The first House of Assembly for the British Colony of Vancouver Island met for the first time on August 12, 1856. There were seven elected representatives who had been voted in by slightly more than forty male property holders. The House met in “Bachelors’ Hall” inside the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fort known as Fort Victoria. Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, the first Speaker of the House, described the scene as a room:
“…about twenty feet in length by about a dozen in breadth, lined with upright plank unpainted, unadorned, save perhaps with a few “cedar mats” to cover fissures. On each side were two doors leading to as many dormitories. In the centre stood a large dilapidated rectangular stove its sides made of sheet iron, beautifully and picturesquely bulging. At the end was a wooden table, upon which stood a hundred page ledger, an inkstand, pens, and a small supply of foolscap…Around the Speaker’s table stood half a dozen very ordinary wooden chairs, for the use of the members and at a respectful distance a couple of benches, without backs for the audience.”
At the end of the year the Colony paid the Hudson’s Bay Company (simply known as the ‘Company’) twenty-five dollars for using the room. Their last meeting was held December 7, 1859.
When the House of Assembly first met there was talk of the British Government’s (the Home Government) free trade negotiations with the United States under the Recriprocity Treaty and what that would mean for Vancouver Island. As it was still under the exclusive control of the Company, free trade was considered a good thing.
In the Spring of 1858 as news of the Fraser River gold rush were beginning to spread, discussions turned to the dominant control of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Local Victoria merchants wanted protection from imported goods that were coming north on ships as fast as the flood of miners. Mr. McKay wanted to introduce a bill which would see imported goods levied by 5 cents but this was countered with 80 signatures on a petition brought forward by Mr. J. D. Pemberton. McKay’s motion was defeated.
Up to this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company had exclusive navigation and trading rights on the Fraser River. James Yates wanted to petition the Home Government in Britain to attach ‘Frazer’s River’ and the surrounding country to ‘Vancouver’s Island’, and remove it from the exclusive control of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Taking a less drastic approach, Mr. Skinner rose to move that a conference with Governor Douglas was needed. Particularly, he wanted to know by whose authority the Company had received exclusive navigation privileges on the Fraser River and by “what right the Hudson’s Bay Co’s. goods only are allowed to be carried up.”
Mr. Yates offered to postpone his motion for a petition to the British Government until after a conference with the Governor was held.
Governor Douglas stalled over the issue, but Yates and several others continued to question his ability to both govern the colony and continue the Company’s exclusive trading rights throughout the mainland.