DICKIE, JOHN BARNHILL, teacher, farmer, shipbuilder, and politician; b. 30 March 1829 at Cornwallis, N.S., eldest son of Isaac Patton Dickie and Rebecca Barnhill; m. first on 7 Oct. 1850 Ellen Putnam, and they had three children; m. secondly in 1858 Harriet Dickson, and they had eight children; d. 5 June 1886 at Truro, N.S.
John Barnhill Dickie’s ancestors had come from Londonderry (Northern Ireland) to Cumberland County, N.S., about 1763. John was educated at Canard and Wolfville, N.S., then from 1847 to 1851 at the Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy in Sackville, N.B., and finally at the Halifax Free Church College. While attending the Wesleyan academy, Dickie taught in a comfortable schoolhouse at Middle Stewiacke, N.S., giving instruction in book-keeping, surveying, mensuration, algebra, and Latin to an average of 30 students. He also ran a farm in Middle Stewiacke. Later he taught mathematics at the Halifax Academy.
In 1854 Dickie was appointed coroner for Colchester County. By 1856 he had moved to Onslow where he operated both a farm and a store. He served from 1858 to 1859 as treasurer for the poor in the district of Onslow, became a justice of the peace in 1861, and for a short time in 1863 was a militia major. In 1866 he was the founder and first president of the Onslow Agricultural Society, and was appointed custos rotulorum of Colchester and a trustee of school lands in Onslow in 1868. In 1871 Dickie moved to Truro where he had been named manager of the Merchants’ Bank of Halifax, the first financial institution in that village. Between 1872 and his death he also owned shares in six vessels built along the Minas Basin shore; one, the Colchester, was reputed to have been the fastest vessel ever launched in the Bay of Fundy. He formed the Truro Marine Insurance Company in 1872 to protect his investments.
In December 1874 Dickie was elected to the assembly as an independent member for Colchester County, although his political sympathies had generally been with the Liberals. The results of the election made it uncertain whether the Liberal government of William Annand could still command a majority in the assembly, and when on 11 March 1875 Dickie accepted Annand’s offer of the speakership a furore resulted. For Annand, the appointment of Dickie eliminated a potential negative vote, and rumours persisted that Dickie had sold his principles for money, prestige, or the promise of a seat in the Legislative Council. One newspaper praised Dickie at this time as “sagacious, clear-headed and able,” but another described his acceptance as corrupt and treacherous. His Colchester colleague, William Albert Patterson, who left the house rather than vote against his friend, was later to refer to “the sale of the Speakership,” and when Dickie was appointed to the Legislative Council three years later, the Colchester Sun labelled the appointment “The Last Act.”
Dickie lacked the parliamentary training essential to rule over an almost equally divided house. In trying to satisfy all, he satisfied none. On at least three occasions his actions or rulings caused violent controversy. When, on 30 April 1875, he broke a tie vote on an amendment to a railway bill, the opposition’s frustration exploded. For the first and only time in Canadian parliamentary history a resolution was carried by a vote of 20–12 requesting the speaker to resign, which he did the following day. “He had to listen to certain whereases, impeaching him of the high crimes of ignorance and incompetence, of drawing a salary under false pretences and filling a position given him as the price of treachery.” His inexperience condemned him: a correct ruling would have been that the fatal motion required 48 hours notice. The Toronto Mail observed that the incident was “peculiar to Nova Scotian politics which are indeed inscrutable and past finding out.”
Dickie retained his seat in the assembly until 1878, and from that year until his death sat in the Legislative Council. A quiet man, he never publicly commented upon the humiliating experience of 1875, and from his correspondence with his brother James there emerges a serene individual. An active Presbyterian, in his last years Dickie concentrated on his business and when he died of intestinal cancer in 1886 he left an estate in excess of $61,000.