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Boundless Optimism: Richard McBride’s British Columbia

By Patricia E. Roy

Review By Duff Sutherland

September 4, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 174-77

Patricia E. Roy’s Boundless Optimism: Richard McBride’s British Columbia examines the political career of one of the province’s most significant premiers. Born in New Westminster in 1870 and educated at New Westminster High School and Dalhousie Law School, McBride served as premier from 1903-1915. An inhabitant of what Roy refers to as British Columbia’s pre-war “British World,” McBride benefited politically from the “Angloboom” of the Edwardian era, which saw high levels of British immigration and investment transform the province (2-3). For McBride, a booster rather than a planner, prosperity meant “white” settlers displacing indigenous peoples, government incentives for railways to open up the province’s regions, investor access to natural resources, and expanding trade with the rest of Canada and the British Empire.

McBride famously used the Conservative Party to dominate provincial politics. After 1903, he and William J. Bowser made the party a vehicle to attract votes, dispense patronage, and boost the province. The long “McBride era” ended finally in 1916, when the Liberals under H.C. Brewster defeated the Conservatives. By this time, McBride had retired to London and the province’s resource economy was in deep depression. All of this is the subject of Roy’s detailed and important book.

Roy makes clear that McBride’s political success came from his ability to promote the opportunities of a rapidly expanding and industrializing Canadian dominion set within an expansive British Empire. His growing up during the dynamic growth following the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, his education in the aggressive “new” imperialism, his experiences of eastern Canada at law school in Halifax, and even his firm’s humble clientele, all contributed, Roy argues, to his belief that rapid capitalist growth could provide confident individual opportunity in early twentieth century British Columbia.

Taking his own opportunity, McBride won the rural constituency of Dewdney in the Fraser Valley in 1898. In the structural chaos before the institution of party politics in 1902, McBride supported Victoria merchant J.H. Turner’s faction of “progress and prosperity,” served as Minister of Mines in James Dunsmuir’s government, and, by 1903, was recognized by the Lieutenant Governor as leader of the opposition. McBride won the provincial election that year as Conservative Party leader. Roy views McBride’s introduction of party politics as part his “modernization” of the province; but as well as looking forward, one wonders if McBride was also looking back admiringly to Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative domination of federal politics during the previous generation. Those interested in the recent emergence of independent candidates and politics in British Columbia might also find Roy’s detailed narrative of the pre-party era as a useful starting point for further reflection and analysis.

The core of Boundless Optimism focuses on McBride’s efforts to promote British Columbia after 1903. As in other parts of the empire during this period, McBride was representative of a British elite that promoted immigration, investment, and infrastructure, usually railways, to open up “boundless” settler-colonial resource frontiers. McBride’s vision was essentially a provincial version of the national policies of Canada, but within a Pacific-oriented Imperial framework. Up to 1907, McBride promoted the province through the promise of stable government, improved infrastructure, rising revenues from the sale of resources and “Better Terms” with Canada, and an immigration policy designed to create a “white man’s” province out of what had been, demographically, a comparatively diverse edge of nineteenth century empire. In the 1909 and 1912 elections, however, McBride swept the province with the promise of railways for every region. In the southern half of the province, this meant support for the provincial section of the Canadian Northern line, CPR branch lines on the mainland and southern Vancouver Island, and an interurban line for the lower mainland. In the northern half, McBride promised the Pacific Great Eastern as an eventual link between the lower mainland and the Peace River district. As elsewhere in the empire, the government employed land grants, access to resources, and the backing of bonds to encourage investors to lay track. However, soon after the 1912 election, a worldwide economic depression devastated the economy, led to the collapse of the Bank of Vancouver and the Dominion Trust Company, and left the provincial government with a mounting debt. McBride encouraged everyone to “wear a smile,” but his failing health led to his retirement in December 1915 (283). As his associate, R.E. Gosnell summed it up, “…he was too hopeful of the immediate future and too trustful of the railway companies (314).”

Roy points out that throughout McBride’s career, imperialism infused his “boundless optimism” for the province. He believed that British Columbia was a strategic frontier of empire that would benefit from aggressive economic expansion. As part of this, McBride’s belief in empire motivated him and those of his class to remake British Columbia as a destination for setters from Britain and the rest of Canada and to provide them with access to the province’s considerable natural resources. This same belief convinced McBride that London would help British Columbia pressure the federal government for “Better Terms” and for more restrictive immigration policies. McBride’s Imperial devotion led to his ill-starred purchase of two submarines to defend the coast in 1914, and his support of Prime Minister Robert Borden’s imperialist Naval Aid Bill of 1912 won him a knighthood. In the end, Roy points out that under McBride, British Columbia became more British than ever before, a demographic shift that would have a lasting impact on the history of the province.

But a growing British influence was only one aspect of Richard McBride’s “British Columbia.” In other ways McBride’s leadership reflected well-known and lasting patterns of provincial development. Roy demonstrates that his opposition to Asian immigration was a cornerstone of his politics. He supported the eight-hour day for workers but opposed unions and strikes that impeded investment and profits. Although he was out of the province when acting premier William Bowser called up the militia during the “Great Strike” of 1912-14 in the Vancouver Island coal mines, McBride did little to resolve the conflict that ended when deepening poverty forced miners back to work. Finally, he refused to recognize indigenous title, took steps to prevent a court challenge on the question, and presided over the ongoing settler dispossession of native people of their land. As such, Roy’s political narrative offers a window on the way elite power operated on resettled terrain during the crucial period from 1890-1914.

Boundless Optimism represents a significant achievement that deserves a wide readership in British Columbia. Richard McBride governed during a period of largely unregulated resource exploitation throughout the province, a bonanza that began before McBride but is closely associated with his time as premier after 1903. Roy points to royal commissions, stringent new regulations for land settlement and forest exploitation, and the establishment of a provincial university as evidence that McBride’s policies extended beyond rapid economic development. However, we need more analysis to see how much the people of British Columbia benefited from McBride’s policies.

In the book’s last paragraph, Roy invokes another railway-building politician during a period of economic boom, WAC Bennett. Indeed, in a 2013 presentation at the Columbia Basin Symposium in Creston, UNBC researcher Marleen Morris suggested that part of Bennett’s significance was his government’s focus on community — including hospitals, schools and other “amenities” for families – which, together with economic development, led to a more integrated province with a rising standard of living from the 1950s to the 1970s. Morris called for a renewed government emphasis on community development as the province moves into another period of rapid resource exploitation, especially in the booming northeast. All of this suggests that Richard McBride’s premiership may have more in common with the province’s Liberal governments of the past decade than with Bennett’s Social Credit amenity-minded governments of the 1950s and 1960s. Patricia Roy’s major work on Richard McBride allows for such reflections on the broader patterns of British Columbia history.

Boundless Optimism: Richard McBride’s British Columbia
Patricia E. Roy
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. Pp. 428, $32.95 paper