MITCHELL, JAMES, lawyer, office holder, and politician; b. 16 March 1843 at Scotch Settlement, York County, N.B., son of William Mitchell and Ann Dobie; m. 17 Dec. 1873 Mary Anne Ryder in St Stephen (St Stephen-Milltown), N.B., and they had one daughter; d there 15 Dec. 1897 after a long illness from cancer.
James Mitchell was educated first at local schools in Charlotte County and then at the prestigious Fredericton Collegiate School and the University of New Brunswick. After graduating in 1867 with a ba, he taught school briefly before he began to study law in the offices of Gregory and Blair in Fredericton. His choice of law firm would serve him well since he quickly came to the attention of Andrew George Blair*, soon to become New Brunswick’s most powerful political figure. Following admission to the New Brunswick bar in 1870, Mitchell returned home to practise in St Stephen, where he formed a partnership with James Gray Stevens*.
In 1872, when the controversial Common Schools Act was first implemented, Mitchell was named school inspector for Charlotte County, a position he held until 1875 and again from 1877 to 1879. Like his counterparts elsewhere in the province, he was not reluctant to criticize and praise, as can be seen in his annual report for 1873. The act had withdrawn the privileges that Catholics enjoyed in fact, though not in law, at the time of confederation. Mitchell was happy to observe how in the country districts “Catholics gladly avail themselves of the advantages conferred by the law” but “regretted that Roman Catholic populations in the Towns of St. Stephen and Milltown stand aloof and support separate schools.” He also remarked that although the selection of trustees “has been generally good,” there were “many cases in which the machinery of the law has fallen into the hands of its opponents, who instead of seeking to give the law a fair trial, are ready to throw every obstacle in its way.” Still, he concluded that “the Free School sentiment is growing daily in every section.” Mitchell entered provincial politics in 1882, finishing third in a list of 14 candidates for the four-member constituency of Charlotte. He quickly joined Blair’s Liberal contingent and was rewarded with the surveyor general’s post when the first Blair administration was formed on 3 March 1883. He held that position through the next two general elections.
As soon as he took over the Surveyor General’s office Mitchell travelled throughout the province. He toured some of the settlements established under the Free Grants Act of 1872 and reported that many “were progressing but it too often happens that the lands taken up are wholly unfit for settlement, the soil is hard and hungry and the settler simply clears a few acres in a rough way, builds a rude shanty, gets his grant and sells his lot for the lumber . . . and is then ready to take up a new lot and carry on a similar operation.” There were other factors as well that prompted people to stay briefly and then move on. One was the profitability of the sleeper business, a result of the intense activity in the construction of branch lines linking coastal communities to the Intercolonial Railway. Another was the sharply increased receipts from hemlock-bark harvesting. A surging American demand for the bark, which was used in tanning, added $1,200 to provincial coffers in 1884. Mitchell noted that revenues were “much in excess of any previous year” but that there were negative effects. “The vast areas of burnt lands through Kent and Northumberland bear silent testimony to the increased risk from fires consequent upon bark peeling operations.” In 1885 the hemlock bonanza ended when American buyers failed to appear and over the winter of 1885–86 the settlers, mostly Acadians, were left in such dire straits that they were sent emergency food supplies.
Mitchell’s reports reveal New Brunswick’s uncertain economic position. In 1886 he predicted that the “long continental depression in the lumber market is expected to continue as the stocks in the principal markets are still largely in excess of the demand and iron is fast taking the place of wood in the building of ships, bridges and other mechanical works.” Although some people had turned their attention back to agriculture, he still found “a great deal of poverty due to the neglect of their farms for the prosecution of the hemlock bark and sleeper business.”
The reports demonstrate two historic and related preoccupations: how to increase provincial revenues from crown licences and how to extend the branch railway system to facilitate lumber exports. In his report for 1888 he hoped “the early completion of some important links in our Railway system will make the markets of the neighbouring Republic more easy of access.” A year later he thought “the general improvement in the British lumber market has infused new life” into the lumber business. He noted, however, the “considerable discontent in regard to the rate of stumpage,” an observation which indicates that crown licence holders were unhappy with government efforts to increase revenues at their expense.
Following a set-back in the 1890 general election, Premier Blair was obliged to make a deal with the members from Northumberland in order to retain his majority in the house and, as a result, the surveyor general’s portfolio went to Lemuel John Tweedie*. Mitchell then became provincial secretary and receiver general on 3 Feb. 1890. Defending the 1892 budget in his report for that year, he blamed New Brunswick’s poor financial state on railway subsidies, the first of which had been passed in 1851. “This was only the precursor of others by which the bonded debt had been piled up. . . . Today we stand face to face with the fact that our current revenue is insufficient to meet the ordinary expenditures,” he claimed, though he denied the opposition charges that the province faced bankruptcy. Two weeks later he would second Blair’s motion to raise corporation and liquor taxes. As if he was destined to be the bearer of bad news, Mitchell’s report for 1892 also contained the grim statistics of a cholera epidemic, the first in New Brunswick since 1854.
In addition to holding the provincial secretaryship, Mitchell was commissioner of agriculture, and he was influential in efforts to establish a New Brunswick dairy industry, mostly by importing the expertise from Ontario and Quebec. In presenting the agriculture estimates for 1895, he noted that in three years New Brunswick had become a cheese exporter and had thriving dairy farms in all 15 counties.
When Blair resigned the premiership to enter federal politics in July 1896, his former law student was his logical successor, but Mitchell’s rapidly declining health forced him to give up this office the next year at the early age of 54. The announcement in November 1897 that he had retired “occasioned little surprise.”
James Mitchell seems to have made few political enemies. Although a political protégé of the partisan Blair, he was a capable administrator who came to know his province through personal travel and close observation. In an age when railway patronage was rampant, Mitchell emerged with his hands clean and his reputation intact. A lifelong Conservative, he none the less threw his weight behind the man who created New Brunswick’s Liberal party. He was one of the last unaligned politicians in an arena where party lines were becoming firmly fixed.
PANB, MC 1156 (copy in New Brunswick Legislative Library, Fredericton). N.B., Legislative Assembly, Journal, app., 1893, report of the provincial secretary, submission of the secretary of the Board of Health, 15; 1894, report of the surveyor general, 17; Legislative Council, Journal, 1874, app.B: 5–8; 1887: ix. Beacon (St Andrews, N.B.), 4 Nov., 23 Dec. 1897. St. John Daily Sun, 16 Dec. 1897. Elections in N.B.