Reid, Malcolm Robert James (1876-1936)

Malcolm R.J. Reid had been the Vancouver Immigration Agent for just two years when the Komagata Maru sailed into Vancouver harbour. Before taking this job he had no previous experience in immigration work or even in the civil service. His was a patronage appointment. His predecessor, a Liberal, had been released following the Conservative election victory of 1911. The man responsible for getting the previous agent released and for promoting Reid into his place was H.H. Stevens, a first-term Member of Parliament, a backbencher representing a Vancouver riding, and an energetic campaigner against Asian immigration.

We can assume that Reid’s chief qualifications were party loyalty and an emotional commitment to keeping Canada white. He had no special background beyond elementary school teaching. His predecessor, James H. MacGill, had been a lawyer, and the agent before that, A.S. Munro, was a doctor, belonging to professions that were related to the work of an immigration office. One could not say the same for Reid.

Reid’s tenure as immigration agent lasted just two-and-a-half years. The Komagata Maru was his undoing; his superiors in Ottawa became doubtful about his judgement and temperament during the crisis of that summer, and moved him out of the Vancouver immigration agency a few months after the Komagata Maru. But, as long as he was the Immigration Agent, Reid was Stevens’ minion, following Stevens’ agenda and direction, and copying and sending to Stevens everything in the immigration files that he thought he would be interested in. That was a lot of material and makes a bulky part of the Stevens papers now preserved in the Vancouver City Archives. Reid’s subordinates in the Vancouver immigration office did not like his practice of copying official correspondence and reports to Stevens, nor did his superiors in Ottawa once they became aware it was happening. It was an improper practice.

Reid was not respected by his staff in the Vancouver immigration office. One can judge that by the comments of the hockey star and immigration officer Fred Taylor. Reid’s close relationship to Stevens was a major factor, but he seems to have gone about his job in a state of exaggerated frenzy—certainly at the time of the Komagata Maru. It took a while for senior officials in Ottawa to take their measure of Reid. In the beginning they trusted him to handle the ship and its passengers within the framework of an immigration policy that gave a lot of discretion to local officials. But that trust evaporated week by week as they reviewed Reid’s frequent reports and rash proposals. What protected Reid for some time was his connection to Stevens and the local anti-Asian political forces behind Stevens. But the prime minister himself was drawn step by step into closer and more apprehensive scrutiny of what the Vancouver Immigration Agent was doing. In late June it was Prime Minister Borden himself who redrafted a telegram to Reid telling him he had to give the passengers a test case in court.

Malcolm Reid was born in Greater London, England in 1876 and immigrated with his parents and five siblings to Vancouver in 1892 at the age of 16. His accountant father was Scots and his mother English, and, as children, he and his siblings managed the difference by calling themselves Scottish and attending the Church of England. In his maturity he described himself as English. He had not been out of school long when he found a job teaching in the Yukon in the years of the great Yukon Gold Rush. Back in Vancouver he taught in graded elementary schools, first at one school and then at a second. These were newly constructed schools that went up with the tremendous growth and transformation of Vancouver in the early years of the twentieth century. Their students were mostly the children of immigrants who had recently arrived from Britain and eastern Canada.   

When he took up his appointment as Immigration Agent on 1 April 1912 Reid went straight from school teaching to the immigration service. With this position he inherited a double title, Immigration Agent and Controller of Chinese Immigration, governed by two pieces of legislation, the Immigration Act and the Chinese Immigration Act. In one capacity he dealt with all immigrants except the Chinese; and in the other he dealt with the Chinese (who paid a head tax set at a level intended to exclude all but a few). He understood his job as one of screening out unwanted immigrants, and that meant Asians in particular. His offices were in a two-story frame building by the railway tracks alongside the harbour and at the foot of Burrard Street. As a staff, both regular and occasional, he had about fifteen people: a medical officer and a nurse, half a dozen immigration inspectors, stenographers, interpreters, guards, a watchman and a caretaker. This was his little empire.

He officially finished as Immigration Agent on December 31, 1914. In the aftermath of the Komagata Maru, the Assistant Superintendent of Immigration, E. Blake Robertson had come from Ottawa to investigate the running of the Vancouver office and he had recommended removing Reid. In fact, he wanted to move him to a position outside the province altogether.  But Reid resisted and stayed in Vancouver. His own interpretation of what had happened was that Robertson was against him “Because I sat tight on the Oriental Question.” That is what Reid told his friend and supporter H.H. Stevens. He was given the title of Inspector of Agencies in B.C. and he retained it until 1919-20 when he was re-described as “special agent.” In terms of salary, his career had clearly stalled but he had found his way into the kind of investigative work that Hopkinson had been doing—without Hopkinson’s language ability, but with an apparent appetite for surveillance activity. His special investigating officer, Ganga Ram, who was on the immigration payroll, had been one of Hopkinson’s informants. The work they were doing was helping the British track Ghadr activists. Their work contributed some of the evidence in a conspiracy trial of seventeen Indians and others mounted by the Americans in San Francisco in November 1917, at the insistence of the British.

Reid was still in the immigration service when he died in May 1936 at the age of sixty. This happened on a Canadian Pacific Railway car travelling westward as it passed Beavermouth between Golden and Revelstoke, B.C.  It was the last leg of a journey home after a visit to “the Old Country.” Reid was survived by his wife and by two daughters, one married at the time, and one still at home. Fifty years later, in the 1980s, his younger daughter, Dorothy, living in Victoria, found it upsetting to hear her father’s name come up in stories reviving accounts of the Komagata Maru. She thought the treatment he got decades after his passing was most unfair. This was not the gentle and sometimes abstracted father she remembered. In any case, she observed, he was just doing the job he had been given. The country had changed since 1914 and she felt people ought to remember that.

Sources: Obituaries, Victoria Daily Times, 13 May 1936; Vancouver Province, 13 May, 1936; Vancouver News Herald, 14 May, 1936; Hugh Johnston, “The Surveillance of Indian Nationalists in North America,” BC Studies, no. 78, Summer, 1988, pp. 3-26; Author’s interview with Fred Taylor, Vancouver, 19 Oct., 1976. Telephone calls to author circa 1985 and 1989 by Mrs. Dorothy Hayes. Library and Archives Canada, Immigration Files, RG 76, Secretary of State Records, RG6, Governor-General Files, RG 7; Vancouver City Archives, Stevens Papers.