1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


Vancouver Island History

Vancouver Island's First Legislature

(Condensed from talks and articles)

For a vivid picture of the little group of 1856 legislators in a colony of fewer than 1000 settlers, we have Dr. Helmcken to thank for the following description:

"The House of Assembly was a room [in a building in Fort Victoria] about 20 feet in length by about a dozen in breadth, lined with upright plank unpainted, unadorned, save perhaps with a few cedar mats to cover fissures. ... In the centre stood a large dilapidated rectangular stove, its sides made of sheet iron, beautifully and picturesquely bulging. At the end was a wooden home manufactured table, upon which stood a hundred paged ledger, an inkstand, pens, and a small supply of foolscap, but without a mace, penknife or postage stamps, although the latter at this time existed for foreign purposes."

"Around the Speaker's table stood half a dozen very ordinary wooden chairs, for the use of the members, and at a respectful distance a couple of benches without backs for the audience. This furniture really belonged to Bachelors' Hall, and therefore the House of Assembly and country were not put to any unnecessary expense. At the end of the year the accounts indicated that this august body had cost about twenty-five dollars, which occasioned some ironical remarks from the London Times."

Election 1856 - "Little Better Than A Farce"

If James Douglas had had his way there would never have been an election in the colony of Vancouver Island 150 years ago. As governor of the colony and chief factor in charge of the western department of the Hudson's Bay Company he felt entirely capable of running the place without help or interference from elected settlers. He also felt decidedly lukewarm about the idea of universal suffrage.

Queen Victoria's ministers, however, felt differently. Aware that all was not serene under the fur trade company's rule, they decided there was something unseemly about a British colony run by, and primarily for the benefit of, commercial interests.

Douglas was not pleased when he received a letter from London in February, 1856. After Colonial Secretary Henry Labouchère praised Douglas for his admirable management of Vancouver Island. He wrote at length on the principles of colonial law, then dropped his bombshell:

"It appears to Her Majesty's Government that steps should be taken at once for the establishment of the only legislature authorized by the present constitution of the Island. I have, accordingly, to instruct you to call together an Assembly in the terms of your Commission and Instructions."

Douglas admitted to feelings of dismay. He was convinced that his management of the Colony could continue satisfactorily without the dubious help of an elected parliament.

"It is, I confess, not without a feeling of dismay that I contemplate the nature and amount of labour and responsibility which will be imposed upon me, in the process of carrying out the instructions conveyed in your despatch." but ended that with the hope that "the encouragement which the kindly promised assistance and support of Her Majesty's government is calculated to inspire" would suffice. A touch of sarcasm? Surely not.

He also wrote that he was "utterly averse to universal suffrage, or making population the basis of representation," but that "every exertion on my part shall be made to give effect to your said instructions at as early a period as possible."

Douglas first divided his domain into four electoral districts. Victoria would have three members; Esquimalt and Metchosin two members; Sooke and Nanaimo one member each.

Eligible voters were British citizens who owned 20 acres or more of freehold land. This narrowed the field considerably in a colony where nearly all the British males were employed by the HBC, which kept land prices high and wages low. The choice of candidates was even more restricted, as fewer than a dozen men met the property requirement of land worth £300 or more. There were so few qualified candidates that Victoria, with five, was the only district contested.

The landmark election was held on July 22, 1856. Douglas reported that "The elections are now over and the Assembly is convened for the 12th day of August." He also noted that "The affair passed off quietly and did not appear to excite much interest among the lower orders."

The old HBC fur traders scoffed. Retired Chief Factor John Work wrote:

"We have had an election lately of Members of a house of Assembly ... hitherto affairs were managed by the Governor and Council consisting of four members, Captain Cooper, Mr. Tod, Finlayson & myself. I have always considered such a Colony & such a government where there are so few people to govern as little better than a farce and this last scene of a house of representatives the most absurd of the whole. It is putting the plough before the horses."

Governor Douglas was at his statesmanlike best that August day in the little Island Colony. Foreshadowing many more glowing speeches through the years, he added a note from the Crown: "Gentlemen, I am happy to inform you that her Majesty's government continues to express the most lively interest in the progress and welfare of the colony" - possibly a slight exaggeration.

Like many British Columbia legislatures to come, the little group split into pro- and anti-establishment factions. Colonial Surveyor Joseph Pemberton and Company appointee Joseph McKay voted for most everything Douglas suggested. James Yates the publican and Thomas Skinner of Oaklands Farm, the unofficial opposition, opposed most everything, and House Speaker Dr. John Helmcken, the Governor's son-in-law, walked a tightrope throughout the four-year life of the first elected assembly west of Ontario.

Fort Victoria

Few photographs from the inside of Fort Victoria exist, but this well-known image, looking east toward what became Fort Street, shows the HBC officers' mess hall, left. It was here that members of the first elected legislative assembly west of the Great Lakes were sworn in and heard Governor Douglas deliver his "elegantly well composed" speech, according to House speaker Dr. John Helmcken.

The diagram of the layout of Fort Victoria buildings (below - not to scale) locates Bachelors' Hall where the House of Assembly met, according to Dr. John Helmcken: "Behold the seven honourable members seated in the House of Assembly this being 'Bachelors' Hall,' a part of a squared log building situated in the Fort, about the spot where the Bank of British Columbia now stands." (Helmcken Reminiscences, originally published in The Colonist, Jan. 1, 1891)

Fort Victoria diagram

(Sources: Colonial correspondence and excerpts from the Governors speech are cited in numerous books. I used former BC archivist E. O. S. Scholefield's Minutes of the House of Assembly of Vancouver Island, August 12, 1856, to September 25, 1858, Archives of British Columbia, Memoir No. III, King's Printer, 1918.)

Read more about the events leading to the creation of the colony of British Columbia in 1858.

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