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ROBERTSON, JOSEPH GIBB, businessman, politician, and office holder; b. 1 Jan. 1820 in Stuartfield, Scotland, son of the Reverend James Robertson and Elizabeth Murray; brother of Margaret Murray; m. 19 July 1870 Mary Jane Woodward in Sherbrooke, Que., and they had four sons and two daughters; d. there 13 March 1899.
Joseph Gibb Robertson’s father settled in Sherbrooke with his family in May 1836 and became the first pastor of the Congregational Church there. Joseph’s brothers Andrew*, George R., and William Wilcox chose legal careers, but he decided upon business. On 19 April 1843, with a capital of £250, he went into partnership with Joseph Longee, a farmer and innkeeper in Compton Township, to form J. G. Robertson and Company. Robertson, who was in charge of managing the dry goods, grocery, and hardware concern, set up shop in a store rented from Albert Gallatin Woodward, the Sherbrooke merchant from whom he had bought the business. In 1845 the partnership was renewed for three more years.
With Woodward’s help, Robertson speculated in land from time to time, in a region undergoing rapid development. Thus he had been able to mortgage lots in order, apparently, to convert Longee’s share of their business into a £500 loan that he was to repay over four years, the end of this period coinciding with the expiry of the partnership agreement in April 1848. Given the absence of a new contract, presumably Robertson continued in business on his own.
By June 1853 Robertson was heavily engaged in municipal politics and he considered giving up his commercial activities. He called in his outstanding loans and put his inventory up for sale. The following year he made another unsuccessful attempt to divest himself of the business. Not finding a purchaser, he joined with William and George Addie on 24 Oct. 1854 to form W. and G. Addie and Company in Sherbrooke and G. and W. Addie and Company in Dudswell. When William and George retired after three years, Robertson went into partnership with G. Addie Jr in Dudswell. In January 1861 he succeeded in renting his Sherbrooke store to James A. Gordon and Isaac Manning. A scant year later the firm of Gordon and Manning was dissolved and nothing more is known of Robertson’s store.
During the 1850s and 1860s Robertson stepped up his land speculation, especially in Ascot Township and at Sherbrooke, but also in the townships of Orford, Weedon, Dudswell, and Barford. He had an eye for bargains, especially at sheriff’s sales and from Americans eager to get rid of their property. He became very much a part of the Sherbrooke business community. A shareholder of the Sherbrooke Cotton Factory in 1846 and of the Sherbrooke County Building Society in 1850, he was a director of the Sherbrooke and Magog Turnpike Road Company in 1853. Early in 1858 he seems to have given up his commercial endeavours to take over the Sherbrooke Grist Mill. He rebuilt it and in 1860 even purchased a site with access to abundant water power on the Magog, near its juncture with the Saint-François, but this industrial enterprise always operated on a small scale. At the beginning of the 1860s Robertson served on the executive of the Stanstead and Sherbrooke Mutual Fire Insurance Company.
Robertson was active in local politics. On 12 Oct. 1847 he became secretary-treasurer for the municipality of Sherbrooke. He held the office of mayor in 1854–55, 1857–68, and 1869–72. Thus he played a key role in the town’s development for more than two decades before moving on to the provincial field in 1867. His first election was hard-fought and he won the seat for Sherbrooke in the Legislative Assembly by only 106 votes over the independent Conservative candidate, Richard William Heneker. Although a Conservative, Robertson supported Alexander Tilloch Galt and adopted a political stance that was more Liberal-Conservative than “true blue,” thereby arousing the suspicions of the more orthodox Conservatives. He was never a party man. With the election of 1867 he gained a firm hold on his provincial constituency, where he was re-elected, usually by acclamation, until 1892. He enjoyed the support of the Sherbrooke Gazette, of which his friend Joseph Soper Walton was the editor. Heneker got his revenge in 1868, however, when he won the mayoralty race against Robertson. Robertson regained the office the following year, when Heneker did not run, and he retained it until he gave it up in 1872.
Throughout these years Robertson proved an active promoter of the Sherbrooke, Eastern Townships and Kennebec Railway (which in 1875 became the Quebec Central), a line designed to link Sherbrooke with the Chaudière valley. He was its president and combined this position with those of mayor and provincial treasurer (1869–87). His accumulation of offices aroused protests from his municipal opponents and from competitors involved in another proposed railway, the St Francis Valley and Kennebec.
During his first term as provincial treasurer, from 25 Oct. 1869 to 25 Jan. 1876, Robertson helped lay the groundwork for a policy of assistance to railways. But he first had to deal with the difficult question involving the division of the assets and liabilities of the Province of Canada. The hard and bitter three-way negotiations between Quebec, Ontario, and the federal government ended on 3 Sept. 1870 with an arbitration ruling highly favourable to Ontario. The decision was politically unworkable and delayed resolution of the problem until 1873, when general readjustments enabled the federal government to assume the disputed debt.
Released from its debt and with its financial credit restored, the government of Quebec was now in a position to put into effect a railway policy that regional enterprises in search of capital had long awaited. On 13 Jan. 1874 Robertson outlined its basic elements in his budget speech: the government’s role would be to assist private enterprise by granting subsidies and helping to obtain loans in foreign markets; priority would be given to railway construction on the north shore; three categories of companies would be eligible for subsidies ranging from $1,710 to $2,500 a mile. Robertson estimated the overall cost of this railway policy to be $5,280,000. In the summer of 1874 he went to England to negotiate a first issue of provincial bonds, which he arranged privately through a financial syndicate led by Sir John Rose*, of Morton, Rose and Company. The operation was highly successful and the bonds quickly appreciated in value, despite the opposition from the Grand Trunk Railway Company.
Late in the summer of 1874, Robertson played a decisive role in the unfolding Tanneries scandal [see Louis Archambeault*]. Embarrassed by the affair, Premier Gédéon Ouimet* called on him to examine the whole question, knowing that on his conclusion hung the fate of the cabinet. Returning from England, Robertson studied the lands and documents involved, consulted others, and then submitted his resignation on 7 Sept. 1874, as George Irvine had done on 30 July. Thus the cabinet fell. Two weeks later Charles-Eugène Boucher* de Boucherville formed a new ministry, with Robertson once again as treasurer. As a member of this team, he would soon have to face the problem of the government takeover of the North Shore Railway.
At the end of October 1874 Robertson became one of the three cabinet ministers on the board of the North Shore Railway Company. This position soon proved difficult; as treasurer, he was responsible for controlling public funds, and he wanted, moreover, to give preference to the railways on the south shore. Since the company was sinking into a financial abyss, it once again had to turn to the government for help. In June 1875, with the other two ministerial directors beginning to favour such assistance, Robertson found himself caught between his desire not to stop construction and his opposition to a government takeover. The ministry’s decision to give the line more money was announced in September 1875. Robertson came under mounting pressure from his constituents, who found the increased government investment on the north shore frustrating, and he found it harder and harder to live with the constraints of cabinet solidarity. Because of his deep differences of opinion with his colleagues and the premier, he resigned early in 1876. Replaced by Levi Ruggles Church, he sat from then on as an independent Conservative, unconnected with the official opposition.
As treasurer, Robertson had succeeded in stabilizing the provincial government’s financial situation and in laying down hard and fast administrative rules to ensure tight control of expenditures. The routine correspondence of the Treasury Department reveals him to have been a strict and hard-working administrator of irreproachable honesty and integrity. In his dealings with banking houses he introduced the practice of distributing accounts, investments, and short-term loans among the various institutions, rather than concentrating them in the Bank of Montreal. This practice involved certain risks, however, particularly during the suspension of payments by the Banque Jacques-Cartier in 1875. Since the government was the principal depositor and was partly responsible for the difficulties being experienced by some of the bank’s debtors, Robertson was able by various means to prevent bankruptcy. In the end he hired as his assistant Henry Turner Machin, an Anglican freemason from Sherbrooke who later became his trusted adviser.
After the departure of Christopher Dunkin* in 1869, Robertson had become the chief representative in cabinet for the English-speaking minority. He assumed a position of leadership among his fellow Protestants until 1875. He also represented the interests of Sherbrooke and the Eastern Townships as well as of the south shore in general, especially in matters related to the railways, including the Quebec Central. Robertson took up the cause of these neglected railway companies and channelled the discontent of the south shore members of the legislature in their direction. The government then tried to pour oil on the troubled waters by announcing supplementary assistance for the railways.
From 1876 to 1879 Robertson, who was not in the government ranks, devoted most of his speeches in the assembly to finances and railways, as well as to questions of interest to the English-speaking Protestant minority. Showing moderation in matters relating to religion and education, he put his knowledge of the financial and railway dossiers to good use in embarrassing his successors and acting as the main critic of the Liberal budgets of 1878 and 1879, while posing as an independent observer. He advocated balancing the budget by levying taxes, if necessary, despite their unpopularity.
When the Conservatives were returned to power in 1879, Robertson was invited by Premier Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau to join his cabinet as treasurer and he began his duties on 31 October. He no longer had the same influence over his colleagues, and to some extent he served as their security in financial and railway matters. Chapleau and his friends, including Étienne-Théodore Pâquet, Louis-Adélard Senécal*, Clément-Arthur Dansereau*, Alexandre Lacoste*, and Jonathan Saxton Campbell Wurtele*, formed a parallel cabinet where the important decisions were made. Even though he held the office of treasurer, Robertson was excluded from negotiations on a loan to the Quebec government in 1880. Chapleau and his inner circle, especially Pâquet, had already established contacts with financiers from France and Wurtele was put in charge of the negotiations and the contract. Robertson, who could not work in French and did not see eye to eye with the French network, confined himself to giving technical assistance to the inexperienced Wurtele. Despite his competence, Robertson neglected to provide for a means of transferring funds and foreign exchange; thus when the value of the franc fell, there was a sharp decrease in the yield from the loan. He was put in the embarrassing position of having to ask for help from the very financiers who had been passed over when the bonds were issued.
During his term as treasurer, Robertson played an important role in the decision to sell the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway, which incorporated the North Shore Railway. He was convinced of the need to turn the line over to private enterprise, and within the cabinet he began to press for this solution. However, he had to solve the problem of finding one or more serious buyers whose aims were compatible with the railway policy of the government. After the 1881 election Chapleau decided to sell the line in two sections, the western part to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company and the eastern part to a group of businessmen led by Senécal. It was apparently the public revelation that a rival group had made a better offer for the eastern section that was the reason for Robertson’s exclusion from cabinet and replacement by Wurtele. His forced resignation, coupled with that of John Jones Ross* over the same issue, fuelled debates about the sale. Robertson proved to be more often in agreement with the Liberals than with his former colleagues, and in the assembly he voted against the sale.
After a somewhat uneventful period in opposition, Robertson returned to office as treasurer on 23 Jan. 1884 at the request of Premier Ross. He seems to have made it a condition of his entry into the cabinet that there be an investigation into the sale of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Occidental Railway. A commission of inquiry, set up the following April, produced partial answers to the questions raised. Robertson continued to represent the English-speaking Protestant community in a cabinet dominated by ultramontanists and shaken by the Riel affair [see Louis Riel*]. He ended his career as treasurer without too much disruption on 29 Jan. 1887, when Honoré Mercier’s Parti National came to power, and he resumed his role as financial critic. But his electoral star was on the wane. In the 1890 election, for the first time in years, he faced an opponent, Louis-Charles Bélanger, and won by a margin of only 270. In 1892 he ran as an independent Conservative and in a three-way fight lost by only 12 votes to a French-speaking Conservative, Louis-Edmond Panneton.
Robertson continued to serve as president of the Quebec Central Railway, often in conjunction with his political activities. Its construction consumed a great deal of time and large government subsidies, but the result often appeared to be of dubious quality. Inevitable problems of financing delayed the opening of the entire line until 1881. That year, through a skilful manœuvre by George Irvine, the Quebec Central managed to buy the bankrupt Lévis and Kennebec Railway Company at a favourable price and to finish the lines as far as Lévis. Robertson, who claimed to have risked his fortune on the Quebec Central, was the butt of attacks by the opposition focused on the apparent conflict between his responsibilities as president (which he remained until the end of the 1880s) and his duties as provincial treasurer. He was almost always able to prove, with a wealth of statistics, that the allegations were false. Besides his railway activities, Robertson in the early 1870s tried his hand at prospecting in Ely Township, but did not make his fortune at it. He seems to have been mainly occupied with various land speculations, both at Sherbrooke and in the neighbouring townships, and apparently made a certain amount of money from them, with support from the Woodwards and others.
Following his defeat in the 1892 election, Robertson held the position of postmaster at Sherbrooke, where he died on 13 March 1899 after a brief illness. His funeral was well attended, mainly by prominent people from Sherbrooke and the Eastern Townships, but drew few politicians from outside the region. He was buried on 16 March in the Union Cemetery in Sherbrooke.
[The author wishes to thank Jean-Pierre Kesteman of the Dép. d’histoire, univ. de Sherbrooke, Qué., for his assistance in locating documents and newspaper articles relating to Joseph Gibb Robertson’s activities in Sherbrooke. m.v.]
Robertson is the author of Sketch of the formation of the Congregational church at Sherbrooke and Lennoxville (Sherbrooke, 1890).
AC, Saint-François (Sherbrooke), État civil, Congrégationalistes, Congregational Church (Sherbrooke and Lennoxville), 16 March 1899. ANQ-E, CE1-69, 19 juill. 1870; CN1-10; CN1-24; CN1-27; T11-1/28–31. ANQ-Q, E14/443–58. Arch. de la ville d’Ascot (Ascot, Qué.), Reg. des procès-verbaux, 1845–46. Débats de l’Assemblée législative (M. Hamelin), vols.1–2, esp. budget speeches. Le Pionnier (Sherbrooke), 1866–1902. Sherbrooke Daily Record, 1897–1910. Sherbrooke Gazette, 1837–73. Désilets, Hector-Louis Langevin. Amédée Gaudreault, Les maires de Sherbrooke (Sherbrooke, 1954). Gervais, “L’expansion du réseau ferroviaire québécois.” M. Hamelin, Premières années du parlementarisme québecois. J.-P. Kesteman, “Le Progrès” (1874–1878): étude d’ un journal de Sherbrooke (Sherbrooke, 1979). Rumilly, Hist. de la prov. de Québec, vols. 1–6; Mercier et son temps. Michel Stewart, “Le partage de la dette et des actifs de la province du Canada, 1867–1910” (thèse de ma, univ. Laval, Québec, 1976); “Le Québec, Montréal, Ottawa et Occidental, une entreprise d’État, 1875–1882” (phd thesis, univ. de Sherbrooke, 1983). Marc Vallières, “La gestion des opérations financières du gouvernement québécois, 1867–1920” (thèse de phd, univ. Laval, 1980). B. J. Young, Promoters and politicians.