Patrick O'Rourke holds the post of British Columbia's Chief Gold Commissioner. You expect to find him behind a majestic desk in a wood-panelled office reaching for a quill pen jutting from an ink jar at one corner. The commissioner should be sitting stiffly in a throne-like chair, a tricorne hat atop his powdery, white horsehair wig. Across the vast expanse of the desk would be a man in a soiled checked shirt, his pants hoisted by suspenders, a grizzled beard covering his features and, perhaps, a heavy satchel on the floor beside him.
No such luck. O’Rourke, LLB ’88, works in an ordinary office on the eighth floor of a government building with a glorious panorama of downtown. He dresses like any 21st-century bureaucrat in as laidback a capital as Victoria.
O'Rourke, 60, speaks softly, his words precisely chosen and carefully enunciated. At first meeting, he comes across as a cautious bureaucrat with a speaking tone like that of a counsellor.
He sounds like the therapist portrayed by Peter Bogdonavich on The Sopranos. As it turns out, O'Rourke spent years helping addicts.
He was entering middle age when admitted to the Faculty of Law despite lacking an undergraduate degree. He won the Law Society gold medal upon graduation, embarking on a civil service career that has seen him handle the file on offshore oil and gas, help negotiate the Charlottetown Accord, and sign off on the negotiations for the landmark treaty with the Nisga'a.
Looking back on law school, he recalls having “a hell of a good time,” other than for sweaty palms before his first exam. “When I went to law school I took it as my job,” he says. “I worked at it. I had an office and that was the only place I did law. And I didn't do anything else in that office.” After all, he was far more familiar with working than with studying.
Twenty years later, he holds one of the most venerable positions in the province's civil service.
Who knew we even had a chief gold commissioner? The position was created in 1859, one year after gold was discovered in the Fraser Canyon. Governor James Douglas appointed a 43-year-old, Irish-born Crimean War veteran to the post, ordering Chartres Brew to send constables to Yale to suppress a challenge to authority by an American desperado. Brew spent months on routine duties—issuing licenses, recording claims, settling disputes—while awaiting the appointment he truly wanted as chief inspector of police. Brew would get his wish, going on to serve the colony in several important positions until his death from acute rheumatism at age 54. He fared better as chief than did the Cariboo region's first gold commissioner, Philip Henry Nind, who suffered a nervous breakdown from working 20-hour days. Nind was succeeded by Thomas Elwyn, who soon had to resign because he would not abandon a claim likely to make him rich.
O'Rourke has no chance to find himself in such a conflict of interest.
“I’ve never been a miner, never been a prospector,” he says.
He hails from a land also known for 19th-century gold rushes. O'Rourke was born in California to a family that would not put down roots for many years to come. His father was a military pilot whose postings forced many moves. By Grade 8, Patrick had attended nine schools in six states.
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