Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken

Everyone in Victoria and, for that matter Vancouver Island, has heard of Helmcken Road in Victoria. As one travels along the Trans-Canada coming or going, one passes the highway sign announcing the turn off to Helmcken. But what, or rather who, was Helmcken?

John Sebastian Helmcken was a well-known physician who played a prominent role in bringing British Columbia into Confederation. Our own “father of Confederation”. And that’s it, as we are told. But why is he important to us as BC separatists?

Against his better judgment, Helmcken was bribed, pure and simple. In what was sure to be the first of many not-so-nice exploitations of the west, he helped bring BC into Confederation because of the promise of a railroad linking eastern Canada to the West, bringing prosperity to all, but most of all eastern Canada.

BC joining Confederation was a political decision; in fact, the people of BC were quite happy on their own. Backroom agreements between the Government of Canada, the railroads, and the hierarchy of the Colony of British Columbia were not put to the people of BC. Of this, Helmcken said,

“All we have to do is to agree to a series of Resolutions. It is not pretended that it is the voice of the people or the voice of this Council. It is well understood that it is a Government measure. And we all know what that means — it means that this series of Resolutions is to be passed — And we have it from the Governor that he desires to send these Resolutions to Canada; they will not go, they are not intended to go, as the opinion of the people.”

And so British Columbia surrendered its sovereignty. We now have minimal control of our future; our decisions are made for us from eastern Canada over 4 thousand kilometres away. We are taxed without adequate representation, 6 Senators to Quebec and Ontario’s 48, 42 seats in Parliament compared to Ontario’s 121 and Quebec’s 78. This means we are subservient to the desires of eastern Canada.

Dr. Helmcken warned British Columbians,

“I feel perfectly sure, Sir, that if Confederation should come, bringing with it the Tariff of Canada, not only will the farmers be ruined, but our independence will be taken away; it will deprive our local industries of the protection now afforded them; and will inflict other burdens upon them; it will not free trade and commerce from the shackles which now bind them, and will deprive the Government of the power of regulating and encouraging those interests upon which the prosperity of the Colony depends.”

He was correct. We see this to this day with inter-provincial trade boundaries and the multitude of overlapping regulations between federal and provincial governments.

Besides being a physician, Helmcken was a visionary who only reluctantly participated in bringing BC into the Canadian fold. He knew what the consequences were and advised British Columbians not to enter Confederation.

“It would be absurd for us to sacrifice our interests in order that laws may be made for us by a people who know little of our condition and wants, and who in fact must necessarily legislate for the greater number — the people of the Atlantic Provinces. It is dangerous to place ourselves at the disposal of superior numbers.”

“I believe, Sir, we are quite capable of making laws for ourselves.”

“If we are united, or rather absorbed, everything will centralize in Canada, and the whole country will be tributary to Canada. The number of Representatives sent to Ottawa from other places would overwhelm the number sent from British Columbia. Even in the matter of appropriations, where the scramble always is, this Colony would be overborne: we should be laughed at by the victors for our pretensions.”

“If we are Confederated with Canada we become its tributary, and in all that concerns us chiefly Canada has to act for us. In all our chief concerns, commerce, shipping, and mercantile laws, agriculture, trade, navigation, fisheries, currency, banking — Canada rules. She may tax us to any extent, and in any manner she pleases, so that it is quite possible we may have export duties on gold and coal.”

“All such things as require money for their performance are left for the Colony to provide; those that require intellect are supplied by Canada. … Cannot we pay our Colonial intellect to do our business well, instead of theirs to do it badly?”

“Confederation will ruin the farmer, and destroy at once the greatest inducement to immigration; will ruin the brewer and the fisheries; do no good to commerce; afford no larger market for lumber, coal, or anything else; in fact do a great deal of harm and no good, save that which is problematical and fanciful.”

And here we are, 145 years later. We have the benefits of the modern age; we would’ve had them anyway. But 145 years later the good Doctor’s warning still applies.

So next time you find yourself passing Helmcken Road in Victoria, know that the man had BC’s interests at heart but was forced to play by eastern Canada’s rules without question.

Much as it is today.

3 thoughts on “Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken

  1. Thank you for this article. Do you know if Helmcken’s writings and speeches are collected in one place, such as a book or website? If so, where?


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