“Boss” Bowser of British Columbia

A Sketch of the Napoleon of Pacific Coast Politics

W. A. CRAICK June 1 1914

“Boss” Bowser of British Columbia

A Sketch of the Napoleon of Pacific Coast Politics

W. A. CRAICK June 1 1914

“Boss” Bowser of British Columbia

A Sketch of the Napoleon of Pacific Coast Politics


One predominant feature of United States politics is not found in Canada—liossistnBrerp American state, er er y cita, every ward, lias its political dictator. In Canada, political machines exist, but the sectional “boss” very fortunately docs not. There is possibly only one man to whom the term has been definitely applied—a hard working, forceful member of the B.C. Cor eminent whose resemblance to the “Little Corporal'’ is not confined by any means to facial outlines. Why the lion. Mr. Bowser has become known as "Boss” Bowser and wherein his Boss-ship consists is made the subject of the accompanying article.

IN the British Columbia Legislature the first desk in the front row on the Speaker’s right is occupied, not by the Premier, as is customary in many assemblies, but by the Attorney-General, the Hon. W. J. Bowser.

The arrangement, though not intentionally significant, yet has a meaning.

Despite the attractiveness of Sir Richard McBride’s personality and his undoubted abilities as a politician, it is no secret that the strength of his government rests very largely on the remarkable organizing and administrative powers of his AttorneyGeneral. The two men are complements one of the other and, while Sir Richard is specially qualified to act as a popular and picturesque leader, without the practical support of .Mr. Bowser there is little doubt that to-day his party would scarcely occupy the dominating position to which it has attained in the government of the province.

The Attorney-General of British Columbia, more perhaps than any other politician in Canada with the possible exception of the Hon. Robert Rogers, is entitled to the designation “Boss.” It is as “Boss” Bowser that he is most commonly referred to among the people of British Columbia. Yet the term, in his case, must not be taken as inferring anything evil or iniquitous. A keen politician and ambitious to hold the control of the Conservative party in the province, he has undoubtedly gone to considerable lengths to gain his purpose but that he has trespassed beyond the point where the sanction of law or custom ends is asserted by few and denied by many. Even political opponents admire the skill

with which he has made everything serve his purpose and his friends do not hesitate to applaud the long-headed discernment with which he has handled difficult situations.

There is another description of the man, which is occasionally mentioned among his greatest admirers. “Who do you think he looks like?” they will ask, and wait expectantly for such reply as may be hazarded. If one happens to be a sufficiently clever discoverer of likenesses, he may hit upon the answer at once. Otherwise, the resemblance not being exactly obvious, it may take a

good deal of guesswork to arrive at the desired conclusion. The elucidation of the matter might indeed be rendered easier were Mr. Bowser to dress in character for some fancy dress ball or skating carnival. Then the facility with which he could be transformed into the hero to whom his followers do him the honor of likening him, would be so apparent that there could be no further hesitation in exclaiming that he looks decidedly like the Little Cor-

Examine the Bowser physiognomy carefully and there is undoubtedly considerable justification for the ambitious parallel. There is the Roman nose and the determined protruding chin, two features notably N apoleone sque. There is also the high forehead, denoting brain power, and the strong mouth, indicative of force and tenacity. Beyond this the man’s figure has lately been growing s,r at «m'k at m* from spareness to t lu* 1 * ‘it i* la t ^ t

above. moderate corpulen-

cy, while in height he comes pretty close to the stature of the famous Emperor. Of course all such comparisons are merely interesting little diversions, introduced either to flatter the subject under consideration or to afford a moment’s entertainment for such as like to work out resemblances. Beyond the chance outward similarity, it would be foolish to attempt to push this particular parallel further.

That the Premier of British Columbia and his Attorney-General were college chums is a matter not widely known or generally appreciated. The pair first met in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1887, as

freshmen in the law school of Dalhousie University. Sir Richard McBride was then a lad of seventeen, Mr. Bowser his senior by three years. They remained together during the course, both receiving the LL.B. degree at the commencement exercises of 1890. Whether they shared their ambitions during their student days or even whether they had any serious ambitions at all, is known only to themselves. All that can be said is that they were thrown together during a formative period of their lives and doubtless came to a thorough understanding of each others’s character and capacity.

While Sir Richard was a native of the province which he now rules and had gone across the continent for his legal training, Mr. Bowser was born in the east. He was the son of a merchant and shipowner in Rexton, a small village in the County of Kent, New Brunswick, and there he was born on December 3 in the year that witnessed the confederation of the Canadian provinces. For his education he was sent to Sackville, where he attended Mount Allison Academy until he was ready to take up the study of law at Halifax.

It was probably owing to the representations of “Dick” McBride that he decided to go to British Columbia to begin practice. Rexton offered no chance for him and the cities of the Maritime Provinces were already well supplied with legal practitioners. Accordingly he went west in the year following his call to the bar and settled in Vancouver. The Pacific terminus of the C. P. R. was then a pretty small place but it was on the threshold of that astonishing expansion which has already carried it forward to fourth position among the cities of Canada. In this growth, as one of the leading lawyers on the coast, Mr. Bowser has shared and to-day may be regarded as one of the most prosperous professional men of British Columbia.

His political career may be said to have begun in 1896. In the memorable election of that year, when only twenty-

nine years of age, he contested Vancouver in the Conservative interest but owing to a split in the party, which admitted a second candidate, he was unsuccessful. In this connection it is interesting to note that while he was electioneering in Vancouver, his old college chum, McBride, was running in New Westminster and with even less good fortune. The two young politicians were not yet to realize their cherished desire.

If Tables Had Been Turned

Two years later a provincial election was held and again the pair were in the field, Mr. Bowser running in Vancouver and Mr. McBride in Dewdney. It would hardly do at this time to speculate as to what might have transpired had the tables been turned on that occasion and the Vancouver lawyer have won instead of the New Westminster barrister. As it was the future premier obtained a five-years’ advantage over his friend and they were momentous years in the political history of the province. They saw three coalition governments break to pieces and they also witnessed the promotion of the young member from Dewdney, first into the front benches, then into the leadership of the opposition and ultimately into the premier’s chair.

On assuming the premiership, Mr. McBride announced his intention of running the government for the future on party lines. He dissolved the Legislature in 1903 and appealed to the country, presenting himself to the electorate as an out-and-out Conservative. In the election which followed, Mr. Bowser for the third time solicited the suffrage of the Vancouver electors and this time his hopes were not disappointed. He was elected as one of the members for the city and took his seat as a private member. Had it not been for his lack of experience and the fact that members of the cabinet had already been selected, there is little doubt that “Dick” would have given his friend “Bill” a portfolio at once.

It is now seven years since the Hon.

W. J. Bowser became Attorney-General of British Columbia. In that time he has made himself the master, at least of all the minutiae which go to make up the strength of the government. As is generally known the Conservative party is so strongly entrenched in power in the pi-ovince, thanks to the wonderful organization which he has engineered, that at the last general election the Liberals were unable to capture a single seat and the only opposition in the house to-day consists of two Socialists elected by the miners on Vancouver Island. The situation is actually farcical and even Conservatives themselves are compelled to admit that the condition is not a healthy one. But from the standpoint of the Attorney-General, it is an achievement politically that must afford much satisfaction.

An Outspoken Man

Compared to the Premier, Mr. Bowser cannot be described as a popular man. He is entirely lacking in the winning qualities which have made “Dick” McBride so much liked among all classes of the community. He is pugnacious, argumentative, dictatorial. He calls a spade a spade, says yes or no with full intent to abide by his decision, makes little effort to concilitate opponents and consequently irritates them not a little. Were it not that back of it all, he was sincere and on that account had won the respect of those with whom he has had dealings, he would probably be the most unpopular man in public life in British Columbia to-day.

The Attorney-General realizes his deficiencies and has more than once tried to overcome them but without much success. It is pretty hard for a man of his disposition to transform himself into a light-hearted, good-humored and ingratiating chap, these being natural and not cultivated traits. At any rate he has a sufficient sense of the humorous to tell a pretty good story about one of his

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early efforts to achieve popularity. It was about the time he was first beginning to cherish political ambitions and he knew that it was necessary to be excessively friendly and polite to the public. This involved remembering faces and names, a pursuit in which he was not particularly proficient.

One day he was walking along the street in Vancouver and noticed a man coming towards him. The face struck • him-as familiar and he felt that it was the necessary thing to -bow. Though the man eyed him in a peculiarly surly way, he nodded his head in as friendly a manner as he could contrive and gave the fellow a pleasant smile. Then he conjured his brain to recall where he had seen the man and what was his name. At length the truth dawned on him. It was a person whom he had been prosecuting the day bêfore for petty larceny.

After this experience he did not think it worth while to bother very much more about recognizing people.

A Study in Contrast Another story will perhaps elucidate his character more clearly. A deputation waited on him one day to prefer a certain request, the details of which it is unnecessary to give. He received them in his usual straightforward and serious way and agreed to give them a hearing. They had not proceeded very far, however, in the presentation of their case, when the Attorney-General began to argue with them. He questioned this, he contradicted that, he disagreed with the other and in the end came out with a very emphatic negative. At the close of the interview the members of the delegation filed out of his office looking very disgruntled, indignant and angry. Mr. Bowser had said no, but the way in which he said it had not been conciliating.

Disappointed in their expectations, the men decided to carry the matter to the Premier. An appointment was hurriedly arranged and the irritated delegation, with revenge in their hearts, went to see Sir Richard. The contrast in their reception and treatment was marked. As he shook hands, the Premier “jollied” this one and joked with that one. By the time the business which had brought them there was opened up, the whole roomful was in the best of spirits. With the deepest concern Sir Richard listened to their complaint, soothed them with comforting words, gave them many assurances and promises and finally turned them out in high good humor. When at length they were nble to size up the situation they found to their chagrin that after all the Premier had not done a whit more for them than the AttorneyGeneral. Sir Richard had also said no, but in such a smooth and conciliating way, that they almost thought that he meant the opposite.

This story, related by a member of the delegation, who by the way is a great admirer of the “Boss,” gives an illuminating picture of the essential difference

between the two men and shows how, in combination, the pair are a tremendous force. Without the winning ways of the Premier, the Attorney-General would be frequently in hot water. Without the strength of purpose and shrewdness of the Attorney-General, the first minister would not find it quite so easy to retain power.

So far as the other ministers of the crown are concerned, they mostly take their cue from the man with the iron jaw. Indeed it has been computed that at least eighty per cent, of the legislation introduced by the Government originates with him. He knows the ins and outs of each department quite as well as its nominal head and when any minister is off on vacation or on a trip of any sort, it is the most natural thing in the world for the Attorney-General to step in and administer his affairs. Around the legislative buildings it is said that the coming of this versatile minister is like the advent of a whirlwind. He sweeps in and is not content until he has cleaned up every bit of correspondence and every scrap of business in sight. Matters which have been hanging fire for months are dealt with on the spot and when he is through his day’s work, his absent colleagues’ desks are as clean as his own.

A tremendous appetite for work is one of the outstanding characteristics of the Hon. William. He loves activity and likes to have his hand in everything that is going on. To his own department he has kept adding and adding branches until it is by far the heaviest-loaded department in the government. Besides looking after the legal work, he has taken on the administration of fisheries and game, the registration of companies, the inspection of trust companies and the heavy duties of the municipal department. Not only does he tackle a great deal, but he lives daily up to his reputation for punctuality and thoroughness. He invariably keeps his promises and there is no work in arrears where he is concerned.

A prominent Vancouver business man, in referring to this characteristic, says that in all his dealings with the Attorney-General, and they have been numerous, he has never once found him fail to live up to his word. With other ministers of the crown he has frequently been disappointed but oncé Mr. Bowser has said that he would do a thing on a certain day or at a certain hour, he could rely on his carrying out his promise.

As a formal speaker,—for instance when explaining a proposed measure to the house,—the Attorney-General does not show any particularly brilliant qualities. He is terse and practical, even matter-of-fact, in his utterance, talking in almost a conversational vein. But when he is on the hustings, especially if he has a hostile audience before him, he wakens up as it were and comes out with striking forcefulness. Opposition invariably stirs him and he is strongest when he feels that he has a fight before him. He is by no means an ingratiating speaker. His vocabularly contains few high-sounding and meaningless words nor does he attempt to humor his auditors with mirth-provoking stories. He puts little energy into gesticulation but relies

on the strength of his argument and the force of his invective for effect. Before delivering a campaign speech he usually jots down the leading points he wishes to make, on a slip of paper, which he holds in his hand when he speaks.

Being responsible for so much of the legislation that passes through the house, the duty of supporting it falls of necessity on his shoulders. Some of his measures have met with considerable opposition, principally on the ground that they have been devised to strengthen the grip of the present government on the country. Doubtless so keen a tactician as the Attorney-General must have had something of the sort in his mind when he drafted them. At the same time there are very few laws which he has put on the statute book that have not had a good deal of sound common sense back of them.

He has undoubtedly built up a remarkably effective organization of the Conservative party in British Columbia. Threads from the farthest sections of the province are gathered in his hands. He has his minions here, there and everywhere and personally is informed of every move in the political machine. His enemies indeed proclaim that he has the country too much in his power for the good of the people. But he proceeds warily and plays the game according to the rules. He is ambitious and covets power and up to the present has been strong enough to dictate what shall or shall not happen in the party organization. Some have tried to balk but have always found him invincible.

Though nominally head of the law firm of Bowser, Reid & Wallbridge, in Vancouver, the Attorney-General has entirely given up the private practice of the law and is now quite absorbed in politics. He has recently built a fine residence in the capital, where he makes his home. It is only quite recently that he has given up a day and night grind to indulge in much-needed exercise. This he obtains on the links of the Victoria Golf Club where play may be enjoyed all the year round, thanks to the mild climate of Vancouver Island. He likes the game and is developing into quite a good player. His only other relaxation is motoring though each autumn he is accustomed to go to Golden on a hunting expedition. Apart from this his time is fully occupied with departmental work, appointments, addresses and very necessary attention to organization work.

What is to be “Boss” Bowser’s future? He is still a young man, as age is reckoned nowadays, having only recently completed his forty-seventh year, and there is doubtless much before him. Were anything to lead to Sir Richard McBride’s removal from the premiership, there would scarcely be any question as to his right to the office. That he expects ultimately to step into Sir Richard’s shoes, is generally assumed ; that he would make a capable first minister, is obvious; but that, without the Premier’s ingratiating ways, he could long hope to retain power, is uncertain. The situation in British Columbia, all things considered, is as interesting as in any province of the Dominion.