ROBERTSON, JAMES WILSON, cheese manufacturer, educator, and civil servant; b. 2 Nov. 1857 in Dunlop, Scotland, fourth of the ten children of John Robertson and Mary Wilson; m. 6 May 1896, in Ottawa, Jemima Jane (Jennie) Mather, daughter of John Mather*, and they had a daughter; d. there 19 March 1930.
James W. Robertson’s father, a farmer, was also a Church of Scotland evangelist and an activist who worked to enforce school-attendance laws and prevent child labour in mills. James thus grew up in an atmosphere of preaching and social service. His formal education ended at age 14 when he left the Dunlop parish school to be apprenticed to a Glasgow leather firm. In 1875 John Robertson brought his family to Canada and settled on a farm near London, Ont. James went to work in a cheese factory at Ingersoll; he learned so rapidly that by 1884 he was managing eight factories. This success and his acquaintance with mpp Thomas Ballantyne* brought him the post of professor of dairying at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph in April 1886. According to William Weld*, editor of the Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine (London, Ont.), a leading agricultural journal, it was remarkable and laudable that he had “been taken from the vat and the churn . . . thus overstepping those who have a college education without practical experience.”
In his teaching Robertson combined agricultural theory with practicality – he attended farmers’ meetings and listened to their concerns. Applying lessons learned on tours of Denmark and American dairying states, he built a demonstration silo and promoted the use of corn for ensilage, a practice that would allow year-round dairying and improve farmers’ incomes. His achievements at the OAC and his speaking ability led to lecture tours, brought offers of employment from American colleges, and attracted the attention of politicians. In 1889, at the meeting of the Dairymen’s Association of Ontario in Smiths Falls, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald* was impressed by his advocacy of cold storage to preserve the quality of dairy exports. Robertson was also known to John Carling*, the minister of agriculture, and William Saunders*, head of the government’s experimental farm system. Since federal agricultural policy concentrated on settling the west, a program that would appeal to dairy farmers in eastern Canada was politically attractive. Furthermore, tariffs had reduced dairy exports to the United States, and the British market was difficult to penetrate because of the poor reputation of Canadian goods. On 1 Feb. 1890 Robertson became the dominion’s first commissioner of agriculture and dairying, under Saunders’s supervision, and he moved to Ottawa.
As commissioner, Robertson launched a drive to improve the quality of Canadian dairy products and gain more of the British market. He travelled widely, speaking on ensilage and winter dairying, and set up experimental stations in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. In the west, where dairying was uncommon, he zealously advocated mixed farming and encouraged cooperative dairying through a program of loans and subsidies. As well, in the mid 1890s he introduced cold-storage facilities to domestic and overseas shipments of butter and cheese. Improved quality and fewer complaints testify to the success of his efforts. His work, in fact, had outgrown the jurisdiction of the Central Experimental Farm and in December 1895 a separate agriculture and dairy branch was created, with Robertson at its head. As his renown grew, he did not hesitate to use the job offers that arose from time to time to promote himself, threatening to quit unless his demands were met. When he did leave the Department of Agriculture, he was its highest-paid employee.
Despite his ambition, Robertson and his wife occupied a “quiet place” in Ottawa’s social life. They belonged to St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Jennie shunned prominence, but when her friend Lady Aberdeen [Marjoribanks*] established the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897, the Robertsons became involved. James would serve as a governor of the order from 1902 to 1927.
In 1897 Robertson met William Christopher Macdonald* of Montreal, a tobacco magnate with a philanthropic bent. Though they were poles apart in character – Macdonald was retiring, Robertson outgoing and innovative – a common interest in educational reform united the money of one with the vision of the other. Their particular concerns were technical training and elementary education in rural areas. They set up the Macdonald Manual Training Fund in 1899, the same year that Robertson gave $100 as an award for children who grew high-quality seed grain. The gesture fired Macdonald’s imagination: in 1900 he gave Robertson $10,000 for prizes. The resulting competitions would lead in 1904 to the formation of the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association, of which Robertson became president. The alliance of the two men produced two other influential initiatives: the Macdonald Rural Schools Fund, which promoted manual workshops and school gardens, and the Macdonald Consolidated Schools Project. They were associated as well with Adelaide Sophia Hoodless [Hunter*] in founding the Macdonald Institute of Home Economics at the OAC.
Though Robertson’s work with Macdonald consumed much time, he continued as federal agriculture and dairy commissioner. In 1900–2 he had been responsible for sending 90 shiploads of horses, fodder, and food to the British army in South Africa. When some shipments were condemned on arrival in 1902, the War Office blamed Robertson, who in turn faulted Canadian port inspectors and the shippers. The dispute did little damage to his reputation, but it combined with the burden of his normal duties and his involvement with Macdonald to cause a nervous breakdown, followed by a long convalescence in England.
Robertson resigned from the Department of Agriculture on 31 Dec. 1904; on 30 June 1905 he was made a cmg. That same year he became principal of the agricultural college established by Macdonald at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que. He supervised its construction and for staff he raided the OAC, the experimental farms, and American colleges; the first students were enrolled in 1907. But if Robertson had the skills to get Macdonald College quickly into operation, he was less than the ideal administrator. The faculty was a mixture of self-taught agriculturists and college-educated specialists who often disagreed. Robertson was unable to smooth their relations; his own conflict with one university-trained professor, George Herbert Locke*, resulted in the latter’s resignation in 1908. Furthermore, Macdonald wanted to draw students only from eastern Canada, while Robertson believed the college should serve the whole country (his nation-wide interests were reflected in his election in 1909 as president of the Dominion Educational Association). More serious perhaps, his aggressive style came to offend Sir William’s sense of propriety. In the fall of 1909, after Robertson had, without authorization, spent funds on extra residential space for students, the college’s board of governors limited his spending to $100. Unable to accept this insulting restriction, he tendered his resignation that fall, effective 10 Jan. 1910. Never again would he hold a permanent paid position.
Shortly before leaving, Robertson had been named to the federal Commission of Conservation, and chair of its committee on lands, which was investigating agricultural practices throughout Canada. As well, in June 1910 he was made head of the royal commission on industrial training and technical education, which would occupy him until 1913. The commission championed the cause of vocational education and its report would result in the Technical Education Act of 1919. Grants made to the provinces under this act set a precedent for future federal funding of education [see John Seath*].
During World War I Robertson immersed himself in volunteer work. He helped establish the Ottawa valley branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society in 1915 and chaired its national executive. In 1916 he organized the Canadian committee of the Agricultural Relief of the Allies Fund; from 1916 to 1918 he chaired the advisory committee of Canada’s food controller. In the last year of the war he headed the eastern Canada section of the greater groduction campaign, which collapsed when the government of Sir Robert Laird Borden* revoked the exemption from conscription that had been given to farmers’ sons in 1917.
After the war Robertson, then in his sixties, was employed for a time by the Supreme Economic Council at the Paris Peace Conference as Canada’s adviser on food for European relief. In 1922 he became chief commissioner of the Boy Scouts of Canada. The following year he was selected to chair the federal royal commission formed to investigate “unrest” among steelworkers at Sydney, N.S.; in 1925 he was a member of a board that attempted conciliation in a Cape Breton mine strike [see William Davis]. Throughout the postwar years he also maintained a busy speaking schedule. The recipient of several honorary degrees, in 1928 he was awarded Quebec’s Order of Agricultural Merit.
Although Robertson had “a strong rangy body,” according to his daughter, Mary Ishbel, in later life his health was not robust. His breakdown in 1902 and recurring stomach illness, which required treatment in an American sanitarium in 1920, may indicate stress-related problems. He died of a ruptured stomach ulcer in 1930 and was buried in Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa. A year later the OAC established the Robertson Associate Award in his honour. A rural progressive who loved the countryside but lived in cities, he was as responsible as anyone for the growth and modernization of Canada’s dairy industry. As an educator, he influenced the curriculum in schools at all levels.
A “Brief biography” (typescript, 1964) of James Wilson Robertson prepared by his daughter, Ishbel Robertson Currier, is available in Robertson’s file at the DCB.
Robertson wrote hundreds of government pamphlets and reports, and many of his articles were printed in the agricultural press. Several of these publications are listed in Science and technology biblio. (Richardson and MacDonald). His output also includes “Canadian agriculture and rural education,” in The empire and the century: a series of essays on imperial problems and possibilities, ed. C. S. Goldman (London, 1905), 385–402. Robertson published only one book, Conservation of life in rural districts (New York, 1911), copies of which are in the Univ. of Guelph Library (Guelph, Ont.) and in his papers at the Univ. of B.C. Library, infra.
AO, RG 22-354, no.14544; RG 80-5-0-232, no.2604. NA, RG 17, A I, 617, nos.69943--44, 71588; 1959: 401; 2802. Univ. of B.C. Library, Special Coll. and Univ. Arch. Div. (Vancouver), M556 (J. W. Robertson papers). Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine (London, Ont.), December 1886, March 1890. Ottawa Citizen, 20 March 1930. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1891, no.6D: 8; 1896, no.8: xii. Canadian annual rev., 1900–30. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). G. C. Church, An unfailing faith: a history of the Saskatchewan dairy industry (Regina, 1985). J. M. Gibbon, The Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada, fiftieth anniversary, 1897–1947 ([Ottawa, 1947]). George Iles, “Dr. Robertson’s work for the training of Canadian farmers,” American Rev. of Reviews (New York), 36 (July–December 1907): 576–84. D. A. Lawr, “The development of Ontario farming, 1870–1914: patterns of growth and change,” OH, 64 (1972): 239–51. H. R. Neilson, Macdonald College of McGill University, 1907–1988: a profile of a campus (Montreal, 1989). Political appointments and judicial bench (Coté). A. M. Ross, The college on the hill: a history of the Ontario Agricultural College, 1874–1974 (Vancouver [and Guelph], 1974). J. F. Snell, Macdonald College of McGill University: a history from 1904–1955 (Montreal, 1963). Who’s who and why, 1919/20.
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Cite This Article
Ian M. Stewart, “ROBERTSON, JAMES WILSON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_james_wilson_15E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Ian M. Stewart|
|Title of Article:||ROBERTSON, JAMES WILSON|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2005|
|Year of revision:||2005|
|Access Date:||June 3, 2023|