The Day Government Collapsed

“As (Lieutenant-Governor Thomas R. McInnes) was admitted to the chamber all the members left immediately with only the Speaker and the Premier remaining….After a few moments the Lieutenant-Governor recovered his aplomb, read his speech, left the chamber with boos and catcall (from the public gallery) resounding in his ears; 28 February, 1900, was a memorable day in Victoria for the whole customary constitutional establishment had collapsed. Respect for authority was gone and discourtesy to the Lieutenant-Governor (had become) the accepted code of conduct.” (From Portraits of the Premiers (1871-1952) by S.W.Jackman)

The events leading to total collapse, albeit briefly, of constitutional government had their beginnings a few days earlier when Premier Charles Augustus Semlin lost a vote in the Legislature, his second such loss in almost as many months. The defeat set the rumour mill swirling quickly through the Legislature that Semlin would be forced to resign, to forfeit the Premiership to another member “who would have the confidence of the House.”

Semlin moved quickly into damage control. To have any hope of forestalling royal dismissal he needed open confirmation that despite the most recent set-back he could still command majority support in a Legislature unrestricted by party loyalties.( Prior to 1903 MLAs were classed as Government supporters, Opposition, or Independent members without reference to political party affiliation). Semlin needed a majority commitment from at least 20 of the 38 MLAs to demonstrate that while he may have lost a relatively minor vote he was still better able to muster majority support than anyone else and was still the favoured Premier.

He had until only a few hours to do his lobbying and persuade the Lieutenant-Governor to resist the temptation to fire the Premier and dismiss his government.

Around 11 pm on Tuesday, February 27, 1900, with the temperature a few degrees above freezing but feeling colder as the city was buffeted by “ a storm from the northward covering the province causing unsettled rainy weather,” late night denizens of Victoria would have spotted a group of well dressed men heading up town from the Legislature. If they were knowledgeable they would have recognized Premier Semlin as the group trudged over to the Hotel Driard on the south east corner of View and Broad. The identities of all the individuals in the group remain unknown. And we can only guess they were heading for the Driard – because they wanted to convene in private, or because they needed a little “Dutch courage” before confronting the Lieutenant-Governor McInnes with their request for a reflective pause before banishing Semlin from the Premiership.

All MLAs were well aware of McInnes penchant for flexing his constitutional muscle, and none more so than Premier Semlin. When McInnes dismissed Premier John Turner (MLA for Victoria) from office in 1898 he informed Turner mail “(I have) become convinced that yourself and your colleagues are no longer endorsed by the electorate and have not the confidence of the Legislative Assembly,“ then asked Semlin to take over as Premier.

An intrepid, unknown, reporter for The British Colonist informed readers it was shortly after 11 pm that Semlin and his supporters “were driven to Government House” to meet with McInnes and that two hours later around 1am “returned to their hotel and all were happy.” They felt they had convinced McInnes to “await any contemplated action until a vote of confidence might be taken” in the Legislature.

When the House convened some eight hours later Semlin was handed a letter from McInnes rejecting Semlin’s new coalition and probably containing the “lost confidence” words used when he dismissed Turner two years earlier. The headline in the Colonist (Feb.28, 1900) was bold but simple: SEMLIN’S EXIT. The Legislators voted 22-15 to condemn the Lieutenant-Governor’s action. An unprecedented rebuke to the Crown.

In the debate prior to the vote Capt. John Irving, (Cassiar) a government supporter, was critical of McInnes timing. He reminded the House that two months earlier McInnes had been made aware of Premier Semlin’s precarious control of the House “and at that time he should have acted to put an end to their misery.” Irving paused then added ominously. “But his Honour didn’t want to – he was waiting for his opportunity….” Shouts of “Order, Order” and demands for withdrawal filled the chamber.

Contritely Irving asked the Speaker “will I have to take those words back.” The newspaper report says “the Speaker nodded affirmatively” and Irving responded “Well I will; but I said it anyhow – and I meant it, too.”

A few minutes later he returned to his critical theme outlining the incidents of the previous day culminating in the midnight visit to Government House where the Lieutenant-Governor “had been informed the business of the House could be carried on with a working majority.” With that solution, he added, “he found his game was up” the implication being that McInnes was playing a calculated power broker game.

The protest was immediate from Martin the man McInnes had asked to form a new government. The Speaker asked Irving to withdraw and he did with the proclamation – “well I said ‘em, and I meant ‘em and I’ll withdraw ‘em.”

Martin screamed “such a withdrawal (to the Queen’s representative) should not be accepted. It was a direct insult to the Queen”

“Then I’ll apologize to the Queen,” snapped Irving.

There was never any published charge that that McInnes or Martin had acted improperly but Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier quietly replaced McInnes with Sir Henri-Gustave Joly Lotbiniere from Quebec, and Joseph Martin, the Premier hand-picked by McInnes, survived only 106 days before resigning after leading the Liberal party to defeat in 1903.

There was a weird but welcome end to the day when the “customary constitutional establishment collapsed” and for a few hours British Columbia teetered on the edge of chaos. At adjournment Henry Helmcken,MLA, for Victoria proposed a message of praise and thankfulness be sent to Queen Victoria ”and her Generals” for recent victories in the Boer War. The Colonist tells us the Assembly unanimously endorsed the resolution then “enthusiastically joined together in singing God Save the Queen and cheers for her gracious majesty.”

 

 

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