Skip to content

In 1924, Nelson’s MLA was the premier

Premier Christy Clark led her party to victory this month while losing her own seat. The last time this happened, it played out in Nelson.
Premier John Oliver's ad from the Nelson Daily News of August 23

Premier Christy Clark led her party to victory this month in the provincial election while losing her own seat. When this scenario last occurred in 1924, much of the drama played out in Nelson.

The story isn’t completely forgotten — several news outlets mentioned it in passing in the wake of Clark’s stunning upset — but the details are worth recounting.

It came during a curious era where Nelson residents voted provincially five times in six years, in two general elections and three byelections.

It began in 1921 when Conservative MLA William O. Rose resigned to run federally. In the byelection to replace him the following year, Liberal Kenneth Campbell, manager of the Kootenay Granite and Monumental Co., easily defeated realtor and former mayor Charles F. McHardy.

Campbell was re-elected over McHardy in the general election of 1924 and the Calgary Herald reported: “In Nelson Kenny Campbell scattered silver while his supporters burned brooms soaked in gasoline when the news of his victory was received.”

The Liberal government was also returned to power but Premier John Oliver lost his own Victoria seat and needed someone in his caucus to step aside so he could run in a byelection.

Whether Oliver approached Campbell or Campbell volunteered to resign, I couldn’t determine in a cursory review of the news coverage. But Nelson must have been considered a safe seat. Furthermore, Oliver’s sister Emma and brother-in-law John Bell lived here.

In those days parties sometimes sat out such byelections as a courtesy to party leaders, but that wasn’t the case here. Instead, the Conservatives and Provincial party teamed up to vigorously oppose the premier.

After several others declined the nomination — including Annie Garland Foster, the first woman to serve on Nelson city council, and Mrs. Rose, wife of the former MLA — another former city alderman, Harry Houston, agreed to stand as the Citizens candidate.

“I have the nerve to stand against John Oliver or anyone else,” he declared to what was described as “the largest nominating convention ever held in the city.”

(Houston’s uncle was founding mayor John Houston, who also served as MLA.)

The premier, meanwhile, arrived in Nelson nine days before the vote with Attorney General A.M. Manson and Mines Minister William Sloan and during a whirlwind campaign adopted the slogan “A vote for Oliver is a vote for Nelson” and spoke to a packed rally at the opera house.

While he didn’t make any promises, he said he would ask the province’s engineering department to begin preliminary work on a bridge across the West Arm, lobby for a normal school to be built in Nelson, and promote local highway improvements.

“Our mines, our forests and our lands have begun to pulsate with the throb of progress as never in our history,” Oliver stated in an ad. “I pledge myself to serve you to the utmost of my ability.”

On election night, it wasn’t even close. Oliver took 59 per cent of the vote, 1,124 to 786.

“Smack-k, smack-k, smack-k. Audible for some distance even through the din of the Liberals’ jubilation over the election of Premier Oliver, were the hearty kisses that the gallant premier bestowed upon the lady workers in the Liberal cause,” the Daily News reported.

Kenneth Campbell, who stepped aside for Oliver, said he was prouder of the premier’s election in Nelson than he ever was being elected himself.

After Oliver’s victory speech, his motorcade paraded down Baker Street behind the Kootenay Kilties pipe band. At Josephine Street, defeated Harry Houston climbed on the running board of the premier’s car and congratulated him.

“For a block or so Mr. Houston was carried along through the cheering crowds, and after a final handshake, dropped off before the parade turned down Hall street,” said the Daily News.

I wasn’t able to determine how much time Oliver spent in Nelson following his election, but he clashed with local Doukhobors, according to William Rayner’s book British Columbia’s Premiers in Profile.

Their leader Peter (Lordly) Verigin was killed in a train explosion along with newly-elected Grand Forks-Greenwood MLA John McKie and in the wave of violence that followed, Oliver confronted a group of Doukhobors in Grand Forks, telling them: “The laws would probably be more right if you are dead, than you are now.” He told another group in Nelson they should leave Canada if they couldn’t abide by its laws.

Oliver’s government had little patience for anyone who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon. Neither did the opposition for that matter. Rayner writes the legislature “unanimously passed a resolution ... formally asking Ottawa to renounce trade treaties (especially with Japan) that inhibited BC’s anti-Asian initiatives.” Another resolution asked the federal government to deny the franchise to “British Indians.”

The normal school Oliver mused about during his campaign wasn’t built and neither was the bridge across the West Arm until 1957. But he did make good on at least one thing: he was in Ainsworth when the new Coffee Creek highway opened, finally connecting Nelson and Kaslo by road.

On August 17, 1927, while still sitting premier and MLA for Nelson, John Oliver died of cancer. Yet another byelection was called but this time things were much closer. James A. McDonald held the riding for the Liberals by 28 votes over Conservative Lorris E. Borden.

In the general election the following year, Borden prevailed over Liberal Duncan D. McLean. (Oddly, McLean was runner-up to Harry Houston in the race to contest the premier in 1924, so he apparently switched allegiances.) It was also the final election for the Nelson riding, which in 1933 became Nelson-Creston.

Nelson city hall had a display about John Oliver in its foyer when the offices were in the present Touchstones building, but I don’t know what became of it.

As for Kenneth Campbell, the late Dave Macdonald told me he was rewarded for his loyalty with a beer parlour license for the Pinehurst Inn at South Slocan. Campbell was in the process of selling the building when it burned down in 1927, coincidentally a week before Oliver’s death. Afterward, I can’t find any trace of him. He may have returned to Scotland.