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FRASER, JOHN JAMES, lawyer, politician, judge, and office holder; b. 1 Aug. 1829 on Beaubears Island, near Newcastle, N.B., son of John Fraser, a Scottish merchant and shipbuilder, and Margaret Fraser; m. first 17 Sept. 1867 Martha Cumming (d. 1871), daughter of Alexander Cumming of Fredericton, and they had two daughters who died in infancy; m. secondly May 1884 Jane M. Paulette Fisher, eldest daughter of Charles Fisher* of Fredericton; d. 24 Nov. 1896 in Genoa, Italy.
Educated at Newcastle Grammar School, John James Fraser began legal studies in the offices of Street and Davidson of Newcastle in 1845. Admitted as an attorney in 1850, he was called to the bar two years later. He had removed to Fredericton in 1851 when his mentor John Ambrose Sharman Street* was appointed attorney general and head of the government. On Street’s departure from the capital in 1854, Fraser established his own practice, in which he was joined in 1866 by Edward Byron Winslow; Edward Ludlow Wetmore would enter the firm in 1877.
In the general election of March 1865 Fraser was returned in York County as an opponent of confederation on a ticket with John Campbell Allen, George Luther Hatheway*, and William Hayden Needham*. Persisting in their opposition when Lieutenant Governor Arthur Hamilton Gordon* prorogued the legislature after dismissing Albert James Smith*’s government in April 1866, Fraser and Needham were among the 22 members of the assembly who publicly declared their readiness to support a resolution for an address to Queen Victoria soliciting Gordon’s recall. In the general election of May–June both suffered an overwhelming defeat.
Five years later, in June 1871, Fraser accepted appointment as a member of the Legislative Council and as president of the Executive Council in the administration of G. L. Hatheway. On Hatheway’s death in July 1872, he became provincial secretary in the government of George Edwin King* and was elected to the assembly for York County by acclamation.
As provincial secretary Fraser also performed the duties of receiver general. He was thus involved in the negotiations with the federal government in 1873 during which it was agreed that New Brunswick would receive a subsidy of $150,000 annually, in return for giving up its export duty on lumber in compliance with the Treaty of Washington [see Sir John A. Macdonald]. As part of the arrangement, the province was allowed an increase in interest on debt allowance equal to an income of $58,000 a year. In February 1878, in one of his last acts as provincial secretary, Fraser led another delegation to Ottawa, seeking, among other things, a further payment of $150,000, which the province felt it was owed for the railway from Moncton to the Nova Scotia border that had been taken over by the dominion; the payment had not been made when Fraser left politics in 1882.
The increase in the subsidy negotiated at confederation and subsequently from $341,622 in 1872–73 to $513,638 in 1874–75 and the replacement of the export tax by a system of timber licences and stumpage duties eased the problems of the administration in providing education, roads, bridges, and general services and in coping with the demands of railway promoters. Nevertheless, the insufficiency of the revenues provided under confederation pushed the province’s leaders into revamping the system of local government, bringing changes that reformers had been urging for a quarter of a century. The reorganization required local authorities to raise revenues for their own services instead of relying on hand-outs from the legislature. In his position as secretary and treasurer, Fraser supported measures that culminated in 1877 in a general act requiring all counties to incorporate, a change that several had resisted for years as “a hideous invention to extort direct taxes from the people.”
The first step in this devolution of responsibility had been taken in 1871, when representatives in the assembly of the evangelical Protestant majority, in the face of opposition from Roman Catholics and some Anglicans, had imposed on local school districts a system of compulsory assessment for non-denominational schools. In defiance, Catholic leaders such as François-Xavier-Joseph Michaud* and Bishop John Sweeney* of Saint John used every legal and political means available to prevent implementation of the new law and resorted to civil disobedience by refusing to pay school taxes. Premier King’s response was expressed in the slogan “Beware of compromise; accept none,” and in the general election of 1874 only five opponents of the new system were elected, all of them in predominantly Acadian constituencies. Fraser was re-elected in York at the head of the poll.
Fraser had not been a member of the government when the 1871 act was passed and was not so committed to non-denominationalism as King, a position that left him free to agree to, and probably promote, the educational compromise of 1875. A Roman Catholic proposal for reconciliation was presented at the spring session of the legislature by Kennedy Francis Burns. It was read on 6 August at a meeting of the Executive Council which both King and Fraser attended, but King was not present at a meeting of the Board of Education later in the day which adopted regulations condoning schools of a sectarian bias within the non-denominational system. It may have been because the issue was so politically sensitive that the details of this agreement and of a subsequent arrangement, approved after Fraser had become premier, allowing a separate licensing examination for Sisters of Charity were not entered in the minute-books of the Board of Education for several years. This omission and the fact that at least one of the new rules did not appear in the school manual led in the 1890s to allegations of “secret regulations” and to an inquiry in which Fraser was involved.
In the spring of 1878 King resigned and Fraser succeeded him as premier and attorney general on 4 May. In the general election called shortly thereafter, the northern constituencies repudiated the government candidates, and the Saint John Globe declared on 4 July: “The country has risen in its might, and said ‘we want the government no longer.’ . . . Why doesn’t Mr. Fraser slip politely down and out? He will else be driven to it.” What the newspaper ignored was that, in the absence of organized political parties, government majorities depended on the manipulative skills of the premier. Many of the new members elected in June were uncommitted “loose fish” and in July Fraser, who did not arouse personal antipathies, was able to put together a majority by appealing to sectional and group interests and by making deals with individual members. Party labels, which designated affiliation in dominion politics, had only a limited significance in the provincial assembly. Fraser himself was a Conservative, one of only seven elected in 1874, but he had become leader in a house where initially King and 27 other members had called themselves Liberals. In 1878, 21 Liberals, 17 Conservatives, and three independents were elected. The new Executive Council formed by Fraser that year contained six nominal Conservatives and three Liberals. His chief lieutenant in Saint John was a Liberal, William Elder*, the influential editor of the Daily Telegraph, a fellow Presbyterian, and a personal friend.
Fraser was the first premier to give both the Acadian and the Irish sections of the Roman Catholic community effective representation in cabinet. Pierre-Amand Landry* from Westmorland was made commissioner of public works, while Michael Adams of Northumberland became surveyor general with responsibility for administering crown lands. Both of these portfolios dispensed significant patronage and so were looked upon as political plums. Daniel Lionel Hanington of Westmorland, a leader of the Anglican opposition to the Common Schools Act of 1871 and an advocate of Maritime union, was also made a member of the Executive Council. By these moves Fraser gave recognition to the increased importance of Westmorland County and to the importance of his natal area of the northeast in the sectional balance. Economic opportunities resulting from the building of the Intercolonial Railway had brought new vigour to those parts of the province.
The perennial campaign of Saint John members to have the provincial capital moved to that city created a crisis when the decrepit old parliament building in Fredericton was destroyed by fire in February 1880. Fraser opposed a suggestion that the matter be decided by popular vote but did make the issue an open question. It took all the debating and management skills of the premier and his fellow Frederictonian Andrew George Blair*, the leader of the opposition, to turn aside the strong case for moving the capital, the vote in the assembly being carried by the narrow margin of 20 to 18. Hanington, Landry, and Ferdinand Robidoux’s Le Moniteur acadien gave vital support for the retention of Fredericton as capital. The impressive new parliament building, designed by James Charles Philip Dumaresq*, was opened on 16 Feb. 1882.
On other questions Blair attacked the government relentlessly, calling it “the reign of the incapables” and accusing individual ministers of corruption, maladministration, and insincerity. This last accusation was levied against Fraser for his failure to carry out a promise, made in 1878, to abolish the Legislative Council, a measure that Blair himself was to accomplish only in the tenth year of his premiership, in 1892.
The limited ability of New Brunswick premiers to manage the legislature, so evident on this question, meant that a government’s performance often fell far short of its desires. Nowhere was this difficulty more apparent than in education, where the Fraser government’s failure in 1880 to carry reforms, which would have designated a member of the Executive Council to be responsible for education, was a foretaste of the immobility that was to afflict educational policy and administration for the next half-century. The independence of individual members was also apparent in 1881 when a relatively innocuous resolution to have government agricultural reports published in French was carried by only a small majority despite Fraser’s support.
Fraser accepted the traditional policy of granting generous subsidies to railway promoters that eventually saddled the province with a large debt and a mileage of low-quality, mainly uneconomic, lines out of all proportion to its population. As provincial secretary he had helped to pass the subsidy act of 1874 and as premier he defended the proposed extension of the charter of the Grand Southern Railway in 1880. When the Legislative Council turned down the assembly’s motion approving the extension, the government paid the subsidy anyway, maintaining that it had the right to do so under existing legislation; the Saint John Daily Sun called this “a most high-handed, reckless and despotic act.” In March 1882 Fraser introduced a bill, which became another subsidy act, providing for a central line to connect Fredericton and Richibucto and for the payment of $3,000 a mile for a number of local railways.
Fraser resigned as premier and attorney general on 25 May 1882 in order to contest York on behalf of the Liberal-Conservative party in the federal election. After his defeat, he was appointed a justice of the New Brunswick Supreme Court in December. He got into difficulties in 1887 when, according to John Thomas Hawke*, the forceful Liberal editor of the Moncton Transcript, his condition on the bench “was such that expressions of disgust were heard on every hand.” Confronted that year with a petition from Henry Robert Emmerson* against the election to the House of Commons of Josiah Wood* in Westmorland, Fraser put off the date of the hearing on three occasions under the impression that a federal parliamentary session, then under way, did not count in the six months allowed between the filing of petitions and their expiry through lapse of time. In a later editorial Hawke left little doubt that he was referring to Fraser when he mentioned that cases were being adjourned because the judge was intoxicated. After Wood’s counsel claimed expiration under the statute, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where Fraser, sitting as a member of the full bench, reversed the opinion he had given earlier. To Hawke, the parallels to stage comedy were irresistible and he represented Fraser as a “pantaloon of the comic pantomime” who had performed a “notorious judicial somersault” and, more fashionably, since The Mikado had first appeared only two years earlier, as “the judicial Pooh-Bah [who] in his capacity as Lord High Executioner reversed his former decision and ruled the petition out on the very ground which he formerly held was incorrect.”
Hawke was cited for contempt of court and sentenced to a fine and to two months in jail, the judges having concluded that comparing Fraser to Pooh-Bah was equivalent to accusing him of taking bribes. Liberal party newspapers took up the case nationally as an abuse of freedom of the press, and a debate in the House of Commons at Ottawa occupied 60,000 words in Hansard. Louis Henry Davies*, later chief justice of Canada, led the fight for Hawke, with John Sparrow David Thompson replying for the government and Nicholas Flood Davin* defending the right of the judges – the arguments providing what a later commentator described as a “valuable exposition of the laws on criminal and constructive contempts and related subjects.” The New Brunswick government refused to release Hawke.
Fraser was again placed at the centre of public attention in April 1893 when his old opponent, Premier Blair, appointed him a special commissioner in the Bathurst schools question to inquire into Protestant complaints that certain public schools in Gloucester County were being operated in a way that was contrary to the Common Schools Act of 1871. The complaints involved in particular two former convent schools brought under the act in 1890, where the buildings were rented from the Roman Catholic authorities and where Roman Catholic teachers were employed. Tension was high throughout the province, perhaps exceeding that of 20 years earlier since language as well as religion was now involved, a situation that reflected a new self-awareness among Acadians as well as a dramatic increase in their number. Less than 16 per cent of the population in 1871, they would form over 24 per cent in 1901. What had been a local issue had become the focus of provincial politics in 1891 when Peter John Veniot*, later the first Acadian premier of New Brunswick but then the young nationalist editor of the Courrier des Provinces maritimes at Bathurst, published a pamphlet urging Acadians to “support the government [of A. G. Blair] if you wish to preserve your language, your Religion and your customs.” Fearing that Blair was encouraging a revival of sectarian schools, Protestant zealots rallied against the perceived threat to their institutions and values. The premier retained power in the elections of October 1892 but was defeated personally in his constituency of York by a ticket headed by another young editor, Herman Henry Pitts of the New Brunswick Reporter and Fredericton Advertiser, an evangelical Presbyterian who ran as the independent candidate of the York Orangemen and the Sons of Temperance. With his own position and the political fabric of the province endangered by the popular appeal of Pitt’s insistence that the non-sectarian principles of the 1871 act be rigidly enforced, the wily Blair turned to Fraser, one of the architects of the politics of compromise and still a respected figure among moderate Protestants.
In a lucid and dispassionate report delivered in 1894, Fraser dismissed charges of clerical interference in the conduct of the Bathurst schools, though he did point out instances of misdemeanours and mismanagement on the part of the trustees. The giving of religious education during noon hours he found to be an infringement of the regulations but not a wilful infringement, “inasmuch as the teachers who so taught the catechism honestly believed that the recreation hour was no part of the teaching day.” His report and a judgement delivered in 1896 by Frederick Eustache Barker of the Supreme Court in Equity confirmed the legal validity of separate schools within the non-sectarian system in New Brunswick.
Fraser was appointed lieutenant governor of New Brunswick on 20 Dec. 1893 following the death of John Boyd. Illness and the need to complete writing up some of the cases on which he was engaged prevented him from entering immediately upon the full duties of his office. Highlights of the following year included a tour in August 1894 with the governor general, the Earl of Aberdeen [Hamilton-Gordon*], and a visit in September to the Miramichi, where he was “surprised beyond measure” by his reception in the home of his youth.
Fraser died in Italy, while travelling to improve his health, on 24 Nov. 1896. Like all the best of New Brunswick’s politicians, he appears to have made a clear distinction between personal morality and the morality of actions taken in the pursuit of public duty. The Liberal Herald of Fredericton, a stern critic of his administration, had noted this dichotomy in summarizing his public life on his resignation as premier in 1882. While giving him “every credit for his personal honesty and goodness of heart,” it described his career as having been “disastrous to the Province financially and morally, if such an expression can be applied to politics.” Practically all of the speakers on both sides in the Pooh-Bah case paid warm tribute to him as “a man of high moral character and an upright judge.”
In retrospect it is clear that Fraser made a vital contribution to public life in one of the most disruptive decades in provincial history, a contribution that was not recognized by many of his contemporaries and has been neglected by historians. His accommodating personality and the friendships and associations formed during his opposition to confederation and during his service in the King government enabled him to begin the process of knitting together the fabric of the province after it had been torn by the confederation struggle and by the aggressive politics of his predecessor. Because of his conciliatory approach in dealing with tensions arising from cultural divisions and his sensitivity in responding to demographic and sectional changes, he, as much as King and Blair, deserves to be remembered for shaping the post-confederation polity in New Brunswick.
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