The medical connection. BC doctors’ founding role in BC and Canada: Happy 150th birthday Canada!
Blog Author: George Szasz, CM, MDPosted: Tuesday, January 17, 2017 - 13:46
On 1 July 1867 the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada joined into a federation of four provinces (the Province of Canada having been divided into Ontario and Quebec in the process) to become the Dominion of Canada. This date of birth 150 years ago will be celebrated throughout 2017.
While the baby Canada of four provinces was born in 1867, it took another 132 years (1 April 1999) for Canada to mature to her present status with 10 provinces, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut.
Prior to joining the federation in 1871, today’s British Columbia first consisted of two separate colonies: the Colony of British Columbia (the large land mass governed at the Crown’s request by the Hudson’s Bay Company) and the Colony of Vancouver Island. These two colonies united as a single Colony of British Columbia in 1866. The population of the united colonies was small: perhaps 11 000 Europeans, about 26 000 Aboriginal people, and about 5000 Chinese pioneers. The Chinese arrived here directly from California in the 1850s and 1860s, as the gold rush there came to a close. (Japanese immigrants started to arrive after confederation, in the late 1870s, and Sikhs began to settle here in the early 1900s). The collapse of the fur trading economy, the economic depression following the end of the gold rush, and a large public debt pushed the colony to consider joining confederation. A small faction opposed the union with Canada—preferring annexation with the United States.
Even Dr John Sebastian Helmcken (1824–1920), physician, politician, chief trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and an elected member and the speaker of the first Legislative Assembly of the colony, was concerned that BC was geographically too distant from the east to have any political influence in the new confederation. He also worried that not only the colony but the whole of the Dominion of Canada might be absorbed by the United States. In choosing a union to come about he insisted that it must have “material and pecuniary” advantages to the colony—including the building of a transcontinental railway. Dr Helmcken, along with Dr Robert William Weir Carrall (1837–1879), a physician in Nanaimo and later in Barkerville, as well as a politician and a member of the Legislative Assembly, and Mr Joseph William Trutch (1826–1904), an engineer and surveyor, were selected to meet the authorities in Ottawa for a discussion of terms for joining the Dominion.
With entry into the union in 1871 Dr Helmcken retired from public life to resume his medical practice. However, behind the scenes he was instrumental in moving BC’s capital from New Westminster to Victoria and he was the founding president of the BC Medical Society in 1885 (which was disbanded and reformed in 1900 as BC Medical Association [now Doctors of BC] with Dr R.E. McKechnie as president).
Dr Helmcken’s influence also led to the establishment of the British Columbia Medical Council (the licensing body for physicians) in 1886. In addition, he served as the president of the board of directors of the Royal Hospital (later Royal Jubilee Hospital) in Victoria.
Dr Carrall was appointed to the Senate of Canada. In 1879 he introduced a bill to mark 1 July a public holiday called Dominion Day (now Canada Day).
Mr Trutch was appointed Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia and as one of the overseers of the Canadian Pacific Railway construction in BC.
Today three streets in Vancouver are named after these pioneers to honor their accomplishments. Happy 150th birthday, Canada!
—George Szasz, CM, MD
The reminiscences of doctor John Sebastian Helmcken. In: Blakey Smith D, editor. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press; 1975.
Ormsby MA. British Columbia: A history. Toronto, ON: Macmillan of Canada; 1971.
This posting has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.