Stevens, H.H. (1878-1973)

Henry Herbert Stevens was one of Vancouver’s most vigorous opponents of Asiatic immigration. He born in Bristol, England and raised in small-town Peterborough, Ontario by struggling immigrant parents. His youth revolved around family and the local Methodist Church. After high school he came with his parents to Vernon, BC and started working in a general store. He worked in the mechanical department of the railway and as a stagecoach driver trying to save enough to buy a grocery store. He was in Seattle at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and volunteered for civilian auxiliary service accompanying American troops sent first to the Philippines and then to China. He was in Tientsin (known as Tianjing) in 1900, in charge of a transport unit moving eighty tons of silver that the Americans had taken from the Chinese imperial mint in compensation for riot damages to the international enclave. He was responsible for ordering ambulances transporting the American casualties of Boxer violence—most of whom he noted disparagingly were alcoholics (he was a lifetime teetotaler). This China experience seems to have provoked his opposition to Asian immigration. As a twenty-two year old, he saw a “foreign and crowded country” whose emigrants, he thought, could readily overwhelm British society in British Columbia if they were allowed free entry. He had enjoyed the adventure and when he got back to Vancouver he tried to enlist for the Canadian contingent going to the Boer War, only to fail the medical.

He developed his considerable skill as a debater and speaker at political meetings in mining camps in the interior of B.C. (where he worked for a couple of years), taking on guest speakers—socialists and radicals—when they visited on the camp circuit. In Vancouver, he achieved financial security first in the grocery business, then as the director of the accounting department of a local trust company, and finally with his own brokerage, accounting and insurance business. He started his own weekly newspaper in which he campaigned against the sale of alcohol and Asian immigration, and for municipal health measures, such as sewerage and proper water supply (when these were woefully lacking). Up to the time he entered politics, he was a lay preacher in his local Methodist Church and he occasionally took services in remote logging camps and schoolhouses outside Vancouver.

Stevens entered politics as a Vancouver City Alderman in 1909 and was first elected to parliament as a Conservative in September 1911’s anti-free trade election in which the Liberals were swept out of office after they had negotiated a trade agreement with the US. 

Stevens’ main issue at that time was Asian immigration. In his maiden speech in parliament, he called on the government to keep Canada a white man’s country. During a long parliamentary career he was a minister in the Arthur Meighen Conservative governments of 1921 and 1926, and Minister of Trade and Commerce in R.B. Bennett’s depression era Conservative government of 1930 to 1934. He formed the Reconstruction Party in 1935 (splitting the national vote and costing the Conservatives the election), but he returned to the Conservative caucus from 1939 until 1942, when he left politics. Throughout his career—within the Conservative party and outside it—he was a populist, a reformer, and a democrat, not unlike the Reformers of recent years who have morphed into Canada’s current governing Conservative party.

He belonged to the Orange Order and the Sons of England from his twenties. He was a family man with a wife, who matched him in stature (small) and energy (great), and they had five children. His wife’s British-immigrant parents lived in the house next door. During his absences from home, his family could count on a letter from him every day. When he was in his nineties, people still turned up asking for interviews. Among them was a South Indian scholar, I.M. Muthanna, who was working on a book on Indian immigrants in North America and wanted to meet the man he regarded as “a star performer of the anti-Asiatic immigration drama.” They sat together twice to talk, the second time only months before Stevens passed away in Vancouver. Without backing away from Steven’s record, Muthanna wrote in the forward to his book that it had been a pleasure to meet him.

Sources: Vancouver City Archives, H.H. Stevens Papers; Richard Wilbur, H.H. Stevens, 1879-1983 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976);  The Canadian Encyclopedia; I.M. Muthanna, People of India in North America. Part First (Bangalore: Printed at Lutus Printers, 1975).