John Sebastian Helmcken was a British Columbia physician who played a prominent role in bringing the province into Confederation. He served as Speaker, first for the Victoria legislature and then the united British Columbia assembly, between 1856 and 1871. He was also the founding president of the British Columbia Medical Association.
John Sebastian Helmcken was born in London, England, the son of Claus Helmcken and Catherine Mittler. He studied at St. George's German and English School, and later apprenticed as a chemist and as a doctor. After studying medicine at Guy's Hospital, Helmcken became a ship's surgeon for the Hudson's Bay Company, sailing aboard the Prince Rupert to York Factory, in what is now Manitoba. After returning to England and completing his studies, Helmcken travelled the world, visiting China and India, before taking a position with the Hudson's Bay Company on Vancouver Island. In 1852, he married Cecilia Douglas.
Helmcken's political life began on Vancouver Island. He was elected to Vancouver Island's inaugural legislative assembly in 1856, and remained Speaker of the assembly, in its many shapes and forms, until 1871. He also held high-level positions with the Hudson's Bay Company, which at times placed him perilously close to a conflict of interest. Well connected to powerful people in the community, Helmcken was a target of anti-elitist political activists like Amor De Cosmos.
Helmcken had evolving views on Confederation. Some believed that he was in favour of an American annexation of British Columbia. Helmcken, himself, once said that both British Columbia and Canada were likely to be absorbed by the United States sooner or later. Helmcken was pro-Confederation for a short time in 1866, but he soon became convinced that union was impractical. In the general election of 1869, Helmcken ran on an anti-Confederation ticket. In 1870, during the Great Confederation Debate in the British Columbia legislature, he was an outspoken critic of union. Not only did he believe that union was impractical, but he was also concerned that union would force British Columbia to give up such things as its system of protective tariffs.
Nevertheless, Helmcken was a prominent politician, and Governor Anthony Musgrave chose him to travel to Ottawa to negotiate the terms of union in 1870. He and his colleagues travelled via the United States, where Helmcken was so taken with the rail system that the idea of a Canadian transcontinental railway began to seem feasible. He underwent a dramatic conversion on the trip, and arrived in Ottawa a staunch supporter of Confederation. He believed that the negotiations went very well for the most part, especially the provisions for the construction of a railway. Still, Helmcken was quite disappointed by what he perceived as a lack of appreciation for his efforts upon his return to Victoria. When British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871, Helmcken retired from public life and returned to his medical practice. (One patient of note was Emily Carr.) He was offered many official positions, including senator, premier, and lieutenant-governor, but he declined them all, except for a position on the board of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Helmcken was surgeon to the Hudson's Bay Company from 1870 to 1885. In 1885 he became the founding president of the British Columbia Medical Society. He also continued until 1910 as the provincial jail physician (a position he had held since 1851). He died at his home in Victoria at the age of 96.
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