Manitoba History: Review: C. B. Koester, Mr. Davin, M.P.: A Biography of Nicolas Davin
by Walter Hildebrandt
After reading this fine biography of Nicholas Flood Davin, it is no longer possible to pass the Clarendon Hotel on Portage Avenue with indifference. For it was in this hotel on 18 October 1901, shortly after seeking employment from Rodmond Roblin and having seen his companion of earlier years Kate Simpson Hayes (who bore his two children), that Davin was found with a bullet through his head. This suicide was the tragic end to a life dedicated to public service and to causes that were not always popular: it was the tragedy of an idealist in politics. His life was colourful and filled with personalities and circumstances that would be the envy of any novelist’s imagination.
Davin was born in 1843 in Kilfinane, County Limerick, Ireland and an interesting array of discrepant facts shroud his origins. Ambiguity surrounds both his parentage and his religious affiliations. In these years, Koester writes, Davin collected a wealth of experience that would later prove invaluable on the Canadian scene where divisive forces also threatened the social fabric: “... as a sensitive and receptive youth he was undoubtedly aware of the tensions and complexities of life in a community divided by race, religion, language and class. His roots were to be found in the Celtic and Catholic majority, but he and his family had chosen to compete amongst the Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the Ascendancy.”
Davin’s ambitions to become a journalist and lawyer led him to pursue a wide variety of jobs. In 1865 he entered London’s Inns of Court to earn entry to the bar, but poverty forced him to supplement his income through writing. He became a parliamentary reporter for The Morning Star where he shared the gallery with such notables as Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlett, and where he reported on speeches made by parliamentarians such as Disraeli, Mill, Lowe and Bright. In 1870, Davin applied for and successfully landed a position as editor of the Belfast Times. His tenure here was short-lived and due to an alleged drinking problem (which would later plague his political career), he was fired that same year and two years later he set off for Canada.
Koester traces Davin’s career in Canada from his arrival in 1872 to 1887 when he became a Member of Parliament and analyses the development of Davin’s conservatism as it was tempered by his Canadian experience. Even though an avowed Conservative, he joined the staff of George Brown’s Globe where he wrote literary reviews and commentaries on English politics. Davin’s consummate oratorical skills were revealed through his participation in the “penny readings” of local literary societies, speaking on such diverse topics as “The Irish Question” to “Male and Female” and “Sex After Death.” Of greater significance, Davin also took part in debates of this period on the nature of Canada and its future. On one memorable occasion Davin threw himself into debate with an American clergyman, Rev. O. H. Tiffany, who came to Toronto to speak on the superiority of the American constitution and the classless, privilege-free society to which it gave birth. Davin’s sanguine rebuttal became a legend. He argued that American society without tried institutions to celebrate, lacked the altruistic goals of a society steeped in tradition, and would degenerate into the “wild worship of wealth.” Furthermore, he argued that privilege was not necessarily undesirable if not based on wealth; on this point he wrote: “You may prevent men having exceptional honours, but you cannot prevent them from doing what they like with their own ...”
The success of Davin’s response to Tiffany made him a popular choice as a speaker, but it also placed him among the nationalists of the time who gathered in a somewhat motley fashion under the umbrella of the Canada First Movement. Anxious to see Canada develop into a strong British-Canadian country, Davin had little patience for the pride that Americans had in the levelling effect of their more “egalitarian” democracy. At the same time, he did not want to adopt the vested privileges that he believed represented the worst of the British system. He carefully chose a middle ground: “democratic but not egalitarian ... able to acknowledge a certain charm in the theories of socialism. He appeared as a conservative with respect for the traditions of the past, but not with the intransigent opposition to change of the Tory: he had a preference for an aristocracy whose ranks acknowledged not birth alone, but intellectual attainment and patient merit; and he showed evidence of a developed sense of excellence ...”
The last section of this book covers Davin’s career in Regina where he arrived in 1882. As a Member of Parliament for Assiniboia West, he faced many difficult, issues including grain handling, the tariff, provincial rights and language legislation. He gained a reputation as an independent, passionate speaker who sought compromise where possible with a hope that existing prejudices would not be inflamed or differences exacerbated. Davin had barely hung onto his seat in the 1896 contest and by 1900 Liberal support in Western Canada had steadily risen. The ammunition the opposition had accumulated over the years became increasingly difficult to rebut.
But it was over the Manitoba Schools Question that the course of Davin’s political career changed. As a representative for a basically non-partisan electorate he voted on this issue with his government even though he had spoken against it frequently in the House. He was torn between his party loyalty and personal conscience, and when he chose the former his popularity in his constituency plummeted. By supporting the remedial legislation of 1896 even though he had maintained that the Manitoba legislature was the only authority to decide the matter, Davin put himself in an untenable position. The Liberal press in the North-West would not allow the electors to forget Davin’s choice, especially since he had led the fight for increased territorial rights for many years. It was the turning point in his political career, a career that represents in microcosm the dilemmas inherent in the federal system that would plague many western politicians to follow him. Even Davin despite his accomplished skills as an orator and rhetoritician, was unable to unravel and clarify such divisive issues.
Throughout his career Davin is characterized as a man who “stood up for the underdog,” both politically and in his law practice, a man not afraid to adopt an unpopular position on important moral and social issues of the day. It is therefore a curious omission in an otherwise detailed study that his findings while secretary on the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration and as Commissioner for the inquiry into Industrial Schools are not included. One is left wondering whether the contents of these reports might have sullied the image we are left with of a compassionate and tolerant champion of the rights of the less fortunate citizens of his day. It might also have been useful to have contrasted Davin’s ideas with those of P. G. Laurie of the Saskatchewan Herald, who in political temperament shared so much with Davin. These are rather minor points of omission which do not significantly detract from Koester’s chosen emphasis.
Davin M.P. has shown that biography need not be tediously pedantic and that a “life and times” approach remains an important form of historical writing. Koester has accomplished his task without the aid of any of Davin’s personal papers and has relied heavily on public records. The book is supplemented by an impressive bibliography with a complete list of Davin’s own writings which consist of poetry, pamphlets and numerous articles. The text is appropriately complemented by political cartoons and historical photographs.
Page revised: 29 March 2022