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Amor De Cosmos

(August 20, 1825 - July 4, 1897)

Amor De Cosmos played a major role in bringing British Columbia into Confederation. He promoted union with Canada through his newspaper and, as a founding member of the Confederation League, helped organize the Yale Conference that formalized the demands for union. For a time he held seats in both the provincial and federal legislatures, and served as British Columbia's premier from 1872 to 1874.

Amor De Cosmos was born William Alexander Smith in Windsor, Nova Scotia, the son of Jesse Smith and Charlotte Esther McKievers. He attended a private school in Windsor, before continuing his studies at King's College School. Around 1840, his family moved to Halifax, where De Cosmos joined the Dalhousie College debating club, attended a grammar school by night and took a day job as a clerk in a wholesale grocer. In 1852, he left this job to join the California Gold Rush, travelling there by way of New York and St. Louis. Once he arrived in California, he began working as a photographer. His brother later joined him there, and the two began a business venture. It was while he was in California, in 1854, that he changed his name to Amor De Cosmos, out of a desire to express, as he said, his "love of order, beauty, the world, the universe."

In 1858, De Cosmos moved to the colony of Vancouver Island, settling in Victoria. In December of that year, he founded a newspaper, the British Colonist. He used his paper as a vehicle to demand the union of the two west coast British colonies, (Vancouver Island and British Columbia), to campaign for responsible government, and to advocate Confederation. De Cosmos was an outspoken critic of the upper class in Victoria. His views were much influenced by Nova Scotian politician Joseph Howe. He ran for office twice before being elected to the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island, where he served from 1863 until 1866. After the union of the two west coast colonies, he served in the Legislative Council of British Columbia from 1867 to 1868, and from 1870 to 1871.

De Cosmos was a founding member of the Confederation League in 1868. His rival John Robson, another newspaper editor turned reform politician, also joined. They helped to organize the Yale Conference of September 1868, at which delegates formalized their demands for responsible government and union with Canada. During the Great Confederation Debate in the provincial legislature in 1870, De Cosmos famously hinted at rebellion over Clause 15, which stated that British Columbia would continue without responsible government after Confederation.

Following British Columbia's entry into Confederation in 1871, De Cosmos was elected to both the new provincial legislature and the federal parliament. He maintained both seats, serving as the premier of British Columbia from 1872 until 1874, while also acting as a member of Parliament (he spent most of his time in Ottawa). In 1879, frustrated by the slow progress on the transcontinental railway, he put forward a motion in the House of Commons calling for the separation of British Columbia from Canada. During the latter part of his career, he was also much concerned with racial issues in British Columbia. He left the Commons and public life in 1882, after losing in that year's federal election.

Always an eccentric individual, De Cosmos's unconventional behavior increased in his later years. He was reported to be afraid of electricity, refusing to have it in his house or even to ride on electric streetcars. A heavy drinker, he was given to making emotional speeches and, from time to time, street brawling. In 1895, shortly after an abortive attempt at a return to politics, De Cosmos was declared insane. He died two years later.

Sources

British Columbia and Confederation. -- Ed. George Shelton. -- Victoria : Morriss Printing Company, Ltd., 1967. -- 250 p.

McDonald, Robert A. J. ; H. Keith Ralston. -- "De Cosmos, Amor". -- Dictionary of Canadian biography. -- Ed. Francess G. Halpenny. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1990. -- Vol. 12, p. 237-243.

Woodcock, George. -- Amor De Cosmos. -- Toronto : Oxford University Press, 1975. -- 177 p.

Woodcock, George. -- "de Cosmos, Amor". -- Canadian encyclopedia : year 2000 edition. -- Ed. James H. Marsh. -- 3rd print ed. -- Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1999. -- P. 638.