We have reached the last British Columbia premier in our first five with Robert Beaven. After this, we will take a three week break from the series as I cover the life of Candice Bergen, the 2021 Election and my interview with former Opposition leader Erin O’Toole.
On April 5, we will return to the series with the first five premiers of Manitoba.
Now, let’s look at the at the life of Robert Beaven.
Beaven was born on Jan. 20, 1836 to Reverend James Beaven and Elizabeth Frowd. His father was a prominent clergyman with the Church of England, and served as a professor of divinity at King’s College, Toronto.
As a young man, he attended Upper Canada College but the call of gold was too much for him.
Hoping to profit from the gold rush in British Columbia. After three years, he and his companions decided to leave their gold claim after doing quite well. They walked on foot carrying a gold sack filled with gold dust to Yale, through snow four feet deep in places. On arriving at Yale, they bought a canoe and pulled it over ice on the frozen river until they reached New Westminster. The journey was 800 kilometres. They then journeyed to Quesnel and along the way there were four attempts to rob them but they held their ground and pushed back against each robber. On the third attempt, one robber was badly injured to the head and face.
He then returned to eastern Canada, and on May 5, 1866, he married Susan Ritchie and together they had two sons and a daughter. The couple then moved out to Victoria.
In Victoria, he operated several businesses. He worked in real estate and insurance, and as a commission agent and a retailer.
After British Columbia was merged out of the two colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, Beaven became the secretary of the Confederation League, run by Amor De Cosmos. While De Cosmos ran the organization, many equated its success to Beaven and his work ethic.
In 1871, the year that British Columbia entered Confederation, Beaven was elected to the Legislature.
He served as the Commissioner of Land and Works. In that role, the opposition accused him of corruption. All charges against him, including any involvement in the Texada Scandal, were never proven through Royal Commissions.
The opposition also criticized him for not opening up land for settlement quickly enough. He also mishandled the province’s policy on Indigenous lands, resulting in Indian Reserve Commissioner calling him a narrow, stubborn man who was intent on reducing the size of reserves. His handling of the reserves, and for stalling the publication of papers related to land claims by the Indigenous, he heavily interfered with the recognition of Indigenous land titles in the province.
In August 1878, he seconded the motion of Premier Walkem to give British Columbia the right to withdraw from Confederation over the feeling that the federal government had not lived up to its promises with the railroad.
Soon after, Beaven took over the finance portfolio and found that the province was in deep trouble when it came to finances. The poor financial record of the province made borrowing impossible, and provincial governments had to fund their own public work projects out of current revenues. For the province, the main sources of revenue were the wildly fluctuating markets of mining, forestry and settlement. Not surprisingly, Beaven was blamed for the deficits of the province. In 1881, to help get finances in proper order, he instituted a poll tax but this did little to help.
In 1882, Beaven became the premier of the province but his government was unpopular. He also remained as the finance minister.
As he took over, the workers had stopped working on the graving dock on Vancouver Island. Beaven had to bring in day labour until the financial problems with the dock were sorted out.
In the 1882 election, many of his supporters lost their bid for re-election and while he did win the election, it was with a minority government.
While serving as premier in 1882, he oversaw the three month visit of the Governor General of Canada, the Marquess of Lorne, and his wife Princess Louise. He apparently offered to make her Queen of Vancouver Island but she declined.
In January 1883, Beaven attempted to bring in a legislative program but a Motion of No Confidence brought down his government.
He resigned on Jan. 29, 1883. His 230 days in power is sixth-shortest for any premier in British Columbia history, and the shortest term of any premier in the 19th century.
After he was ousted as premier the subsequent premiers were able to solve many of the issues that brought down his career as premier. The graving dock was turned over to the federal government in 1884, and Beaven opposed the huge tracts of land granted to the company owned by American partners. He called them a semi-foreign corporation.
His time as premier took a toll on him and he fell ill in 1884 for a time. The illness was never disclosed but it likely was tied to exhaustion.
As an MLA in British Columbia, throughout his career, he was considered one of the best debaters in the government. The Vancouver Province said of him,
“In debate, Mr. Beaven was a very able antagonist to any member who found fault with the government policy. He had statistics relating to provincial affairs, and also financial matters, at his finger’s end. He was extremely careful as to any statement which he made, and was always absolutely honest.”
Unfortunately, he was not known for his charm and that made it difficult to make friends politically.
In 1888, Premier Robson said that Beaven was a sneaking, snarling cur.
At one point, Robert Dunsmuir said in the Legislature in July 1886,
“If I am alive when you come before the electors, I will defeat you.”
The Victoria Daily Times responded to this by stating,
“Dunsmuir may be the uncrowned king of Vancouver Island, but the electors of Victoria are not his slaves and defy him. A man who has served the public as long and as faithfully as Robert Beaven whose character is unimpeachable and whose public life is without reproach, will not appeal in vain to an electorate that has always treated him with consideration and respect.”
As it turned out, Beaven once again won the election, defeating Dunsmuir.
He remained in the Legislature until July 7, 1894, serving as the Leader of the Opposition, when he lost in the election.
Despite his short time as premier, he had a large impact on early British Columbia but more during his time in cabinet than as premier.
He helped establish the Supreme Court of British Columbia, provided pensions for those who worked in the court, he appointed two supreme court and county court judges, and he helped the City of Victoria construct its waterworks in 1873 and 1874. He also brought forward the act limiting fees payable on the estates of deceased persons, the first general municipal act, the game protection act, an act to protect the rights of property for married women, and exempted the members of volunteer fire departments from jury duty.
By the time of his retirement, he had become a spokesperson for working class British Columbians. He pushed for an eight-hour work day and he tried to have Chinese Canadians banned from working for companies incorporated under provincial law. This was a long-standing issue for him. Back in 1891, he put forward a motion as an MLA to ban the employment of Chinese immigrants on the Westminster Street Railway and Vancouver Tramway Companies.
In all, he served 24 years in the Legislature.
Around this time, Victoria was booming and in January 1892, Beaven became the mayor of Victoria. He won again in 1893, but lost his re-election bid in 1894. He returned to the mayor’s chair in 1896. That same year, the Point Ellice Bridge Disaster occurred, the worst transit disaster in British Columbia history. Many lawsuits were filed against the civic government and in 1897, Beaven lost his re-election contest.
One year later in May 1898, he suffered tragedy when his home was destroyed by a fire. The fire had begun in the kitchen and high winds fanned the flames. Beaven attempted to suppress the fire with a stream of water from a garden hose as his wife sought a fire alarm box to call the department.
The Victoria Daily Times said,
“Two streams of water were turned on the fire, but it had gained such headway that little was saved.”
He ran in the 1898 provincial election as an independent, finishing dead last in the polls.
After the 1898 election, no party had a majority and Lt. Governor Thomas McInnes needed to get someone to form a government.
He asked Beaven to form a government.
This came as a surprise to nearly the entire province. The Vancouver Province wrote,
“The one topic of conversation on the street corners, in hotel lobbies and all places of public resort today is the political situation. Everybody is in a fog, wondering what will happen next. The only person who seems entirely happy is the Honourable Robert Beaven. His face is wreathed in smiles and he expresses himself as quite confident of being able to form a strong government.”
Beaven for his part stated that the request of the Lt. Governor was a complete surprise to him, but he agreed to it and believed he could present a cabinet to the Lt. Governor within a few days.
The Honourable Joseph Martin stated,
“I was never more surprised in my life than when I heard that his honour the Lt. Governor had called upon the Honourable Robert Beaven to form a ministry.”
Beaven found there was little support for him in the Legislature.
The Vancouver Province reported,
“Honourable Robert Beaven has thus far been unable to form a ministry and no one who knows anything of the political situation believes for one moment he will ever succeed in his task.”
As a result, he was unable to form a cabinet and did not serve as premier.
In July 1901, he once again dealt with a fire. This time, the fire was in a home he owned, but was renting out to a school for girls. The fire originated in the chimney and the roof soon caught fire. While the furniture was brought out of the house, and firefighters attempted to fight the fire. Unfortunately, one team of horses pulling a fire cart ran away. The fire destroyed much of the house, causing lots of damage but it was covered by insurance.
For the last years of his life, he was in poor health.
On Sept. 18, 1920, he died in Victoria.
The Victoria Daily Times said of him,
“Robert Beaven rendered notable service to the city of his adoption. Having been associated with the early municipal ordinances of the province, a time came when that special knowledge he possessed was of exceptional service to Victoria.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Kamloops Telegram, Wikipedia, Victoria Daily Times, Vancouver Province, The Weekly News Advertiser,