Bird, J.E. (1868-1948)

Joseph Edward Bird was the principal lawyer acting for the passengers of the Komagata Maru. In 1914, at the age of forty-six, he was a senior partner in the Vancouver law firm of MacNeill, Bird, Macdonald and Darling. Their office complex was at the top of the Metropolitan Building, overlooking the port and the CPR railway station. This was a nine-storey Edwardian structure erected in 1909 by the Terminal City Club, a private businessmen’s club with a membership of movers and shakers in businesses associated with the port and the railway. Bird belonged to the Terminal City Club and one can picture him at the end of a working day leaving his office to settle in with a newspaper in an easy chair in the lounge of his club, without having to go out of the building. Bird’s senior partner, Albert H. MacNeill, belonged to the rival and more prestigious Vancouver Club, which was a short walk along Hastings Street.

The MacNeill-Bird partnership made good sense. Both men were members of the Masonic Order, but otherwise possessed independent networks and together brought in legal business from a wide spectrum of clients. MacNeill was a Maritimer, educated at Dalhousie in Halifax, Nova Scotia, while Bird was from small-town Ontario and had gone to the University of Toronto. MacNeill had arrived in Vancouver a dozen years ahead of Bird when the city was a raw new Pacific terminus for the CPR. Bird arrived just in time for the great expansion of Vancouver with the burgeoning growth of the coastal forest industry after 1903. MacNeill was a Presbyterian and a member of the Conservative Party. Bird was a socialist. But they were partners, and towards the end of the Komagata Maru saga in Vancouver, when Bird got a threatening letter from a local citizen and prudently chose to travel out town with his wife, MacNeill took over his Komagata Maru brief.

Bird was Canadian from many generations back, with a distant Irish past. He had been born and raised in the Southern Ontario town of Barrie on Lake Simcoe, sixty miles north of Toronto, at the edge of the forest frontier. It was a market town for farmers and a sawmilling town for a local forest industry. To catch the flavour of the place, one can read humourist Stephen Leacock’s, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, published in 1912, which parodies the preferences, pretensions, and narrow horizons of a fictional Lake Simcoe town that had settled into its perpetual appearance within a generation of its founding. Leacock and Bird were almost exactly the same age; they grew up in the same area; and both left it for further education, never to return.

Bird was an individualist and an independent thinker. He spent eight years in Toronto as a student and practicing law. But he made an unusual choice for a city lawyer in 1896, moving to the isolated lumber and mining town of Kenora (then Rat Portage) in northwestern Ontario to open a branch office for a Toronto law firm. He married Caroline Irwin three years later and, with a young family, came to Vancouver four years after that, choosing the frontier opportunities of the Pacific coast over the more established environment of Toronto and home.

He must have been seen as a bit out of place at the Terminal City Club, balancing, as he did, a practice in commercial law with a commitment to Marxian socialism. One gets a sense of his bread and butter legal work from the directorships he held in 1913—the Alberta Lumber Co., Coast Quarries Ltd., and British Columbia Dental Supply Ltd. This was one side of Bird. The other was his activity in the Socialist Party of British Columbia, a group of Marxists who put forward a slate of candidates in the 1903 provincial election—the year that Bird arrived in B.C.—and managed to elect two. Bird himself got elected to Vancouver City Council in 1908 as a leftist candidate. Bird and his fellow socialists were too Marxist for the immigrant British socialists who ran under the Labour label, and too conservative for the extremists in the industrial union movement, extremists who were noisiest and most obvious on the streets of Vancouver in 1912 and 1913. But Bird’s B.C. socialists were the nucleus around which the Communist Party of Canada later formed.

The Socialists were one group in British Columbia that reached out to the activist leadership of the Sikhs and their Indian compatriots. This happened quite readily—and several years before the Komagata Maru— when the Socialists opened the pages of their periodical, The Western Clarion, to Indian activists and also printed the papers and pamphlets of these activists in their press room. In giving this help, the Socialists were true to their opposition to imperialism. And they seem also to have adopted the idea—born through 19th century linguistic scholarship—of a common Aryan kinship linking Britain and India. It also helped to have English as a common language. The Socialist Party of B.C. did not make the same connection with the Chinese or Japanese communities, unable to bridge language barriers and cultural distance. The superb English that some of the Indian activists possessed, and their full understanding of British political culture made a critical difference.

But the socialists were also a labour-oriented group. The two members of the legislature that the socialists elected in 1903 were from mining districts in the interior of the province and on Vancouver Island.  Mining unions opposed Asian immigration and the job competition it brought. That was an inescapable consideration. So we find the leadership of the Socialist party, while speaking out against British rule in India, and sympathetic towards Indian immigrants when they encountered abuses in Canada, generally against Indian or other Asian immigration.

Bird was an exception. His advocacy for the passengers on the Komagata Maru and earlier for those on the Panama Maru was unqualified. That, of course, was his job as a lawyer, but he had chosen to take the cases. He had been engaged through Husain Rahim, the Gujarati businessman who had arrived in Canada in 1910 via Japan and Honolulu, and who managed the Canada-India Supply and Trust Company for Sikh investors. Rahim had joined the Socialist party and by 1913 was on the Dominion Executive Committee. Throughout 1913 and 1914, that committee met in Rahim’s office at 516 Main Street. The party brought Rahim and Bird together and out of that relationship came Bird’s direct involvement with the Komagata Maru.

Bird continued to practice law in Vancouver for a quarter of a century after the Komagata Maru. In 1942, his son Edward I. Bird was carrying on the family tradition, representing the Khalsa Diwan Society and its petition against the wartime injustice of conscripting Indo-Canadians for military service when they were still denied the vote.

Bird died in 1948 at the age of eighty. His short obituary in the Sun described him as “a pioneer city barrister” who had practiced in Vancouver for thirty-seven years and who left behind his wife, two sons, H.J. and Edward I., a sister and two grandchildren, all in Vancouver. He also had a nephew, Henry Irvine Bird, who by then was a justice of the B.C. Supreme Court. This nephew had grown up in Ontario and come out to B.C. at the age of 18 to work as a junior clerk in his uncle’s law office.  This was in 1910 and he stayed until 1914 when he volunteered for overseas service with the B.C. Scottish regiment. After the war, and after legal studies in Toronto, he was admitted to the bar in B.C., and ultimately became the Chief Justice of B.C. The Bird name was obviously no handicap for him.

Sources: Obituary, The Advocate, Vancouver, 1948,  p.181; Manuscript Census of Canada, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901; Biographical sketch, in E.O. Scholfield and F.W. Howay eds.,  British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present, vol. 3  (Vancouver: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1914); Ali Kazimi, Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), quoting from an unpublished memoir by Bird dated 1940 and in the possession of Bird’s family.