Davin, Nicholas Flood
Lawyer, Newspaper Founder, Member of Parliament, Poet 1843-1901
Earliest known photograph of Nicholas Flood Davin, c. 1873. Davin was the founder of the Regina Leader, the forerunner to the Regina Leader-Post newspaper. City of Regina Archives Photograph Collection, CORA-A-1549.
Nicholas Flood Davin was one of the most conflicting characters to ever live in Regina. He founded the Regina Leader, the first newspaper in the district and the forerunner of the Regina Leader-Post. Davin was also a lawyer, a Member of Parliament and the first person to have a literary work published in the North-West Territories. In his early years he was the author of the Davin Report, which recommended the formation of residential schools. He fought personal demons throughout his life and ultimately committed suicide in 1901.
Nicholas Flood Davin was born in Kilfinane, Ireland on January 13, 1843. An orphan who was initially apprenticed to an ironmonger, Davin had bigger ambitions than a career in the trades. He attended the University of London, although he never finished. In 1868 he was called to the Bar, but his fledgling law career soon took a back seat to his interest in journalism. Starting his journalistic career as a shorthand reporter in the House of Commons, he soon abandoned London for the front lines of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), where he was a war correspondent. After that, he became the editor of the Belfast Times, an enterprise that soon ended in his dismissal, a flurry of lawsuits and a somewhat hasty departure for Canada in 1872.
After arriving in Toronto, Davin started careers in law and journalism. His most famous legal client was George Bennet, the accused shooter of George Brown, a prominent Liberal and the editor of the Toronto Globe. Bennet was convicted, but Davin’s career got a boost thanks to the trial.
While he pursued careers in law, journalism and literature, Davin was a political animal, longing for a seat in Parliament. In 1879 he authored the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, also known as the Davin Report. This became the blueprint for John A. Macdonald’s government in their institution of a residential school system for indigenous children, which devastated the First Nations population. In spite of his work for the Conservative Party, Davin’s political career stagnated. Davin wanted to pursue a political career, but the Conservative hierarchy did not trust him enough to allow him a greater role in the party. Disenchanted, Davin travelled west in 1882 in an effort to build his reputation. He wound up in Regina, a town that was just beginning to establish its own reputation as a major western Canadian centre.
Regina was a perfect fit for Davin. A group of prominent citizens approached him soon after his arrival and urged him to set up a newspaper. Davin accepted their offer – and their $5,000 in seed money. The Regina Leader printed its first edition on March 1, 1883. Davin’s first editorial firmly established that the paper would be a Conservative mouthpiece. His biggest journalistic coup came with the trial of Louis Riel in 1885. When the trial began, Davin produced daily editions of the Leader so that other Canadian newspapers could carry excerpts from his paper. Historical renditions credit him with sneaking into the jail to get an exclusive interview with the Metis leader. Davin, like all other reporters, had been refused an interview with Riel by authorities. Davin allegedly disguised himself as a priest coming to give Riel his last rites, and conducted an interview with Riel in French right under the nose of the Anglophone guard. It was a national scoop. More recently, it has come into question whether he was actually the Leader Post reporter who conducted the interview with Riel.
After the Riel interview, Davin again ran for Parliament. This time he succeeded, becoming the Member of Parliament for the new federal seat of Assiniboia West in 1887. Davin proved a very able MP and a staunch Conservative Party man. Despite this, he was repeatedly passed over for Cabinet positions, losing the position of Minister of the Interior early in his career and Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Territories later in his career. These were bitter blows to Davin, who felt his party loyalty deserved more recognition.
Nicholas Flood Davin’s reputation as a journalist and politician when he was alive was positive, but his personal reputation was much darker. Davin was seen as a bit of an eccentric. He often ‘dressed to the 9s’ in a top hat, gray suit and cutaway coat. Although he was a dynamic speaker, one could never be sure what would come out of his mouth next. Alcohol may have contributed to this; Davin was prone to bouts of alcoholic excess, with one such incident leading to an 1882 arrest for public drunkenness. In the 1891 federal election campaign, a drinking binge nearly cost Davin his seat in Parliament. Regina was a temperance town and its citizens did not approve of Davin’s behaviour. A public abstinence pledge saved his political career.
Davin’s most scandalous behaviour, however, concerned his love life. In 1885, Catherine (also known as Kate) Simpson-Hayes, a journalist and mother of two who was fleeing a bad marriage in Ontario, arrived in Regina. Simpson-Hayes was hired to work for the Leader, but her association with Davin quickly became more than professional. Marriage was out of the question – she was still legally married – but they began a love affair that lasted 10 years and produced two children and many wagging tongues around Regina. In 1889 Simpson-Hayes travelled to Vancouver to give birth to a son, whom she gave up to an orphanage. In 1892 she had a daughter, again giving the child away. Davin repeatedly pleaded with Simpson-Hayes to divorce her husband and marry him, but she always refused.
In 1895 Davin gave up on Kate and married Eliza Jane Read, an Ottawa spinster. He convinced Eliza to raise the children he had with Simpson-Hayes, and his “nephew” joined the Davin household shortly after their marriage. However, he was unable to find his daughter. Nuns at the St. Boniface orphanage baptized the infant against Davin’s wishes because she was seriously ill and close to death and then changed the child’s name when her condition improved to prevent the deception from being discovered. Simpson-Hayes knew of the scenario and promptly placed the child into private care. Davin was never able to locate the girl, who grew up never knowing her father.
Davin’s life entered a downward spiral after that. He sold the Leader to his former employee Walter Scott in 1895 on the condition that Scott, a Liberal, continue to support Davin in print until after the upcoming election was over. However, when Davin voted the party line on the Manitoba School Question, Scott reneged on their agreement and began to attack Davin in print.
Although Scott ultimately surrendered control of the paper to Davin until after the election, the two men remained antagonistic toward one another. This had been a lifelong pattern with Davin, who was often embroiled in feuds with prominent citizens. In the case of Scott, however, the antagonism would lead to an election battle in 1900. Scott won the Assiniboia West seat for the Liberal Party and Davin was left at loose ends. He had started a Conservative newspaper in 1899, the Regina West, but his heart wasn’t in the endeavour. His long-neglected law practice was now dead in the water, so Davin began to write again. His reputation in Regina was now at an all-time low; he was still dogged by accusations of graft and was perceived as being a Conservative Party mouthpiece.
In 1901, his wife was invited to Government House to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, but Davin himself was snubbed. In a fit of depression, he travelled to Winnipeg in October, seeking a new start, but did not find the happiness he was looking for. He committed suicide in late October 1901.
Davin’s reputation in the early days of Regina resulted in a street, fountain and school being named in his honour. A Saskatchewan community also bears his name. Recent years have led to a re-evaluation of Davin’s political reputation due to the ugly legacy of residential schools in Canada. To read more about the impact of residential schools on Canada’s First Nations population, visit http://reconciliationcanada.ca/.