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A Reluctant First Among Equals

This story was initially published in 2007

On April 4, 1893, Parliament adjourned, marking the completion of the Right Honourable John Sparrow David Thompson’s first session as Prime Minister of Canada. Thompson was the third Conservative to hold the Office of Prime Minister during this Parliament and he would not be the last.

Rt. Hon. John Sparrow David Thompson
© William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / C-068645

Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald had opened Parliament in April 1891, but he died of a massive stroke early in June. An unenthusiastic Senator Sir John Abbott was then persuaded to assume the Prime Minister’s portfolio, but he resigned in November 1892 due to poor health. Suddenly, Thompson found himself thrust into the role of prime minister.

Thompson had been a modest but effective lawyer who had been invited many times to enter politics. It was Annie, his wife and best friend, who finally convinced him to take the plunge, first at the municipal level (1871-77) and then at the provincial level. There he spent three years as Nova Scotia’s Attorney General until, in early 1882, Simon Holmes suddenly resigned as Nova Scotia’s Premier, leaving Thompson to lead the party into the June provincial election. The Conservatives lost the election, but Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald immediately nominated Thompson to the provincial Supreme Court, a role he passionately loved.

Queen Victoria's Tribute to Her Dead Canadian Premier
© Frederick Bell-Smith / Library and Archives Canada / C-141808
In 1885, with Annie’s approval, he reluctantly resigned from the bench to become federal attorney general where he immediately impressed the Cabinet by handling disputes with the United States over the North American fisheries, the Alaskan boundary and Bering Sea sealing. His handling of the public inquiry into Department of Public Works corruption charges was so non-partisan and fair that the voters rewarded the Conservatives with an increased majority during the 1893-94 by-elections. As prime minister, he was responsible for overseeing the introduction of Canada’s new Criminal Code and for temporarily calming the seething school debates in the North-West Territories and Manitoba.

Thompson visited London in 1894 to be sworn in as a member of the Imperial Privy Council. On December 12, after being honoured at Windsor Castle, Thompson suffered a fatal heart attack. His death shocked both countries and devastated his family and friends, including Queen Victoria. His incisive mind and quick grasp of complicated issues, combined with his immense capacity for work, made him an extraordinary jurist, statesman and leader. For the legislative and judicial legacy he left behind, John Sparrow David Thompson was declared a National Historic Person in 1938.

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