To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.

The emergence of B.C.’s forest industry as a culture-defining economic behemoth that dominated the political and social landscape, begins with a man who went from hoeing potatoes to corporate colossus.

Harvey Reginald “H.R.” MacMillan was born on an Ontario farm on Sept. 9, 1885. It was a momentous year in Canadian politics. Louis Riel’s rebellion in Manitoba had just been snuffed out by federal troops. When he was two years old, MacMillan’s father died of tuberculosis and his mother was supported by relatives. He was hoeing potatoes one day when a passerby told him scholarships could be had at the Ontario Agricultural College.

He graduated with honours in biology in 1906, did graduate work in forestry at Yale University in 1908, headed west for a job as a timber cruiser in booming B.C., and then discovered he had an advanced case of the same disease that killed his father. He spent two years in a sanatorium, survived, took a job with the province’s forestry branch, and so dazzled that in 1912 he was appointed B.C.’s first Chief Forester.

MacMillan planned and launched an integrated forest management program. It had previously been a Wild West free-for-all. He took a world tour to study global markets. The First World War disrupted everything, but he proved the right man in the right place. The RAF was losing aircraft at an alarming rate. He organized what biographer Ken Drushka called “the biggest logging show anyone ever attempted” to supply spruce for new planes.

After the war, he launched his own company, H.R. MacMillan Export Co., bought sawmills, and became one of B.C.’s biggest lumber producers and exporters. When shipping capacity was inadequate, he founded Canadian Transport Company. He diversified into the fishing industry and became president of B.C. Packers in 1933, and kept his business profitable even through the Great Depression. During the Second World War, he co-ordinated vital war supplies and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

In 1951, his company merged with its largest competitor, then in 1960, with the world’s biggest paper mill. MacMillan-Bloedel was B.C.’s biggest forest company. MacMillan had retired in 1956, but he was full of surprises. He became an advocate for sustainable development. He gave away millions to philanthropic causes, including the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. In 1970, he was appointed to the Order of Canada.

He died in Vancouver on Feb. 9, 1976.