SMITHE (Smith, Smyth, Smythe), WILLIAM, farmer and politician; b. 30 June 1842 in Matfen, Northumberland, England; d. 28 March 1887 in Victoria, B.C.
William Smithe, of Northumbrian ancestry, was educated in local schools at Whittington. As a young man he worked in the merchant trade in Newcastle upon Tyne before coming to British Columbia in 1862. He established residence in the Cowichan district, Vancouver Island, near Somenos; there he made his home until his death, except for a short period in 1866 when he lived in San Francisco and several months in 1868 when he tried his hand at mining on Grouse Creek in the Cariboo. In 1865 Smithe was appointed road commissioner for Cowichan, his first public office.
In 1871 his growing reputation as a community leader in the burgeoning farming district around Somenos, the most promising agricultural area on Vancouver Island, won Smithe one of the two seats for Cowichan in the first assembly elected following British Columbia’s entry into confederation with Canada. During his first term he maintained an independent stance, refusing to support John Foster McCreight*, the first premier, or his successors, Amor De Cosmos*, whom Smithe admired, and George Anthony Walkem*. In the election of 1875, Smithe and his friend and neighbour, John Drinkwater, won the two Cowichan seats for the anti-government forces with a campaign that capitalized on the failure of the Walkem government to begin construction on a road from Victoria to Cowichan for which appropriation had been made. Over six feet tall, erect, and handsome in a full beard, Smithe struck a fine figure on the hustings. He became known as an incisive and witty debater, though halting of speech. His marriage in 1873 to Martha, daughter of Archibald Renfrew Kier, a wellknown farmer and Methodist of Somenos, had further secured his attachment to, and prominence in, the Cowichan district.
When the session of 1876 opened, Smithe assumed leadership of the opposition to the Walkem administration which had been returned to office. But loosely knit factions then dominated politics. Apparent government supporters, sometimes even cabinet members, often broke ranks. In this fluid atmosphere the government’s failure to make any attempt at negotiations with Ottawa for the commencement of the British Columbia section of the Canadian Pacific Railway, coupled with accusations of fiscal irresponsibility, forced the Cabinet’s resignation on 25 January. In the political manœuvring that ensued, Smithe relinquished his leadership of the loosely formed opposition to Andrew Charles Elliott, who became the fourth premier in five years. Smithe was not included in Elliott’s first cabinet, but in July 1876, upon the dismissal of the erratic Thomas Basil Humphreys, he joined the four-man administration as minister of finance and agriculture. Smithe did not especially distinguish himself in a cabinet that continued to suffer, as had its predecessor, the consequences of impoverished finances and rancorous and futile wrangling with Ottawa, but he did succeed in retaining his seat amid the general collapse of his associates at the polls in March 1878.
For a second time Smithe took on the leadership of the opposition to Walkem, a duty he carried out in a business-like and temperate manner rather rare in the boisterous and factionally divided assembly. Smithe assumed the premiership when Robert Beaven*, successor to Walkem, met the assembly in January 1883 with the support of no more than 8 of the 24 members elected the previous summer. In office with the largest majority since confederation, Smithe had the goodwill of an electorate utterly exasperated at their government’s inability to settle with Ottawa over the building of the transcontinental railway, the graving dock at Esquimalt, and a railway connecting Victoria and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
The problems Smithe inherited were, however, as much the result of local politics as of a history of bad relations with the federal government. Islanders demanded their own railway and the graving dock to offset the expected boom on the mainland once the transcontinental railway was completed. Mainlanders, long jealous of the island’s exaggerated strength in the assembly, objected to the expense of the graving dock, which, it was becoming clear, was beyond British Columbia’s means, and they were the more sorely aggrieved at the slow pace on the railway and the interminable stalemate with Ottawa. Smithe moved swiftly to come to an agreement with his federal counterpart, Sir John A. Macdonald*, himself eager to remove old grievances. By the Settlement Act passed by the British Columbia legislature in December 1883 and accepted by the federal government the following March, the Macdonald ministry, in exchange for 3,500,000 acres in the Peace River district of British Columbia, agreed to open the railway lands in the south to settlement, assume construction of the graving dock, and advance $750,000, for the building of the island railway. A contract for the latter was undertaken by a consortium of local businessmen led by Robert Dunsmuir and American railway financiers Collis Potter Huntington and Leland Stanford. The consortium was granted some 2,000,000 acres on Vancouver Island and Dunsmuir was also granted the coal mining rights on these lands.
In one stroke Smithe had fashioned a settlement acceptable to both islanders and mainlanders and had embarked on an expansionary economic policy funded not with capital but with land. Land grants were also used to encourage schemes such as one proposed by William Baillie-Grohman to reclaim and settle land at the south end of Kootenay Lake, and others for the building of wagon roads as well as railways in the interior. One such grant caused a great public furore and a full-scale investigation. In 1884 Smithe negotiated a grant of 6,000 acres with William Cornelius Van Horne* of the CPR, apparently dispossessing several squatters. In return the CPR agreed to extend the line from Port Moody to the present site of Vancouver, an extension it would have had to make anyway to protect its interests.
In response to strong pressure from the community, Smithe’s government passed several acts regulating the Chinese population, including the imposition of an annual licence fee of $10 on all Chinese over 15 years of age, and an act preventing Chinese from acquiring crown lands. Another act stopping Chinese immigration was disallowed by the federal authorities. In 1885, in response to British Columbia’s agitation, the federal government instituted a $50 head tax on all oriental immigrants. Smithe was as strong as his colleagues in support of discriminatory legislation and a policy of “white immigration . . . to abate the Chinese evil.” Nor did Smithe differ in his Indian policy from the accepted wisdom of the community. Although he had once accused Walkem and Beaven of frustrating the settlement of the Indian land question “by shifting, twisting, artful dodging,” he just as severely limited Indian lands when he was given the responsibility for approving the establishment of reserves, arguing that because Indians did not cultivate much land they did not need much.
Smithe’s victory in the election of 1886 confirmed the public’s acceptance of his policy of land grants, railways, roads, reclamation, and Chinese exclusion. The CPR had been completed the year before, and an expanding population looked forward to prosperity and stability, apparently unconcerned about long-term costs. Smithe had broken the juggernaut of federal-provincial disputes and presided over a period of expansion and prosperity. A quiet, unassuming man, he occasionally used his wit to advantage: when asked by American newspapermen visiting in 1883 if British Columbia might one day annex itself to the Union in response to natural trading interests, he replied that British Columbia might instead annex Washington and Oregon. Financial success apparently followed political success, for Smithe had constructed a large house in Victoria to which he was preparing to move his family early in 1887 when he fell ill. He died of nephritis before his 45th birthday. It would be difficult to disagree with his contemporary Peter O’Reilly*, who remarked just before his death that Smithe, “by far the best man in the government,” would be “a very great loss.”
PABC, O’Reilly coll., 21, 27 March 1887; Vancouver Island, Colonial secretary, Corr. outward, 20 Sept. 1864–11 Sept. 1865 (letterbook copies). B.C., Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1879–83; Sessional papers, 1883–84. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1884, IX, no.15: 7–15. Cariboo Sentinel, 6, 9, 16 July, 6 Sept. 1868. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 1879–83, 22 Jan. 1887. Victoria Daily Standard, 29 March 1887. CPC, 1885. R. E. Gosnell, A history of British Columbia (n.p., 1906). E. B. Mercer, “Political groups in British Columbia, 1883–1898” (ma thesis, Univ. of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1937). M. A. Ormsby, “The relations between British Columbia and the dominion of Canada, 1871–1885” (phd thesis, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pa., ). E. O. S. Scholefield and F. W. Howay, British Columbia from the earliest times to the present (4v. , Vancouver, 1914). R. E. Gosnell, “Prime ministers of British Columbia: William Smythe,” Vancouver Daily Province, 29 March 1921.
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Cite This Article
T. M. Eastwood, “SMITHE, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smithe_william_11E.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:
|Author of Article:||T. M. Eastwood|
|Title of Article:||SMITHE, WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1982|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||May 28, 2023|