Although I never knew him, every day when I walk through the main hallway of Province House in Nova Scotia, I can greet my great-great-grandfather James McDonald. He served as the federal Minister of Justice and features prominently in a composite photograph commemorating the 1878 installation of the Marquis of Lorne as Governor General of Canada. In another room, he’s featured with another of my great-great-grandfathers, Samuel Leonard Shannon.
James McDonald was born in Bridgeville, Pictou County, Nova Scotia in 1828 to a poor Scottish farming family. In beginning his legal career, James articled under the very conservative Martin Isaac Wilkins. He must have held his mentor in high regard; not only did he change his political stripes, but he also married Wilkins’ stepdaughter. Moreover, he disregarded highland Scot tradition and named his first-born son after his father-in-law instead of his father. James successfully stood for election in 1863 as a Liberal Conservative and was appointed the Railway Commissioner in Charles Tupper’s government. James fought for the government to build a railway from Truro to Pictou; he did win that fight, but only after he became the financial secretary in 1864 and appropriated the necessary funds.
The relationship between James and his father-in-law likely strained over time due to political leanings. My great-grandfather was a confederate while Wilkins was a vehement anti-confederate. Imagine the conversations at family get togethers! James sought but lost the federal seat for Pictou in 1867. Following a brief return to provincial politics as the Liberal Conservative representative for Pictou in 1871, he resigned his seat to contest the 1872 federal election, which he won.
Now a prominent Halifax lawyer, John A. Macdonald asked him to defend the government in the Pacific Scandal and called him “As true as steel and I think the ablest man in the House of Commons”. The Pacific Scandal destroyed the government and James lost the 1874 election, but he was re-elected in 1878 and appointed Minister of Justice. He held that post until his 1881 appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.
In the Province House Members’ Lounge, there hangs a composite display of photographs of the members of the Nova Scotia Assembly from 1863 – 1867. McDonald’s portrait is on the top row of this work. Near him is that of Samuel Leonard Shannon. Because one of McDonald’s son’s married Shannon’s daughter, I have the pleasure of greeting two of my great-great grandparents every day, both having served in Charles Tupper’s cabinet.
Samuel Leonard Shannon was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1816 to a prominent mercantile family. In 1859, he entered provincial politics representing the Western Division of Halifax County. Imagine my surprise, when I learned while researching the history of the Nova Scotia Legislative Library that in 1862 Shannon was appointed as a member of the committee to regulate the new provincial library and to superintend its management. This library is the current Nova Scotia Legislative Library where I have worked for 17 years and where I am now the Legislative Librarian, carrying on a family tradition of parliamentary service, albeit in a non-partisan role.
David Shannon McDonald
Nova Scotia House of Assembly