This Week in History


Joseph Howe: the tribune of Nova Scotia

This story was initially published in 2001

On May 10, 1873, Joseph Howe was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. This appointment marked the culmination of a long and varied career that left an indelible mark on both Nova Scotia and Canada.

Joseph Howe campaigning

Joseph Howe campaigning
© Library and Archives Canada / C.W. Jeffereys

At age 13, Howe began his journalistic career at the Halifax Journal, founded by his father in 1781. At age 23, Howe took over both the Weekly Chronicle and the Nova Scotian. Through these newspapers, Howe began to agitate on behalf of Nova Scotians. He acted as a "tribune" — the people's representative — sometimes arguing both sides of a political debate. Renowned for his thorough analyses of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly debates, he was critical of colonial governments. Howe believed political parties did not work in the people's interests. Like others in British North America he promoted responsible government: the Governor's Executive Council must keep majority support in the elected Legislative Assembly.

Howe was arrested for libel in 1835 for publishing a letter alleging the local government was corrupt. At his trial, he argued on his own behalf and was acquitted after giving a compelling six-hour speech on freedom of the press. He was carried from the courthouse on the shoulders of the crowd. His message resounded with the people, and his popularity was sealed. In 1836, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly and emerged as leader of the Reform (Liberal) Party. In 1847, Reform was voted into power and in January 1848 responsible government was achieved, the first in the British North American colonies.

Acting as the people's representative, Howe later emerged as one of the leading opponents of Confederation in the mid-1860s. Nova Scotians doubted the benefits of Confederation, and Howe was outraged that his opponents made monumental decisions without consulting the people. He favoured a re-organized British Empire with strong links between Britain and its colonies, rather than a union among the British colonies in North America. Despite resistance, Canada was federated July 1, 1867.

Anti-Confederation poster, Nova Scotia

Anti-Confederation poster,
Nova Scotia

© Nova Scotia Archives
and Records Management / N-4149

Unable to halt or repeal Confederation, he negotiated "better terms" and then won election to the new federal parliament. As a Member of Parliament and, in 1869, in the federal cabinet, Howe represented Nova Scotians at the national level. He later returned home to become Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, but died three weeks after his appointment on June 1, 1873.

A plaque in Halifax, Nova Scotia commemorates Joseph Howe, a Person of National Historic Significance.

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