Memorable Manitobans: Simon James Dawson (1820-1902)
Surveyor, civil engineer, politician.
Born at Redhaven, Banffshire, Scotland, in 1820. He came to Canada and joined his family in Nepean Township, Ontario around 1840. He obtained government appointments as a civil engineer through the influence of his brother William. In 1851 he was appointed to open up the vast pine regions of the St. Maurice River and its tributaries. He was appointed surveyor to the Hind Expedition in 1857. In the expedition’s report, he dealt at length with the western route, proposing to use navigable waters in preparation for the railway. Dawson then resigned his commission to become a timber merchant on the St. Maurice.
After Confederation he was placed in charge of constructing the Canadian-financed road from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods, with the section from there to Fort Garry under the supervision of John Allan Snow; this road is known as the “Dawson Road.” In 1870 Dawson used 1,000 men to help expedite the passage of the Wolseley Expedition. Dawson and Wolseley disagreed over the road under construction. The engineer wanted to await its imminent completion to move men and material, while Wolseley insisted that since it was not finished, he would have to use a more difficult water-route in order to guarantee the arrival of his troops in the summer of 1870. He continued his disagreement with Wolseley in his Report on the Red River Expedition of 1870 (1871).
As a consequence of the road-building, Dawson became involved in negotiations with the Saulteaux Indians of the Lake of the Woods. His concern over government policy toward the region led him into politics, and he represented northern Ontario in the Ontario legislature from 1875 to 1878 and then in the House of Commons from 1878 to 1891. Although elected as a supporter of Sir John A. Macdonald, he claimed to be independent in politics. He advocated the creation of provincial status for that area of Ontario from the French River to the Lake of the Woods. He was suspected for his Catholicism, and by 1889 was being dismissed as an “old fossil.” Moreover, his support for bilingualism for the North-West Territories, for Indian fishing rights, and for Aboriginal rights generally, were not well-regarded by many of his constituents.
Dawson died unmarried in Ottawa in 1902. He is commemorated by Dawson Road in Winnipeg.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 21 November 2017