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HARRISON, ROBERT ALEXANDER, lawyer, author, politician, and judge; b. 3 Aug. 1833, at Montreal, Lower Canada, son of Richard Harrison and Frances Butler; d. 1 Nov. 1878, at Toronto, Ont.

Robert Alexander Harrison’s parents emigrated to Canada from Skegarvey, County Monaghan, Ireland, shortly before his birth. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Cookstown and then settled in Toronto where Harrison received his education. He attended Upper Canada College and Trinity College, obtaining a bcl in 1855 and dcl in 1859. In June 1859 he married Anna E. Muckle; she died in March 1866, leaving one daughter. Harrison was married again in January 1868, to Kennithina Johana Mackay, and they had one daughter.

Harrison began his law studies with the Toronto firm of Robinson and Allan when he was 17 and completed them in the office of Crawford and Hagarty. He was called to the bar of Upper Canada in 1855, and in 1867 became a qc. From 10 Sept. 1854 to 28 Feb. 1859 he was chief clerk of the Crown Law Department, having been appointed by the attorney general, John Ross, and retained by Ross’s successor in 1854, John A. Macdonald*. Harrison left this position to go into private practice with James Paterson, and they were later joined by Thomas Hodgins and then John Bain. When Paterson died, Harrison established the firm of Harrison, Osler and Moss, with Thomas Moss* and Featherston Osler. Harrison was a successful lawyer and rapidly acquired a brilliant reputation. He was industrious and conscientious, “a gentleman of ability,” as Macdonald said. His connection with the Crown Law Department had provided him with important contacts, and the firms he was associated with frequently acted as agents for crown business. Harrison was often himself a counsel for the crown. One of his more notable cases was the successful defence of the ministers of the crown accused of violating the Independence of Parliament Act in 1858 by the “double shuffle.” The defence was based on an act passed in 1857, which said in effect that any person could vacate an office and be appointed to another within a month without having to resign and be re-elected; the defendants were exonerated from liability in respect of the statutory penalties and it was declared that the letter of the law had not been violated [see Draper]. During the Fenian trials in 1866–67, he and John Hillyard Cameron conducted most of the cases for the crown. In 1871, Harrison was elected a bencher of the Law Society and on 8 Oct. 1875 he was appointed chief justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Ontario. His appointment was generally regarded by the legal profession as a “reward [which] had been fairly and justly earned, and had been bestowed on one who would bring to bear on the administration of justice, a wide experience and tireless energy.”

Harrison’s contribution to jurisprudence was not confined to his work as a lawyer and judge. He was also an eminent author in the field, contributing works of learning and practical value. He began writing as an 18-year-old law student and published A digest of reports of all cases . . . , with James Lukin Robinson. Harrison was also an active contributor to various periodicals and newspapers, including the Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review (New York) and the Daily Colonist (Toronto). In Toronto he was one of the founders and editors of the Local Courts’ and Municipal Gazette, a joint editor of the Upper Canada Law Journal, and an editor of Poker, a humorous journal, in 1859–60.

Although for most of his career he was involved in jurisprudence, Harrison did serve in other positions at various times. He was a member of the Corporation of the City of Toronto, and a director of the Royal Canadian Bank and of the Life Association of Scotland. In 1876 he was appointed one of the arbitrators to decide the northwestern boundary of Ontario. He also managed to entertain a brief political career, serving as an alderman for Toronto in 1867 and 1868 and as the representative for Toronto West in the House of Commons, 1867–72. Preferring to devote himself to his extensive legal practice, he did not stand as a candidate in the 1872 election. As a member, he was chairman of the Committee on Miscellaneous Private Bills for two sessions. He was associated with several measures of some importance, including bills for amending the law as to stamping promissory notes and bills of exchange and for the collection of criminal statistics. He was a strong supporter of the extension and consolidation of the dominion, and to this end favoured the widening and deepening of canals and the building of railways. Because of his interest in the latter, he became a director of the Toronto, Grey, and Bruce Railway in 1869. He was a Conservative and a staunch supporter of Macdonald.

Carole B. Stelmack

R. A. Harrison was the editor of The Common Law Procedure Act; and other acts relating to the practice of the superior courts of common law; and the rules of court (Toronto, 1858; 2nd ed., 1870); A digest of reports of all cases determined in the Queen’s Bench and practice courts for Upper Canada, from 1823 to 1851 inclusive . . . , ed. under the supervision of J. L. Robinson (Toronto, 1852); The new municipal manual for Upper Canada, containing notes of decided cases . . . (Toronto, 1859; 2nd ed., 1867; 3rd ed., 1876); The statutes of practical utility in the civil administration of justice, in Upper Canada, from the first act passed in Upper Canada to the Common Law Procedure Acts, 1856 (Toronto, 1857); and, with Henry O’Brien, Queen’s Bench, Common Pleas, and Chancery, in Upper Canada . . . (Toronto, 1863).

PAC, MG 26, A (Macdonald papers); RG 1, E7, 46, 67; RG 5, C1, 562, f.1137; 607, f.370; 658, f.844; 672, f.103; 673, f.130; 879, f.541; RG 10, A8, 254; RG 19, A1, 1, pt.3. Globe (Toronto), 8, 11 Oct. 1875; 2 Nov. 1878. Mail (Toronto), 2, 4 Nov. 1878. Can. biog. dict., I. Can. directory of parliament (Johnson). Can. parl. comp., 1867. Dent, Canadian portrait gallery, IV. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis; Sketches of celebrated Canadians. Wallace, Macmillan dictionary.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Carole B. Stelmack, “HARRISON, ROBERT ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harrison_robert_alexander_10E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harrison_robert_alexander_10E.html
Author of Article:   Carole B. Stelmack
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   December 3, 2023