THORBURN, ALEXANDER GILLAN, farmer, businessman, jp, and politician; b. 18 Dec. 1836 in Edinburgh, Scotland; m. 1 July 1863 Elizabeth Davis, and they had three sons and four daughters; d. 21 Jan. 1894 in Broadview (Sask.).
Educated in Edinburgh, where his father was a small manufacturer, Alexander Gillan Thorburn immigrated to Toronto in 1856. There is no record of his activities from the date of his arrival until his marriage in 1863 near Galt (Cambridge, Ont.), nor of his occupation during his first five years of married life. In 1868 he moved with his family to Guelph, where he worked for the Longford Lumber Company Mills. Ten years later he sought greener pastures and moved to the North-West Territories; for four years he farmed north of Neepawa (Man.).
In 1882 he relocated to Broadview, a budding community newly traversed by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Initially he was employed as the manager of the local Hudson’s Bay Company store and he served as the agent of the Canada North-West Land Company. His stay with the HBC was brief. He resigned in February 1883 to create his own general merchandise and lumber business, no doubt intending to profit by the boom taking place during the early development of the Prairies. When the business was incorporated ten years later as Thorburn and Sons Limited, it was capitalized at $15,000 and the entire stock was owned by the family. Thorburn built a branch store at Crescent Lake, a small community which had been established by the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company Limited.
When neighbouring farmers lacked cash, country merchants such as Thorburn were frequently obliged to accept butter, often of indifferent quality, as payment for goods. Experiencing increasing difficulty in marketing poor quality butter, he set up a creamery in Broadview in June 1889. He thus provided an outlet for the dairy products of local farmers, supplied the local markets, and made a profit for himself. He purchased shares in the Moose Jaw Creamery, was a major shareholder in and president of the firm that owned the Broadview Sentinel, and served as vice-president of the company that published the Spectator (Moosomin), another small-town newspaper.
Thorburn’s business acumen was recognized, and he also acquired a reputation as a public-minded citizen. He served as a jp, school board trustee, and secretary of the Broadview Agricultural Society. A delegate to the national convention of dairymen at Ottawa in 1890, he was elected a director of the Dairymen’s Association of the Dominion of Canada. In 1892 he was chosen the first president of the Dairymen’s Association of the North-West Territories.
His desire to serve the public prompted him to stand for election to the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories in 1888. Victorious, he represented Whitewood as an independent until 1891, when he lost a bid for a second mandate by six votes. A defender of regional interests, during his brief political career he repeatedly accused the federal government of ignoring the plight of western citizens and of discouraging the growth of settlement. He closed ranks with his colleagues in the assembly to demand constitutional reform, aligning himself with the struggle of Frederick William Haultain* for responsible government.
Following his defeat in 1891, Thorburn remained active in business, civic activities, and politics until his sudden death three years later. The day after a speaking engagement at the Eastern Assiniboia Liberal-Conservative convention in Moosomin he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 57. His funeral service was held at St Luke’s Church (Anglican) in Broadview and he was buried in the local cemetery. According to the Leader, the west had lost a “leading figure in all matters appertaining to the welfare of the Territories.”
N.W.T., Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1888. Leader (Regina), 30 Oct. 1888; 21 Jan., 4 Feb. 1890; 3, 17 Nov. 1891; 25 Jan. 1894. Saskatchewan Herald, 2 Feb. 1894. CPC, 1888–90. Centennial tribute: Oakshela, Broadview, Percival, 1882–1982, ed. I. W. Galbraith and Gus Smith (Broadview, Sask., 1982). L. H. Thomas, The struggle for responsible government in the North-West Territories, 1870–97 (Toronto, 1956).