McKEOWN, HARRISON ANDREW, lawyer, politician, judge, educator, and office holder; b. 28 Nov. 1861 in St Stephen (St Stephen-Milltown), N.B., eldest child of Hezekiah McKeown and Elizabeth Smithson Harrison; m. first 19 Nov. 1901 Edith Alma Perkins (d. 31 Dec. 1901 of smallpox) in Boston; m. secondly 18 April 1907 Agnes Grace Burpee (d. 1964) in Saint John; no children were born of either marriage; d. 10 July 1932 in Westfield (Grand Bay-Westfield), N.B.
Harry McKeown’s paternal great-grandfather, William, emigrated from Ireland and settled in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis valley. His father, who became a prominent Wesleyan Methodist minister, was born at Nictaux in 1825 and as an adult moved to New Brunswick, where he married in 1859. Young Harrison was educated at Fredericton’s Collegiate School [see Sir George Robert Parkin*], where John Douglas Hazen was one of his classmates. Even though his maternal uncle, Thomas Harrison, was a professor at – and afterwards the president of – the provincial university, McKeown did not proceed to the University of New Brunswick. Methodism was the ruling principle of McKeown’s life, and his religious convictions took him to the regional denominational college, Mount Allison, at Sackville, then headed by James Robert Inch*. McKeown graduated with a ba in 1881 and considered the ministry as a career before deciding on law. As a student he worked for Albert Scott White and Alfred Augustus Stockton* in Saint John, and in 1883 he served as president of the province’s Law Students’ Society. McKeown was not yet 21 and still a law student when his father died suddenly, aged 56, making him the chief supporter of his mother and siblings.
McKeown was called to the bar in 1885, the same year he received his llb from Victoria University in Cobourg, Ont. He went into practice in Saint John as a junior with William A. S. Kierstead and quickly established himself as a rising star in criminal defence; he would be appointed kc in 1901. Politics soon beckoned. The provincial election of January 1890 saw McKeown, running as an independent Liberal, lead the poll in Saint John City and County, where two causes with which he warmly identified, Orangeism and temperance, were strong. Two years later, in the snap election called by Premier Andrew George Blair* in an attempt to prevent the splintering of the Liberal Party in Saint John, McKeown ran for re-election as an anti-government candidate. Though the opposition swept the local polls, he was defeated by vote of the sheriff (also the returning officer) after a tie. In the federal election of 1896 McKeown strove unsuccessfully to garner the Liberal nomination for Saint John City and County, where party divisions had persisted.
Blair’s removal to Ottawa in 1896 led to the healing of the rift in the provincial Liberal Party, and in 1899 McKeown returned to the legislature as the member for Saint John City. In 1901 he was appointed minister without portfolio in the Liberal government of Lemuel John Tweedie*, and in 1903 solicitor general. Early in 1904, however, McKeown resigned from cabinet and legislature to run for the Liberals in the federal by-election necessitated by Blair’s resignation as mp for Saint John City. Unfortunately for McKeown, the political tide was turning against the Liberals. What should have been the safest Liberal seat in New Brunswick was about to revert to the Conservatives, who had held it before 1900. On by-election day, 16 Feb. 1904, Blair’s nearly 1,000-vote majority of four years earlier [see Sir George Eulas Foster] became a 269-vote deficit. McKeown tried again in the general election of November 1904, standing against his former legal associate Alfred Stockton for Saint John City and County, but was again defeated. That spelled the end of McKeown’s efforts to forge a career in federal politics. For the next few years he was out of politics altogether.
McKeown’s stalled political career was revived by his prominent role in legal proceedings following the 1906 “rectory murder,” described by author Kenneth Saunders as “the mysterious crime that shocked turn-of-the-century New Brunswick.” Taking the case pro bono, McKeown defended Thomas Francis Collins, who had been accused of killing the housekeeper of the New Ireland parish priest, in all three of his trials. He obtained a retrial on appeal after the first and the second resulted in hung juries, but he failed to avoid a conviction in the third. He also went to great lengths trying, unsuccessfully, to secure a commutation of the death sentence. The evidence against the accused was entirely circumstantial, and in the court of public opinion the crown’s case was not proven. According to an unidentified contemporaneous newspaper quoted in Saunders’s account, the Collins trials marked “the first time … that a prisoner sentenced to death in this province was granted a new trial on the ground of misdirection by the court and it is also the first time … that a prisoner has been tried three times on the same charge of murder.” This was the most sensational episode of McKeown’s career as a lawyer, but many years later, as a judge, he would be involved in another high-profile murder case. In 1922, as chief justice of the King’s Bench, McKeown presided over the fifth and final trial of John Paris, who had been accused of murdering a child. The jury was unable to reach a verdict, and so the accused was conditionally discharged and not retried.
Within weeks of Collins’s third trial, in 1907, Premier Clifford William Robinson* appointed McKeown attorney general, and a sitting Liberal mla for Saint John County stood down to enable him to be elected by acclamation. The government was old and tired – the Liberals had been in power continuously since 1883 – and desperately in need of new blood and new ideas. McKeown soon became the government’s de facto leader, as Robinson – the third premier in four months – had proved unequal to the task. An election for which the party was ill prepared was imminent, and the revitalized Conservatives, under the leadership of Douglas Hazen, were pressing hard. Once the campaign was under way, McKeown threw himself into the fight, as did William Pugsley* and Henry Robert Emmerson*, the current and former federal ministers for New Brunswick, and both former Liberal premiers as well. Neither McKeown nor any other member of the government considered a Conservative victory a realistic possibility, but voters thought otherwise. The election of March 1908 saw the Liberals defeated, with only 12 seats to the Tories’ 31. Though he personally survived, McKeown’s political career was over.
His reward for party services rendered over nearly 20 years would be the first available judgeship. In May 1909 there were two vacancies on the provincial Supreme Court. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier* appointed McKeown to succeed George Frederick Gregory, who had resigned as puisne justice and judge of the court of divorce and matrimonial causes. McKeown’s baptism of fire in the latter capacity soon came in the shape of the notorious Currey v. Currey, which he had inherited from his predecessor. At issue was whether the petitioner wife was entitled to a divorce on the grounds of alleged cruelty by the husband. After McKeown ruled in favour of the husband, the case made its way to the provincial Court of Appeal, which, in splitting evenly, upheld his decision in November 1910. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, then Canada’s final court of appeal, declined to hear the case. The judgement therefore stood, and the marriage was not dissolved.
In 1914 New Brunswick’s recently retired chief justice, Sir Frederick Eustache Barker, was asked to chair two royal commissions inquiring into alleged corruption by former Conservative premier James Kidd Flemming* [see William Shives Fisher]. Barker turned down the invitation, and McKeown accepted the appointments in his stead, despite the fact that the new premier, George Johnson Clarke, was his brother-in-law. Two years later, McKeown was promoted to chief justice of the King’s Bench, succeeding the late Sir Pierre-Amand Landry*. His rapid rise can be attributed to the influence of Douglas Hazen, an old friend who was then a powerful minister in the federal cabinet of Sir Robert Laird Borden. Hazen and provincial Conservatives had reason to be grateful to McKeown for cooperating with the government by agreeing to chair the royal commissions when Barker declined and by going easy on the disgraced Flemming.
The scandal continued to reverberate after both royal commissions had reported. In 1915 the Saint John and Quebec Railway Company, whose bond issue the Flemming administration had guaranteed, defaulted and the province took over the company. Maine politician Arthur Robinson Gould, the promoter and principal investor, sought substantial compensation for alleged losses, and McKeown was called on to arbitrate the claim. Gould admitted that he paid then-Premier Flemming $100,000 before the 1912 election, but in 1918 McKeown found that, since the money had gone for the most part to Flemming himself, Gould was acting under false pretences and his claim for compensation therefore lacked merit.
No sooner had McKeown been appointed chief justice of the King’s Bench in 1916 than he was called upon to succeed Silas Alward as dean of the law school at Saint John. It is unclear why McKeown was chosen, since he had no connection with the school beyond lecturing on the law of contract. Yet he immersed himself in the job with characteristic vigour and determination, managing, in 1923, the institution’s transformation into the University of New Brunswick’s law school on 31 August and its disengagement from Nova Scotia’s University of King’s College on the latter’s amalgamation with Dalhousie University [see Arthur Stanley Mackenzie]. Late that year, having been invited by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King* to act as a royal commissioner to inquire into the collapse of the Home Bank of Canada, McKeown announced that he was resigning as dean. He was dissuaded from doing so, however, until 1924.
The failure of the Home Bank, a major financial institution, in August 1923 was all the worse in that directors and senior executives were implicated in the corruption, fraud, and incompetence that had led to it [see Sir Henry Mill Pellatt]. The political fallout was potentially disastrous, and King had to move quickly in response. Though it seems doubtful the prime minister knew McKeown personally, the latter’s reputation was estimable and he had probably come highly recommended by New Brunswick’s representative in cabinet, Arthur Bliss Copp*, as someone on whom King could rely. In his report, tabled on 11 June 1924, McKeown asserted that the depositors had a “moral claim in equity to compensation.” The government agreed and parliament enacted a $5.5 million payout – a first in Canadian banking history. Another result of McKeown’s report was the government’s decision to create a new post – inspector general of banks – to guard against similar banking failures in the future.
A much larger assignment was in the offing. In September of that year Frank Broadstreet Carvell*, chair of the federal Board of Railway Commissioners, died suddenly after five years in office, and McKeown was invited to succeed him at the head of what was then the most powerful and complex administrative tribunal in the country. McKeown accepted with alacrity, giving up both his chief justiceship and his deanship. Though historian Ken Cruikshank takes the view that McKeown was unqualified for this post and the prime minister decided upon him simply because of his deft handling of the Home Bank inquiry, it seems more likely that King or his minister of railways and canals, George Perry Graham*, thought that a quasi-judicial body with adjudicative powers as substantial as the board’s – it was a court of record whose decisions could be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada – should be headed by an experienced senior judge, as it had been in the past [see Albert Clements Killam*; James Pitt Mabee*]. Another explanation – the least charitable one – is that McKeown was seen as someone who could be counted on to do the prime minister’s bidding. Whatever the reasons for his appointment, McKeown, according to Cruikshank, “faced the unenviable task of rebuilding the railway commission’s reputation while resolving a complex and explosive question – the proper place of the Crowsnest Pass rates in the Canadian freight rate structure.” In 1897 Blair, working with Clifford Sifton*, had set up the Crowsnest Pass agreement, which reduced rates on grain being moved east and manufactured goods being moved west. The agreement’s rates, which had been suspended in 1919 [see King], were reinstated in 1922, after a series of manoeuvres involving parliament and the Supreme Court of Canada.
The nearly seven years McKeown served in Ottawa as chair of the board would prove a bed of nails. He was unable to please anyone – the railway companies, shippers, the government, or even his fellow commissioners, with the conspicuous exception of Albertan Frank Oliver. Indeed, McKeown was accused of showing partiality towards western interests in order to shore up political support for the King government in that part of the country. The victory of Richard Bedford Bennett*’s Conservatives in the federal election of July 1930 meant that, despite security of tenure, the two Liberal appointees to the board – McKeown and Deputy Chief Commissioner Thomas Vien* – would be terminated as soon as possible. Before the year was out the new minister of railways and canals, Robert James Manion*, asked for their resignations. McKeown’s took effect on 1 March 1931; he was succeeded by Maritimes expatriate Charles Percy Fullerton, a justice of Manitoba’s Court of Appeal. McKeown retired to Montreal’s exclusive Westmount. He intended to write a text on the law of contract, on which he had lectured years before in Saint John’s law school. The work had not progressed beyond sketches when McKeown died very suddenly in his 71st year while summering at his country house in Westfield.
His political ambitions thwarted, McKeown had drawn on his talents as a lawyer as well as his record of government work to secure his ascent to the bench and beyond. He became the quintessential public servant – willing to undertake any task, however onerous or demanding, and devote himself wholly to its timely and efficient execution. Indeed, the more difficult or delicate the job, the more likely he was to be called upon and the more likely he was to accept. Nor was his public service by any means limited to government and the law. He chaired a pioneering commission on tuberculosis (an initiative of Hazen’s premiership), the Saint John school board, and the city’s public-health centre – a unique innovation for the early 1920s – as well as acting as a member of Mount Allison’s board of regents and as county grand master in the Orange order. Somehow, in the midst of such a busy life, he also found time to promote patent medicines. A committed Methodist who saw it as his obligation to work for the betterment of society at large, McKeown used himself up and wore himself out in public and community service. Retirement would be short and death swift.
There is much confusion regarding McKeown’s year of birth. W. M. Tweedie writes in his entry on McKeown (“McKeown, Harrison Andrew (1861–1932)” in Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.1: 346) that “in the general books of reference an error is made in regard to the date of his birth which is given as 28 Nov. 1863. Apparently there was in some book a misprint, and copied from one to another it was never corrected. As a matter of fact he was two years older, born on 28 November, 1861. This is the record [of] a number of items in the old copies of the Minutes of [the Wesleyan Methodist] Conference to which his father belonged, and is confirmed by personal knowledge from intimacy with him in college days.” The 1863 date, however, is not found in secondary sources alone. It is also given in the 1871 census (LAC, R233-34-0, N.B., dist. Charlotte (175), subdist. St Stephen (i): 29) and on McKeown’s death certificate (PANB, RS141C5, F18969, no.66521). Muddying the waters even further is the certificate of marriage between McKeown and his second wife, Agnes Grace Burpee, in 1907 (PANB, RS141B7, F15927, no.2519), which gives his age as 42 – placing his birth in 1865. In any case, Tweedie’s correction is confirmed by McKeown’s baptismal record (PANB, MC256 (Kirk McColl United Church fonds), MS1/3 (Births, baptisms, & marriages, 1846–1907), p.16)) and so 1861 is the year of birth given here. His papers have not survived. His baccalaureate sermon was published as “A sermon …,” in Mount Allison Wesleyan College, Theological Union, Third annual lecture and sermon, delivered June 1881 (Halifax, 1881). His keynote address at the unveiling of the memorial tablet honouring early Saint John lawyer Elias Hardy* on 4 Sept. 1918 was published as “Address of chief justice H. A. McKeown at the unveiling of the Hardy tablet,” N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll. (Saint John), no.10 (1919): 136–42. His paper “The first Supreme Court of New Brunswick” was published in Canadian Law Times (Toronto), 37 (1917): 830–38.
Information on McKeown can be found at LAC in the following collections: Board of Transport Commissioners records, 1924–31 (R164-33-1); the Thomas F. Collins file in Capital punishment case files (R188-53-2); Robert James Manion fonds (R4383-0-5); George Perry Graham fonds (R4692-0-3); William Lyon Mackenzie King fonds (R10383-0-6); and RG 32, C2, vol.1174, file 1924.09.16 (McKeown, H. A. Hon.).
Argosy (Sackville, N.B.), 1881–1924. D. G. Bell, Legal education in New Brunswick: a history (Fredericton, 1992). Can., Royal commission re the Home Bank, Interim report (Ottawa, 1924). Canadian annual rev., 1901–32. Canadian Railway and Marine World (Toronto), 1924–31. Canadian Railway Cases (Toronto), 29–37 (1925–31). Ken Cruikshank, Close ties: railways, government and the Board of Railway Commissioners, 1851–1933 (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1991). Currey v. Currey (1910–11), New Brunswick Reports (Toronto), 40: 96–157. Howard Darling, The politics of freight rates: the railway freight rate issue in Canada (Toronto, 1980). A. T. Doyle, Front benches & back rooms: a story of corruption, muckraking, raw partisanship and intrigue in New Brunswick (Toronto, 1976). T. H. Harris, The economic aspects of the Crowsnest Pass rates agreement (Toronto, 1930). B. J. Hibbitts, “A change of mind: the Supreme Court and the Board of Railway Commissioners, 1903–1929,” Univ. of Toronto Law Journal, 41 (1991): 60–113. Judgments, Orders, Regulations, and Rulings (Ottawa), 1924–31. A. W. A. Lane, “Freight rate issues in Canada, 1922–25: their economic and political implications” (phd thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1983). J. I. Little, “The federal election of 1896 in New Brunswick” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1970). N.B., Legislative Assembly, Journal (Fredericton), Report re Gould arbitration and finding of Hon. H. A. McKeown, chief justice of the King’s Bench Division, 1918; Royal commission concerning St. John and Quebec Railway Company charges, Report (Fredericton, 1915); Royal commission concerning timber limit charges, Report (Fredericton, 1915). R. v. Collins (1907–8), New Brunswick Reports (Saint John), 38: 218–27. R. v. Paris (1921–22), New Brunswick Reports (Toronto), 49: 400–23. Kenneth Saunders, The rectory murder: the mysterious crime that shocked turn-of-the-century New Brunswick (Toronto, 1989). B. F. Smith, “Federal politics in Saint John, 1900–1904” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B.). J. [A.] Turley-Ewart, “The bank that went bust,” Beaver (Winnipeg), 84 (2004–5), no.4: 36–41.
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Cite This Article
Barry Cahill, “McKEOWN, HARRISON ANDREW,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mckeown_harrison_andrew_16E.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:
|Author of Article:||Barry Cahill|
|Title of Article:||McKEOWN, HARRISON ANDREW|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2019|
|Year of revision:||2019|
|Access Date:||June 5, 2023|