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In terms of great prime ministers, there are those who made their mark, those who didn’t and those who could have if circumstances were different. Sir John Sparrow David Thompson definitely falls into the last category. If not for his sudden death in England, it is likely we would have seen Thompson as a great early prime minister of the same level as Sir Wilfrid Laurier. This is why John Thompson is called the greatest prime minister that Canada never had.
Born in Halifax on Nov. 10, 1845 to John Sparrow Thompson and Charlotte Pottinger. Educated at the Royal Acadian School and the Free Church Academy in Halifax, Thompson was a quiet child and his father attempted to cure that shyness by having him recite poetry at school ceremonies.
Thompson would find the law appealing to him and would be admitted to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1865.
On July 5, 1870, he would marry Annie Thompson, a strong woman who he was deeply in love with. Unfortunately, her parents disapproved of Thompson and he was forced to write his love letters to her in shorthand. In the letters she would refer to Thompson as Grunty and he would call Annie Baby. His letters would often end with a promise to give her a good whipping or warming, also sometimes writing “I am so fond of you that I want to give you a good licking.”
Annie was a strong woman, the daughter of a sea captain who would sometimes throw caution to the wind, while also being bold and vivacious. Thompson was at Annie’s house six nights a week, going for walks with her, teaching her French and to write shorthand, often under the guise of being her tutor in an effort to disarm her parents. Even after they were married and he was away on business, his letters would have to be disguised because Annie’s mother would sometimes censor her mail. Letters sometimes had to be smuggled to her. The typical method of writing was on pages one and four, Thompson would write regular letters giving news of what he was doing, while pages two and three were in shorthand. The neat, clear symbols were known only to Annie and Thompson but in June of 1978, Dr. Eric Sams, an expert in cryptography during the Second World War, cracked the shorthand in 24 hours.
The couple would have nine children together, with their daughter Annie passing at one and their son David passing away at the age of two. Two other children also died at birth. Prior to their marriage, Thompson’s own family seemed to have objected to the union as well, since she was Roman Catholic and Thompson was the sole financial support for his mother and sister following the death of his father.
After their marriage, a census taker came to the house in early 1871 and found Thompson living with his wife, mother and sister, a Catholic, a Presbyterian and a Methodist, while Thompson, at the time, was a Protestant. It was an unusual situation to say the least. In 1872, he bought a house near his old home, allowing his mother and sister to live in the old home while Thompson and Annie lived in their new home.
In 1871, he would be elected an alderman in Halifax, serving for six years. He would make the jump to provincial politics in 1877, serving as the MLA for Antigonish County. During this time he served on the Board of School Commissioners from 1873 to 1878, where he worked to mitigate the issues between Catholics and Protestants that were causing problems in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Thanks to Thompson, the working of the Catholics and Protestants in one single school system, which started in 1865, survived through this and Nova Scotia has not had a legal separate school system to this day.
From 1878 to 1882, he would serve as the Attorney General of Nova Scotia, and, unique for a prime minister, he would serve as premier of Nova Scotia but very briefly. His time as premier lasted from May 25, 1882 to July 18, 1882, when his government was defeated in the election. During his time as attorney general, it was his responsibility to prosecute for the crown in all serious criminal cases, which he did in the county of Halifax. One case he did take outside of Halifax was that of Joseph Nick Thibault of Annapolis County. He had been accused of murder in 1880 and there was a great deal of circumstantial evidence. Thompson worried about a miscarriage of justice so he handled it himself. Taking his time, and using circumstantial and eye-witness evidence, the end result was the conviction of Thibault. An incredibly tireless worker, he would often stay downtown working until the late hours, then walk two kilometres to Willow Park only to find the last horse-drawn bus gone. His wife would often complain that he did other people’s work for them. When he took over as premier, it was not something he wanted to do but the full pressure of his party, both on the provincial and federal level, led him into it.
His work schedule was often tough and in 1882, amid hating being part of the election campaign, Annie would write to him saying, quote:
Following his resignation from provincial office, he was appointed to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and in this role he would be instrumental in founding the Dalhousie Law School in 1883, while also teaching law courses there during its first years. At only 36, Thompson was by far the youngest person on the Supreme Court. He tended to differ from the other judges on the Supreme Court, being more liberal than narrow and technical and often being charitable when evidence was uncertain. If the evidence was clear though, he was firm and unforgiving. If the case involved cruelty towards women or children, he was especially harsh in his decisions. He became so respected on the Supreme Court that when the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia, which had opposed him as premier, wanted to reorganize the Supreme Court, they asked Thompson to take over the plan. He would bring about the Judicature Act of 1884 that brough reforms that would stay in place until the 1950s.
Around this same time, Sir John A. Macdonald would begin to recruit Thompson to come to Ottawa as he needed a new minister from Nova Scotia. He failed several times as Thompson did not want to go back to politics and was perfectly happy as a judge. Eventually, the father figure to Thompson, Bishop Cameron, the editor of the Halifax Morning Herald James Stewart and future prime minister Charles Tupper all worked to persuade him. Even Annie would push him to take the post, writing quote:
“Go, Now you can show the world what you can do.”
They would succeed and in 1885, Macdonald was able to bring Thompson into the House of Commons. He so badly wanted Thompson that Macdonald appointed him to be the Minister of Justice immediately, before he had even won a seat in the House of Commons.
For the rest of his life, Macdonald would hold Thompson in high regard stating, quote:
“My one great discovery was my discovery of Thompson.”
The quick rise of Thompson in the federal government was not just the work of Macdonald. Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, was very fond of him.
One member of his party would say, “He won’t even consider whether a thing is good for the party, until he is quite sure it is good for the country.”
His appointment as justice minister came at a major point in Canadian history with the North West Rebellion and the issue over Louis Riel in full swing. Riel by this point had been sentenced to hang for leading the rebellion, and the responsibility of this ruling now fell to Thompson. At the time, Thompson was also battling kidney stones but following his recovery he would give his first speech to Parliament, stating that anyone who acted against the state could not escape justice, stating that anyone who encouraged the Indigenous to go on the war path could not escape justice.
He would say, quote:
This speech made him very popular in English Canada and he started to become a leading member of the Conservative government.
During his time as Justice Minister, he would put together the first Criminal Code of Canada, which unified the criminal law of Canada and is considered a major achievement for his career. He also negotiated a fisheries treaty between Great Britain and the United States.
His family stayed in Halifax until 1888 and Thompson found living without them in Ottawa terrible. Thompson was a devoted husband and father, and Sundays were particularly hard for him. He would often walk the streets after Sunday Mass, looking at the houses where other men and their families were living together.
Annie would write him, saying quote:
“Don’t mope. Go out to dinner with the men. Stop acting like a poor child out in the cold with such a ‘nobody to care for you’ tone”
With his family finally with him, his mood improved.
Thompson would visit Macdonald prior to Macdonald’s stroke on May 29, 1891, becoming the last minister to visit the prime minister prior to the stroke.
With the death of Macdonald in June of 1891, Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor General, asked Thompson to form a government but Thompson chose not to. While he was raised as a Methodist he had become a Catholic in 1871 for his marriage to Annie. As a result, he declined because of religious prejudice against Roman Catholicism. Thompson recommended John Abbott, who accepted, reluctantly as we saw in my previous episode.
After the retirement of Abbott in 1892, Thompson finally assumed office as prime minister on Dec. 7, while also serving as the Attorney General of the country. In January of 1893, he would give his first speech as prime minister in Toronto, stating his concern about the possibility of annexation of Canada by the United States, the need for loyalty to the British Crown.
During his time as prime minister he would nearly bring Newfoundland into Confederation, which was not achieved and would not happen for another 50 years. In March of 1893, he went to Paris to serve as a judge in a tribunal to settle the dispute over the seal harvest in the Bering Sea. The tribunal ruled that the American claim to the Bering Sea had no justification and that the Bering Sea could not be closed to all but American seal hunters.
Other items achieved during his time in office was a reduction in trade tariffs, while also dealing with the growing issue of the Manitoba Schools Question.
During his time as prime minister, his health had gone downhill and he weighed 225 pounds, quite heavy for a man of his height. In 1885, he had been 190 pounds, showing the stress of his work had caused significant weight gain. He also pushed himself very hard in his work, which contributed to his declining health. Leading up to his trip to London, his lower limbs had begun swelling and doctors were worried about his health when he departed. In October his wife asked him to resign but Thompson refused to leave the party high and dry. He decided he would stay until the 1895 election and if he won he could retire with honour. After arriving in London, the doctors there were optimistic and Thompson was able to take a three week holiday on the continent, even climbing to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. This was not a good decision and by the time he returned to London on Dec. 1, he was not feeling well. Then he began to attend several meetings and by Dec. 11, he was feeling better than he had in quite some time and on Dec. 12, he would go to Windsor Castle to be sworn in as the Right Honourable Sir John Tompson. After the ceremony, he sat down for lunch and fainted. He was taken to a nearby room and he would wake up and say, quote “It seems too absurd to faint like this.” He then returned to a table and before he could eat anything, he fell backwards into the arms of Sir John Watt Reid, the doctor for Queen Victoria. Thompson did not move, nor breathe, as a massive heart attack had killed him.
Following his death, Queen Victoria staged a huge funeral for him. She would also order the first Catholic mass at Windsor since the Reformation, since Thompson was our country’s first Catholic prime minister. His remains were put on the HMS Blenheim, which was painted black, and sent back to Canada, leaving amid a salute from the HMS Victory. He would be buried on Jan. 3, 1895 in Halifax. Unlike Mackenzie, Thompson was given a state funeral.
One aspect of Canadian history that may have changed completely if not for the death of Thompson at such an early time in his career as prime minister, is women’s suffrage. In speaking in September of 1893 about women’s suffrage, Thompson would say, quote:
Thompson, at the time of his death, had little in terms of an estate, so Parliament would set up a fund to support his widow and children. The fund raised $30,000, with Lord Strathcona contributing $5,000 himself. This amounts to about $900,000 today. The sons of Thompson were then educated by the Earl of Aberdeen, the Governor General at the time. Lady Thompson would go on to co-found the National Council of Women and served as its president for a time. She was also a governor for the Victorian Order of Nurses.
In 1937, Thompson was named a Person of National Historic Significance, and in a survey in 1999 of 26 Canadian historians, Thompson ranked 10th out of the first 20 prime ministers. At the time he was identified as a great might-have-been of Canadian prime ministers if his career was not cut short. In 2011, he ranked 14th out of the first 22 prime ministers.
A school in Edmonton is named for him. Mount Sir John Thompson in the Cariboo District of British Columbia was named for him on Sept. 6, 1927, three years after it was first climbed. At the time it was called Mount David Thompson. A postage stamp would be issued for him in 1954 and a bust of him sits at the Halifax Law Courts.
In a eulogy for Thompson published by Albert Martin Belding in the St. John Daily Sun, he says the following of Thompson, which I will use to close out this episode.
“No dreams of glory dwarfed his loftier aim,
To whom his country’s good was more than fame,
No sheen of gold obscured his clearer view,
Who saw the right and held the balance true.”
Information comes from Britannica, Biographi, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, Government of British Columbia, CanadaHistory.ca, The Ottawa Citizen, Fair Duty, Nova Scotians At Home And Abroad,