The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

It was a typical February day in Victoria. A storm system from the north brought what west coasters still cheerfully call “unsettled weather” which means gusty winds, heavy showers and temperatures around 40F with an all-around damp feeling.

In the final days of the month in 1900, Premier Charles Augustus Semlin was finding it difficult to hang on to power, and on February 27th, his shaky tenure ended when his “coalition” government lost a crucial “confidence” vote. Throughout a long wet and windy afternoon, Semlin tried desperately to stitch together another support group with which he could continue to govern, but without success. These were the days before party politics.

Semlin thought he had convinced Lieutenant Governor Thomas Robert McInnes to give him time to recruit a new team during a pre-midnight meeting, following a “secret” support gathering session earlier in the evening at the old Driard Hotel.

He was wrong. McInnes instead informed him he was fired and, in what might be called an “only in BC” moment, the 38-member Legislature challenged McInnes’ royal command and voted 22 to 15 to condemn his actions.

In response on February 28, McInnes asked MLA Joseph Martin if he could form a government. Martin, who had served in other provincial governments, on Vancouver City Council, and was a recent Member of Parliament in England, responded willingly.

McInnes informed the Governor General of Canada that MLA Martin “was best able to meet the necessity of the situation, create decisive issues, and establish final order and something like the usual conditions out of the chaos through which provincial parties had been rent.”

But the BC Legislative Assembly didn’t agree and another sparkling “only in BC” happening was chalked in the record book. When the Legislature was informed of McInnes’ arbitrary changes, the members voted 28-1 against the new government. 

Then came high drama. The Lieutenant Governor was already on his way to the Legislature to prorogue the current sitting and clear the way for the commencement of his Joe Martin era. As McInnes entered the chamber, all but two members marched out. By the time McInnes had walked to the dais from which he would address the Assembly, only the Speaker and the newly-minted Premier Martin remained to greet him.

McInnes delivered his speech and, historian S.W. Jackman tells us, then “left the chamber with boos and catcalls resounding in his ears; 28 February 1900, was a memorable day in Victoria for the whole customary constitutional establishment had collapsed. Respect for authority had gone, and discourtesy to the Lieutenant Governor had become the accepted code of conduct.”

There were “aftershock” repercussions. Martin’s tenure lasted only 106 days. He was replaced by James Dunsmuir in June 1900. Edward Gawler Prior took over in 1902. Then came the sea change in BC politics; the1903 election was the first run on party lines with five political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Socialist Labour and Socialist Party of BC – with 95 candidates in the race for 42 seats. The premiership would go to the leader of the party winning the most seats – providing he won his own.

In 1903, it was Dewdney’s Sir Richard McBride who had been an MLA since 1898 and brought with his royal recognition the all too rarely found “common touch and common sense” of understanding. He was called “the people’s premier.”

Other changes resulting from the Semlin-Martin scuffles and questionable decisions of L-G McInnes saw McInnes quietly removed from office and replaced by Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbiniere whose claim to fame today rests solely in the dignity and respect he brought to his position and the small street that still bears his name.

And politics remain much like the weather “unsettled” with blustery winds, some heavy rain showers, and intermittent but glorious sunshine.

2 comments

  1. This is an incredible story. And the insolence shown the lieutenant governor is hard to countenance, given that he represented Queen Victoria who had another year on the throne.

    The Wild West indeed!

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