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A Man For All Seasons

For the week of Monday November 15, 2004

On November 16, 1858, Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie arrived in Victoria, British Columbia, to be a judge in the new administration. Along with James Douglas, Governor of Vancouver Island, Begbie ensured that some form of colonial rule would be present in the growing population.

Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie
© BC Archives / A-08953 www.bcarchives.gov.bc.ca

Begbie received a B.A. from Cambridge University and eventually became a lawyer. Over the years, scholars have differed on whether Begbie's law career in London was successful or not. Nonetheless, he was still appointed to be a judge in British Columbia. Begbie also was appointed to the Executive Council of British Columbia in 1859. He helped to formulate colonial legislation regarding immigration, commerce and settlement in British Columbia.

Begbie brought British law to a colony made up of remote mining communities. Even though the land was rugged and the journeys long, Begbie managed to hear cases in the most isolated areas. He lived in a tent and survived off the land. Although his outdoor lifestyle was informal, he insisted on formality for court proceedings. Begbie wore his judicial robes even when he held court in the bush. He was known to be a supporter of First Nations people and often heard cases in Aboriginal languages without an interpreter.

In 1871, Begbie was appointed Chief Justice of the Province of British Columbia. He established a court system and strengthened the laws pertaining to the social and commercial aspects of the developing province. His main interest was law reform. He urged both provincial and federal governments to adjust their legal systems to move with the times.

His exemplary reputation was confirmed in 1875 when Queen Victoria knighted him while he was back in Great Britain. Inevitably, Begbie was not praised by everyone. He was often criticized for his adherence to the principle of equality of all men, which was contrary to the prevailing views at the time. His extreme loyalty to the British Crown rather than to the provincial government also caused friction among his colleagues. The Supreme Court of Canada even overturned his rulings on two significant cases.

As well as being a famous judge, Begbie led an active social life, publicly sang Italian opera, and was one of the first people to introduce the game of modern tennis to western Canada. He died of cancer in 1894.

Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie was designated as a National Historic Person of Canada in 1959.

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