McVICAR, VICTORIA, office holder, teacher, and businesswoman; b. in the Montreal area in the late 1830s, youngest daughter of Robert McVicar* and Christina McBeath; d. unmarried 29 Sept. 1899 in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay). Ont.
Victoria McVicar’s early life was peripatetic, as her father sought permanent employment after his retirement from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1830. Much of her childhood was spent in tiny settlements on the edge of the Huron Tract in Upper Canada. Then in 1860 the family moved northwest to Thunder Bay, settling at the site of Prince Arthur’s Landing (later Port Arthur) on McVicar Creek. During the years of wandering, the only constant for Victoria was at Red River (Man.), where a network of relatives lived. She spent some months with them in 1869–70, and played a minor part in the negotiations with the Métis leader Louis Riel* for the release of his prisoners. In this, as in other episodes of her life, her own account was dramatic and of dubious accuracy. Alexander Begg, who was present on 20 Feb. 1870, was unimpressed by the behaviour of this spirited frontier woman: “Miss McVicar when she entered the room where Riel was, evidently had made up her mind for a scene, threw herself on her knees crying Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Everybody except the lady herself was disgusted.”
By this time, Victoria, her sister Christina, and their widowed mother were living in Fort William (Thunder Bay), because the post office, their chief source of revenue, had been moved there from McVicar Creek in the mid 1860s. For many years Victoria assisted her sister, who was postmaster from 1864 to 1895, and then succeeded her in that position. In the 1860s she had served briefly as a tutor to the children of HBC employees and, as a result, has been described as Fort William’s first teacher.
But it was as a shrewd bargainer with government departments and potential buyers of real estate that Victoria became famous locally. In 1867 the McVicar sisters applied for 600 acres of land near their first home at the Landing, which they claimed had been promised to their father. Soon thereafter, they submitted a petition on behalf of their mother for 50 acres at Fort William, to enable the family to continue its duties in the post office. They were successful on both counts, and Victoria’s share in the property increased as a result of bequests by her mother in 1878 and her sister in 1895. Her brother George A., formerly a partner with Duncan McKellar in the Shuniah mine, also held considerable real estate locally.
In 1882 the sisters moved back to the Landing, and were eager to see their larger holdings there increase in value by the construction of Canadian Pacific Railway installations. It is believed that Victoria was the spokesperson for family interests in negotiating with the company in 1883 a contract that was highly advantageous to the McVicars. It is known that she took the lead in a drawn-out court battle that eventually determined the value of land and water-rights. When the case was finally settled, in the last years of her life, she was rumoured to have received a cash payment of $90,000. Whatever the actual amount, the development of both Port Arthur and Fort William in the railway age enormously increased the value of the McVicar lands. Victoria died in 1899, reportedly of a “weakness of the heart, aggravated by acute asthma from which she was long a sufferer.”
Victoria McVicar was a most unreliable source of information about herself but, in fairness, her most extravagant stories were told for the entertainment of her cousin’s children in Toronto. Strong-minded, harsh, and acquisitive, she was also highly emotional and sometimes retreated into fantasy. She was fiercely royalist and sentimentally attached to the Imperial Federation League. As well she was devoted to the members of her family, especially those living at a distance. Attracted to spiritualism, she sought messages from the other world, although Riel stubbornly refused to communicate with her. One male relative concluded that her behaviour was typical of spinsters, especially if they lived in isolated areas. Dwelling upon this aspect of her personality must have been comforting to government officials and CPR negotiators; in this way they could dismiss the competent businesswoman who had repeatedly triumphed over them.
City of Thunder Bay Records Centre and Arch. (Thunder Bay, Ont.), Contract of the CPR with the McVicar family, 9 Aug. 1883. Lakehead Univ. Library Arch. (Thunder Bay), 101, McVicar family papers. Thunder Bay Hist. Museum Soc., McVicar papers. Begg, Red River journal (Morton). Daily Sentinel (Prince Arthur’s Landing, later Port Arthur [Thunder Bay]), 22 Feb. 1882–29 April 1893. Fort William Journal (Fort William [Thunder Bay]), 1887–99. Weekly Herald and Algoma Miner (Port Arthur), 1882–99. Weekly Sentinel (Port Arthur), 29 July 1875–27 Dec. 1895. J. P. Bertrand, Highway of destiny; an epic story of Canadian development (New York, 1959). H. [W.] Charlesworth, Candid chronicles: leaves from the note book of a Canadian journalist (Toronto, 1925).