Mitchell, Peter (DNB01)

MITCHELL, PETER (1824–1899), Canadian politician, was born of Scottish parents at Newcastle in the county of Northumberland, New Brunswick, on 24 Jan. 1824. Educated at the county grammar school, he studied law and was called to the bar of the province of New Brunswick in 1848. He practised his profession for four years, and then entered into partnership with a Mr. Hawe in the business of lumbering and shipbuilding. In 1858 he was elected to the assembly as member for his native county, and, two years later, became minister in the cabinet of Samuel Leonard Tilley [q. v.] He was called to the New Brunswick legislative council in 1860.

Mitchell took no part in the Charlottetown conference of 1864, whose object was a union of the maritime provinces only. But when in the same year the larger scheme of uniting British America arose, he attended the meeting at Quebec (10 Oct.) as delegate of his province, and assisted in drawing up the basis of confederation known as the Quebec resolutions. On the delegates' return the government of (Sir) Samuel Leonard Tilley [q. v.] submitted the plan to the popular vote, and was defeated by a large majority (1865). Albert Smith then formed a cabinet whose element of cohesion was opposition to confederation. Shortly afterwards Lieutenant-governor Gordon, who had himself opposed the measure, received instructions to forward the movement. For this purpose he called Mitchell to his assistance, and a line of action was taken which, however necessary in the circumstances, can scarcely be considered constitutional to-day. On 8 March 1866 Gordon addressed the houses and declared in favour of union. During the negotiations and debates that ensued, so many supporters deserted the ministers that they resigned in a body (13 April). Mitchell was thereupon asked to form a cabinet on the basis of confederation. He became himself premier and president of the council, while Tilley took office as provincial secretary. Dissolving the assembly, he forthwith appealed to the people. The moment was well chosen, for the fenian invasion of the frontier had demonstrated the need of consolidating British America. The real issue at the polls thus became confederation or annexation to the United States. Mitchell triumphed by a vote of nearly four to one.

A short session followed, the house sitting from 26 June till 7 July. The legislature was content to vote confidence in the ministry and leave their course of action 'unfettered by any expression of opinion other than what had been given by the people and their representatives.' In the final confederation conference which took place at Westminster on 4 Dec. 1866, the New Brunswick delegates had, therefore, a free hand. They made use of it to obtain concessions that gratified the province: a representation of twelve members in the dominion senate and fifteen in the dominion House of Commons; a reservation of export duties in saw logs, since commuted for $150,000 a year; a guarantee for the intercolonial railway. Mitchell was very active in obtaining these. It is observable also that he favoured the federal principle with Sir George Etienne Cartier [q. v.], as against Sir John Alexander Macdonald's avowed leaning towards legislative union. The British North America Act received the royal assent on 29 March 1867.

On the proclamation of the dominion (1 July 1867) Mitchell was sworn of the privy council of Canada, and became a member of the cabinet with the portfolio of marine and fisheries. Thereupon he took up his residence in Ottawa. On 25 Oct. following he was raised to the senate by proclamation. He sat in that body till 13 July 1872, when he resigned in order to assist the administration in the commons. Elected by his old constituency, he continued to represent it in the second, third, fifth, and sixth parliaments. After the Macdonald government fell (6 Nov. 1873), he removed to Montreal and assumed the editorship of the ‘Herald’ newspaper. From that date he owned no party ties, though he advocated liberal principles both in the house and in his organ. He suffered defeat in the elections of 1891 and 1896. On 1 March 1897 he received an inspectorship of fisheries for the Atlantic provinces.

Mitchell's six years of ministerial life as inspector of fisheries were of permanent benefit to the dominion. To the guardianship of two thousand miles of coast on the Atlantic was immediately added the care of the great lakes and rivers, and, after 1871, the Pacific coast from the straits of Fuca to Alaska. His legislation regulating such subjects as navigation, pilotage, lighthouses, quarantine, fisheries, and the like, proceeds broadly on the assumption, since disputed, that the dominion is vested as well with proprietary right in as with legislative power over them. His department soon became one of the most important in Canada. The annual yield of the Atlantic fisheries alone rose from $4,186,000 in 1849 to $10,250,000 in 1873.

Mitchell's reputation rests mainly on his conduct of the fisheries negotiations with the United States. The presence of American fishermen on the British North American coasts and bays caused international complications in his department. ‘The shortest way,’ he says, ‘to avoid fishery troubles is for the United States to cease trespassing … or make a fair bargain.’ Otherwise, he recommended the strict enforcement of the Canadian rights. After trying other means with small success, he in 1869 commissioned six provincial cruisers to protect the fisheries.

The English government, however, did not acquiesce except under conditions which Mitchell declined to accept. When in 1871 the Washington treaty was under discussion between the United States and Great Britain, Mitchell's influence led to the insertion of articles whereby the Canadian fisheries were thrown open to the United States for twelve years in consideration of a sum to be ascertained by an arbitration board (arts. xviii–xxv.). In 1876 Canada was awarded $4,500,000. The Canadian right was thereby clearly established, and its value placed beyond question.

In July 1899, as he was leaving the parliamentary buildings, Ottawa, he was stricken by paralysis. He seemed to recover, but on 25 Oct. following he was found dead in his rooms in the Windsor Hotel, Montreal. In 1853 he married Mrs. Gough, a widow of St. John, New Brunswick; she died in 1889.

Mitchell was the author of several pamphlets, including:

  1. ‘A Review of President Grant's Message,’ Montreal, 1870, which concerns the fisheries; and
  2. ‘Notes of a Holiday Trip,’ Montreal, 1880, a reprint of letters to the ‘Montreal Herald’ on Manitoba and the north-west territories.

[Canadian Gazette, London, 2 Nov. 1899; Montreal Star, 25 Oct. 1899; Toronto Globe, 26 Oct. 1899; Morgan's Canadian Men and Women, pp. 639–40; N. O. Coté's Political Appointments, p. 101; Gemmill's Canadian Parliamentary Companion, 1883, p. 142; Gray's Confederation, pp. 30, 50; Dent's Last Forty Years, ii. 445 et seq.; Hannay's Life of S. L. Tilley, pp. 233–349; Stewart's Canada under Dufferin, pp. 179, 240–1; Pope's Mem. of J. A. Macdonald, i. 329–30, ii. 14, 105–16; Pope's Confederation Doc. pp. 3, 94, 121; Can. Sess. Pap. 1868 No. 39, 1869 No. 12, 1870 No. 11, 1871 Nos. 5 and 12; Hertslet's Coll. of Treaties, xiii. 970–86, 1257; Hind's Fishery Commission, Halifax, i. 43–4, ii. 55–6; U.S.A. Doc. and Proc. Halifax Com. i. 82–7, ii. 106–7, 206–17; Law Reports, 1898, A. C. p. 700.]

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