault. Around the time, Nanaimo’s NDP MP Colin Cameron died in office. Douglas won the byelection and served until 1979 when he retired. He was voted “The Greatest Canadian” in a CBC competition and is often called the “Father of Medicare”. Regardless of one’s views, he is a leader that was held in high regard by other parties, and revered in his own. Some years later, when I was campaigning for Bob Rae’s bid to be Liberal leader, I asked former Nanaimo NDP MP Ted Miller if he would support Bob, who he served with in the House of Commons. Though Ted’s wonderful wife Patti was a strong supporter of Bob’s, Ted told me, “I can’t do it to Tommy”. Such was his respect for the man.
During Stupich’s fifth term of office, Dave Barrett resigned as NDP leader. He had lost his third successive rematch to Bill Bennett and it was time to go. A wide-open NDP leadership race broke out and Dave Stupich jumped in as a candidate. The party broker and backroom financier was 63 years old and representative of a bygone era in the NDP. He was not the default ‘establishment candidate’ nor was he ‘change’. He placed fifth on the first ballot and fourth on the second, far behind the leaders. He was eliminated on the third ballot, and watched the Party crown Port Alberni’s Bob Skelly, a compromise choice it would soon regret.
Stupich continued on as NDP candidate in the 1986 election. Nanaimo had become a 2-member seat. Malaspina College professor Dale Lovick joined the ticket and the two of them easily prevailed in an election that saw Socred Bill Vander Zalm romp to victory over Skelly. This time, the NDP would acclaim Mike Harcourt as leader. Not long after, during a time of great optimism for the NDP’s federal chances, Stupich resigned his seat and ran federally, winning handily. The opportunity for the NDP did not pan out, but they did well in BC. A disappointed Broadbent resigned, with Stupich backing Dave Barrett’s federal leadership bid. He lost and the party leadership went to the unsteady hand of Audrey McLaughlin. The NDP would be reduced to a small rump group in 1993 and Stupich would lose his seat to the Reform Party’s Bob Ringma. At age 72, he had been retired from elected office.
Stupich’s exit from provincial politics created a 1989 byelection to replace him. The NDP put forward Jan Pullinger, a relatively unknown candidate then.
The Socreds could not have landed a better candidate – Larry McNabb, a popular former coach of the Nanaimo Clippers, and a former pro hockey player in the Western Hockey League. McNabb was tough as nails. Don Cherry (“Grapes”) recalled fighting McNabb. The Cow Palace in San Francisco had a banner stating, “Larry McNabb: Heavyweight Champion of the WHL”. The two paired off and McNabb broke his hand on Cherry’s head. Cherry recounts it here. However, on the streets of Nanaimo, McNabb was no match for the NDP, especially when he was weighed down by Premier Bill Vander Zalm’s unpopularity. Pullinger knocked out McNabb and served twelve years in office, including various posts in Cabinet. She and Dale Lovick married during that time, and were a political power couple in the Nanaimo area.
It was during Stupich’s federal term of office, 1988-1993, that the NCHS scandal reared its head. Mike Harcourt had led the NDP to power in BC in 1991 with a strong majority government. In 1992, a whistleblower by the name of Jacques Carpentier went to the Nanaimo RCMP with his concerns about the misuse of charitable money by the NCHS. As the story unfolded, the scandal engulfed the NDP. Stupich had been at the heart of the party for a long time, and it seemed that he had solved a lot of NDP problems with available cash.
A forensic audit was ordered which was a political disaster. The Harcourt government flailed in the controversy, with Opposition Leader Gordon Campbell leading the charge along with a press gallery that was generating headlines. In 1995, Harcourt, who had nothing really to do with the scandal, announced he would not run again. He took the fall. A leadership convention was called and Glen Clark was elected leader. Bingogate was erased from the headlines as Clark launched a blitzkrieg on the BC Liberals who had enjoyed a hefty lead in the polls. The political debate was reordered to traditional business-labour, class war themes, rather than scandal.
In Nanaimo, Dale Lovick sought his third term in office amidst the controversy. He was closely aligned with Stupich. Nanaimo Mayor Gary Korpan ran for the BC Liberals. There was much optimism among the Liberals of storming the NDP bastion, but on election night, not only did Glen Clark win a majority government for the NDP, Nanaimo returned Lovick to the Legislature comfortably.
The NCHS scandal deepened. Stupich was charged with 64 counts of theft, fraud, forgery, and breach of trust. He eventually would plead guilty and serve two years less a day under electronic monitoring.
A 1999 CBC item, outlining one way how the NDP was embroiled in the scandal, demonstrates how far Stupich had fallen in the graces of the NDP. Then-party president Bruce Ralston said the party was misled by Stupich. He said, “It’s painful… not a particularly proud moment for the NDP… but we have apologized, various premiers have apologized…”
Following his death in 2006, Lovick said, “When I think in terms of Dave and his career, I think in terms of great tragedy. Here was a guy who, until a series of events late in his political career, was universally admired and respected. How sad his career ended as it did. He did more good than bad, that’s for sure.” Stupich’s former colleague Alex MacDonald, Attorney-General in the Barrett government, told the Bingogate Inquiry, “He put up a hotel and a senior citizens’ home, a tower with the bingo rooms. Nanaimo wasn’t hurt by the actions of Dave Stupich; it was helped.”
Such were the conflicted feelings that many in Nanaimo and throughout the NDP felt. From the time a 28-year old Stupich sought office in 1949 until 1993, he was a central figure in Nanaimo politics. He had friends across the spectrum. He was a regional ‘boss’ like few others in the province. During his time, Nanaimo became an ‘NDP town’. It came crashing down on Stupich, but the NDP barely missed a beat.
1991 – 2018
Dale Lovick served until 2001. He was regarded as one of the most talented NDP backbenchers. NCHS probably held him back during the Harcourt years. He became Speaker in 1996 then was appointed to Cabinet in 1998. He was quick-witted in the House, a good debater, and never had to sweat during his three election wins.
In 1991, riding boundaries changed and a considerable chunk of North Nanaimo was included in the Parksville-Qualicum riding. Nanaimo lawyer Leonard Krog ran for the NDP, sweeping to victory as part of the Harcourt win. In reality, the opposition to the NDP was split in that riding between a disorganized BC Liberal campaign and the dying Socreds. Krog served in the backbench, along with Lovick, and Pullinger. The central Island did not make the cut in the Harcourt cabinet.
In 1996, five-term Parksville mayor Paul Reitsma won the BC Liberal nomination and edged Krog by 483 votes, winning the only seat for the Liberals north of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Reitmsa scrapped with regional NDP politicians in local newspapers. At some point, he had the not-so-bright idea to write phony letters to the editor under the pen name of “Warren Betanko”, a name that will live on forever. When the Parksville newspaper broke the news that its MLA was forging letters, Reitsma was on the run. The morning the story hit, I talked to his constituency assistant. “Will probably blow over”, I said. By noon, Reitsma was out of the Liberal Caucus. Citizens across the spectrum rallied to form a recall campaign. Over 60 days, Reitsma felt the heat. Rather than be the first MLA in Canadian history to be recalled, he resigned.
The NDP probably saw this an opportunity to win back Krog’s seat, and he was convinced to run. Krog had a reputation in his first term as being a bit more outspoken than your average backbench MLA. He was their best shot. However, the Glen Clark government was becoming very unpopular as the economy struggled and a litany of scandals and controversies plagued them. Meanwhile, Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals were getting their act together. Just like 1975, the non-NDP public was starting to pull together behind one party. Seven candidates vied for the nomination and on a Saturday afternoon, close to 1000 people jammed Dover Bay Secondary to elect Judith Reid over a host of more experienced candidates.
Reid was a shellfish farmer from Deep Bay in the north end of the riding. No elected experience, she was an unconventional choice. She was an independent in BC Liberal clothing, which worked to her advantage. While Krog could demonstrate his superior knowledge on policies at that point, Reid won the community with her earnestness, and a deeply held view to not elect the NDP. Reid trounced Krog 53% to 23%. The result was a declarative statement on the true state of the NDP’s political fortunes. Less than a year later, Glen Clark was out of office.
In 2001, BC voters spanked the NDP hard, with Campbell’s Liberals winning 77 of 79 seats, including all 13 on Vancouver Island. Reid had a massive win in Parksville-Qualicum-North Nanaimo (57%), while political newcomer Mike Hunter, a fisheries executive who had recently moved to Nanaimo, defeated Krog in what was seen as a safe NDP seat. Reid was made Minister of Transportation and served until 2004. During her time, she oversaw the sale of BC Rail, which became a political firestorm. Though the controversy, and resulting investigations, did not touch Reid, she decided not to run again in 2005. She was exited from Cabinet to make way for new blood that would be running for re-election. Hunter served his term in the backbench and was seen as a strong constituency MLA. But by 2005, the NDP had roared back to life. New leader Carole James put a new face on the troubled brand and gave Campbell a run for the money. While the Campbell Liberals were re-elected, the Nanaimo riding returned to the NDP fold with Krog winning the rematch with Hunter 52% to 34%. In the Parksville-North Nanaimo seat, Nanaimo Councillor Ron Cantelon succeeded Reid as BC Liberal MLA.
Cantelon and Krog were both easily re-elected in 2009. By this time, a chunk of south Nanaimo was added to the north end of the Cowichan Valley, becoming a strong NDP riding with Doug Routley as MLA. Cantelon was instrumental in coordinating provincial funding for Nanaimo area projects like airport expansion, the creation of Vancouver Island University, and funding for the port and convention centre. In the 2000s, North Nanaimo was becoming as much of a political base of the BC Liberals as South Nanaimo is for the NDP, thanks in no small part to their relentless organizer Jack Doan.
After serving a stint in cabinet as Minister of Agriculture, and as caucus chair, Cantelon retired in 2013 clearing the way for a prized recruit for Christy Clark – Michelle Stilwell.
A paralympian multiple gold medallist for Canada, Stilwell presented a young, energizing face for a party that needed to show a new look. Stilwell became part of a narrative that helped propel Christy Clark to her 2013 election victory. Starting off as caucus chair, Stilwell joined the cabinet as Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation, winning re-election in 2017 – the last remaining BC Liberal MLA on the Island.
Krog had a surprisingly tighter margin in 2013. Then running the BC Liberal provincial campaign, I can attest to the fact that we simply could not find a candidate in Nanaimo to contest Krog, or the riding to the south. They were the 84thand 85thout of 85 ridings to confirm candidates. Once he joined the race during the writ period, former Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce president Walter Anderson put forward a good showing narrowing the margin to nine points. Pretty good despite few resources and no lead-up time. Had we had our act together, we might have been able to win in 2013. In 2017, Krog’s margin widened again in a campaign that saw the BC Liberals running against the tide.
Following the turnover in government in July 2017, Krog was left out of John Horgan’s cabinet. At that time, Krog had 17 years of experience in the Legislature and had served as Attorney-General critic. There were lots of other cabinet contenders on the Island and his gender worked against his chances too. Some say his lack of enthusiasm for the leadership of Carole James, which had split the caucus years earlier, may have been a factor. Whatever the reason, Krog was out. The logical conclusion was that he would become Speaker in a very contentious situation. However, the unexpected elevation of Darryl Plecas to that role closed off that option. Krog stayed on the backbench. In 2018, as we all know now, Krog announced he would seek the mayor’s chair in Nanaimo. My previous blog post on the Nanaimo byelection discussed Krog’s surprising decision. Surprising because of the razor thin governing majority for the NDP and that it would be a Nanaimo MLA – of all things – that would put the government’s survival on the line by resigning.
He’s mayor now and the byelection is on. Krog’s batting average as candidate for MLA is .625 – five wins, three losses. Not too shabby. The span of his provincial political career is up there with Stupich, Pearson, Strachan, Guthrie, Williams, and Hawthornthwaite. Though his most important work may be ahead of him at Nanaimo City Hall, a task for which he was fully supported by his potential successor, BC Liberal byelection candidate Tony Harris. Krog won big for mayor, over a strong candidate too. Why has Krog been popular? I would argue that he has always stayed close to the community and approachable, with his integrity never in question. Tough act to replace.
This historical stroll through Nanaimo’s political history has been surprising to me, a political nut who lived in the area for fifteen years. My research, which was a full-scale mobilization of underappreciated works on my bookshelves, exposed my ignorance regarding vast parts of Nanaimo’s and our province’s history. While excessively long, this blog post actually gives short shrift to major events that defined the city, such as the activism around the coal mines, and also the development of a strong small business community that paralleled the strength of the unions for much of Nanaimo’s history. Happily, there are some great books and articles on these topics that deserve a lot of attention.
What can be said about Nanaimo is that it has been populated by some real originals from all parts of the spectrum. Nanaimo politicians have often spoken their minds over the years. They’ve had their elbows up and they have strived to make their mark. Is Nanaimo an NDP town? Demographically, it shouldn’t be a slam dunk, but tradition over the past 50+ years has been powerful. Stupich helped build the tradition, while Lovick and Krog consolidated the party’s hold. Since the NDP was formed, it has won 13 of 15 times in the core Nanaimo seat. It’s also a matter of boundaries – shift that riding to the north, and drop a little to the south, and the NDP loses its advantage. Nanaimo’s history plays out to this day on a north-south axis.
As much as Nanaimo grows and changes, the coal still lies beneath the surface. Nanaimo’s politics run deep. The byelection gives voters a chance to consider Nanaimo’s identity. Will they go with a candidate that speaks to a tradition of independence, or stay with a party that it has loyally backed? The wildcard – the Green candidate, the Pirate’s daughter– presents an option to take the tradition in an entirely new direction.
Some advice. Whoever does become the MLA, keep an eye on your spectacles.
Thanks for reading.
(Featured image: EJ Hughes, Steamer at the Old Wharf, Nanaimo)
Adding feedback from Bruce Strongitharm, who’s father Ted Strongitharm ran for the Progressive Conservatives in 1960.
I remember the election as if I was 13, oh wait I was 13. My dad’s big race was against the Liberal candidate Hugh Heath ( his wife later became a liberal senator) because everyone new either the Social Credit or CCF were going to win. Alas Heath won the mini race. I had fun though. My dad would take a van with a speaker on top and stop at a residential street corner and do his campaign speech followed by door knocking. Wasn’t always well received. The leader of the Conservatives then was my dad’s good friend Deane Finlayson (my younger brother is named after him) also lived in Nanaimo but ran in North Vancouver I think. He didn’t win either. The bridge is still a good idea. There major item on the brochure that Mike left out was “getting rid of the one man rule”.
Much appreciated your post. Today, I have shared it with several of my politically interested friends.
My background, mostly you know. I moved to Nanaimo in 1967. My first political campaign was in 1972. As a staff accountant for Church, Pickard,Lane, Newman, working on partner Dave Stupich’s campaign was not optional.
Repeating myself, very much enjoyed reading your take on 150 years of Nanaimo politics.
Councillor-emeritus Cameron, you are making me blush. As we both agree, there’s a lot going on in Nanaimo politics, always. I would suggest that there may be no other place in BC with such a colourful political history (and meaningful). It would be good to start that debate anyway. I think I will be hearing from Kamloopsians on this point! Glad to hear from you and thank you for reading, as you played a large part behind the scenes.
Great read Mike, thank you!
I love connecting all the dots together, and especially since it’s home town territory. We don’t teach our kids our local history in schools; it’s all around us in the names of our lakes (Westwood), roads (Hawthornthwaite, Finlayson) bridges (Pearson) and buildings (Dunsmuir). Very interesting blog, thanks for the read.
Thanks Marnie! Glad you enjoyed the read.
Thanks for this very readable summary of 150 years of Nanaimo provincial politics. It’s quite the lively tale and I enjoyed reading it. Just a quick note that the Wellington Colliery developed by Dunsmuir after his 1869 coal discovery was north of Nanaimo, not south. Later in the 1870s, another competing mining operation called the South Wellington Colliery also started up, which was just south of Dunsmuir’s Wellington, but still north of the city of Nanaimo itself. This operation eventually ended up in Dunsmuir’s hands and was absorbed into the larger Wellington Colliery. Later still, in the 1880s, Dunsmuir explored prospects in the Cranberry District, eventually opening the Alexandria Colliery there. This was south of Nanaimo. The town that formed around the mine site reused the South Wellington name after “Alexandria” was apparently turned down by the post office because there was an existing Alexandria south of Quesnel.
Thank you very much for your feedback. I have made the correction on the Wellington coal seam, and thanks for the additional info. Am I right to assume that Extension mines were explored after South Wellington?
Well there goes my Sunday afternoon. Nice work, Mike. I got sidelined by your link to Sir Richard McBride’s bio, another larger than life BC Premier. Great primer for the by-election!
So interesting! Wish I knew all that when I could view Newcastle Island from my kitchen window way back late 1950s! Nanaimo is my mining history. My great grandfather’s watch is at Nanaimo Museum having stopped the moment of his death in the mine (cage fail). My other g-g died in Wellington 5, not the last of our family to die tragically in the mines of Nanaimo. My grandfather, though, immigrated in 1912 to mine in Nanaimo – and became Chief Inspector of Mines. His mission: rescue and safety. Great political perspective. Thanks
Thank you for your comments. Glad you enjoyed it.
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