GASKIN, JOHN, ship’s captain, businessman, politician, and Orangeman; b. 3 April 1840 in Kingston, Upper Canada, son of Robert Gaskin and Margaret Burton; m. first 14 April 1867 Mary McAlister (d. 1875), and they had two sons and two daughters; m. secondly 1890 Stella Macdonald, and they had a daughter; d. 21 March 1908 in Kingston.
John Gaskin was born of parents who had immigrated to Kingston from County Tyrone (Northern Ireland) in 1835. He was educated in Kingston and when young he went to work for a butcher there, John Flanigan, a prominent Orangeman. In 1859 he began his marine career as a deck-hand on the steamer Scotland. When he took command of the Ranger five years later, at age 24, he was reportedly the youngest captain on the Great Lakes. During the Fenian raids in 1866 he patrolled the St Lawrence and took provisions to the Kingston militia company to which he belonged, then on service at Prescott. He would receive the Fenian Raid Medal for his efforts, though not until 1907.
In the spring of 1871 Gaskin joined the Montreal Transportation Company [see Hugh McLennan*], in whose employ he would remain until his retirement in 1901. For two years he captained the Bruno, which he and the MTC co-owned. He then became the company’s outside manager at Kingston, responsible for assigning crews and arranging cargoes. At his urging the firm’s boat yard was relocated to Kingston and he had charge as well of the construction and maintenance of the MTC’s fleet. Gaskin was a competent manager and the company depended on him as its operations grew. In 1883 it amalgamated with the St Lawrence and Chicago Forwarding Company, also of Montreal. The MTC then had 51 barges, 6 steamers, 2 lake-schooners, 4 floating elevators, and several wharves and storehouses. With more than 150 employees in Kingston and, from the mid 1880s, an annual payroll of over $100,000, it was one of the city’s leading employers. Eventually it possessed the largest fleet in the lakes trade.
The prominence of the MTC made Gaskin a formidable figure in local affairs. In January 1875 he was elected alderman for Victoria Ward, a seat he would retain for seven years. Said to have been “attentive, efficient and energetic,” he became a regular member of the important committees of council. But he was also known for his temper, loathsome tongue, and anti-Catholic bias. These traits may have helped him in local politics but they did not endear him to Kingston’s Catholic population or Liberal press, his lifelong adversaries. In 1882 Gaskin was elected mayor and, typically, his campaign was controversial. He slugged a photographer who had refused to vote for him, and disputes arose about his fitness for office. During his one-year term he lobbied for the amelioration of Kingston’s harbour and rail facilities, and for the deepening of the Welland Canal to enable larger grain vessels to deliver cargoes to Kingston for transshipment, improvements that were eventually undertaken. After his term he left politics to devote himself to business.
Even there Gaskin was never far from controversy. In 1883, by threatening to move the MTC’s operations to the neighbouring village of Portsmouth, he secured from Kingston City Council the promise of tax exemption for ten years. Gaskin and the company also became embroiled in labour disputes. In 1884 he rejected the wage demands of the striking shovellers’ union and replaced the workers, and in 1887 he fired the MTC employees who had joined the Knights of Labor.
Gaskin was also prominent in Kingston because of his position in both the local executive of the Liberal-Conservative party from the 1870s and the Orange lodge. His power to control the votes of dock-workers and Orangemen was such that Conservative candidates needed his support to assure victory. But at the same time he created difficulties for the party, mostly because of his vigorous promotion of Orangeism, his anti-Catholicism, and his offensive manner. He added to the dissension among Kingston Conservatives by feuding with George Airey Kirkpatrick*, James Henry Metcalfe, and Michael Sullivan over patronage. His ire was strongest whenever a Catholic was appointed to a government position, particularly one previously held by a Protestant. He was the founding president of the Protestant Protective Society, formed in Kingston in 1879 to protect jobs for Protestants.
In the 1880s Gaskin wrote regularly to such prominent Conservatives as Sir Alexander Campbell*, Mackenzie Bowell*, and Sir John A. Macdonald* to secure advancement for members of his family or Orangemen. His efforts earned him the sobriquet “grabber Gaskin” from the Liberal Daily British Whig. When his demands failed or when he himself was passed over for the Conservative nomination in Kingston, as happened repeatedly, he would threaten to leave the party and take his supporters with him. An appeal from Macdonald usually brought him back to the fold by election time. He finally received his party’s nomination, in the dominion election of 1904, but he was defeated by Liberal incumbent William Harty*.
In 1889 Gaskin had returned to municipal politics as alderman for Cataraqui Ward, which he would represent for the next seven years. By then he was the acknowledged leader of the Conservatives in civic politics. Council was unable to conduct business for several months in 1891 because the reform and Conservative factions could not agree on who was to sit on committees. Gaskin retired from council in 1896, citing his business commitments, but in 1906 he returned and served as an alderman until his death.
An Orangeman from the age of 18, Gaskin filled many local and county offices in the order and in the Prentice Boys, an Orange fraternity. He also held title to property for the local lodge (the order, being unincorporated, could not own property). In 1885 he created a sensation when he publicly assailed the Catholic bishop of Kingston, James Vincent Cleary*, who had dared to chastise local Orangemen for trying to maintain the city as the “Derry of Canada.” At the time of the Jesuit estates controversy in 1889, he became a supporter of outspoken mp D’Alton McCarthy*, attended an anti-Jesuit convention in Toronto on 22 April, and organized an anti-Jesuit committee in Kingston. On 12 July for many years, with much ballyhoo, he gave an address to local Orangemen, followed by the ceremonial firing of a cannon used in the defence of Londonderry (Northern Ireland) in 1689, which he kept on the front lawn of his house.
Gaskin was active in the militia and was a president of the Canadian Marine Association and of the Kingston branches of the British Empire Navy League and the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society. He was a long-time member of the public-school board and the Kingston Board of Trade, of which he was president in 1902. An Anglican, he attended St Paul’s Church, which he often represented in the synod of the diocese of Ontario. Gaskin owned many properties in Kingston and when he died in 1908 he left an estate valued at $47,557.
Gaskin’s funeral attracted 500 Orangemen and members of the Prentice Boys and 1,000 citizens; several carriages were required just to carry the floral tributes. The turnout reflected the colour and controversy that he had brought to life in Kingston. Captain John Gaskin was a dominant figure there and in his many offices he was no less rough and commanding than he had been at the helm of a Great Lakes steamer.
A portrait of John Gaskin, unveiled on 18 Dec. 1883, hangs in Kingston City Hall (Kingston, Ont.). The cannon that he fired on 12 July now sits in front of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Kingston, and the iron lion that long guarded his house stands in the city’s Macdonald Park.
AO, F 23, MU 475, G. M. Macdonell to Campbell, 28 Feb. 1883; RG 22, ser.159, no.527. NA, MG 26, A. QUA, John Gaskin papers. Daily British Whig, 20 June 1890; 30–31 Dec. 1901; 23–24 March 1908. Daily News (Kingston), 13 July 1894. Globe, 4 Jan. 1882; 23, 25 March 1908. Weekly British Whig (Kingston), 26 March 1908. Margaret Cohoe, “Shannon’s cannon,” Historic Kingston (Kingston), no.22 (1974): 60–63. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. Anne MacDermaid, “Kingston in the eighteen-nineties: a study of urban-rural interaction and change,” Historic Kingston, no.20 (1972): 37. Newspaper reference book. R. A. Preston, “The history of the port of Kingston – part ii,” OH, 47 (1955): 29–31. W. M. Wilson, “Eleven years of dissension: the Conservative party in Kingston, 1867 to 1878,” Historic Kingston, no.32 (1984): 46–56.