Mitchell, Peter

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Mitchell,Peter From NBGS Miramichi-WIKI Jump to: navigation, search Peter MItchell, b. 4 Jan. 1824 in Newcastle, N.B. d. 24 Oct. 1899 in Montreal. He was a lawyer, businessman, politician, author, and office holder; son of Peter Mitchell and Barbara Grant. He was married 9 March 1853 to Isabella Gough, née Carvell, widow of James Gough and sister of Jedediah Slason Carvell, in Saint John, N.B., and they had one daughter.

After attending the grammar school in Newcastle, Peter Mitchell entered the law office of George Kerr where he worked for four years. He was admitted as an attorney on 14 Oct. 1847 and called to the bar on 7 Oct. 1849. In the former year he established a partnership with John Mercer Johnson; Mitchell practised in Newcastle and Johnson in Chatham. Their association was dissolved in 1852, but the two men remained friends and were political allies for many years.

Over the course of his career Mitchell became involved in a number of business enterprises, including shipbuilding and lumbering. In 1853 he entered into a partnership with his wife’s brother-in-law John Haws, and between 1853 and 1861 they built at least 12 vessels. The Golden Light (1,204 tons), which was one of several large ships from their yards, was launched in 1853 so late in the season that Mitchell had to have an 11-mile channel cut through the river ice so that she could leave the Miramichi. The partnership with Haws ended in 1861, but Mitchell continued to build ships until 1868, by which time he had launched 16 more. In 1864 he employed 250 men in the shipyards and paid out £300 weekly to them in wages; another 100 were loading ships with lumber for European markets. In the 1870s he owned the Mitchell Steamship Company, which operated vessels between Montreal and the Maritimes in the summer and between the Maritimes and Portland, Maine, in the winter. He was also a director of the Merchants’ Marine Insurance Company of Canada and the Baie des Chaleurs Railway, and was manager and treasurer of the Anticosti Company, which was probably a lumber firm. His business interests were not well managed and he frequently had trouble paying the bills.

In his first venture into politics, an 1852 by-election to fill the Northumberland seat vacated by the death of Alexander Rankin, Mitchell ran as a reformer and a liberal. Claiming to have been a disciple of Joseph Howe for the last ten years, he advocated responsible government, reduction in the salaries of government officials, reciprocity with the United States, and railway construction. George Kerr defeated him at the polls.

In the election of 1856 Mitchell, whose father was a hotel- and tavern-keeper, ran as an opponent of the Prohibition Act. This controversial legislation had led to the dismissal of Charles Fisher’s Reform government, and feelings ran high. During the campaign Mitchell carried a pistol for protection and quantities of rum for his supporters. There were ten candidates for the four Northumberland seats and he came second. Re-elected in 1857, he remained a member of the provincial house until 1860.

As an assemblyman, Mitchell favoured making the initiation of money bills the exclusive right of the Executive Council, a reform which came about in 1858, and he backed the establishment of municipal administrations, which was not done until 1877. A Presbyterian, he was an opponent of denominational schools. In 1858 he introduced a bill to eliminate the leasing of crown lands by auction to timber operators. The measure, which was designed to aid small timber interests, was accomplished in 1861.

When Mitchell was appointed to the Executive Council in 1859, the editor of the Chatham Gleaner predicted that he would make proceedings livelier than they had been. As a member of council, Mitchell helped pass a bankruptcy act which eased the burden of debtors. He opposed increased taxes on shipping interests and was able to get a bill enacted compelling the commissioners of buoys and beacons for Miramichi to put their surplus funds towards the support of sick and disabled seamen. Mitchell did not run in the election of 1861 but, shortly after, he was appointed to the Legislative Council where he remained until confederation. He was also named to the Executive Council in June 1861 and was considered by Lieutenant Governor Arthur Hamilton Gordon to be one of its ablest members. In the fight for an intercolonial railway, he was New Brunswick’s champion, attending conferences on its construction held at Quebec in 1861 and 1862.

A strong supporter of confederation, Mitchell was present at the Quebec conference in 1864 and resigned from the Executive Council with the other members of Tilley’s government after its 1865 electoral defeat. He then continued the fight for confederation from his seat in the Legislative Council. While Gordon was attempting to manoeuvre the new government leader, Albert James Smith, into proposing measures that would ensure New Brunswick’s acceptance of the plan, Mitchell was hovering in the background, supporting and advising the lieutenant governor. Gordon used Mitchell in his efforts to get Smith to find a union scheme that both anti-confederates and confederates could accept. Mitchell did not trust Smith and was worried about the reaction of his own colleagues, but he went along with Gordon. Smith, however, refused to cooperate and eventually, on 10 April 1866, he and his government resigned. Mitchell advised Gordon to ask Tilley to form a new government but Tilley, who did not have a seat in the house, declined. Gordon next called on Mitchell and Robert Duncan Wilmot jointly. Mitchell became premier and led the fight for confederation during the 1866 election, which ended with a major victory for the confederates. He subsequently attended the London conference at which the British North America Act was drafted and was appointed to the Senate of the new dominion in May 1867.

When John A. Macdonald formed his first federal cabinet, he dealt with Tilley and not Mitchell. This was the first of the many slights that Mitchell later claimed to have suffered at Macdonald’s hands. Tilley was invited to join the cabinet and was told to select one other New Brunswicker to join him. The belief was that Tilley would have preferred another Saint John River man but that Mitchell’s popularity in the province and energetic support of confederation made it impossible to leave him out. Mitchell himself made it clear that he should be included. On 1 June 1867 he was offered his choice of two cabinet posts, secretary of state for the provinces or minister of marine and fisheries. Macdonald told him that there was little to do in either position, but in the Department of Marine and Fisheries he was to find enough to occupy his energy and administrative talents. He was sworn in on 1 July 1867. His familiarity with fishing, shipbuilding, and shipping was to help him as he tried to organize the department, which was faced with the task of integrating the various provincial fisheries and marine regulations. The ministry had international importance and ample scope for growth. Mitchell was criticized for the wide powers given to the minister in the act of 1868 that set it up, but he argued that such powers were needed to deal with future expansion. A report made in 1872 to Trinity House, London, on Canadian and American coastal protection praised Mitchell for having established a system “of simplicity and economy.”

Mitchell’s work with the fisheries themselves was even more important and was to entail diplomacy since Great Britain and the United States were also involved. He encouraged conservation, which necessitated fishways and restocking, but his main problem was the violation of Canadian waters by foreign fishermen. Americans were the worst offenders. Under the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 they had been given certain rights to the inshore fisheries. Although that agreement had terminated in 1866, the Americans continued to act as if they still had the same privileges. Attempts in 1865 and 1866 to renegotiate the treaty had failed. Beginning in 1866 American fishermen had been required to take out licences to fish in Canadian waters, but most refused. Enforcement was carried out by British warships, which issued three warnings before taking any action. Mitchell wanted higher licence fees and one warning only. The British foreign secretary, Lord Stanley, refused to consider this proposal, made in the spring of 1868. Mitchell felt Canada’s “national dignity and rights” were at stake. Macdonald tried to tone down the severity of Mitchell’s new regulations but did support him in this dispute, and Lord Stanley soon backed down.

Mitchell, however, was still not satisfied that Canadian rights were being protected. Believing that Britain was unlikely to do anything to upset the Americans, he decided to force the issue. For the 1870 season he created his own navy. To Canada’s two existing ships he added six vessels designed and equipped to look like American fishing boats but armed. This fleet was sent to help the British warships enforce Canadian regulations. His policy had the support of the Canadian government, and the British reluctantly went along with it. The Americans were furious when Mitchell’s navy began seizing their boats. By the summer relations were strained to the breaking-point. In December 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant referred to Canada as a “semi-independent but irresponsible agent,” and Mitchell promptly replied in an anonymous pamphlet setting out Canada’s position in no uncertain terms. Urged by Mitchell, the Canadian cabinet asked Britain for the setting up of a joint commission. One was established early in 1871 and its work led to the Treaty of Washington later that year. A $5,500,000 award was obtained for Canada and Newfoundland in compensation for the admission of the Americans to the inshore fisheries under the terms of the Treaty of Washington. Many at the time considered the treaty a British sell-out of Canadian interests: Macdonald felt betrayed and Mitchell was bitter. Nevertheless, the agreement marks the first successful attempt by Canada to protect its own sovereignty, and without Mitchell’s aggressive response to American encroachment it might never have come about. The fisheries were to be opened to the Americans at a price for a period of 12 years, but Canadian rights were established.

During his parliamentary career Peter Mitchell had been known as a skilled debater who spoke eloquently and forcefully, never mincing his words. According to writer Melvin Ormond Hammond, who had interviewed contemporaries, Mitchell rarely used notes, “stood with his hands in his pockets, and came down hard on his heels by way of emphasis. He gave the impression of mental as well as physical power, and, though likeable, was as bold as a lion.” Mitchell could on occasion be vindictive and ruthless. His actions during the political turmoil of 1865–66 earned him the sobriquet Bismarck Mitchell, a label which suggested cunning and deceit. Considered by some a more capable man than the gentle, courteous Tilley, he was headstrong and at times quarrelsome, but he usually got the job done. A hard worker and an excellent administrator, he was better at planning than at handling day-to-day routine which he found boring. In his heyday he was a good man to have on side and a dangerous enemy who was feared by political opponents. He would ally himself with former enemies to achieve common goals and, though respected for his abilities, he was not generally liked by party leaders such as Macdonald or Laurier. Nevertheless, he deserves to be remembered for his important role in bringing New Brunswick into confederation and for his efficient organization of the first federal department of marine and fisheries.

SOURCE: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online This text is available for use under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. For more information, select the following link:

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