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DUSTAN, GEORGE GORDON, entrepreneur; b. 22 Dec. 1830 in Glasgow, son of Peter Dustan and Christina Pennycuick; m. there 4 Oct. 1853 Jane Logan Moffatt, and they had ten children; d. 3 Oct. 1901 in Dartmouth, N.S.

George Gordon Dustan was educated in Glasgow and presumably learned his trade as a sugar broker in Greenock, centre of the sugar-refining industry in Scotland. Having conducted a business in Glasgow, he emigrated with his wife and family to Saint John, N.B., in the summer of 1863. That September he became an incorporator and managing director of the New Brunswick Sugar Refining Company, apparently a holding company for Saint John’s only refinery.

In March 1865 Dustan, armed with a letter of introduction from Premier Samuel Leonard Tilley* of New Brunswick, called on Premier Charles Tupper* in Halifax to see if the New Brunswick company could be granted concessions which would allow its product to compete in the Nova Scotia market. Discussions with Halifax sugar merchants apparently convinced Dustan that Halifax would be a better location for refining sugar than Saint John, and he decided to transfer the refinery provided he could obtain from the provincial government such “encouragement” as he claimed had been afforded him in New Brunswick. The standing committee on trade and manufactures of the House of Assembly recommended that Dustan be permitted to import sugar-refining equipment and machinery free of duty and that he be allowed a drawback on refined sugar manufactured in Nova Scotia. Legislation was not forthcoming until May 1867, when an act was passed enabling the manufacture of refined sugar for export.

Dustan’s scheme was to undersell the largest Canadian refinery, that of John Redpath*, by intercepting raw sugar en route to Montreal and refining it in Halifax. The site chosen for the refinery was Woodside, an 85-acre harbourfront estate southeast of Dartmouth, but the property was heavily encumbered, and Dustan appears not to have secured title to it until about 1870. He soon agreed to its conditional purchase by the newly organized Halifax Sugar Refining Company Limited, which assumed the mortgage and took over the assets of the New Brunswick Sugar Refining Company; Dustan received some eight per cent of the shares of the new company and became one of its principals. In 1874 the proposed refinery was exempted from local taxation for 21 years. Dustan also obtained a supply of water, duty-free importation of machinery, and the promise of a branch line off the Intercolonial Railway or communication by steam ferry with its Halifax terminus.

Despite these incentives, Dustan was at a great disadvantage in having no investment capital of his own. Moreover, he was a newcomer to Halifax, and he was not trusted by many potential investors because he had not demonstrated his skills as a manager or entrepreneur. Although praised by Tupper in 1878 for his labours “in furthering the movement to build a sugar refinery at Dartmouth,” and consulted by Tilley, the new federal minister of finance, on drafting the revised tariff on imported refined sugar, Dustan could not float the Halifax Sugar Refining Company Limited. The tariff imposed under the Conservatives’ National Policy in 1879 spurred local sugar merchants to take independent action. Members of the provisional committee of the company such as Alfred Gilpin Jones abandoned it for the Nova Scotia Sugar Refinery Limited. The latter company was chartered in 1879 and statutorily incorporated in 1880. By the spring of 1881 it was producing refned sugar at Richmond in Halifax.

After unsuccessfully seeking aid from George Alexander Drummond of the Canada Sugar Refining Company Limited of Montreal, Dustan turned to Britain for potential investors. In the autumn of 1881 he made an abortive attempt to attract Blake, Barclay and Company of Greenock, the premier Scottish firm involved in designing and building sugar refineries, and the next summer he sent an emissary to England to interest capitalists in floating a new company. His proposal was taken up by Saunders Needham and Company of Liverpool, a firm trading to Brazil which was “particularly anxious to get into Sugar Refining in Halifax.” A Liverpool bank was brought in and capital was raised to construct a refinery. When Dustan’s second mortgage on Woodside was foreclosed in February 1883, the reorganized and refinanced Halifax Sugar Refining Company Limited purchased the site, the equipment of the defunct Saint John plant, and 15 years’ accumulation of unused construction materials. Dustan played a largely symbolic role as resident director of the company, which had been incorporated in England. His wife laid the cornerstone of the plant in July 1883 and it was in production by September 1884. A branch line of the Intercolonial ran onto the site, and in 1885 a carload of refined sugar was shipped to Victoria over the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway.

Unfortunately for the refinery, by the mid 1880s there were too many producers of refined sugar, and the market had become glutted. The most serious competition came from the larger and more efficient refineries in central Canada and the northeastern United States, but there were also regional and local rivals such as the Nova Scotia Sugar Refinery. In addition, the refinery was overproducing, and mismanagement may have been a factor. By January 1886 the Halifax Sugar Refining Company was virtually bankrupt, and it was soon forced into liquidation; its assets were acquired by the Halifax Sugar Refinery Limited, an English holding company set up by Glasgow sugar brokers. The refinery reopened under this new ownership in 1891, only to be included two years later in the Acadia Sugar Refining Company Limited, a merger of three Maritime companies promoted by the Halifax capitalist John Fitzwilliam Stairs. The Woodside refinery was to burn in 1912, but was rebuilt and operated until wartime shortages and rationing forced its closure in 1942.

Dustan’s other major commercial interest was the Edmonton and Saskatchewan Land Company of Canada Limited. This joint-stock company was incorporated federally in 1882 for “purchasing or otherwise acquiring, settling, improving, and cultivating lands and hereditaments in the North West Territories and elsewhere.” Dustan sat on the provisional committee with William Bain Scarth, Alexander Morris*, and others. The company secured vast concessions with a view to settling homesteads, and its residual holdings were still considerable at the time of Dustan’s death.

Had it not been for a severe hearing impairment, Dustan would doubtless have stood for public office. As it was, he was active mainly behind the scenes. He had the ear of influential federal cabinet ministers such as Tilley and Tupper, and the Conservatives’ support for a scheme of high protective tariffs in the 1878 federal election has been attributed by an historian of Dartmouth largely to his “persistent agitation.” Moreover, his efforts helped defeat the Liberal incumbents A. G. Jones and Patrick Power* in Halifax County that year. It is worth noting, however, that Dustan supported the Conservatives only after he failed to secure concessions on sugar duties from the Liberals in the mid 1870s.

Dustan’s extreme deafness also prevented him from taking a more active part in church work. He was nevertheless a pillar of St James Presbyterian Church in Dartmouth, of which he was a member of session for nearly 27 years and senior elder at his death. Dustan was well known in Dartmouth, and the range of his business and political connections was so wide that the Halifax Herald [see John James Stewart] eulogized him as “one of the best known men in Canada.” Although a failure as an entrepreneur, Dustan deserves to be regarded as the founder of the sugar-refining industry in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and as a pioneer of the industry in Canada.

J. B. Cahill

[Dustan’s correspondence with Sir John A. Macdonald*, 1875–85, and with Sir John Sparrow David Thompson*, 1878–84, is to be found in their papers at the NA (MG 26, A; D). His correspondence with George Alexander Drummond, 1873–90, is preserved among Drummond’s papers at the Redpath Sugar Museum, Toronto. His letters to Blake, Barclay and Company of Greenock, Scot., October 1881–December 1883, were adduced as evidence by the plaintiffs in Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, Barclay and Blake v. Dustan (1884) (PANS, RG 39, HX, C, 365, file 13824a). Of what must also have been an extensive correspondence with Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley and Sir Charles Tupper, nothing apparently remains.  j.b.c.]

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.5523. Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, vols.168, 242, 280, 297–98. PANS, RG 5, GP, 7, no.69. Scottish Record Office (Edinburgh), County indexes of pre-1855 births and marriages, index for Bute, Lanarkshire. Dartmouth Patriot (Dartmouth, N.S.), 5 Oct. 1901. Halifax Herald, 5 Oct. 1901. P. R. Blakeley, Glimpses of Halifax, 1867–1900 (Halifax, 1949; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973). Richard Feltoe, Redpath: the history of a sugar house (Toronto, 1991). [J. J.] B. Forster, A conjunction of interests: business, politics and tariffs, 1825–1879 (Toronto, 1986); “Tariffs and politics: the genesis of the National Policy, 1842–1879” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1982). M. J. Katzmann, Mrs William Lawson, History of the townships of Dartmouth, Preston and Lawrencetown; Halifax County, N.S., ed. Harry Piers (Halifax, 1893; repr. Belleville, 1972). J. P. Martin, The story of Dartmouth (Dartmouth, 1957; repr. 1981). N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1865; Statutes, 1867–83.

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Cite This Article

J. B. Cahill, “DUSTAN, GEORGE GORDON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 15, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dustan_george_gordon_13E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dustan_george_gordon_13E.html
Author of Article:   J. B. Cahill
Title of Article:   DUSTAN, GEORGE GORDON
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   April 15, 2024