TOBIN, JOHN, merchant and politician; b. 1810 in Gowran, County Kilkenny (Republic of Ireland); m. 12 Jan. 1841 Catherine Walsh, and they had three boys and three girls; d. 9 June 1869 in Halifax, N.S.
Little is known about the early years of John Tobin’s life. He was later considered to be a self-made man, and it is unlikely that he received much formal education. Immigrating to North America in the 1820s, he spent a few years in Newfoundland, and probably moved to Halifax around 1840. By the early 1850s he had established a wholesale-retail firm, John Tobin and Company, which dealt in general merchandise. His investments also came to include shares in Nova Scotian banks and trust companies.
Having reached a stage of financial stability by 1855, Tobin made a first, successful foray into politics and was elected a member of the assembly for Halifax Township. He seems to have responded to a draft from the Halifax Catholics to replace Laurence O’Connor Doyle as the Catholic member on the Reform ticket for the Halifax constituencies. He soon became the acknowledged spokesman for the substantial Irish Catholic community in the Halifax area. He was re-elected in the two subsequent elections of 1859 and 1863. As a member of the assembly he took a keen interest in commercial affairs, usually serving on the committee dealing with trade, manufactures, and railways.
The late 1850s saw a great deal of religious and political turmoil in Nova Scotia. Joseph Howe*’s trip to the United States in the spring of 1855 to recruit soldiers for the British military effort in the Crimea was a source of community tension for the Irish Catholics in Halifax, as was the Gourley Shanty riot in May 1856, in which a group of Irish Catholic railway workers burned down the house of a Protestant worker claiming he had made disparaging remarks about the Roman Catholic Church. Howe’s apparently anti-Catholic posturing during this period made the position of Tobin and other Catholics within the Reform party untenable. The climax came in February 1857, when Tobin and six other Catholic Reformers voted with the Conservatives in support of a non-confidence motion that toppled the government of William Young*. For the next three years Tobin bore the brunt of Reform attacks on the Catholic dissidents and was called upon time and again to come to the defence of his co-religionists.
In 1856 Tobin supported William Young’s education bill which would have provided public support for denominational schools in Nova Scotia. He felt that such schools had for some time been a right safeguarded under the British constitution and that it was “a principle which has a foundation in nature, is inherent in the human race, and cannot be disturbed without violence to society.” Unfortunately for Tobin, the bill was withdrawn when it became evident that it would have no chance of passing the assembly. Eight years later, Tobin supported amendments to Charles Tupper*’s education act ensuring that there would be separate schools for all religious denominations at public expense. When Tupper indicated his opposition to these amendments; Tobin acquiesced in his compromise solution which resulted in the creation of separate schools for Catholics in most parts of the province at public expense but placed them, along with all the other “public” schools, under one Council of Public Instruction – separate schools in practice if not by law.
Tobin’s final foray into politics occurred in September 1867 when he sought election as a pro-confederation candidate in the federal constituency of Halifax. Touted as the “nominee of the Catholic people of Halifax” he loyally supported Tupper’s position on confederation and campaigned actively along with Thomas L. Connolly*, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Halifax, to convince Catholics to support confederation. Despite his effort he was defeated in the anti-confederation backlash which swept Nova Scotia in the federal and provincial elections of 1867.
Tobin apparently committed suicide on 9 June 1869 after a period of emotional disturbance; the coroner’s inquest, however, referred to “the accidental discharge of a rifle in his hand while he was labouring under mental aberration,” and he was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Halifax, perhaps through the influence of his friend Archbishop Connolly.
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), no.1664, will of John Tobin (mfm. at PANS). PAC, MG 24, B29; MG 26, A; F; RG 31, 1861 census, Halifax County. PANS, RG 32, 37. N.S., House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1861, 1864, 1865, 1867. Acadian Recorder, 1856, 1859. British Colonist (Halifax), 1855. Evening Express (Halifax), 1858, 1867, 1869. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 1869. Novascotian, 1841, 1853, 1855. Directory of N.S. MLAs. Beck, Government of N.S. P. R. Blakeley, Glimpses of Halifax, 1867–1900 (Halifax, 1949). C. B. Fergusson, The inauguration of the free school system in Nova Scotia (PANS, Bull., 21, Halifax, 1964). Nicholas Meagher, The religious warfare in Nova Scotia, 1855–1860; its political aspect, the Honorable Joseph Howe’s part in it, and the attitude of Catholics ([Halifax, 1927]). W. L. Morton, Critical years.