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Distinctly Canadian

For the week of Monday October 8, 2007

On October 14, 1848, Byron Edmund Walker was born in Haldimand County, Upper Canada. Although he came from a modest family, Walker’s distinguished career would extend to various areas of Canadian society - business, education and the arts.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Building, King St., Toronto, 1930s
© Archives of Ontario / Ontario House records / RG 9-7-5-0-5
Walker’s formal education ended when his doctor advised him against attending the Normal School in Toronto because of his fragile health. Instead, 12-year-old Walker went to work at his uncle’s exchange office in Hamilton. He then worked briefly as manager and partner of a small brokerage firm in Montréal. Walker returned to Hamilton at age 20, and took a job at the local Canadian Bank of Commerce.

Walker climbed quickly through the bank hierarchy. By 1879, he was the inspector at the head office of the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Toronto. There, he introduced many reforms including using telegraphy in multiple branch banking and re-organizing the bank into distinct departments, a practice which was ahead of its time. Seven years later, Walker became the bank’s general manager and, in 1907, its president. During his presidency, he oversaw incredible growth. The Canadian Bank of Commerce had originally been an Ontario institution, but under Walker, it grew from a provincial to a national bank with international connections, the second largest in Canada.

Sir Byron Edmund Walker
© The Champlain Society
Walker’s success in business allowed him to indulge his passion for the arts. As a collector, Walker founded and donated extensively to cultural institutions, including the University of Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum and the Champlain Society . One of Walker’s most significant projects was the National Gallery of Canada. Twenty-five years after it had been established, the gallery remained obscure and inactive. This changed when Walker became chairman of the gallery’s first Board of Trustees and secured generous public funding to build the gallery’s collection.

Walker’s strong opinions meant that his career in the arts was not without conflict. In 1923, a jury chosen by the National Gallery to select art for the British Exhibition was criticized for favouring Canadian artists, whose works were “unimaginative and dull.” Nevertheless, Walker refused to alter the jury showing his devotion to distinctly Canadian culture. Walker purchased many Group of Seven pieces for the National Gallery, observing that Canadian artists had begun to “paint our country in moods, colours, and atmosphere which cannot be mistaken for anything but Canada.”

Knighted in 1910, Sir Byron Edmund Walker became a National Historic Person in 1938.

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