Remembering Canada’s 4th Prime Minister, Sir John Thompson

Today marks the birth date of Sir John Thompson, Canada’s fourth prime minister. Thompson, the youngest son born to John Sparrow Thompson and Charlotte Pottinger in 1845, grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was Canada’s first prime minister from Nova Scotia, as well as the first Roman Catholic to serve in the role.

After being called to the Nova Scotia bar in 1865, Thompson’s career was marked by participation in municipal and provincial politics. First elected as a Halifax alderman in 1871, Thompson then served as Nova Scotia’s Attorney General in 1878, and became the province’s premier in 1882. After the defeat of the Conservative government later in 1882, Thompson was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

In 1885, Thompson was courted by Sir John A. Macdonald to serve as his Minister of Justice. While reluctant, Thompson was persuaded and was elected to the riding of Antigonish. Thompson’s reputation garnered him the support of the Liberal-Conservative Party, and after Macdonald’s death in 1891 and Sir John Abbott’s resignation in November 1892, Thompson was designated as prime minister on December 5, 1892.

Thompson’s term as prime minister abruptly ended in Windsor Castle on December 12, 1894, when, after being sworn in to Queen Victoria’s Privy Council, he died of a heart attack. His body was repatriated by the Royal Navy ship, HMS Blenheim, which was painted black for the voyage, and he was laid to rest in January 1895 at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Halifax.

Queen Victoria's tribute to her dead Canadian Premier [Sir John Thompson], December 13, 1894, by Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith

Queen Victoria’s tribute to her dead Canadian Premier [Sir John Thompson], December 13, 1894, by Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith (MIKAN 2954643)

Central to Thompson’s success in public life was the support he received from his wife, Annie Affleck. Their courtship began while Thompson was still a young lawyer, and there is indication that their romance was strong from the beginning with Thompson visiting her five or six nights a week from July 1867 onwards. Their relationship, however, was not embraced by Affleck’s family. While Thompson would eventually convert to Catholicism after his marriage to Annie in July 1870, he was born a Methodist and this was not accepted by Annie’s family. To work around their disapproval, the young couple voraciously wrote to one another, and even used shorthand to communicate their thoughts and feelings in private. Thompson’s close relationship with Annie has been linked to Thompson’s progressive mindset regarding the role of women in society. Speculation exists that, had Thompson not died only two years into his term, women’s suffrage would have arrived much earlier to Canada.

Lady Annie Thompson (née Affleck), by William Topley, May 1896

Lady Annie Thompson (née Affleck), by William Topley, May 1896 (MIKAN 3423454)

For related resources about Sir John Thompson:

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