A Rebel – Sometimes Without Cause

It may surprise a few readers but we had a Donald Trump in Canada 150-years or so ago. Our guy wasn’t a billionaire – although he did fairly well over his life span with “business” and land deals, some with suspected shady legal activities. I mentioned him in my last week’s blog – “Fighting Joe” Martin who achieved his ambition to organize the dismissal of one provincial Premier with himself standing ready in the wings to replace him.

“Fighting Joe” earned his nickname. He was savage in verbal argument, brilliant in rhetoric and prepared to go bare knuckle with those who didn’t accept and agree with his ideas. And he didn’t like the idea of “foreigners” flooding into Canada. He wasn’t against immigration his family having been new fortune seekers when his grandfather Jasper Martin with wife Sarah and two young sons arrived in Upper Canada, the first settlers in what is now known as Milton, Ontario with present population around 100,000. When Jasper and his family arrived to settle a 100 acre land grant in 1818 two families, his and Hugh Foster’s comprised the total settlement. Jasper’s land grant was on 16 Mile Creek where he built a large pond to harness enough power to operate his first commercial operation – a grist mill.

“Fighting Joe’s” father, Edward, was Jasper and Sarah’s third son born in the settlement and was working in the mill when Joe was born in September, 1852. When Joe was in his early teens the family moved to Michigan. Joe knew all about immigrants and hardships and the need for those already established to help those in need. Like Donald Trump a 150 years plus later he wasn’t averse to immigrants – as long as they were white, preferably of Anglo descent and able to speak and understand English.

Joe was a good student. In his teens he qualified as a telegrapher, graduated to become a school teacher, then switched to law and moved to Manitoba where he was called to the Bar in 1882. His law practice blossomed as he became more involved in politics as a Liberal. His speeches and his energy brought him many friends. His barely, and rarely, controlled anger, as many, maybe more, enemies.

As The Dictionary of Canadian Biography records:”His blurring of the distinction between his public and private responsibilities brought him into conflict with his legal clients and his cabinet colleagues.” It was when the overlap of those responsibilities became too strong that BC Premier Charles Semlin asked Joe for his resignation as attorney general “because he had neglected department business to work on his own legal practice, had revealed cabinet’s private business, and ‘while the worse for liquor’ had lost his temper when heckled by irate mine owners at a banquet in Rossland.” Joe resigned but “vowed vengeance” on Semlin and others who contributed to his down fall.

What was missing in Semlin’s recitation of Joe’s failures was a big one which saw Ottawa order his amendments to the Alien Exclusion Act withdrawn. Martin wanted tougher laws governing mining licences in the Atlin Lake area. His amendments touched off a storm of protest from Americans flocking to Atlin to seek their fortunes in gold. Joe Martin wanted the right to seek that previous metal reserved for Canadian citizen’s only – no aliens allowed. The many Americans already in the area protested to their President who relayed to Ottawa his displeasure over US citizens being declared aliens. Ottawa responded to its biggest trading partner. Laws dealing with aliens were a federal matter. Joe Martin’s amendments were quashed.

Fighting Joe was a one man wrecking crew for himself as well as others but built an amazing slightly bizarre record during his political life. He was a member of the Manitoba Legislature and a cabinet minister; he was a Member of Parliament in Ottawa; he was a member of the BC legislature, a cabinet minister and, very briefly Premier. And he was an elected Member of Parliament in England. Joe went to England shortly after his defeat in the BC provincial election of 1903. Within a few months he got himself nominated as a Liberal candidate in a by-election for Stratford upon Avon. He lost but created a great impression with British Liberals who nominated him a candidate for the London riding of St. Pancras East in their general election of 1910. Joe won the seat handily and launched his favourite role as a maverick in the House of Commons.

Then began a weird period with WW1 side-lining normal parliamentary proceedings in England for the duration of the war. In the spring of 1914 Joe had returned to Vancouver for a visit. In August war was declared but Joe, wisely, didn’t hasten back to his MP duties. He did bravely find his way back across the Atlantic in 1916 – and quietly resumed his seat as though he had never been away. During his “visit” to Vancouver he stayed in political training by running twice for mayor – while still being an MP in the Palace of Westminster. He lost both times.

He then wandered back and forth between BC and London a few times with each visit declared his final move. He was in Vancouver on March 2, 1923 when he died a victim of influenza and diabetes. In strange epitaph the Victoria Daily Times wrote: “The fact that during the last few years of his life he played no very active part in politics was due to no fault of his own but rather to his sinister record as a disruptive force, which made all parties fear his support as much as his opposition.”

And S.W. Jackman wrote in Portraits of the Premiers of the decline of “his mental powers and intellectual brilliance…his rather stout figure shriveled and he became small and pathetic – a little gnome…believed and trusted by nobody…His chimerical nature, his cynicism, his devious character and his lack of political morality baffled and infuriated his contemporaries….but he always survived”

I wonder that they’ll be writing about Donald Trump in 2166? Or if anybody will care.

2 comments

  1. I think the parallels between Fighting Joe and Donald Trump are valid. Fighting Joe was an attention-seeker, unconcerned with legal or moral niceties, and accomplished little of lasting value. Perhaps in 2166 someone will be able to write the same about Trump.

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