Prince Edward Island was only three years old but in that time he had gone through two premiers, and was ready to welcome a third, Sir Louis Henry Davies.
Born in Charlottetown to Benjamin Davies and Kezia Atwood on May 4, 1845, Davies had a privileged upbringing. His father was a major merchant and shipbuilder on the island. From 1850 to 1854, he was in the Legislative Assembly of the colony, and then he served in the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island from 1867 to 1876.
As a young man, Davies would lose his mother and his father would remarry in 1854.
Davies studied law at the Inner Temple in London, and was called to the bar in England in 1866, followed by Prince Edward Island one year later. At this point, he began to practice law in his hometown and quickly began to rise in prominence around the island.
He was known to be a forceful speaker, who had a strong capacity for hardwork and a charming personality. He was also considered to be one of the best lawyers in the colony.
On top of all that, he was a gifted cricket player.
In 1870 and 1872, Davies served as the solicitor general of the island, likely thanks to his father who was the colonial secretary during that time.
In July 1872, Davies married Susan Wiggins, and together they had seven children, although only four survived into adulthood. It was in this year that Davies was first elected to the Legislative Assembly.
Like his father and the previous two premiers of Prince Edward Island, Davies was not in favour of the Island joining Confederation. He also did not favour the railroad proposed by James Colledge Pope, calling it nothing more than a ploy to put the island into debt so that it had to join Confederation.
As it turned out, that is exactly what happened. At this point, Davies had changed his opinion about Confederation, famously saying,
“Wise men changed their opinions, when necessary, fools never did so.”
He also did not like that his compatriots were trying to get better terms from Canada. He felt that nation building should be the basis of negotiations, not business.
One year later, Prince Edward Island joined Confederation, and soon after the Land Purchase Act settled the issue of land reform.
Davies opposed the original Act, because he felt it was too generous to the absentee landlords. The new Act, the one that was passed, was more in line with what Davies wanted and it was seen as a victory for him.
In 1874, Davies constructed his home, known as Riverside and Edgwater II. He would live here for the remainder of his life, for at least part of every single year until then. The house continues to stand and has been preserved for the most part as it looked back when Davies lived in it. In 1979, it would be made a Prince Edward Island Heritage Resource due to its connection with Davies.
After Prince Edward Island had joined Canada, and $800,000 had been provided to purchase the holdings of proprietors, leading to the eventual Land Purchase Act. He would be appointed as the Leader of the Opposition when the province joined Canada, and the Solicitor of the Commissioner of Crown Lands.
Once the land question had been answered, the next major issue on the island was school funding and the question of whether the school system should be secular or public, or if Catholic schools should even be permitted.
Davies supported a non-sectarian system, and he made this clear in the Legislature. In 1875, Davies served as the lead counsel for the Prince Edward Island Land Commission, which settled the problem of absentee land ownership and provided tenants of the Island with a clear title to their lands.
This issue would divide the government, and lead to Lemuel Owen, the previous premier, to resign before the 1876 election.
In the August 1876 election, Davies led the Free School party, and he would speak throughout the province to rally votes to his side.
When Owen’s government was defeated in the 1876 election, Davies formed a coalition government of Protestant Liberals and Conservatives, and he would begin to serve as premier of the province. At only 31-years-old, he is the youngest premier in the history of Prince Edward Island. He would serve as the Attorney General at the same time.
His first major decision was to enact the Public Schools Act, making school attendance compulsory and the creation of a non-sectarian public school system.
The debates to get this Act passed were bitter and violent but Davies held firm on his leadership and his policy of the matter being based on the education viewpoint, not the religious.
This Act passed in 1877, officially resolving the issue but beginning the unraveling of the coalition. Four members of his party soon defected but Davies held onto power as premier with the help of Protestants in the Legislature.
Davies then began to work on the finances of the Island. In March 1877, he introduced a provincial taxation bill that allowed a revised land tax based on public assessment. Many in Charlottetown and Summerside were not in favour of this, but there was no mechanism for an appeal and the bill would pass.
In 1877, Davies was a Canadian counsel for the British government before the Halifax Fisheries Commission. This commission was created out of the Treaty of Washington in 1871 to resolve issues such as fishing rights. Davies spent most of his time at the hearings, which decided in favour of a large financial award to Canada.
Unfortunately, while he was away dealing with the Commission, anger towards his Assessment Act grew and merchants in Charlottetown and Summerside began to work together against the act they felt was unfair.
In the end, those against the Act were unsuccessful and the issue died down by 1878.
In 1879, after Davies brought in financial reforms and the civil service, before the government fell in a Motion of No Confidence.
By this point, the coalition government Davies led was unraveling as he was actively campaigning for the federal Liberals on the Island in elections, and his government financed an asylum that was highly criticized.
On March 6, 1879, Davies resigned as premier and in the election, his party went down in defeat.
Davies was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1880. Two years later, he ran in the 1882 federal election as a Liberal, and was elected to Parliament.
From 1882 to 1901, Davies served in Parliament, representing Queens County. This riding was previously represented by James Colledge Pope, the first premier of Prince Edward Island.
In Parliament, Davies would get in heated debates with Sir Charles Tupper over the question of the railroad that was being built across Canada.
Throughout this time, Davies became close with Wilfrid Laurier and was an important advisor. He would talk with him on the issues such as the North West Resistance, the Jesuit Estates Issue and the Manitoba Schools Question that was growing in importance.
When Sir Wilfrid Laurier became Prime Minister in 1896, he rewarded the long service of Davies with a cabinet post as the Minister of Marine and Fisheries on July 13, 1896. In 1897, Davies was knighted by Queen Victoria. He was seen at this point as Laurier’s Maritimes lieutenant and a trusted strategy advisor.
As the Minister of Marine and Fisheries, he was involved in several diplomatic missions to the United States, Germany, Belgium and England.
In 1897, he went with Laurier to Washington to deal with the issue of Bering Sea seal fishery.
The Free Press Prairie Farmer would say,
“Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir Louis Davies and no other prominent Canadian officials who are here to confer with the government authorities were busy today arranging for the Bering Sea meeting.”
He would also sit on the commission that resolved the border between Alaska and British Columbia in 1899.
Davies left federal politics in 1901 when he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. He would remain in the Supreme Court for the remainder of his life. Critics of Laurier charged that this appointment was favoritism, stating that Davies had no experience. The Halifax Herald said,
“It may be just a case of putting Sir Louis in a place where he can do no great harm. This is about the only ground upon which the move can be defended.”
This was not fair though, as Davies had plenty of legal experience during the previous four decades.
Davies would say of his appointment,
“I can only say that I endeavor to discharge the duties of the high office to which I have been called with due regard to the importance of the position and the cases which may be brought before me. I trust I shall always discharge those duties with impartiality and with fairness to all parties.”
Macleans would describe Davies in 1914,
“Sir Louis Davies presents a kindly and gentle face to the Court, his white hair and grey beard, giving an appearance of wisdom tried by long experience.”
Throughout the First World War, Davies would administer the Patriotic Fund to help the soldiers in the trenches and their families back home. He would also serve with the Dickens Fellowship and lectured on the life and work of Charles Dickens.
On Oct. 23, 1918, Davies was appointed as the Chief Justice of Canada. At the age of 73 years, 172 days, he is the oldest person to be appointed Chief Justice in Canadian history.
This appointment came because Davies campaigned heavily to be the Chief Justice. He stated he would resign in 1921 when his pension rights were at their maximum. Prime Minister Robert Borden agreed to the appointment, but it was not easy to get through cabinet as Davies was old, ill and not seen as distinguished.
The Montreal Gazette would report that the advancement of Davis to the top job in the court was unexpected, even though he was the senior members on the bench. It was believed a younger judge would be chosen, rather than the 73-year-old Davies.
He would remain the Chief Justice until his death on May 1, 1924 with his son and daughter at his bedside. By this point, he had been sick for three years, and was working from home on legal cases when he passed away.
Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote in his journal that day,
“He was a fine character, but had failed much of late, and though holding on to office too long created a rather prejudice against him in my mind.”
On the date of his burial, the Montreal Star wrote,
“There is being buried this afternoon one of a group of superable public men who came up from the Maritime Provinces in the early days of Confederation and played a great part in steadying the ship of state through the rough waters and largely uncharted seas which the young Dominion faced.”
It was said that his funeral was second in Ottawa only to that of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had died in 1919.
To date, he remains the last Chief Justice of Canada to have served in elected office, and he is the only Prince Edward Islander to date to serve on the Supreme Court.
In Charlottetown, the Prince Edward Island Supreme Court is named for him. Davies Point in British Columbia is named for him, as is Davies Point east of Prince Rupert.
Information from Supreme Court of Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Government of Canada, Wikipedia, Library and Archives Canada, Macleans, Montreal Star, Edmonton Bulletin, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Winnipeg Free Press Farmer, Windsor Star, Historic Places, University of Prince Edward Island Archives,
Leave a Reply