Photo by W. Notman | Courtesy of Billingsley and Ward families
MITCHELL, PETER, lawyer, businessman, politician, author, and office holder; b. 4 Jan. 1824 in Newcastle, N.B., son of Peter Mitchell and Barbara Grant; m. 9 March 1853 Isabella Gough, née Carvell, widow of James Gough and sister of Jedediah Slason Carvell, in Saint John, N.B., and they had one daughter; d. 24 Oct. 1899 in Montreal.
After attending the grammar school in Newcastle, Peter Mitchell entered the law office of George Kerr where he worked for four years. He was admitted as an attorney on 14 Oct. 1847 and called to the bar on 7 Oct. 1849. In the former year he established a partnership with John Mercer Johnson*; Mitchell practised in Newcastle and Johnson in Chatham. Their association was dissolved in 1852, but the two men remained friends and were political allies for many years.
Over the course of his career Mitchell became involved in a number of business enterprises, including shipbuilding and lumbering. In 1853 he entered into a partnership with his wife’s brother-in-law John Haws, and between 1853 and 1861 they built at least 12 vessels. The Golden Light (1,204 tons), which was one of several large ships from their yards, was launched in 1853 so late in the season that Mitchell had to have an 11-mile channel cut through the river ice so that she could leave the Miramichi. The partnership with Haws ended in 1861, but Mitchell continued to build ships until 1868, by which time he had launched 16 more. In 1864 he employed 250 men in the shipyards and paid out £300 weekly to them in wages; another 100 were loading ships with lumber for European markets. In the 1870s he owned the Mitchell Steamship Company, which operated vessels between Montreal and the Maritimes in the summer and between the Maritimes and Portland, Maine, in the winter. He was also a director of the Merchants’ Marine Insurance Company of Canada and the Baie des Chaleurs Railway, and was manager and treasurer of the Anticosti Company, which was probably a lumber firm. His business interests were not well managed and he frequently had trouble paying the bills.
In his first venture into politics, an 1852 by-election to fill the Northumberland seat vacated by the death of Alexander Rankin*, Mitchell ran as a reformer and a liberal. Claiming to have been a disciple of Joseph Howe* for the last ten years, he advocated responsible government, reduction in the salaries of government officials, reciprocity with the United States, and railway construction. George Kerr defeated him at the polls.
In the election of 1856 Mitchell, whose father was a hotel- and tavern-keeper, ran as an opponent of the Prohibition Act [see Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley]. This controversial legislation had led to the dismissal of Charles Fisher*’s Reform government, and feelings ran high. During the campaign Mitchell carried a pistol for protection and quantities of rum for his supporters. There were ten candidates for the four Northumberland seats and he came second. Re-elected in 1857, he remained a member of the provincial house until 1860.
As an assemblyman, Mitchell favoured making the initiation of money bills the exclusive right of the Executive Council, a reform which came about in 1858, and he backed the establishment of municipal administrations, which was not done until 1877. A Presbyterian, he was an opponent of denominational schools. In 1858 he introduced a bill to eliminate the leasing of crown lands by auction to timber operators. The measure, which was designed to aid small timber interests, was accomplished in 1861. When Mitchell was appointed to the Executive Council in 1859, the editor of the Chatham Gleaner predicted that he would make proceedings livelier than they had been. As a member of council, Mitchell helped pass a bankruptcy act which eased the burden of debtors. He opposed increased taxes on shipping interests and was able to get a bill enacted compelling the commissioners of buoys and beacons for Miramichi to put their surplus funds towards the support of sick and disabled seamen.
Mitchell did not run in the election of 1861 but, shortly after, he was appointed to the Legislative Council where he remained until confederation. He was also named to the Executive Council in June 1861 and was considered by Lieutenant Governor Arthur Hamilton Gordon* to be one of its ablest members. In the fight for an intercolonial railway, he was New Brunswick’s champion, attending conferences on its construction held at Quebec in 1861 and 1862.
A strong supporter of confederation, Mitchell was present at the Quebec conference in 1864 and resigned from the Executive Council with the other members of Tilley’s government after its 1865 electoral defeat. He then continued the fight for confederation from his seat in the Legislative Council. While Gordon was attempting to manoeuvre the new government leader, Albert James Smith*, into proposing measures that would ensure New Brunswick’s acceptance of the plan, Mitchell was hovering in the background, supporting and advising the lieutenant governor. Gordon used Mitchell in his efforts to get Smith to find a union scheme that both anti-confederates and confederates could accept. Mitchell did not trust Smith and was worried about the reaction of his own colleagues, but he went along with Gordon. Smith, however, refused to cooperate and eventually, on 10 April 1866, he and his government resigned. Mitchell advised Gordon to ask Tilley to form a new government but Tilley, who did not have a seat in the house, declined. Gordon next called on Mitchell and Robert Duncan Wilmot jointly. Mitchell became premier and led the fight for confederation during the 1866 election, which ended with a major victory for the confederates. He subsequently attended the London conference at which the British North America Act was drafted and was appointed to the Senate of the new dominion in May 1867.
When John A. Macdonald formed his first federal cabinet, he dealt with Tilley and not Mitchell. This was the first of the many slights that Mitchell later claimed to have suffered at Macdonald’s hands. Tilley was invited to join the cabinet and was told to select one other New Brunswicker to join him. The belief was that Tilley would have preferred another Saint John River man but that Mitchell’s popularity in the province and energetic support of confederation made it impossible to leave him out. Mitchell himself made it clear that he should be included. On 1 June 1867 he was offered his choice of two cabinet posts, secretary of state for the provinces or minister of marine and fisheries. Macdonald told him that there was little to do in either position, but in the Department of Marine and Fisheries he was to find enough to occupy his energy and administrative talents. He was sworn in on 1 July 1867. His familiarity with fishing, shipbuilding, and shipping was to help him as he tried to organize the department, which was faced with the task of integrating the various provincial fisheries and marine regulations. The ministry had international importance and ample scope for growth [see William Smith]. Mitchell was criticized for the wide powers given to the minister in the act of 1868 that set it up, but he argued that such powers were needed to deal with future expansion. A report made in 1872 to Trinity House, London, on Canadian and American coastal protection praised Mitchell for having established a system “of simplicity and economy.”
Mitchell’s work with the fisheries themselves was even more important and was to entail diplomacy since Great Britain and the United States were also involved. He encouraged conservation, which necessitated fishways and restocking, but his main problem was the violation of Canadian waters by foreign fishermen. Americans were the worst offenders. Under the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 they had been given certain rights to the inshore fisheries. Although that agreement had terminated in 1866, the Americans continued to act as if they still had the same privileges. Attempts in 1865 and 1866 to renegotiate the treaty had failed. Beginning in 1866 American fishermen had been required to take out licences to fish in Canadian waters, but most refused. Enforcement was carried out by British warships, which issued three warnings before taking any action. Mitchell wanted higher licence fees and one warning only. The British foreign secretary, Lord Stanley, refused to consider this proposal, made in the spring of 1868. Mitchell felt Canada’s “national dignity and rights” were at stake. Macdonald tried to tone down the severity of Mitchell’s new regulations but did support him in this dispute, and Lord Stanley soon backed down.
Mitchell, however, was still not satisfied that Canadian rights were being protected. Believing that Britain was unlikely to do anything to upset the Americans, he decided to force the issue. For the 1870 season he created his own navy. To Canada’s two existing ships he added six vessels designed and equipped to look like American fishing boats but armed. This fleet was sent to help the British warships enforce Canadian regulations. His policy had the support of the Canadian government, and the British reluctantly went along with it. The Americans were furious when Mitchell’s navy began seizing their boats. By the summer relations were strained to the breaking-point. In December 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant referred to Canada as a “semi-independent but irresponsible agent,” and Mitchell promptly replied in an anonymous pamphlet setting out Canada’s position in no uncertain terms. Urged by Mitchell, the Canadian cabinet asked Britain for the setting up of a joint commission. One was established early in 1871 and its work led to the Treaty of Washington later that year. Many at the time considered the treaty a British sell-out of Canadian interests: Macdonald felt betrayed and Mitchell was bitter. Nevertheless, the agreement marks the first successful attempt by Canada to protect its own sovereignty, and without Mitchell’s aggressive response to American encroachment it might never have come about. The fisheries were to be opened to the Americans at a price for a period of 12 years, but Canadian rights were established.
Mitchell had reached the zenith of his power and authority. He was never again to play a major role in government. In 1872 he resigned from the Senate to seek the Northumberland seat in the House of Commons. Why he took this step is not clear. He is known to have felt that the Senate had little real use, but later he asserted that Macdonald told him it was his duty to win the seat for the government. In any case, he was acclaimed in the riding. A year later the government fell as a result of the Pacific Scandal. Mitchell, who had not been involved in the affair, then declared himself an independent. He was the only former member of the government who refused to continue support for Sir John as leader of the Liberal-Conservative party, and at the same time, although he had always called himself a Liberal, he declared that he would not follow Alexander Mackenzie either. This decision was probably a mistake on his part because from then on he was mistrusted by both sides. He was returned to the House of Commons in the general election of 1874 and later claimed, “I practically led the Opposition during Mackenzie’s five years of administration,” but there is little evidence that he played a role at all. In January 1878 he resigned his seat. He had been accused of violating the Independence of Parliament Act by leasing a building to the government while he was a senator. Although the act was amended in 1877 to indemnify Mitchell and others who had contravened it, he went to his constituents and was returned by acclamation on 5 February. Once again in the house, he was as stubborn and forceful as ever. He held up legislation for several days demanding compensation for a widow in his constituency whose cow had been killed by a train. He argued that the government ignored the poor and the helpless, and he went on for so long that Mackenzie agreed to pay for the cow so that the business of the house could continue.
In the 1878 general election Mitchell, calling himself an independent Liberal, campaigned in support of Macdonald’s National Policy, since he had been led to believe there would not be an increase in taxes on food. His opponent, independent Jabez Bunting Snowball*, claimed there would be one, and then, to Mitchell’s dismay, Macdonald made a speech in Ontario where he admitted taxation would rise and would involve foodstuffs such as flour. Mitchell felt betrayed and blamed Macdonald, whom he now distrusted more than ever, for making him appear a liar. In fact, he never forgave the Conservative leader. During the campaign both Mitchell and Snowball freely expended money and goods on the voters. One storekeeper, who opposed Mitchell, told his customers that they could expect no credit from him during the winter and that he would sell the store and their debts and leave if they did not vote for Snowball, a threat which he claimed “had a good effect.” Mitchell lost the election, his first political defeat in over 20 years. He spent several months in Newcastle and then in 1879 made a trip to western Canada. His letters and notes, which contain criticisms of Macdonald’s railway policy, were published the next year.
It seems that by 1882 Mitchell had moved to Montreal. In the general election of that year he could have run in Montreal East but he preferred to try to regain his seat in Northumberland. He stood as an independent and was critical of Macdonald and his policies, for he was still nursing grievances. The matter of the National Policy was one. Also, he felt he had been slighted in 1878 when his old enemy Albert James Smith, who had succeeded him as minister of marine and fisheries, was knighted. The honour was in recognition of the $5,500,000 award that was obtained for Canada and Newfoundland in compensation for the admission of the Americans to the inshore fisheries under the terms of the Treaty of Washington. Mitchell felt he himself merited the knighthood and that the reward for his work had gone to Smith. The fact that Smith, who had opposed confederation, was now seen as a Canadian hero must have been particularly galling to Mitchell. He may also have been smarting over the knighthood given to Tilley in 1879 since he felt he himself had earned one for his efforts in bringing New Brunswick into confederation. Bitter and tactless, he went public with his criticism, showing the pettiness which emerged in his character during his later years. He was none the less acclaimed in Northumberland in 1882. In 1887, when he ran as an independent Liberal, he again took the seat.
In 1885 Mitchell had purchased the Montreal Herald and Daily Commercial Gazette, and it became his mouthpiece for attacking the policies of Liberals or Conservatives when they clashed with his opinions. The paper “represents no sentiments but those entertained by the proprietor himself,” he said in the House of Commons. In its pages he called for mercy for Louis Riel*, saying that since treason had been treated lightly in the past it ought to be in this instance. Trying Riel for that crime was, he felt, “an inexcusable blunder.” He blamed Macdonald for failing to deal with the Métis complaints that had led to the rebellion, and referred to Riel’s execution as the “most cowardly political murder that has yet disgraced the annals of old or new Canada.” He also lashed out at the Senate, which he felt represented “nobody and nothing” and was “a party hospital in which the lame and the blind are collected, a sort of political museum in which fossils may be seen.” Now an advocate of free trade, he attacked the Conservatives as the party of protectionism. Wilfrid Laurier*, the new Liberal leader, met with his approval. Laurier had, he felt, some concern for the labouring class. Mitchell was opposed to the 1888 Treaty of Washington – an attempt to settle the fisheries problem following the expiry of the 1871 treaty – and was pleased when the American Senate rejected it. On the Jesuits’ estates question, however, he reluctantly agreed with Macdonald that Quebec’s act settling the matter should not be disallowed. In 1890 the Herald ran into financial difficulty because of a lengthy strike. The workers’ salary demands were unreasonable, Mitchell asserted. A year later the destruction of its offices by fire caused him a considerable financial loss and he sold the paper soon after.
Mitchell entered the 1891 election campaign as an independent Liberal and lost in Northumberland. From then on he resided at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal. His wife had died in 1889, and his daughter spent most of her time in a hospital for the mentally disturbed. Many of his friends had passed on, and he became a well-known figure at the hotel – a lonely man, eager to discuss politics with anyone who would listen.
The many injustices Mitchell felt Macdonald had done him made him increasingly bitter. By 1894 he was a forgotten man, and he believed his political role had never been properly acknowledged. His resentment of the praises heaped on Macdonald continued to grow, and he decided to set the record straight by publishing “The secret history of Canadian politics,” which appeared in the Toronto Evening News in 1894. It is perhaps unfortunate that Mitchell was not prevented from taking this step because the results were more damaging to his reputation than to Macdonald’s. Publishing it lost him most of his remaining Conservative friends, and he then turned to the Liberals in the hope of gaining recognition. He ran in Northumberland as a Liberal in the general election of 1896 and lost. Attempts to get a knighthood through Laurier failed, as did requests to him for appointment to the lieutenant governorship of New Brunswick. Laurier did, however, create for him the post of general inspector of fisheries for Quebec and the Maritime provinces, and Mitchell held it until his death in 1899.
During his parliamentary career Peter Mitchell had been known as a skilled debater who spoke eloquently and forcefully, never mincing his words. According to writer Melvin Ormond Hammond, who had interviewed contemporaries, Mitchell rarely used notes, “stood with his hands in his pockets, and came down hard on his heels by way of emphasis. He gave the impression of mental as well as physical power, and, though likeable, was as bold as a lion.” Mitchell could on occasion be vindictive and ruthless. His actions during the political turmoil of 1865–66 earned him the sobriquet Bismarck Mitchell, a label which suggested cunning and deceit. Considered by some a more capable man than the gentle, courteous Tilley, he was headstrong and at times quarrelsome, but he usually got the job done. A hard worker and an excellent administrator, he was better at planning than at handling day-to-day routine which he found boring. In his heyday he was a good man to have on side and a dangerous enemy who was feared by political opponents. He would ally himself with former enemies to achieve common goals and, though respected for his abilities, he was not generally liked by party leaders such as Macdonald or Laurier. Nevertheless, he deserves to be remembered for his important role in bringing New Brunswick into confederation and for his efficient organization of the first federal department of marine and fisheries.
Peter Mitchell’s publications include Notes of a holiday trip by the Hon. P. Mitchell, late minister of Marine and Fisheries: the west and north-west; reliable information for immigrants, with maps, &c. (Montreal, 1880) and “The secret history of Canadian politics,” Evening News (Toronto), 15–17 May 1894, a copy of which is preserved among his papers at UNBL (MG H6, box 3, folder 5). He is the author of the anonymous Review of President Grant’s recent message to the United States’ Congress, relative to the Canadian fisheries and the navigation of the St. Lawrence River ([Ottawa?, 1870?]), and may also have written The route of the Intercolonial Railway in a national, commercial and economic point of view ([Ottawa?, 1867?]).
NA, MG 26, A, 513; G: 9222–25, 14395. N.B. Museum, Reg. of marriages for the city and county of Saint John, book E (1853–59), 1853 (mfm. at PANB). PANB, MC 1156, XI: 59–60. UNBL, MG H6; MG H82, T. H. Flieger to James Brown, 2 Aug. 1878. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1877–85. J. E. Collins, Life and times of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald . . . premier of the Dominion of Canada (Toronto, 1883); revised as Canada’s patriot statesman: the life and career of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, with additions by G. M. Adam (Toronto, 1891). J. [A.] Macdonald, Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald . . . , ed. Joseph Pope (Toronto, 1921). Daily Gleaner, 25 Oct. 1899. Gleaner (Chatham, N.B.), 5 July 1852; 7 June, 11 Oct. 1856; 22 Feb. 1860. Globe, 1885. Montreal Daily Star, 28 Oct. 1895. New-Brunswick Courier, 27 Dec. 1862. Saint John Globe, 1885. CPC, 1873, 1876, 1883, 1892. D. [G. ] Creighton, The road to confederation; the emergence of Canada: 1863–1867 (Toronto, 1964). E. H. Greaves, “Peter Mitchell; a father of confederation”