NAIRN, STEPHEN, miller and merchant; b. 14 Aug. 1838 in Kelvinside, Glasgow, son of John Nairn and Margaret Kirkland; m. 9 Nov. 1881 Elizabeth Watt, and they had two children; d. 14 Oct. 1900 in Winnipeg.
In his early business career in Scotland Stephen Nairn operated a mill near Glasgow in partnership with his brother James. In 1863 he immigrated to Upper Canada and became associated with his eldest brother, Alexander, in a grain and milling business at Rockwood. Around 1875 the brothers established the firm of A. and S. Nairn in Toronto and did extensive business as wharfingers and coal merchants. In 1884 the partnership was dissolved and Stephen moved to Winnipeg, where he built the first oatmeal mill in the city. It was situated in the historic Point Douglas area, adjacent to the large flour-mill of the Ogilvie Milling Company [see William Watson Ogilvie] which had been established only a few years earlier. In addition to oatmeal, then a dietary staple of the many Scottish inhabitants of Manitoba, Nairn’s mill produced rolled oats, pot and pearl barley, and breakfast foods.
At the time of Nairn’s arrival in Winnipeg, Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.) had just received its first shipment of wheat from the west via the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway, and the great potential of Manitoba and the North-West Territories for the production of grain was just beginning to be perceived. Nairn soon became closely involved in this rapidly developing industry. After the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange was formed in 1887 [see Joseph Harris] Nairn was elected a member of its first council, and in 1896 he served as its president. He was also a member of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, serving as its president in 1891, as chairman of its board of grain examiners in 1888–89, and, from 1889 until his death in 1900, as chairman of its board of flour and meal examiners and a member of its general grain committee.
Before 1889, much to the annoyance of the Winnipeg grain trade, the standards for western hard wheat were being set largely by easterners. It was in 1888, during Nairn’s term as chairman of the board of grain examiners, that his efforts and those of his colleagues to have this perceived injustice rectified began to succeed. In October of that year authority was given by the minister of inland revenue for the Winnipeg Board of Trade to collect samples and select standards for Manitoba wheat, and in May of the following year the General Inspection Act of 1874 was amended to provide for a permanent Western Standards Board for western grain.
Throughout his years in Winnipeg Nairn took a keen interest in immigration and the development of the west. In 1896, when he attended the third Congress of Chambers of Commerce of the Empire in London, he, along with Sir Donald Alexander Smith* and others, spoke in support of greater encouragement for emigration from the British Isles to the colonies.
In 1898, despite the concerted efforts of the WGPE and the Winnipeg Board of Trade, the oatmeal industry in Manitoba and the North-West Territories was being adversely affected by the tariff policy of the Canadian government, whose duty on imported oats was 100 per cent higher than that on imported meal. The unfair disparity allowed oatmeal produced in the northern United States to be brought across the border at prices with which western millers were unable to compete. This situation no doubt contributed to Nairn’s decision in May of that year to accept an offer from the Ogilvie Milling Company to purchase his mill. Following the sale, he continued as a grain merchant and a member of the WGPE until his death two years later.
Although he was plain and unostentatious, Nairn took a commendable interest in public affairs. A member of Knox Presbyterian Church, he was chairman of its board of managers from 1890 to 1892. He was a member of the board of directors of the Winnipeg General Hospital from 1889 until he died, a commissioner of the Winnipeg Parks Board, a director of the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition Association, and a member of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba.
PAM, MG 10, A2, Winnipeg Board of Trade, Annual reports, 1880–1900; B11. Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange, Annual report (Winnipeg), 1889–99. Commercial (Winnipeg), 16 April 1898. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 18 April, 26 May 1898; 18 Oct. 1900. Pioneers of Man. (Morley et al.). Winnipeg directory, 1884–1900.