Burrell, Martin (1858-1938)

Martin Burrell was the senior representative of the Canadian government who played a most critical role in the last days of the Komagata’s Maru’s stay in Vancouver harbour. He was born in Faringdon in Oxfordshire, England but grew up in the B.C. interior and he had served as mayor of the town of Grand Forks in B.C.'s southern interior before entering federal politics. His parliamentary constituency was Yale-Cariboo, which included the Okanagan fruit growing area, and he operated an orchard farm that ranked as largest apple tree nursery in the province. In 1914 Burrell was the federal Minister of Agriculture under Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden. He had held that ministry from 1911 and stayed in it until 1917 and then continued in Borden’s cabinet in other portfolios until 1920.

Burrell was a political and personal friend of Borden’s from the moment of his entry into parliament in 1908 as a member of the Borden-led Conservative opposition. When Borden won the 1911 election, Burrell was an obvious candidate for the B.C. place in cabinet, although Borden’s first choice had been Sir Richard McBride, the premier of B.C.—who could not be enticed out of provincial politics. The six years Burrell served in Agriculture was a long tenure in a single cabinet position. Burrell was obviously a success in cabinet, and all the more secure because he was a strong Borden supporter on the vital issues of the day.

These issues included questions of war, armaments and imperial relations. In the 1914-1918 war fought by Canadians alongside the British, Burrell was fully behind Borden in his commitment to the British cause and on his insistence that Canada have in a voice in the making of war and peace—that Canada be respected as a partner in the war, not just a colony that could be taken for granted by the British government. Canada made a huge effort at this time in military personnel and money. Over 400,000 Canadian volunteer troops served overseas, of whom two-thirds were casualties—wounded and dead. When one considers the population then—about seven million—one can imagine how far the consequences of war reached into communities and families across the country. And this was a war that brought division between people of British stock, and others, particularly French Canadians who looked at Canada’s commitment to a European war with much less enthusiasm.

The war began after the Komagata Maru left for Asia. But the question of imperial defence had been dividing French and English in Canada for some time. The naval issue in particular provides background to the story of the Rainbow, the cruiser that escorted the Komagata Maru out of Canadian waters in August 1914. The British had been demanding a Canadian contribution to the (British) Royal Navy. The government before Borden’s (that of Sir Wilfrid Laurier) tried to walk the line dividing English-Canadians and French-Canadians by creating an independent Canadian navy under Canadian control. What the Laurier government achieved was a token Canadian navy consisting of two cruisers purchased from the British. One was stationed in the Atlantic at Halifax and the other, the Rainbow, at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island. In wartime, with the British calling for more help, Borden did what Laurier would not do, and made cash contribution to the Royal Navy but he maintained and expanded Canada’s navy. In 1914, however, it was still just two ships—and one of them, the Rainbow, was available while Komagata Maru was in Vancouver.

Burrell was at home at Naramata in the Okanagan during the summer parliamentary break of 1914 when the Komagata Maru looked like it was heading for a disastrous encounter between passengers and the authorities in Vancouver. The Conservative backbench MP from Vancouver, H.H. Stevens had insisted that Prime Minister Borden order the Rainbow over from Victoria for a showdown with the passengers. Borden did as requested, but he no longer trusted Stevens or Immigration Agent Malcolm Reid—neither their judgment nor temperament. So he asked Burrell to go out to the coast, a trip of about 300 miles by train. Burrell arrived on a Monday morning to find himself projected instantly into an intensely heated situation with Reid, city authorities and the militia ready for action, and the passengers psyching themselves up for resistance. In the intense and grueling negotiations that followed, Burrell, the senior government man on the spot, brought a spirit of compromise that, by late afternoon, resolved the situation. The next morning the ship sailed, with provisions already loaded, as the passengers had demanded.

The governor general, H.R.H. Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, praised Burrell’s efforts. Prime Minister Borden had kept Arthur posted on the Komagata Maru and he, in turn, was reporting to the Colonial Secretary, Lewis Harcourt, in London. The imperial authorities were holding their breath lest something should go badly wrong:  a bloody encounter between police the passengers in Vancouver, with political repercussions in India. After Burrell had spent a day in Vancouver, a gratified Arthur reported that things had changed for the better—that an agreement had been reached with the passengers. He attributed this to Burrell’s presence and tact.

When Burrell’s political career ended in 1920, he continued as Librarian of the Houses of Parliament. There he remained until his death in 1938—left in the position by the Liberals, who were in power for all but five years from 1921 on.  

Sources: W. Stewart Wallace, The Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: Macmillan, 1963); Library and Archives Canada, Immigration Files, RG 76; Governor General Files, RG 7; Borden Papers, MG 26; Eric W. Morse, “Some Aspects of the Komagata Maru Affair,” The Canadian Historical Association: Report of the Annual meeting, vol. 15, no. 1, 1936.