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CAMERON, DAVID, first chief justice of the Supreme Court of the colony of Vancouver Island; b. autumn 1804 in Perthshire, Scotland; d. 14 May 1872 near Victoria, B.C.
David Cameron spent his youth in Perth, Scotland, where relatives financed him as a cloth merchant in 1824. Cameron was “too liberal in giving credit” and the business failed. In 1830 he left for Demerara where he became the overseer of a sugar plantation, and in 1838 he acquired a small property of his own on the Essequibo River. He suffered serious losses, which he blamed on the effects of emancipation. He surrendered his property, and in 1851 applied to the courts for a legal discharge from his liabilities. Cameron was by then managing a sugar plantation “with a fair income, and every comfort consistent with [his] position,” yet this application was unopposed. During his residence in Demerara, Cameron married Cecilia Eliza Douglas Cowan, James Douglas’ sister, whose first husband had evidently deserted her. Douglas seems to have been involved in the offer to Cameron of an appointment as Hudson’s Bay Company agent at the Nanaimo coal mines on Vancouver Island, which HBC Governor Andrew Colvile made in a letter of 1 March 1853. Principally because his wife’s failing health required a more temperate climate, Cameron accepted the position, at £150 yearly plus board. The Camerons, with their daughter Edith Rebecca, who was about ten years old, arrived in Victoria aboard the Vancouver in July 1853.
In September 1853 the Legislative Council of Vancouver Island authorized the creation of a Court of Common Pleas with jurisdiction in civil cases involving claims between £100 and £2,000; their action followed complaints by Governor Douglas of improper decisions by the Justice’s Court. The council appointed Cameron judge for the new court at £100 per annum and requested him to draw up its rules and regulations. On 2 December the council established a Supreme Court of Civil Justice for the colony, to deal with cases of £50 or more, and right of appeal to governor and council. Cameron was appointed judge, his salary of £100 to be paid from duties on licensed ale-houses.
Opponents of the dominant “Family-Company Compact” at once seized upon Cameron’s appointment, complaining that the council members were mostly HBC servants, that Cameron was an HBC employee and personally tied to Douglas, and that he lacked legal training. They were led by Thomas Skinner* and Edward Edwards Langford*, two of the four appointees to the first Justices’ Court, and by James Cooper, a member of the council who had originally supported Cameron, and the Reverend Robert John Staines*, chaplain to the HBC and Victoria’s schoolmaster.
On 5 December Cameron heard a complaint by Emanuel Douillet against Staines, who, with a magistrate’s warrant from Skinner, had entered his premises to remove pigs which Staines said had been stolen (or strayed) from his Metchosin farm. Finally, on 2 Feb. 1854, Staines was exonerated and Douillet was fined and imprisoned; but Staines felt that by acting on Douillet’s complaint Cameron had attempted “to convict the innocent and screen the guilty.” Meanwhile, on 10 January, 90 settlers had signed a petition to Douglas protesting the establishment of the Supreme Court and particularly Cameron’s appointment. But on the following day 54 freeholders protested against the petition, urging Douglas not to comply with the wishes of those who, having “little or no vested interest in the island,” sought “to rescind important enactments framed expressly to protect property” thereby jeopardizing law and order. On 4 February a public meeting, chaired by Cooper, subscribed $480 to send Staines to England. The petitions he was to carry to Queen Victoria and the Duke of Newcastle [Henry Pelham Clinton], secretary of state for the colonies, were signed by James Cooper and 69 others on 1 March. Her majesty was requested to launch a strict inquiry into the establishment of the court and the appointment of Cameron. The petition to the Duke of Newcastle cited Cameron’s “improperly close family connexion with the Governor,” his lack of legal training, his “notorious and gross partiality, acrimony, malice and indecorum;” his position as HBC clerk at Nanaimo, and his strenuous effort “to defeat the ends of justice” and “most vehement exertions on the side of knavery” (references to the recently concluded case of Douillet v. Staines). Staines died en route in a shipwreck, but on 20 April 1854 the petitions were sent to England.
In December Douglas received a letter from Sir George Grey, Newcastle’s successor, requesting a report. Douglas staunchly defended both the establishment of the court and Cameron’s temporary appointment, and concluded that the petitioners’ “grievances were less real than imaginary.” There matters rested until by order in council of 4 April 1856 the Supreme Court of Civil Justice of the Colony of Vancouver’s Island was established, and on 25 April Cameron was confirmed as chief justice without jurisdiction in criminal cases. Soon after receiving his warrant, Cameron resigned his HBC office. The HBC properly felt colonial officials should be paid by the local legislature, but as the latter did not act Cameron continued at his 1853 salary until 8 Aug. 1860 when the assembly awarded him £800 annually, payable from the colony’s land revenues.
On 17 Feb. 1857 the Legislative Council gave unanimous consent to Cameron’s “Rules and Manner of Proceeding to be observed in the Supreme Court of Civil Justice of Vancouver’s Island.” The Victoria Gazette published the “Rules” in book form in 1858, the first book to be printed in the colony. Cameron was a member of Governor Douglas’ party which proclaimed the establishment of the Colony of British Columbia at Fort Langley on 19 Nov. 1858. On 6 July 1859 Douglas appointed the chief justice to the Legislative Council of the Colony of Vancouver Island where at the time of his retirement he was serving as president.
The reform party had not rested in its efforts to embarrass Cameron. In London in May 1857 James Cooper testified before the parliamentary committee investigating HBC affairs that Cameron was unqualified for his post because “before he can decide upon a case, he has to refer to his books even in the most common case.” Demands for his removal increased after Amor De Cosmos* began publishing the British Colonist in December 1858. De Cosmos, who relished the courtroom “rows” between the attorney general and the chief justice, was particularly alarmed in June 1861 when Cameron stated his opinion that certain acts of the assembly were contrary to law. The legislature sought to force Cameron’s removal by refusing to permit bills to go to a third reading, and a motion to inquire into Cameron’s seeming threat to legislative independence lost narrowly.
Cameron, with Douglas’ support, withstood these attacks, but E. E. Langford was to cause special difficulties in the 1860s. At the opening session of the first Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island on 12 Aug. 1856, Governor Douglas had appointed Cameron to administer the oath. Langford, after receiving the oath, protested the property qualifications for office holding. Unable to produce certification of qualification he was denied a seat in the assembly. In late 1859 he stood again and in his election address made ill-considered attacks on the governor, the council, and particularly the chief justice. A biting parody of Langford’s address, possibly written by Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie*, was printed and widely distributed on New Year’s Day 1860. It so discredited Langford that he withdrew from the election on 5 January and initiated a libel suit for £2,000 damages against the printer. The suit was heard before Cameron on 16 and 17 April and a nonsuit was entered. But Cameron charged Langford with contempt for refusing to answer relevant questions and ordered a 24-hour imprisonment and a £10 fine. On the following day Cameron received a threatening letter from Langford describing the proceedings as “vile and illegal.” Langford returned to England in January 1861; in June he submitted a complaint to the Duke of Newcastle in which he made charges against government officials on Vancouver Island and characterized his trial as “improper, illegal and vexatious.”
In May and June 1862 Langford forwarded letters to Newcastle concerning Cameron’s early financial difficulties and charged that Cameron was a man of obscure origins, without legal training, and an “uncertified bankrupt.” Douglas, on request, in February 1863 forwarded statements from those charged, and explained that in 1853 he had chosen Cameron in preference to Langford, the senior magistrate, because the latter was “singularly deficient in judgment, temper, and discretion, and was much inferior both in legal and general knowledge to Mr. Cameron.” He repeated an earlier statement that Cameron’s appointment was originally to be temporary, and he offered to ask for the chief justice’s resignation if the colonial secretary desired it. Cameron’s own explanation of his personal affairs was accepted by Newcastle as “very straightforward and satisfactory,” but he was not prepared to say whether Cameron should continue in office. Langford’s complaint against Cameron did not proceed any further with the government and he next tried the House of Commons. The Colonial Office was asked for the relevant correspondence but no other action was taken and Langford was finally defeated in his efforts to obtain redress from what he considered to be arbitrary government and political privilege.
The reform party of the colony had again failed to dislodge Cameron, who emerged from the sordid affair with his dignity and his job. However, it was clear that a professionally qualified judge was needed as the affairs of the courts became more complex. Amor De Cosmos introduced a motion before the assembly on 4 Feb. 1864 requesting the governor to pension Cameron, who was to be replaced as chief justice by a qualified barrister from England. The motion passed, with Cameron’s pension to be £500 yearly. Cameron’s opinions were solicited by the colonial secretary, William Alexander George Young, the husband of his step-daughter Cecilia Eliza Cowan, and Cameron assented to the resolution provided that its terms were embodied in an act of the legislature. The act was passed in March, and upon the arrival of his successor, Joseph Needham, Cameron tendered his resignation to Governor Arthur Edward Kennedy* on 11 Oct. 1865.
On 2 Jan. 1867 it was announced that Governor Frederick Seymour* had appointed Cameron a justice of the peace, a position he held until January 1871. He served on the Board of Education for Vancouver Island, as a road commissioner for the districts of Esquimalt and Sooke, and as one of three commissioners appointed to carry out the provisions of “The Tax Sale Repeal Ordinance, 1867, Amendment Act.” For the third time in his life, Cameron faced severe financial difficulties, and on 20 Jan. 1871 he filed a petition of bankruptcy in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Cameron’s debts totalled $22,055.08, and the creditors received an assignment of £150 from his £500 pension as well as his life assurance-policy and a large portion of his properties in the Esquimalt District. In October 1871 Cameron was one of eight candidates nominated to represent Esquimalt in the legislature. He came forward, he said, to assist in working out responsible government and to promote the transition from the provincial to the Canadian tariff, which he felt would lower the cost of wheat and flour. He ran third in a final field of six candidates, losing the second seat for the district by only three votes. De Cosmos, now editing the Victoria Daily Standard, renewed old animosities in an editorial entitled “The Living and the Dead Politicians” in which he accused Cameron of being “up for sale again,” resurrected by the “ring,” and of coming forward “to fill Mr. Cameron’s empty pocket; not to serve the country.”
This was the last public outcry against Cameron, for on 14 May 1872 he died at his home, Belmont, after a severe attack of gout from which he had suffered for at least a year. Too late, the British Colonist faintly praised Cameron as “a man respected by all who knew him – a man without an enemy, and one who may be considered one of the founders of the prosperity of the Province.”
PABC, British Columbia, Supreme Court, Orders in Bankruptcy, March 1870–May 1875, “In the Supreme Court of British Columbia, in bankruptcy in the matter of David Cameron a bankrupt”; David Cameron papers; Colonial correspondence, David Cameron files. G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1863, XXXVIII, 507, pp.487–540, Miscellaneous papers relating to Vancouver Island, 1848–1863. . . . Minutes of the Council of Vancouver Island, commencing August 30th, 1851, and terminating . . . February 6th, 1861, ed. E. O. S. Scholefield (Archives of British Columbia, Memoir no.2, Victoria, 1918). Daily British Colonist (Victoria), 1 Jan., 12, 19 Feb., 10 June, 21, 29 Nov. 1859; 26 April, 4 Aug. 1860; 22 Jan., 6, 7 June, 2, 3, 12, 16 July 1861; 16 Feb., 17 March, 21 April, 27 May, 8 Oct. 1864; 12 Oct. 1865; 2 April, 6 Aug. 1866; 9 Nov. 1868; 27 May 1869; 15 June, 10 Aug., 13, 19, 28 Oct. 1871; 15 May 1872. W. K. Lamb, “Some notes on the Douglas family,” BCHQ, XVII (1953), 41–51. S. G. Pettit, “The trials and tribulations of Edward Edwards Langford,” BCHQ, XVII (1953), 5–40. G. H. Slater, “Rev. Robert John Staines: pioneer priest, pedagogue, and political agitator,” BCHQ, XIV (1950), 187–240.