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Patrician Liberal: The Public and Private Life of Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, 1829-1908

By J.I. Little

Review By Patricia E. Roy

September 23, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 155-156


At first glance, a review of the biography of a nineteenth century Quebec politician seems out of place in BC Studies. Born in France in 1829 to a wealthy French Protestant father and his Roman Catholic wife, the heiress to the Lotbinière seigneury, southwest of Quebec City, Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière spent his childhood in Quebec, graduated from the Université de France, was called to the Quebec bar, and married the Anglican daughter of a prominent Quebec merchant.

Playing a patrician role with a “reputation as an honourable and principled man” (244), Joly was paternalistic towards his former censitaires, used his farm to demonstrate improved agricultural methods, and employed his one-time censitaires in his lumber business. He practiced sustained yield in the seigneury’s forests and became Canada’s “most prominent proponent” of the infant forest conservation movement (200). As a railway promoter and provincial politician, Joly carefully avoided potential conflicts of interest. In 1878, the lieutenant-governor dismissed the premier and invited Joly, the leader of the opposition, to form a government. After losing support in the legislature, Joly resigned the premiership, but remained a critic of the Conservative government and defender of provincial rights.

Joly had opposed Confederation; later, he became deeply concerned about preserving national unity in the crises over Louis Riel and Manitoba Schools. In the 1896 federal election he ran successfully for the Liberals and became Minister of Inland Revenue, a minor post noted for its patronage opportunities. His opposition to the spoils system and to raising the Chinese head tax made him unpopular in the cabinet.

What did this have to do with British Columbia? Given confusion in provincial politics (which Little succinctly explains) Prime Minister Laurier wisely looked outside for a lieutenant-governor to replace the dismissed T.R. McInnes “to stabilize the state” and “restore investor confidence” (214). A “patrician sense of pride and duty” (215) led Joly to accept the post. For British Columbians, Joly’s knowledge of constitutional law, railway construction, and forestry, plus his knighthood and membership in the Anglican Church overcame any unpopularity caused by his sympathy for the Chinese. As lieutenant-governor, Joly was discreet, but more than a figurehead. In 1903, when E.G. Prior, the fifth premier in five years, saw no wrong in using inside knowledge to benefit his hardware firm, Joly dismissed him and invited Richard McBride, a Conservative and leader of the opposition, to form a government and introduce party lines to the legislature.

Joly expected to mentor the thirty-two year-old McBride and, informally, he did. Little shows how Joly’s Quebec experience influenced his actions in British Columbia, including conservation policies in new timber legislation, insisting that the legislature vote on the report of a Commission of Inquiry into the Kaien Island land deal, and providing hints on arguing for “Better Terms” from the federal government. Little surmises that Joly may have modified McBride’s actions towards Asians and encouraged him to be less strident towards Ottawa.

This well-researched and well-written biography is set in a framework of contemporary historiography. For example, Little observes that while in some ways Joly fits Ian McKay’s concept of the liberal order, McKay fails to recognize the role of paternalism in the economy and politics. For British Columbia, Little questions Robert A. J. McDonald’s arguments about the significance of the introduction of party lines. In sum, Little has admirably used biography to examine politics, the economy, culture, society, and historiography especially in Quebec and British Columbia.

Patrician Liberal: The Public and Private Life of Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, 1829-1908
J.I. Little
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. 376pp. $37.95. paper.