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5 BC premiers named John with West Kootenay ties

Updated: Oct 11, 2018

Here’s the oddest list I’ve come up with yet. Five guys who a) were premier of BC, b) had some connection to our area, and c) were named John.

BC Legislature (Wikipedia photo)

John Robson (1889-92)

The community of Robson owes its name to BC’s ninth premier. However, he never visited his namesake town nor had anything to do with it. (In this, Robson shared something with Lt.-Gov. Hugh Nelson, who never visited or had anything to do with Nelson.)

The name was first mentioned in the Nelson Miner on March 14, 1891: “The Canadian Pacific’s new townsite above Sproat has been named Robson, in honour of John Robson, premier of the province.”

It was a doubtless an acknowledgement of the subsidies Robson’s government provided the CPR. Robson (pictured above in a Wikipedia photo) has several other things named after him, including Robson Cove, near the entrance to Burrard Inlet, and Robson St. in Vancouver.

John Herbert Turner (1895-98)

Turner was mayor of Victoria from 1876-81 before entering provincial politics. He co-founded Turner, Beeton and Co. (originally Turner, Beeton, and Tunstall), whose diverse business interests included salmon canning, insurance, and wholesale liquor.

According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “Turner was criticized for using his political position and public profile for private gain. As with other public men of his time, it is difficult to distinguish his political activities from his business interests.”

In 1895, a few months after Turner became premier, his company opened a Nelson branch at the corner of Hall and Vernon streets (pictured at right in 1899), where the Grand liquor store now stands. They also had a branch liquor house in New Denver. Turner didn’t personally run these operations, but did visit a few times.

He was in Nelson in October 1900, by which time he was no longer premier but had returned to cabinet as finance minister. According to the Nelson Tribune, he registered at the Phair Hotel.

He will remain in the city for several days visiting the local government offices and renewing old acquaintances. At the conclusion of his stay here Mr. Turner will go to Rossland the Boundary on a similar mission. His last visit to this city was made two years ago and the marked improvements reported from Nelson have elicited his surprise and admiration.

Details of his previous visit are elusive. But we know he was also in Rossland in 1901 to meet with the board of trade shortly after being appointed the province’s agent-general in London — a role previously held by his business partner, Henry C. Beeton.

Turner, Beeton closed in Nelson around 1902 although the company was reorganized and continued on for several more years in Vancouver and Victoria.

John Oliver (1918-27)

In the general election of 1924, the Liberal government was returned to power but the premier lost his own Victoria seat. So he needed someone in his caucus to step aside so he could run in a by-election.

That duty fell to Nelson MLA Kenneth Campbell. There are two reasons why John Oliver might have wanted to run there. First, of course, it was considered a safe seat for his party. Additionally, Oliver’s sister Emma and brother-in-law John Bell lived there. (Bell would be elected Nelson’s mayor the following year.)

While other parties sometimes declined to run against leaders in such by-elections as a courtesy, the Conservatives and Provincial party teamed up to oppose the premier. Former city alderman Harry Houston — a nephew to Nelson’s founding mayor, John Houston — agreed to stand as the Citizens candidate. He lost in a landslide.

I don’t know how much time Oliver actually spent in the riding, but the highlight of his stint as Nelson’s MLA was probably cutting the ribbon in 1926 on the new Coffee Creek highway, which finally connected Nelson and Kaslo by road. The late Mavis Stainer recalled an “old fellow with a white beard” delivering a speech from the porch of her father J.B. Fletcher’s store at Ainsworth. That was Oliver. A photo of this event survives.

Oliver died on Aug. 17, 1927 of cancer, age 71, while still the sitting premier and Nelson MLA. One other footnote: his son, Dr. Robert Oliver, was in Sandon during the latter stages of the 1918 flu epidemic in his role as medical health officer.

John Duncan MacLean (1927-28)

MacLean became premier when Oliver died. He started out as a teacher, and was principal of Rossland’s Central school in 1900-01. He then attended McGill University and graduated with a medical degree in 1905. He moved back to BC and practiced in Greenwood from 1907 onward, where he served on city council from 1912-15, then was elected mayor by acclamation in 1916.

In September of the latter year, he was elected Liberal MLA for the Greenwood riding in a landslide over Conservative John Jackson, but he remained mayor for a few more months, as the legislature was not recalled until March 1917.

He was re-elected in 1920. In 1924, he ran instead in the Yale riding. MacLean served in cabinet as provincial secretary, and variously as minister of health, education, and finance. His time as premier only lasted one year, to the day. He resigned after personal and party defeat in 1928. Later that year he ran in a federal by-election in Victoria, but narrowly lost. He was subsequently appointed chair of the Canadian Farm Loan Board and moved to Ottawa.

Rossland’s MacLean school was named after him when it opened in 1918, while he was then serving as education minister.

John Horgan (2017-present)

Our current premier has a justifiable fondness for Kaslo. He made a point of visiting in 2011 while on the NDP leadership campaign trail and again in 2016 while opposition leader.

On that first trip, he told the Nelson Star: “In my opinion it’s one of the most beautiful spots in the Kootenays. I’ve got a special place in my heart for Kaslo.”

As a government staffer who helped establish the Columbia Basin Trust, Horgan spent the mid-1990s at “just about every swimming hole you can imagine in the region” and has a collection of photos from family trips to the SS Moyie to prove it.

The above does not exhaust the list of BC premiers named John. There were two others: John Foster McCreight (1871-72), who was actually the province’s first premier but is little remembered, and John Hart (1941-47).

Hart may have a minor Kootenay connection too, but I haven’t been able to confirm it: Hart Street in Nelson is likely named after him. I draw this conclusion because Stibbs Street, which is one further up, was named after Norman Stibbs, mayor from 1938-46. So they might have been christened around the same time.

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