BURNET, DAVID, businessman and politician; b. c. 1803; m. c. 1831 Mary Ann Forsyth; d. 2 June 1853 at Quebec.
David Burnet was a merchant at Quebec for 30 years, and was noteworthy for the extent and diversity of his undertakings. The date and place of his birth are unknown, and there is no information about the early years of his career. By 1823 he apparently was working for his brother Peter, a rich merchant on Rue Saint-Pierre who was a landowner and a director of the Bank of Montreal at Quebec. David became his partner a few years later. The Burnet brothers engaged in the lumber business and in the importing of merchandise, and they owned beaches and a shipyard on the Rivière Saint-Charles at Quebec which they rented to shipbuilders. It was probably there that David had two ships built in 1825.
When Peter moved to London around 1830, David succeeded him on the board of directors of the Bank of Montreal at Quebec, which included such influential businessmen as Mathew Bell*, the lessee of the Saint-Maurice ironworks, and James Bell Forsyth*, a leading timber merchant whose sister David married around 1831. Burnet often had business dealings with the two men, particularly in the purchase of property. They jointly held great stretches of land on the Saint-Charles for speculative purposes. The interest Burnet and Forsyth shared in the timber trade also led them to become co-owners of the timber cove that Burnet set up at La Canardière on the north shore of the Saint-Charles in 1837. Moreover, Burnet sat on the board of directors of the Canada Marine Insurance Company, which was founded that year and which had Forsyth as its president.
From 1838 Burnet took a considerable interest in marine transport. In addition to buying shares in at least one ship, he had the 389-ton Mathew Bell built in 1838 and the 802-ton Cataraqui in 1840. The next year he joined businessmen from Kingston in Upper Canada, Quebec, and Montreal in founding the Quebec and Upper Canada Forwarding Company, which planned to transport timber and merchandise between Kingston and Quebec by barge. The company owned nine barges and one steamship in 1843. During this time Burnet made a number of investments in small industries. With Francis Harris Stuart of Montreal he had financed the building and operation of a distillery at Saint-Hilaire (Mont-Saint-Hilaire) in 1838, and in the summer of 1842 he set up a textile-mill at La Canardière, with equipment including “carding machinery, a spinning machine, and two weavers’ looms.”
All through the 1830s Burnet enjoyed a prominent position at Quebec in organizations relating both to business and to the English and Protestant communities. During this period he was administrator for the Quebec Committee of Trade [see John Jones*], and was at various times on the management committee of the Quebec Exchange. On 7 Nov. 1832 he was appointed a warden of Trinity House in Quebec [see François Boucher*]. He was socially influential through his service on the management committees of philanthropic, educational, and religious bodies such as the Quebec Emigrant Society, the British and Canadian School Society of the District of Quebec, the St Andrew’s Society, the Quebec Auxiliary Bible Society, and the Quebec Male Orphan Asylum. As a member of the committee of the Quebec Constitutional Association, Burnet opposed the plan to unite the two Canadas put forward by Lord Durham [Lambton*] following the events of 1837–38.
A well-known and respected figure, Burnet decided to run for Quebec City in the 1841 elections. Although his political views had led him to champion the cause of those opposing union, he nevertheless stressed in his campaign speech the necessity of complying with the law and endeavouring to turn the new régime to good advantage. He also promised to further the proposals for canals on the St Lawrence as a means of ensuring the prosperity of Quebec. Burnet won an easy victory on 29 March, unlike his running mate Louis-Joseph Massue*, who was defeated by Henry Black*. Burnet’s parliamentary career was brief, however, for heavy financial losses incurred at the beginning of 1843 forced him to declare bankruptcy and resign his seat on 26 August.
In order to make his investments Burnet had had to run heavily into debt. According to a balance sheet drawn up on 22 March 1843 he owed £65,658 to a large number of creditors. However, an impressive list of property holdings amounting to some 10,000 acres in various places in Lower and Upper Canada and even in New York State served as security for part of the loans.
Distressed by his financial difficulties, David Burnet was much less active during the last ten years of his life. After selling his timber cove in 1848, he apparently concentrated on running a business involving various types of merchandise, while continuing to buy and sell landed property at Quebec.
ANQ-Q, CE1-74, 3 juin 1853; CN1-49, 24 avril, 8 déc. 1828; 1er déc. 1831; 17 août 1834; 5 avril, 25 nov. 1836; 27 juill. 1837; 22 sept., 21 nov. 1838; 1er févr. 1840; 22 mars, 15, 22 nov. 1842; 22 mars 1843; 14 janv. 1845; 17 nov. 1846; 3, 5 févr., 12 mai 1847; 31 août 1853; CN1-116, 31 mai 1839, 13 janv. 1840, 21 janv. 1848, 13 mai 1851; CN1-208, 14 mars 1824, 6 déc. 1839. Le Canadien, 29 mars 1841, 19 août 1842, 21 août 1843, 3 juin 1853. Morning Chronicle (Quebec), 3 June 1853. Quebec Gazette, 10, 29 March 1841, 31 March 1843. F.-J. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” E. H. Dahl et al., La ville de Québec, 1800–1850: un inventaire de cartes et plans (Ottawa, 1975), 184, 215, 238, 250, 275. Desjardins, Guide parl. [J.-C. Langelier], Liste des terrains concédés par la couronne dans la province de Québec de 1763 au 31 décembre 1890 (Québec, 1891), 16. Quebec almanac, 1823–40. Quebec directory, 1826, 1844–45, 1847–50, 1852. Chapais, Cours d’hist. du Canada, 5: 288. Rosa, La construction des navires à Québec.