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John Foster McCreight : first premier of British Columbia Johnson, Patricia Mary

Abstract

John Foster McCreight is not well known in the story of British Columbia, yet he held two of the highest offices – that of Premier and Judge of the Supreme Court. The reasons for this obscurity lie partly in the lack of personal records, and partly in the character of the man. He was of a retiring disposition, more concerned with the formation of statutes and correct legal interpretation than with more popular matters. He was not a man of his times because he stood for learning and principle in a period when action and expediency were more evident. His memory is over-shadowed by that of Amor De Cosmos and Judge Begbie, both of whom were more vivid personalities. McCreight was born in Northern Ireland in 1827, the son of a clergyman and related to John Foster, the last speaker of the Irish House of Commons, through his mother. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and called to the Irish Bar in 1852. In 1853 he went to Australia, and practiced law in Melbourne where two of his cousins, Sir William Foster Stawell and Vesey Fitzgerald Foster held prominent positions. From Australia he came to Vancouver Island in 1860, and practiced law in Victoria. He lived in that city until 1880 where he spent nearly two years at Richfield in the Cariboo. In 1883 he moved to New Westminster where he lived until his retirement in 1897. He left Canada, proceeding first to Rome, then to Hastings, England, where he died in 1913. McCreight’s first interest in politics was shown in 1868 when he joined the Confederation League. It is believed that he was not actively interested in the struggle for responsible government in British Columbia, but that he was anxious to see a firm foundation of government laid when the new province entered Confederation. In 1871, Joseph Trutch, the Lieutenant-Governor chose McCreight as Premier, with a Cabinet consisting of Alexander Rocke Robertson, George Anthony Walkem, and Henry Holbrook. Thus McCreight became the first premier of the province and was responsible for passing a number of fundamental laws. Owing to his lack of interest in the idea of responsible government, he was defeated in the Legislature in 1872, and resigned as Premier. He remained a private member until 1875, but did not seek re-election. From 1875 to 1880 he devoted himself to an increasingly important law practice, and was appointed Queen’s Counsel. Some of his earlier law cases are of great general interest, notably that of “The Theatre Rumpus” in 1861, and Cranford versus Wright in 1862. The latter case brought McCreight into conflict with Judge Begbie over the conduct of legal affairs. In 1880, McCreight was made a puisne judge, and districted to Richfield. He found few cases to try there, and joined in the agitation against judges of the Supreme Court having to reside in their districts. From 1883 to 1897 he was resident judge at New Westminster, trying a great variety of cases, and proving himself to be the most learned of all judges in the province. McCreight was originally a strong adherent of the Anglican Church and a member of the congregation of Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria. He played a large part in the dispute between Dean Cridge and Bishop Hills, and strongly supported the authority of the Bishop. The incident seems to have affected him greatly, and in 1883 he joined the Roman Catholic Church. He became strongly attached to this faith, and spent his last years near a Catholic Hostel in England. To the Hostel and other Catholic charities he bequeathed most of his money. From 1866 to 1880, McCreight was connected with the Freemasons, and rose to the position of Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia. He is important not only for the positions which he held, and for the work which he did, but for his great legal knowledge. He was a man of high principle whose name should be better known in the history of British Columbia.

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