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After covering one of the most famous premiers in Canadian history, its time to take a step back to a man who is relatively unknown even in his own province, George Anthony Walkem.

Walkem was born in Ireland on Nov. 15, 1834, one of ten children. The couple emigrated to Canada in 1847, where Walkem’s father began to work for the Royal Engineers.

Walkem began to study at McGill University, where he graduated with a law degree. Called to the bars of Lower and Upper Canada in 1858 and 1861, he didn’t spend long in eastern Canada apart from moving to Toronto where he founded a law firm called George Morthy.

Drawn by the gold rush, he moved to British Columbia in 1862.

Hoping to get into law, he was hit with a roadblock. He applied to judge Matthew Begbie for admission to the bar, but Begbie preferred lawyers who were trained in Britain, rather than Canada. He refused to call Walkem to the bar.

As a result, Walkem made a living advising plaintiffs informally.

Eventually, Governor James Douglas was petitioned to allow Walkem to practice law. He sought an opinion from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who thought it was beneficial to have lawyers trained in Canada practicing law in British Columbia.

As a result, in June 1863, Governor Douglas passed the Legal Professions Act. This Act allowed for the admission of colonial lawyers to plead in court. Begbie then admitted Walkem to the bar five months later under pressure from Douglas.

Now able to open a law practice, Walkem was able to build it into a prosperous business that advised miners in the Cariboo District.

Almost immediately, he got involved in politics when he was elected to the Colonial Assembly in 1864. He served until 1866, and was then appointed to the Legislative Council, serving from 1866 to 1870.

A supporter of Confederation, like Amor De Cosmos, Walkem wanted British Columbia to join the new country of Canada. Despite his support, he had a minor role in the debate over joining Confederation, urging a cautious but firm approach in negotiations. Unlike De Cosmos, he opposed the introduction of responsible government as he felt it would cause tensions between the mainland and Vancouver Island.

Said to be short of stature, with a drooping moustache and eyeglasses, he was known to be a hard drinker. Miners who knew him described him as a brother-in-arms. He also enjoyed art, and won several prizes in provincial exhibitions.

The Vancouver Daily World said,

“He did a great deal towards bringing about the confederation of Canada.”

After British Columbia was admitted to Canada, Walkem was elected to the provincial legislature. Under Premier John McCreight, he was appointed to the Chief Commissioner of Land and Works portfolio. After McCreight resigned, Walkem became the attorney general under the premiership of Amor De Cosmos.

While the two worked together, Walkem was not overly fond of De Cosmos, stating that he had,

“all the eccentricities of a comet without any of its brilliance.”

With De Cosmos also serving as a Member of Parliament, and often away, Walkem was often serving in his place as premier.

After De Cosmos resigned as premier on Feb. 11, 1874, Walkem took over, becoming the third premier of British Columbia.

Lord Dufferin, the Governor General said of Walkem,

“He is a lawyer in a small village and the son of a clerk in the Dominion Militia Department, so that in one’s intercourse with him, one has to be on one’s guard against the intellectual frailties engendered by his professional antecedents.”

Almost as soon as he took over, he was dealt with the Texada Scandal that alleged he, De Cosmos and other members of the Legislature were making a profit from the public development of the iron ore discovered on Texada Island.

The Royal Commission found there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone.

Through it all, Walkem said he had no part in the scandal, stating,

“I did not take silver for iron.”

The air of corruption would hang over Walkem nonetheless.

At the time, the Canadian government was moving slowly on building the railroad. With Sir John A. Macdonald out as prime minister after the Pacific Scandal of 1873, Alexander Mackenzie didn’t seem to have the same zest for railway building as his predecessor. As premier, Walkem was thrust into the debate over the route through British Columbia. Some wanted it to go through the Yellowhead Pass

James David Edgar arrived in British Columbia in March 1874. As a representative of the federal government, he proposed changes to the railway clause in the terms of union. Walkem refused to give any consideration to this but negotiations continued. Edgar stated that the government could not build the railway immediately, but it would pursue surveys quickly and spend $1.5 million in railway construction in the province per year once the surveys were done. It would also build a telegraph line and wagon road before the railroad was completed. He also promised that a line would be constructed on Vancouver Island.

Walkem was still unhappy with the slow progress and began to publicly question the credentials of Edgar, asking what authority he truly had to make promises. Eventually, Edgar left British Columbia and nothing was resolved.

Walkmen kept pressuring the federal government to build a railway and fulfill its promise when it admitted British Columbia into Confederation. Alexander Mackenzie asked Walkem to present proposals on paper, Walkem sent a hostile memorandum and then left for London where he spoke with British officials of the failure of the government to live up to its promises.

Lord Dufferin was having none of this, and wrote,

“Mr. Walkem will make no difficulties, and will hurry back to British Columbia across the bridge of gold we have built for him with the greatest expedition.”

Walkem also pushed against the size of reserves for the Indigenous people of the province he argued there should be no land title for the Indigenous. At the time, the federal government offered 80 acres per family. Walkem eventually scaled back on his stance to prevent any documentation of the grievances of the Indigenous people from being made public.

Unfortunately for Walkem, the failure to get the railway built in a timely manner hurt him going into the 1875 election where he carried the baggage of the failure. There was also the issue of the growing debts of the province due to big public work projects.

Walkem was re-elected, but his government was not as strong as before and there was anger among voters that he had plunged the province into debt. Lord Dufferin was not unhappy about the loss, stating about Walkem,

“He and all his family have a worldwide reputation for lying.”

Financial difficulties continued and in early 1876, Walkem lost a Motion of No Confidence and his time as premier came to an end, briefly.

He spent the next two years serving as the Leader of the Opposition but the issues that sunk his first premiership continued and eventually took down new premier Andrew Charles Elliott in 1878.

Through those two years, he had gained a great deal of praise from the miners of the province after he defended arrested miners during the strike of the Wellington coalmine in 1877. He gained the reputation as a working man, who opposed Chinese labour and legal repression.

In the 1878 election, Walkem was elected and once again became premier on June 25, 1878. He had campaigned on the slogans of Fight Ottawa and Secession. This time he had a decent majority to get him through the next few years.

On Dec. 30, 1879, Walkem married Sophia Edith Rhodes. Together the couple had one daughter.

The new Walkem government put a target on Chinese labour, stating that it was a reason for the economic downturn. His government banned the hiring of Chinese workers on all contracts, and also attempted to put a special tax in place on Chinese residents but this was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 1880, a lawsuit was brought against Walkem that alleged he accepted fees for dominion legal work. As well, he lost a great deal of support for not passing a redistribution law as he promised in the previous election. He had also opposed tolls on the Cariboo Road, but then increased them.

As the next election in 1882 approached, Walkem threatened to remove British Columbia from Confederation if work did not commence on the railway by 1879. The resolution was passed on Aug. 29, 1878 by a vote of 14 to 9 in the Legislature. The issue fell to the wayside though when Sir John A. Macdonald and his Conservatives were elected to the House of Commons with a large majority.

In 1882, due to the rising cost of building a dock on Vancouver Island, Walkem survived, barely, a Motion of No Confidence.

Unfortunately, in the June 1882 election, his party lost and once again, his time as premier came to an end. His five years, 331 days remains the ninth longest of all premiers in British Columbia history.

Walkem was then appointed to the Supreme Court of British Columbia on May 23, 1882. The Victoria Times Colonist, no friend of Walkem, stated that his appointed seriously affected the status of the court.

By all accounts, it was difficult for him to take the job. The Times Colonist wrote,

“He deliberated long, but finally under the advice of his friends, he retired from politics and ascended to the bench, which he adorned until his retirement.”

Eventually, the anger with the Times Colonist reached the point where Walkem sued David Higgins, the editor and proprietor for libel, claiming damages of $10,000. The libel claim came as a result of an article published on Nov. 20, 1885 in which it was stated that the former premier was involved in shady dealings regarding the dry dock. Higgins stated he simply copied the information from another newspaper.

Through his years in the Supreme Court, he was respected but his reputation for drinking continued. At one point, he was drunk in court and it was stated,

“Judge Walkem carried away dead drunk at 7 a.m. when everybody was looking on.”

Walkem had recovered enough by 10:30 a.m. that he was able to oversee cases for, quite ironically, public intoxication.

In November 1898, Walkem was honoured with a banquet by the prominent citizens of Victoria, who thanked him for his long service to the province, dating back to 1862.

Walkem remained on the Supreme Court until 1904 when he retired. By this point, his reputation in British Columbia was excellent and many felt that he had helped the province move through its early years with perseverance and statecraft.

The Vancouver Daily Province stated he had a,

“lasting reputation as an able jurist.”

Another newspaper said he was,

“One of the brightest ornaments of British Columbia judiciary.”

The last years of his life were quiet and, by all accounts, boring, for Walkem. The Vancouver Daily World wrote,

“Of late years the lack of active work to which he had been accustomed from his earliest days had told upon his system, and his enforced leisure was thoroughly repugnant to him.”

In late 1907, he took ill and despite constant medical attention, his condition slowly worsened.

He passed away on Jan. 13, 1908 in Victoria after a short illness.

The Times Colonist wrote,

“Death last night removed one of the most outstanding figures in the public life of this province.”

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, Biographi, Wikipedia, The National Dream, The Last Spike, The Vancouver Province, Vancouver Daily World, Victoria Times Colonist,

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