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 Scotia in 1882. He was the first Roman Catholic to hold the office of prime minister.
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 School in 1883. He taught law courses at Dalhousie in its early years.
Thompson was sworn in as Minister of Justice in September 1885, and subsequently won a seat in Parliament representing Antigonish in October 1885. 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. 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".
His first major speech as PM 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, France as one of the judges on the tribunal to settle the Canada-US dispute over the seal harvest in the Bering Sea. 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 Prime Ministership included the reduction of trade tariffs, and questions over schooling in Manitoba and in the North West Territories, 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.
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.)
He was buried on January 3, 1895 in the Holy Cross Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia after an elaborate funeral in England staged by Queen Victoria. Despite having held Prime Ministerial office, Thompson left few means, and Parliament set up a fund to support his widow and children. His only remaining descendant today is Ann Mitchell.
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 University Law School, the first in the region, helped professionalize legal education in Atlantic Canada. Dalhousie Law has had a high reputation ever since. By winning the Bering Sea fishery dispute against the United States, Thompson showed that Canada would not be pushed around by bigger powers on the international front.
Thompson's collected papers were donated in 1949 to the National Archives of Canada by his son, Colonel John Thompson.