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McKECHNIE, ROBERT, manufacturer, politician, and office holder; b. 16 June 1835 in Glasgow, only surviving child of Robert McKechnie (originally from Ireland) and Margaret Waters; m. first 27 Jan. 1859 Isabella Ross of Dundas, Upper Canada, and they had ten children, of whom eight survived; m. secondly 5 June 1883 Elizabeth King of Fintry, Stirlingshire, Scotland, and they had a daughter; d. 16 Oct. 1909 in Dundas.

In 1842 Robert McKechnie emigrated with his parents from Glasgow to Dundas, where for several years he attended the public school taught by Robert Spence*. At age 12 he was apprenticed to the local firm of John Gartshore and Company, manufacturers of boilers, engines, and other forms of machinery and castings; he would in time become a journeyman pattern-maker there. In 1859, in partnership with John McDonald, he started his own machine-shop and pattern-making business in Dundas, the Canada Tool Works, the products of which eventually included railway tools, metal- and wood-lathes, and boring and drilling equipment. Two years later another Scot and former Gartshore apprentice, John Bertram, bought out McDonald’s interest.

Despite serious fires in 1861 and 1865, and a lack of fire insurance, the company prospered and expanded, encouraged in part by demand for drilling machinery during the oil boom in the southwest of the province. The depression of the 1870s, however, hurt the Canada Tool Works and by 1878 its plants were almost idle. The federal government’s adoption the following year of protective tariffs under the National Policy [see Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley*] must have helped to revive the company, and coincidentally it received new orders, especially important ones coming from the Grand Trunk and the Canadian Pacific railways. In addition to the tool-works, McKechnie was a promoter of the Wentworth Land Company Limited, incorporated in 1882 to acquire land in the Canadian west for speculation, but there is little evidence of his involvement in any other business enterprise.

A successful businessman, McKechnie became active in local politics and affairs. He was reeve of Dundas in 1869–71 and 1877–82. Sitting on Wentworth County Council in this capacity, he joined with the representatives of other small towns and rural townships in opposing the City of Hamilton’s control of expenditure and its monopolization of county facilities. Antagonism boiled over in 1871 in an unsuccessful attempt, supported by McKechnie, to separate Hamilton from the county. From the 1860s to the 1880s he was frequently a school trustee and in 1872–73, 1884, and 1893 he was mayor. In local office he was concerned to promote the economic growth of Dundas, advocating in 1869 that manufacturers setting up operations there be granted tax exemptions and calling in 1871 for the establishment of a central market for the town.

The mechanics’ institute was McKechnie’s favourite local cause. A self-made man, he appreciated the opportunities for self-improvement it offered the working man; he himself had participated in its debating society, earning for his efforts the sobriquet Young Canada. As president from 1865 to 1870, he led the effort to revitalize the institute after years of languishing. A membership drive, through which women were accepted as members for the first time, and the sponsorship of community activities injected new vigour.

McKechnie’s prominence as a successful manufacturer led him to contribute to the organization of the industrial interest and its defence at the national level. He was active in 1874 in the creation of the Ontario Manufacturers’ Association (the progenitor of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association) and was its president from 1882 to 1884. In 1877 and 1879 he represented the association at the annual meetings of the Dominion Board of Trade, and in the latter year he was elected vice-president of the board. At these meetings he defended manufacturers as the most important business interest within the Canadian economy and advocated tariff protection for their encouragement. He condemned the commercial interest, which largely opposed protection, for what he considered to be its immorality in business and lack of concern for national well-being. Excessive importation of goods and undervaluation to escape paying duty, coupled with a too-eager acceptance of insolvency as a way out of difficulty, undermined the economy, he argued.

McKechnie was active in federal politics in his riding, Wentworth North. In 1872 he ran as an independent Conservative but was defeated by Thomas Bain, the Liberal candidate. Though McKechnie generally accepted the record and platform of the Conservative party, he had pledged himself to the cause of protection at a time when neither the party nor Ontario manufacturers had taken a clear stand on the question. Thus protection was the crucial issue in the Wentworth North contest. Nominated to run in the 1874 election, he declined, having no desire to defend the Conservative cause in the wake of the Pacific Scandal [see Sir John A. Macdonald*]. As a result, Bain was acclaimed.

During the 1878 campaign McKechnie, though not a candidate, still contributed to the protectionist cause and, by implication, to the Conservative cause. He spoke under the auspices of the Dominion National League, a protectionist pressure group founded by the Ontario Manufacturers’ Association and the Workingmen’s Liberal Conservative Union. Four years later he ran as a Conservative against his old rival, Bain. The Conservative government’s gerrymander of the boundaries of Wentworth North almost worked: McKechnie lost by only two votes.

In 1886 McKechnie retired from business. He lived quietly in his remaining years and travelled widely in North America and Europe. Raised in the Presbyterian Church, in later life he became an Anglican. He was an active freemason and a member of the St Andrew’s Society in Dundas. Having re-entered public life as mayor in 1893, he busied himself in the position of subcollector of customs at Dundas from 1896 to his death in 1909.

David G. Burley

HPL, Clipping file, John Bertram and Sons. Globe, 19 Jan. 1877; 14 Aug. 1878; 23, 24 Jan. 1879. Mail (Toronto), 14 Aug. 1878, 15 Jan. 1880. Star (Dundas, Ont.), 23 Jan. 1908, 21 Oct. 1909. Toronto Daily Mail, 13 Jan. 1882. True Banner (Dundas), 1865–72, 18 Dec. 1879, 11 May 1882. T. W. Acheson, “The social origins of the Canadian industrial elite, 1880–1885,” Canadian business history; selected studies, 1497–1971, ed. D. S. Macmillan (Toronto, 1972), 144–74. D. G. Burley, “The politics of business: Frederic Nicholls and the National Policy, 1874–1895” (ma thesis, Trent Univ., Peterborough, Ont., 1974). Canada Gazette, 12 Aug. 1882: 259; 9 May 1896: 2091. Canadian biog. dict.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David G. Burley, “McKECHNIE, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mckechnie_robert_13E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mckechnie_robert_13E.html
Author of Article:   David G. Burley
Title of Article:   McKECHNIE, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   June 8, 2023