Sir John Thompson (1845-1894), fourth prime minister of Canada (1892-1894). Thompson was known for his loyalty and ability in defending Conservative Party government policies. However, he aroused no feelings of devotion within the party as first prime minister and founder of the Conservative Party Sir John A. Macdonald had inspired. As a parliamentarian, Thompson was not outstanding, although he was a clear and fluent speaker in debate. He was most at home as a judge. Thompson devoted much of his life to public service.
John Sparrow David Thompson's father emigrated to Canada from Ireland and was a printer in Nova Scotia. Thompson was educated at the Free Church Academy in Halifax. From the start he showed ability in debate, and at the age of 15 he went to study law in the office of a Halifax lawyer. While there, Thompson also learned shorthand and was appointed a reporter in the provincial legislature. After becoming a lawyer in 1865, he formed a law partnership. Thompson kept up his reporting while his law practice grew, and in 1867 he was appointed chief reporter in the legislature. His duties in this post brought him a knowledge of politics and many friends in the political field.
In 1870 Thompson married Annie Affleck of Halifax. The couple had two sons and three daughters. Thompson's wife was a Roman Catholic and a year after their marriage Thompson converted to Roman Catholicism. He was afraid that his conversion might affect his friendships and his law practice, but in fact it gave him his start in politics.
|III||EARLY POLITICAL CAREER|
|A||Member of Provincial Parliament|
Impressed by Thompson's ability, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, persuaded him in 1877 to run in a by-election (an election to fill an empty seat) in the provincial legislature as a Conservative candidate from Antigonish. The bishop had considerable influence in the mainly Roman Catholic area, and with his help, Thompson was elected quite easily.
Meanwhile, Thompson's reputation as a lawyer grew steadily. In 1877 he was paid $6000 to assist the United States in preparing its case for compensation before the Halifax Fisheries Commission. Although Thompson was criticized afterward for his action, the knowledge he gained in the case proved valuable later on.
In 1878, in a provincial election that resulted in the defeat of the Liberal government, Thompson was reelected to the assembly. Simon Holmes, the new premier of Nova Scotia, appointed him attorney general in a Conservative government. Among the bills Thompson presented was a proposal to aid the school of law at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He was also active in the government's unsuccessful efforts to abolish the upper house of the provincial legislature. As attorney general, Thompson had to prosecute important criminal cases throughout the province.
|B||Premier and Supreme Court Justice|
Thompson's influence in the provincial government was so great that it became known as the Holmes-Thompson government. In 1882 Holmes resigned his post and Thompson succeeded him as premier of Nova Scotia. He immediately dissolved parliament, but he confined his campaigning to his own district of Antigonish. As a result, the Conservatives, although victorious, did not have a majority in the government after the elections. The Liberal opposition accused Thompson of having no real interest in his office. Thompson appeared to justify the accusations by resigning after his first defeat in the assembly, to become a justice of the provincial supreme court. Thompson was an excellent judge. He possessed a wide knowledge of the law, and had a knack for getting to the heart of a case.
|C||Canadian Minister of Justice|
The turning point in Thompson's career came in 1885, when he was appointed minister of justice in the national Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. After being offered the post, Thompson ran for election in Antigonish to obtain the necessary seat in the federal Parliament, and he was elected. The Liberal opposition criticized Macdonald for his choice, since Thompson had had no experience in national politics. However, Macdonald later said that “the great discovery of my life was my discovery of Thompson.”
Thompson's first great test was brought about by Riel's Rebellion. Louis Riel, a Métis, or one of mixed French and Aboriginal heritage, had previously organized a rebellion in the Red River settlement in what is now Manitoba. The uprising had won provincial status for the territory. In 1885 a new revolt organized by Riel was put down, and he was captured, tried for treason, and executed. Thompson had refused to overturn Riel's death sentence and in 1886 had to justify this action. In Québec, a province where many French and Roman Catholics live, people reviled Thompson as le pendard (“the hangman”). However, he was acclaimed in parts of the dominion where there was Protestant, anti-French sentiment. Thompson defended himself in Parliament in a reasoned but powerful speech that even convinced some of the opposition.
Before the general election of February 1887, Thompson campaigned in Ontario with Macdonald. The prime minister considered Québec lost after the Riel case, and he based his hopes for a Conservative victory on Ontario's support. The Conservatives won the election, despite losing some Québec seats. Thompson won in Antigonish only after a close contest, because his stand on Riel had alienated many of his Roman Catholic supporters.
After the election, Thompson joined the commission that went to Washington, D.C., to draw up a treaty on U.S.-Canadian fishing rights off the Atlantic coast. In 1885 the United States had withdrawn from a previous treaty, and consequently, U.S. boats were being stopped from fishing in Canadian waters. Sir Charles Tupper, the minister of finance, was the head of the delegation, but Thompson, with his previous experience in fisheries arbitrations, was the real leader. The commission succeeded in obtaining a fair settlement in a treaty that was signed in March 1888, although the U.S. Senate subsequently refused to ratify it. Queen Victoria of Great Britain made Thompson a Knight Commander in the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George for his part in the negotiations.
|E||Jesuits' Estates Act|
In 1888 the Québec provincial government moved to compensate the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic religious order, for large areas of their land that the province had taken over when the Jesuits were suppressed by the British in the 18th century. This action enraged Protestants in Ontario, who objected to public funds being given to a religious organization. In 1889 they tried to have the Jesuits' Estates Act disallowed. Thompson, however, refused to declare the act unconstitutional, and all but 13 members of Parliament went along with his decision.
In the 1891 election, the Liberals campaigned mainly on the issue of free trade with the United States. However, the Conservatives announced that they had already begun negotiating a trade agreement, and they won a majority in Parliament. Thompson was reelected, although he had made only a brief campaign visit to his district.
Sir John A. Macdonald, who for years had held the party together, died in June 1891. Ordinarily, Thompson would have been the logical choice as the next prime minister. However, he had enemies in Québec. In Ontario, where the Conservatives held a slim majority, many Protestants resented his conversion to Catholicism. Thompson advised the governor-general to appoint Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott. Abbott was a mild person who did not really want the post, but he nonetheless accepted.
Thompson remained minister of justice and became government leader in the House of Commons. In the next session of Parliament he defended the Conservative government against charges of corruption. Though he demanded evidence to back up the charges, he made no attempt to cover up the truth, and, in fact, he forced some of his Conservative colleagues to resign from office. As a result of Thompson's defense, the issue of corruption was pushed into the background, and the Conservatives continued to have the support of a parliamentary majority. In 1892 Thompson finished drafting a criminal code for Canada, and it went into effect the next year.
Abbott, who was old and ill, retired from office in 1892, and Thompson succeeded him as prime minister on December 5 of that year. Thompson made no radical changes when he entered office. He increased the size of the Cabinet, but did not dismiss any of the important ministers.
Meanwhile, the Liberals continued their attacks on corruption within the government. Many of their charges were justified. The Conservatives had been in power so long that there was little check on minor officeholders. Thompson decided that something had to be done, and in the debate that followed he displayed a fire not previously suspected by members of his party.
Much of Thompson's time as prime minister was spent abroad. In 1893 he attended a conference in London, England, that dealt with copyright matters and merchant shipping. In that year, also, he served in Paris, France, on the international commission arbitrating the Bering Sea Controversy. The commission dealt successfully with the dispute over the U.S. claim to a monopoly on the seal trade off the coast of Alaska. The arbitrators also took steps to preserve the seal herds by restricting sealing to certain times of the year.
Back in Canada in 1894, the most important issue that confronted Thompson was the Manitoba schools question. The Protestant provincial government in Manitoba had passed an act that abolished government funding for separate Roman Catholic schools. Because this concerned the rights of a religious minority, there was reason for considering this action as exceeding provincial powers. Thompson was pressed to declare the law invalid, but he refused to do so. Instead, he referred the responsibility for action to the courts. The Conservatives' inaction on this issue was a major factor in their defeat in the next general election in 1896.
Thompson seldom took the floor to speak during the 1894 session of Parliament. His government's chief opponent in the House of Commons was D'Alton McCarthy, who had himself once been a Conservative. McCarthy, a strong proponent of what he called 'equal rights' for Protestants, harassed Thompson throughout the session.
In October 1894 Thompson made a strenuous tour of France and Italy, although he had been gaining weight and had been warned to be careful of his health. On December 12 he was sworn into the Privy Council by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. Shortly after the ceremony, Thompson died of a heart attack. A British warship brought his body back to Canada for burial.