That's History: Call of the Pacific lured Ontario lawyers

You will have heard of Quebec’s 400th anniversary this year. How about British Columbia’s 150th?
On the coast, they are marking the anniversary of the 1858 founding of the colony of British Columbia.

The Vancouver Island colony preceded it by many years, the two were not united until 1866, and B.C. did not join Canada until 1877. But 1958 was chosen as B.C.’s centennial, so 2008 has to be the sesquicentennial.

And that makes an opportunity to note here how Ontario lawyers have responded to the call of the Pacific over the years. Since John George Barnston arrived in 1858, many Ontario-trained lawyers have made good and done good by choosing to practice in British Columbia.

It took them a while to get a foothold. B.C.’s first judges, lawyers, and administrators, like most of the early settlers, came by sea from Britain. They, and particularly the renowned early judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, wanted to keep legal practice for proper Inns of Court men like themselves and their local students - and to keep out upstart easterners.

But the “Canadians” - Quebeckers and Maritimers as well as Ontarians - squeezed in. After the railroad was opened in 1886, they became a flood.

The bar in Ontario was crowded, and Ontario legal migrants were thriving all over the Prairies. Many young Ontario lawyers asked themselves, why not get in on the ground floor in Canada’s new Pacific gateway?

As a result, many of B.C.’s leading law firms trace their origins (though not too loudly) to eastern migrant lawyers. Russell DuMoulin, now part of Faskens, was launched by New Brunswick lawyer Joe Russell in 1889.

Davis LLP was launched by Ontario lawyer Edward P. Davis in 1892. The Farris brothers came from New Brunswick to Vancouver in 1903, and Lyman Duff, later chief justice of Canada, moved his practice from Fergus, Ontario, to Victoria in 1904.

Samuel Schultz went from Osgoode Hall to Vancouver before the turn of the century, and he eventually became one of Canada’s first Jewish judges. Mabel Penery French, who became B.C.’s first woman lawyer in 1912, had earlier been called in New Brunswick.

Not only Vancouver and Victoria attracted migrant Ontario lawyers. Many B.C. small towns got their first lawyer from Ontario. George Walkem, an Ontario-called lawyer and early B.C. premier, practised in the Cariboo goldrush country. Another Ontarian, James A. Macdonald, practised in the mining town of Rossland and was leader of the provincial opposition before becoming a judge.

The first four judges of British Columbia’s Supreme Court were all British, but once the government of Canada took over appointments in 1871, eight of the next fifteen judges were lawyers who had trained in Ontario. Of the others, three were Maritimers and two British Columbia-trained. There were just two more Brits.

B.C.’s Court of Appeal began sitting in 1910. All the judges appointed to it until 1938 were Ontario-born and Ontario-trained, as were the first four chief justices of the court.

The B.C. legal community matured rapidly, and B.C. quickly began to train and call its own lawyers. The dominance of migrants from the east was in rapid decline by the First World War.
But some Ontario practitioners are still drawn to the rain forest and the good life.

Eminent B.C. litigator Len Doust grew up in northern Ontario; a visit to B.C. in 1959 convinced him to do his legal studies there, and he has never returned.

When David Martin, a Toronto criminal lawyer, moved to Vancouver in the 1980s, his wish to retain an association with his Toronto partner ran afoul of B.C.’s new law against interprovincial law firms. Martin v. Attorney General of B.C. became the key case that made national firms legal in British Columbia.
Judge Begbie would not be pleased.

Christopher Moore’s most recent book is McCarthy Tétrault: Building Canada’s Premier Law Firm, published by Douglas & McIntyre. His e-mail address is

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