When the Hudson’s Bay Company learned there was coal at the site of present-day Nanaimo in the mid 19th century, HBC boss and Vancouver Island colonial governor James Douglas put one of his top protégés on the job: Joseph William McKay.
Longtime Nanaimo educator Greg Fraser tells McKay’s life story in his debut book, Joseph William McKay: A Métis Business Leader in Colonial British Columbia, out July 6.
Fraser, who taught Canadian history for 33 years in Vernon and Nanaimo, said McKay caught his attention because he “shows up all over the place” in colonial B.C. and yet is a less-recognized figure.
“Put it in Hollywood terms: You’ve got your best actor and then you have your best supporting actor. McKay would be a best supporting actor along with a couple other people…” Fraser said. “They’re not the stars, but they’re the second group that was always there and really did a lot of work. And they’re starting to be written about now, which is good.”
Joseph William McKay covers McKay’s rise to the top ranks of the HBC, a rare occurrence for Indigenous employees at the time, and his role in establishing the mining settlement that became Nanaimo, as well as his business endeavours and political career as an MLA for Vancouver Island and later with the Department of Indian Affairs.
Fraser said McKay’s success at the HBC was due to his relationship with Douglas, noting that Douglas himself was of mixed race and had a Métis wife. Fraser said Douglas “took a real liking to McKay” when they first met in Oregon.
“He did a couple things down there that impressed Douglas and I think that probably gave him a good start,” he said. “And then getting the promotion to doing the job in Nanaimo was a big step.”
McKay was also “a person everybody seemed to like,” Fraser said, including HBC critic and Daily British Colonist founding editor Amor De Cosmos.
“He hated everything to do with the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Fraser said of the future B.C. premier. “But when McKay was transferred to Kamloops he wrote a really nice tribute to McKay saying that he was one of the few company people who tried to welcome the newcomers when the gold rush came.”
In 1852 McKay, at the time a 23-year-old HBC clerk, was ordered by Douglas to establish a settlement at “Nanymo Bay” and get the coal mines operational. For the next two years McKay oversaw the construction of housing, a school, saw mill, mines, warehouses, harbour facilities and most famously, Nanaimo’s Bastion. During a visit in 1853 Douglas commented that a “prodigious amount of work, for the hands employed has been accomplished here; the place has quite the appearance of a little village.”
In 1860 that “little village” became known as Nanaimo and in 1945 a plaque was placed on the Bastion designating McKay “founder of Nanaimo.”
Joseph William McKay: A Métis Business Leader in Colonial British Columbia is in bookstores July 6. Also available online.