DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

CARSON, WILLIAM – Volume VII (1836-1850)

d. 26 Feb. 1843 in St John’s


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

SMITH, WILLIAM, office holder, businessman, and civil servant; b. 22 June 1821 in Leith, Scotland; m. 21 June 1850 Henrietta Jane Cater Busby in Saint John, N.B ., and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 6 March 1897 in Ottawa.

William Smith was educated at the High School of Edinburgh and in 1840, at age 19, he was appointed to the British customs service in Leith. In 1842 he was transferred to the imperial service in Saint John, where he was second clerk of customs until 1850, and then surveyor of shipping. The colonial government appointed him controller of customs and navigation and registrar of shipping at Saint John in 1855, and receiver general of Admiralty droits for New Brunswick three years later. In 1862 he served as a commissioner to investigate complaints against Saint John’s police department, and in 1865 he was the colony’s representative on the British North American commission of enquiry into the trade with the West Indies, Mexico, and Brazil. While in Saint John, he was president of the Saint John Gas Light Company and a director of several other companies, including the Scottish Life Association of New Brunswick.

Smith had also made the acquaintance of New Brunswick politician Peter Mitchell. When Mitchell became the first minister of marine and fisheries for Canada, in 1867, he brought Smith to Ottawa, as one of a group from New Brunswick, to serve as his deputy. His original idea was to divide the work of his department between two deputy ministers, because, as he stated to cabinet, its two branches were “so distinct and so unlike, that a man who is fitted for the one, like Mr. Smith . . . would be utterly unfitted for the other.” Cabinet refused this extravagance but allowed Mitchell to appoint William Frederick Whitcher, former superintendent of fisheries for the Province of Canada, as superintendent (later commissioner) of fisheries for the new dominion. Mitchell gave Whitcher administrative control of the new fisheries branch. Smith, who acted first as secretary of the department, was nominally responsible for its entire expenditure but actually supervised only the operations of the marine branch. After the organization of the department had been settled in cabinet, he was formally made deputy minister on 18 Nov. 1867. With a total budget of $384,500, he presided over a department of 11 inside employees and more than 800 outside employees (including fisheries officers) and had direct responsibility for 215 lighthouses and other lights, regulation of harbours and pilotage, marine hospitals, inspection of steamboats, and various other services to shipping. In addition, in 1868 he was appointed to the federal Board of Audit, the Civil Service Examining Board (of which he would be secretary from at least 1871 to 1878), and the Civil Service Commission.

In 1868 Smith and Mitchell set to work establishing the legislative framework of the marine branch’s activities, standardizing schemes already in effect in the four provinces and implementing new regulations. Almost from the first, imperial relations claimed a high priority. Convinced of the skill and international importance of Canadian mariners and shipping interests, Mitchell began to assert the dominion’s right to administer and regulate many areas then under imperial jurisdiction, such as the registration of shipping, participation in Canada’s coasting trade, certification of ships’ masters and mates, and loading rules. His department undertook an aggressive program of lobbying for Canadian shipping and moving forward with legislation whenever it appeared that the British government was inconveniently slow or was acting against Canadian interests. As well, the marine branch undertook a large-scale program of building and renovating lighthouses and other aids to navigation. Travelling with the supply steamer, Smith himself visited every light-station on the lower St Lawrence at least three times between 1868 and 1873; he thus succeeded in raising not only the standards of service but the morale of the outside staff. When Prince Edward Island joined confederation in 1873, Smith personally inspected all the navigational aids there and devised an upgrading program. Based on his recommendations, 111 new lights were constructed in the four original provinces between 1868 and 1873.

The accession of Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberal government in November 1873 brought a new minister, New Brunswick marine lawyer Albert James Smith*. At this time the department, under a total budget of $912,000, employed 20 persons in the inside service and paid nearly 1,400 more in the outside service (a few hundred additional staff were either unpaid or received only fees). Smith himself received a raise of $600 in 1873, bringing his salary to a comfortable but not ostentatious $3,200 a year.

Smith quickly won the new minister’s confidence and the operations of the department continued to expand rapidly, although during the depression of the 1870s its budget grew only slightly. The hazards of navigation in Canadian waters and in Canadian ships, where an average of well over 300 ships and 200 lives were lost per year, spurred Smith to implement ever tighter regulations on the seaworthiness of shipping and to accelerate the construction of aids to navigation. British Columbia and Prince Edward Island were integrated into the system of administration within the department, although its activities in British Columbia remained marginal for several years. In 1875 Smith was made responsible for one of the government’s largest purchases, a second-hand steamer which he bought for the lighthouse and buoy service and had refitted under his instructions in Britain. While there, he was sent by the government to London to defend the interests of Canadian shipowners in the drafting of a new Merchant Shipping Bill, which governed Canadian merchant-shipping to Great Britain. The following year he returned to London to continue Canada’s participation in the preparation of the bill. At home the department increased its involvement in the welfare of seamen by doubling the tonnage dues that were levied for sick and impoverished mariners and by constructing five new marine hospitals between 1874 and 1878. At the end of the Liberal régime, in 1878, Smith presided over a system of 518 lights in seven provinces, a staff of 20 inside employees and 1,700 paid outside employees (including 600 fisheries officers), and a budget of $983,600.

On 1 July 1884 the Department of Marine and Fisheries was split into two departments under one head, Archibald Woodbury McLelan*, who had become minister two years earlier. Smith retained his position as deputy minister of marine and the departmental accountant, John Tilton, became deputy minister of fisheries. (Whitcher had been superannuated the previous October after a dispute with McLelan over the value of fish-hatcheries.) Smith’s inside staff was cut by 11 to 18 and the outside service was reduced by approximately 650 fisheries employees, leaving 1,400 paid outside staff in the Department of Marine. Smith tackled his reduced responsibility with renewed administrative zeal by centralizing the payment of all accounts, nation-wide, in Ottawa. The results were spectacular: expenditures were cut by $177,400 (17 per cent) over the period 1884–92 while existing services were expanded (for example, 133 new lights were established during this time) and new services were added. In 1889, as Smith approached his 68th birthday, his minister, Charles Hibbert Tupper*, responded to a question in the House of Commons regarding the department’s staff by stating that he had no intention of recommending Smith’s superannuation. Three years later, in 1892, the departments of Marine and Fisheries were reunited under the 71-year-old Smith, who received a $400 raise in salary; the much younger Tilton, who had faced an internal investigation provoked by Smith for failing to have fisheries expenditures audited, had been superannuated in 1891.

Despite Smith’s age and the past doubts of both Mitchell and McLelan about his knowledge of fisheries business, he immediately launched a vigorous cost-controlling program for the fisheries branch that duplicated his success in the Department of Marine, expanding services while substantially reducing expenditures. Edward Ernest Prince*, a professor from Scotland, was appointed fisheries commissioner in the department in late 1892, but Smith retained responsibility for the fisheries as well as the marine branch, tackling the complicated issues of the Bering Sea seal-fishery dispute [see Sir John Sparrow David Thompson], the perpetual friction between the United States and Canada over fisheries protection legislation and enforcement, a confrontation with Newfoundland (and, indirectly, the imperial government) over trade and bait-fishing, and the protection and restocking of various domestic fisheries from coast to coast. Known irreverently around Ottawa as “Fishery Bill,” Smith wrote the annual reports of both branches from 1893 to 1896, travelled to the Columbian exposition in Chicago to evaluate the fisheries exhibits (including Canada’s) in 1893, and delivered papers to international audiences on Canada’s fisheries.

The marine branch was involved in vigorous opposition, which probably began officially in 1890, to several planned amendments to the imperial Merchant Shipping Act and restrictions on deck-loads and the shipping of livestock. The amendments would have nearly destroyed the lucrative Canadian merchant-shipping trade to Britain by imposing loading limits better suited to British-built ships than to Canadian-built vessels, which could carry larger loads because of their lighter draughts and more buoyant construction. Smith and Tupper won their battles on deck-loads and livestock, persuading the British government not to act and implementing a system for inspecting livestock and livestock-ships at Canadian ports. The imperial authorities refused, however, to accept Canadian legislation of 1893 which repealed the section of the Merchant Shipping Act dealing with load-lines as far as Canadian-owned vessels were concerned. In October 1894 Smith and Tupper, backed by cabinet, tried to impress upon the British the “Departmental view” that the regulation of Canadian shipping was within the dominion’s legislative jurisdiction. After the department was taken over by John Costigan* in December, however, little more was said on the subject.

In June 1894 Smith had been appointed by the imperial Board of Trade to a committee to inquire into issues relating to the manning of British ships. While in London for that purpose, he appeared before a select committee of the House of Commons to protest, on behalf of the Canadian government in the interest of Canadian shipowners, against proposed imperial legislation regarding the “rules of the road” at sea.

During the 1890s Smith, as deputy minister of marine and fisheries, was forced to face the increasingly rebellious domain of British Columbia. This jurisdiction, despite its tremendous growth as a centre of shipping and its position as the only increasingly profitable fishery in Canada (worth approximately as much in 1892 as the annual revenue of the government of Ontario and second in value only to the fishery of Nova Scotia), had been consistently neglected by Smith and his ministers, with expenditures and allocations of staff almost contemptuously small. Out of 416 new lights established across Canada between 1871 and 1890, only 10 lights (making a total of 12) had been constructed in British Columbia. In 1890 complaints from British Columbian shipping interests about the state of navigation in the dangerous passages between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and at major ports, had reached such a pitch that Smith felt obliged to deny in the department’s annual report that the region had been neglected, stating that “much had been done” there by his department since confederation. A senior official was dispatched to British Columbia the following year and by 1896 two additional lights had been established. In 1893, when the department set up its first hatchery in British Columbia, fisheries branch expenditures there reached $5,500 or .1 per cent of the value of the catch in that year, the lowest proportion given to any province. One fishery inspector and 14 regular guardians, without so much as a boat among them, were responsible for policing the entire province, leading to overfishing (especially by Americans and other illegal fishermen) in the valuable salmon fishery of the Fraser River. Left behind in the competition, British Columbian fishermen began to press the department to ease fishing regulations, which Smith refused to do. It did, however, energetically defend the rights of British Columbia’s seal fishermen (more than half of whom were native people) in the Bering Sea dispute.

On 30 April 1896 Smith retired after a 56-year career in the imperial and Canadian civil service. In that year his department, despite his drives for economy, spent nearly $1.3 million, employed 47 inside staff and 2,275 paid outside staff, and supervised hundred of unpaid or fee-remunerated personnel. Smith was not the oldest member of the public service, but he had been the senior deputy minister in the government for nearly eight years and few could match his record of service. He appears to have been an exceptional administrator and a highly competent technical adviser on marine subjects. For all but one of his 28 years as deputy minister, he brought expenditures in comfortably under the appropriation. He was frequently dispatched by his ministers to investigate complaints from mariners about the department’s navigational aids or to determine the causes of wrecks and disasters, and he displayed a solid knowledge of ships and navigation in the resulting reports. Despite his first minister’s misgivings in 1867 about his knowledge of or sympathy with fisheries issues, he apparently mastered the subject with enthusiasm in 1892, at the age of 71. Under Smith’s administration the department as a whole sponsored many scientific and technical activities, including a hydrographic surveying service (1893), astronomical observatories, significant experiments and operations in restocking and fish-hatching techniques, tidal observations (begun in 1890), and, most notably, the Meteorological Service, which was formed in 1871 [see George Templeman Kingston*] and later expanded despite Smith’s initial reservations about its mushrooming costs. Smith and his ministers consistently took a strong nationalist line on Canada’s right and ability to regulate its own trade and shipping and to defend its fishery resources. The department played an active role in exploration of the Arctic (transferred by Britain to Canada in 1880), sponsoring Andrew Robertson Gordon’s expeditions to Hudson Bay in 1884–86 and investigating complaints about American whalers in 1891–92. It operated one of Canada’s first national social assistance programs, the Sick and Distressed Mariner’s Fund, begun in Lower Canada in 1836. As deputy, Smith discovered the difficulties of administering a department in the large, underdeveloped, and regionally divided Canada of the post-confederation period, attempting with varying degrees of success to enforce uniform regulations and provide equivalent services throughout the dominion with one of the largest outside staffs in the government.

Smith lived on the same street in Ottawa for all but one of the 30 years he spent there and he became a well-known figure around the capital. Early departmental documents record his generosity, attentiveness, and a certain personal charm. He retained a Scottish accent, allegiance to the Church of Scotland, and an “undimmed” intellect until his death on 6 March 1897 at the age of 75. At his funeral two days later “a very large turnout of prominent residents of the Capital,” including a representative of the governor general, two cabinet ministers, a long roster of senior civil servants, and almost every member of his former department, “attested the respect in which [the] deceased was held.”

Gwynneth C. D. Jones

NA, MG 9, D7–35, 2; RG 31, C1, 1871, 1881, 1891, Ottawa. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1867–97; Parl., Sessional papers, 1872, no.38 (“Return to address, names, origin, creed, position and pay of all employès of the dominion government . . .”); annual reports of the Dept. of Marine and Fisheries, 1868–85, 1893–96, and the Dept. of Marine, 1886–92; civil service lists, 1867–95; public accounts, 1868, 1896–97; Senate, Debates, 1867–73. City of Ottawa, Assessment Dept., Assessment roll (Ottawa), 1868–96. Ottawa Citizen, 8–9 March 1897. Ottawa Evening Journal, 6, 9 March 1897. CPC, 1867–96. N.B. vital statistics, 1850–52 (Johnson). Ottawa directory, 1868–97. R. N. Wadden, Department of Fisheries of Canada, 1867–1967 ([Ottawa], 1967). E. E. Prince, “Fifty years of fishery administration in Canada,” American Fisheries Soc., Trans. (Washington), 50 (1920–21): 163–86.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Gwynneth C. D. Jones, “SMITH, WILLIAM (1821-97),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_william_1821_97_12E.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/smith_william_1821_97_12E.html
Author of Article:   Gwynneth C. D. Jones
Title of Article:   SMITH, WILLIAM (1821-97)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   February 26, 2024