He was called the “Father of British Columbia” and governed with absolute authority until he was eased out of office in 1864. Born in 1803, in Demerara, in what is now Guyana to Martha Ann Tefler, a “free coloured” woman (meaning a freed person of mixed ancestry) and John Douglas, a Scottish planter, James Douglas was educated from the age of 9 in Scotland. He came to Canada as an employee of the North West Company when he was sixteen, in 1819, working first in Fort William (what is now part of Thunder Bay Ontario). His contract was transferred to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) when the companies merged in 1821. While stationed at Bear Lake (north of Prince George), he married Amellia Connolly, daughter of his close friend, William, and part Cree.
In 1828, Douglas was moved, after executing the murderer of two HBC traders by shooting him in the head, to Fort Vancouver, near the mouth of the Columbia River in present day Washington State. William Connolly, fearing for his friend and son-in-law’s life, had appealed to the HBC to transfer Douglas. His wife, who had remained behind to give birth to their first child, traveled to Fort Vancouver in 1830, after the child had died. While they lived in Fort Vancouver, the couple had ten more children, five of whom died in infancy.
He was promoted from Chief Accountant to Chief Trader of the HBC in 1834, one of only four men holding that position in the district. In 1840 was promoted to Chief Factor, the highest HBC rank for field personnel.
In 1849 Douglas established both the Colony of Vancouver Island and Fort Victoria for the HBC. As a precursor to his career on the island, it was perfect, since in 1853, he became Governor of the colony and maintained his HBC position until 1858, when he accepted the governorship of the colony of British Columbia as well as continuing his rule over Vancouver Island.
How, you ask, did he manage that? At the time, 1857, gold was discovered in the Fraser Canyon, near Yale. Word got out quickly and almost overnight, some ten to twenty thousand men showed up eager to be the first into the goldfields. Douglas, who had only reluctantly established a legislative assembly for his colony on Vancouver Island, and who had absolutely no legal authority on the mainland, wasted no time – he stationed a gunboat in the mouth of the river and insisted that every boat heading up to the gold fields buy a license to extract the precious metal from the river and surrounding lands. The colonial office didn’t drag their feet, either – they quickly established the colony of British Columbia, with its capital at New Westminster, and appointed Douglas its governor on the condition that he resign his position with HBC. He accepted both the conditions, and a knighthood.
He governed both colonies until his retirement (which was partly choice and partly forced) in 1864. In 1866, the two colonies were amalgamated into one, and joined the Dominion of Canada in 1871. Douglas died, full of honours and respect, on August 2, 1877.
Sir James Douglas’s influence and impact can still be seen in Victoria and British Columbia. Victoria’s main street, Douglas Street, is named after him, as is an entire neighbourhood – James Bay, where he originally lived. Sir James Douglas Elementary school honours his love of education and learning, and Mount Douglas Park dominates the skyline of Victoria as he used to dominate the politics. Elsewhere in the province, there are channels, inlets and islands that bear his name. One of the US Canada border crossings is named after him, and there are two other schools on the mainland, as well as two other roads, named after him. Father of British Columbia, authoritarian and family man – he definitely impacted the history of this province and our country.
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