UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Business leaders in early Vancouver, 1886-1914 McDonald, Robert A. J.


This study examines the leading businessmen in Vancouver, British Columbia, from 1886 to 1914. Its purpose is to define the economic and social character of the top portion of the business community in early Vancouver, and to explore the process by .which this community was formed. The identities of businessmen associated with 'important' businesses operating in the city were determined at two different four-year points, from 1890 to 1893 and 1910 to 1913 to allow for an analysis of changes within the leadership group. A comprehensive examination of all businesses in Vancouver during the two periods in question was first undertaken before the 'relatively large' or 'important' businesses in Vancouver, and the businessmen associated with them, were identified. To facilitate a more Intensive analysis of the 66 and 276 'business leaders' chosen during the two periods, businessmen who had headed the few largest companies in the city were categorized into another, more select group called the 'business elite'. An additional sub-group of business leaders who had lived in Vancouver from 1910 to 1914 and had achieved a position of high social status in the city was defined as the 'social upper class'. The development of Vancouver's business community was closely linked to the changing character of the two principal economic systems which operated in coastal British Columbia between 1886 and 1914. While the C.P.R. was initially responsible for the emergence of Vancouver as a city in the 1880's, and while the C.P.R. was by far the most powerful business institution in the Terminal City during the decade after 1886, early Vancouver business leaders retained many ties with the maritime economic system, centered in Victoria, which remained predominant in coastal British Columbia into the late 1890's. Vancouver became a regional metropolitan centre, and its wholesalers and lumbermen finally emerged as the two most influential business groups in the city, only when the coastal region of the province became fully integrated, a decade after the arrival of the G.P.R., into a transcontinental system centered in eastern Canada. The continentalization of the provincial economy was matched by the Canadianization of Vancouver's business leadership at the turn of the century. Vancouver's leading businessmen were a distinctly regional business group. They had few ties with the business establishment of eastern Canada, either on the boards of national corporations or in the business and social clubs of the eastern elite. Most city ^enterprises operated within British Columbia alone, though lumber companies and several wholesale firms marketed products on the prairies. This regionalism found expression in particular in the structure of business in Vancouver, and in the types of economic activity that preoccupied city businessmen. Vancouver-centered businesses were small by national standards, and exhibited a simple form of internal organization based on the dominant proprietorship of one man, group of partners or family; this was the case despite the fact that most 'important' local businesses had been incorporated into limited liability companies by 1914. The individual entrepreneur owning his own company, rather than the finance capitalist or career bureaucrat, was still the most prominent type of business leader in Vancouver before the War. Particularly indicative of the regional character of business activity in Vancouver was the preoccupation of these entrepreneurs with speculation in, or the development of urban land and hinterland resources. National business trends had begun to influence the structure of business and the nature of business leadership in Vancouver by 1914, however. The consolidation of many small into a few large companies and the consequent internal bureaucratization of businesses was taking place in the resource industries of the province before the War; local companies were giving way to the branch offices of eastern-centered national corporations; and local representatives of national companies with major operations in Vancouver did tend to exert more influence in the city than did the average head of a local company. The social characteristics of Vancouver's top businessmen were less distinctive than their occupational concerns. More British than the city as a whole in the 1890's Vancouver's business leaders had by 1914 become more Canadian; in both periods the business community was solidly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Business leaders' backgrounds conformed generally to a pattern now familiar in the historical literature on business elites at the turn of the century in both the United States and Canada. Leading businessmen in Vancouver, like business elites elsewhere, were a privileged group, coming from backgrounds of much greater economic and social advantage than the population as a whole. While economic mobility was slightly higher among the top businessmen in Vancouver before 1914 than among the elites at the national level, the career patterns of Vancouver business leaders was not characterized by dramatic 'rags-to-riches' mobility. In addition, status mobility did not conform exactly to economic mobility in Vancouver. While becoming a member of the city's economic elite did ease the way to inclusion into Vancouver's emerging 'social upper class' before 1914, the business leaders who were accepted into the inner circles of Vancouver 'society' were even more likely than successful businessmen to have come from privileged economic and social backgrounds.

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