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Sir John Sparrow David Thompson, KCMG, PC, QC (November 10, 1845 – December 12, 1894) was a Canadian lawyer, judge, politician, and university professor, who served as the fourth Prime Minister of Canada from December 5, 1892 to December 12, 1894, as well as Premier of Nova Scotiamarker in 1882. He was the first Roman Catholic to hold the office of prime minister.

Early years

Born in Halifaxmarker, Nova Scotiamarker to John Sparrow Thompson and Charlotte Pottinger, he was of Irish descent. Thompson married Annie Affleck (1845-1913) in 1870. Annie Thompson was strong-willed and had the same kind of spirit that had driven Agnes Macdonald (another prime minister's wife) to ride the cowcatcher of a CPR train through the British Columbiamarker mountains. During their courtship, Thompson was forced to write love letters in shorthand because of his soon-to-be wife's disapproving parents. Thompson's family life was marred by tragedy. A daughter, Annie, died at age one, while youngest son David lived to be two. Two other children died at birth (the Thompsons had five children survive childhood).


Law and politics

Thompson was called to the Nova Scotiamarker Bar in July 1865, and from 1878 to 1882 served as Attorney General in the provincial government of Simon H. Holmes. He briefly held the office of Nova Scotiamarker premier in 1882, but his government was defeated in that year's election. Thompson was always a reluctant politician.

After his resignation from government, Thompson was immediately appointed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia by the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald. In this role, he was instrumental in founding the Dalhousie Law Schoolmarker in 1883. He taught law courses at Dalhousie in its early years.

Minister of Justice

After several failed overtures, Macdonald finally recruited Thompson to Ottawamarker in 1885. Macdonald generally thought highly of Thompson, remarking, "My one great discovery was my discovery of Thompson." Macdonald poked some fun at his recruit as well: "Thompson is a little too fond of satire, and a little too much of a Nova Scotian." However, his rise in government is probably due as much to the influence of Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, as to Macdonald's mentoring. Lady Aberdeen had great admiration for Thompson, and wrote frequently about him in her published "Canadian Journal".

Thompson was sworn in as Minister of Justice in September, 1885 and subsequently won a seat in Parliament representing Antigonishmarker in October. When he returned to Ottawa, the Riel crisis was in full swing. What to do with Louis Riel, who'd been sentenced to hang for leading the 1885 North-West Rebellion, was now the responsibility of Thompson as the new minister of justice. Although he was ill with kidney stones at the time of Riel's execution, Thompson made his first major speech to Parliament during the subsequent debate, arguing that anyone who encouraged aboriginal Canadians to act against the state could not escape justice. This speech was notable and helped to popularize Thompson, and he quickly rose to become a leading member of the Conservative government.

Thompson's achievements as Minister of Justice included the first Criminal Code of Canada.

Decline of leadership

When Sir John A. Macdonald fell ill, Thompson was the last minister to see him before the Prime Minister's devastating stroke in May 1891. Following Macdonald’s death a week later, there was a cabinet crisis. Governor General Lord Stanley of Preston finally called on Thompson to form a government but Thompson declined. Religious prejudice against the Roman Catholic Thompson, having converted at his marriage, made this course of action politically untenable, and Thompson recommended John Abbott, who ultimately accepted.

Prime Minister of Canada

Thompson assumed office of Prime Minister a year later when Abbott retired in 1892. He came very close to bringing Newfoundlandmarker into Confederation, but this would not be achieved until 1949.

His first major speech as Prime Minister was given in Toronto in January 1893, covering the topics of tolerance and Canadian nationalism in conjunction with loyalty to the British crown. At the time, Thompson was concerned about the possibility of the annexation of Canada by the United States, a goal which was being pursued within Canada by the Continental Union Association, a group of Ontario and Quebec Liberals. Despite his concern, Thompson ultimately realized that the conspiracy to make Canada part of the United States was confined to a small and noisy minority within the opposition party.

In March 1893, Thompson travelled to Paris, Francemarker as one of the judges on the tribunal to settle the Canada-US dispute over the seal harvest in the Bering Seamarker. The result was a victory for Thompson as the tribunal ruled there was no justification for the United States' claim that the Bering Sea was closed to all but American seal hunters.

Other matters of concern during Thompson's tenure as Prime Minister included the reduction of trade tariffs and questions over schooling in Manitobamarker and in the North West Territoriesmarker, where disputes over the role of Catholics and Protestants in administering the school system existed. Ultimately, the North West school problem was resolved to Thompson’s liking, but the Prime Minister would not live to see a similar resolution to the Manitoba matter.

Supreme Court appointments

While in office, Thompson chose the following jurists to sit as justices of the Supreme Court of Canadamarker:

Death in office

Sir John Thompson had been Prime Minister of Canada for only two years when he died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 49 on December 12, 1894, while at Windsor Castlemarker where Queen Victoria had just made him a member of her Privy Council. Thompson's physical condition had deteriorated during his time in Ottawa; he was significantly overweight when he died; at , he weighed about , and had always pushed himself very hard with work.

Thompson was the second of two Canadian prime ministers to die in office (the first was Sir John A. Macdonald), and the first of three who did not die in Canada (the other two were Sir Charles Tupper and Richard Bedford Bennett).

After an elaborate funeral in England staged by Queen Victoria, his remains were transported back to Canada aboard the armoured cruiser HMS Blenheim, which was painted black for the occasion. He was buried on January 3, 1895 in the Holy Cross Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Despite having held Prime Ministerial office, Thompson had little estate, and Parliament set up a fund to support his widow and children. His only remaining descendant today is the Canadian politician Margaret Mitchell.


Thompson's death threw the Conservative Party into disarray, as the ruling party had no one of comparable ability to take over the rest of his unfinished term, nor did they have much in the way of potential talent on its way up. By 1896, following short terms from prime ministers Mackenzie Bowell and Sir Charles Tupper, the Conservatives lost the next federal election to the Liberals, who began a run of power which would see them form the national government for 67 of the next 88 years. The Conservatives had ruled Canada for 24 of the 29 years following Confederation in 1867.

Thompson's pioneering work as Minister of Justice with the first Criminal Code of Canada brought much-needed order to a confused field. His efforts in founding Dalhousie Universitymarker Law School, the first in the region, helped professionalize legal education in Atlantic Canadamarker. Dalhousie Law has had a high reputation ever since.Thompson's collected papers were donated in 1949 to the National Archives of Canadamarker by his son, Colonel John Thompson.

Although subjective, a ranking of the Canadian Prime Ministers was published by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer determined that Thompson was #10, or "The great "might-have-been" of Canadian Prime Ministers...", whose career was cut short by his early death. Certainly Thompson appears to have been the best of the quartet of Canadian Tory Premiers between Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

The high school in the Canadian sitcom Life With Derek, SJST, is named after Thompson.


  1. Hutchison
  2. Waite, p. 527.
  3. Waite, pp. vii-ix.
  4. Granatstein and Hillmer, p.42.

Further reading

  • J. Castell Hopkins, 1895, Life and Work of the Rt. Hon. Sir John Thompson, Toronto: United Publishing Houses.
  • J.P. Heisler, 1955, Sir John Thompson, thesis, University of Toronto.
  • John Saywell (editor), 1960, The Canadian Journal of Lady Aberdeen, 1893-1898, Champlain Society.
  • Bruce Hutchison, 1964, Mr. Prime Minister 1867-1964, Toronto: Longmans Canada.
  • Lovell Clark, 1968, A History of the Conservative Administrations, 1891-1896, PhD thesis, University of Toronto.
  • Peter Busby Waite, 1985, The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister, Toronto: University of Torontomarker Press, ISBN 0-8020-5659-8.
  • Michael Bliss, 1994, Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney, Toronto.
  • J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer, 1999, Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders, Toronto: HarperCollinsPublishersLtd, A Phyllis Bruce Book, p.40-42. ISBN 0-00-200027-X.

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