O’CONNOR, JOHN, lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 21 Jan. 1824 in Boston, Mass., son of John O’Connor and Mary O’Connor; m. in April 1849 Mary Barrett, and they had nine children; d. 3 Nov. 1887 at Cobourg, Ont.
John O’Connor’s parents emigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1823 and he was born there the following year. In 1828 the family moved to Maidstone Township, a Roman Catholic settlement in Essex County, Upper Canada. O’Connor, unable to do farm work because he had lost a leg in an accident, took up law in 1848. After studying in Sandwich (Windsor) and in Toronto, he was admitted to the bar of Upper Canada in 1854. He also became a member of the bar in the state of Michigan, but never practised there. He worked in Windsor with Charles T. Baby and from 1863 to 1865 in Toronto with John Blevins. Although a successful lawyer, he was not a prominent member of the bar and was not made a qc until 18 Dec. 1872 after he had entered the federal cabinet.
As a young man, O’Connor had worked briefly as a newspaper editor and he also showed an interest in local politics. He served as reeve of Windsor and was an Essex County councillor in 1859–60 and 1862–63. He was warden of Essex three times during the 1860s and chairman of the board of education of Windsor for 12 years. In 1860 O’Connor hoped to obtain the Conservative candidacy for an elective Legislative Council seat made vacant when Colonel John Prince* accepted a judgeship, but he withdrew in favour of Sir Allan Napier MacNab*. The following year, in a bitter campaign in Essex for the Legislative Assembly, he was defeated by Arthur Rankin. Rankin’s election was voided on 9 March 1863 and on 7 April O’Connor was elected. Later in the same year, however, Rankin again defeated O’Connor in the general election. O’Connor was successful in the 1867 dominion elections and retained the Essex seat until 1874.
O’Connor quickly became an important Irish Catholic leader in the new federal parliament. During the 1860s Ontario’s Irish Catholics correctly argued that they had not received a fair proportion of patronage posts from the Conservatives; the Liberals encouraged their claims. In 1870, increasing Catholic agitation posed problems for the Conservatives when lay leaders, supported by senior clerics, began to organize politically in an attempt to extract concessions from either party. O’Connor, the only Ontario Irish Catholic member, defended Conservative interests and succeeded in obtaining some support from Archbishop John Joseph Lynch for an alliance of Irish Catholics with the Conservatives. O’Connor maintained a high degree of political visibility: in 1870 he published Letters of John O’Connor, esq., M.P., on Fenianism, which presented an impressive attack on the Fenians and emphasized the loyalty of the Canadian Irish; he worked on behalf of the Conservatives in the 1871 provincial campaign; and he devoted a substantial amount of his time to issues of concern to Irish Catholics.
In 1871 O’Connor was offered a cabinet post in the government of Sir John A. Macdonald*. Because there had been no strong Irish Catholic leader in federal politics since the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee* in 1868, pressure to appoint and promote Catholics had intensified. Financial problems and the risk of defeat in a by-election in Essex precluded O’Connor’s immediate acceptance, but on 2 July 1872, a few weeks before the general election, he entered the ministry as president of the Privy Council. He subsequently served until the government fell in 1873 as minister of inland revenue from 4 March to 30 June and as postmaster general from 1 July to 6 November. O’Connor held these minor portfolios only briefly and was given no opportunity to display his abilities.
O’Connor’s defeat in Essex in the federal election of 1874 and the decline of his legal practice influenced his decision to leave Windsor and establish a practice in Ottawa. He was elected in that year as president of the St Patrick’s Society of Ottawa and in 1875 he acted as chairman of the Ottawa O’Connell Centennial Celebration. In the 1878 federal election, when the Irish Roman Catholic vote was again important, he had no obvious seat to contest. With the help of party leaders O’Connor obtained the nomination for Russell, a safe eastern Ontario riding, and was elected once more. Arguments used in 1872 to justify his promotion to the cabinet still applied. O’Connor was not, however, given any major responsibility; he was probably already suffering from the illness that would incapacitate him by the 1880s. Instead he held a succession of minor portfolios: president of the Privy Council (17 Oct. 1878–15 Jan. 1880), postmaster general (16 Jan.–7 Nov. 1880 and again 20 May 1881–22 May 1882), and secretary of state (8 Nov. 1880–19 May 1881). He often missed cabinet meetings because of illness and rarely participated in debates; he was left with constituency and patronage problems, and he agreed to accept a judgeship in Ontario at the prime minister’s convenience.
In 1880 he was offered a judgeship but refused it because it was in Manitoba. He realized, however, that he would have trouble obtaining the nomination as Conservative candidate for Russell in the next election and asked Macdonald for help. The prime minister replied by dismissing him from the cabinet. O’Connor, who claimed that he had no intimation of this fate, was badly shaken. Always in financial distress, he was desperately anxious to obtain an Ontario judgeship while Macdonald was in power and he harassed the prime minister for alternative employment until a vacancy occurred. His chief argument was that his cabinet service had ruined his law practice and that he merited compensation. O’Connor greatly exaggerated his sacrifices. Like many other 19th-century politicians he had become financially dependent on government appointments because they were easy to obtain and seemed safe. In addition, the legal profession of Ontario was convinced that he was not qualified for a judgeship. Matthew Crooks Cameron, a judge on the provincial Court of Queen’s Bench, condemned such an appointment for O’Connor as early as 1878 and Macdonald’s own minister of justice, Sir Alexander Campbell*, was to observe in 1883 that O’Connor “has become so obscured by disease and infirmity and desuetude that his appointment would be viewed as discreditable.”
Macdonald, stating that he had “never deserted a Colleague & don’t mean to begin now,” on 5 July 1882 appointed O’Connor to prepare a brief on the boundary dispute between Ontario and Manitoba. The following March, with the job completed, O’Connor was again in need. Campbell attempted to prevent a judicial appointment by offering him additional financial aid and a seat on the commission for the consolidation of statutes. O’Connor accepted, but continued to press for a judgeship in Ontario. Macdonald finally appointed him a judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench for Ontario on 11 Sept. 1884.
The appointment was, predictably, unpopular among the members of the legal profession. O’Connor was a mediocre judge and an embarrassment to both the government and the bench. He complained that he had to “scratch along on a beggarly salary,” expecting the government to supplement his income. After receiving $13,273 for legal work in 1882–84, he billed the government for an additional payment of $27,085. When Macdonald ignored O’Connor, the judge sued the government and the case was before the Exchequer Court of Canada when O’Connor died in November 1887; his family never obtained any of the money.
O’Connor’s name is remembered because he was the first Irish Roman Catholic judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature for Ontario. He achieved this position not because of his professional, administrative, or political skills, but because he was available to fill the role of leader among the Ontario Irish Catholics when their votes mattered to the Conservatives.
AO, MU 469–87. PAC, MG 26, A; MG 27, I, D13. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1867–68; 1879–81; 1886. “Parl. debates” (CLA mfm. project of parl. debates, 1846–74), 1873. Parliamentary debates, Dominion of Canada . . . (3v., Ottawa, 1870–72). Globe, 1882, 16 Sept. 1884, 4 Nov. 1887. Toronto Daily Mail, 1882, 1884, 4 Nov. 1887. Canadian biog. dict., I: 266–67. Canadian directory of parl. (J. K. Johnson), 447–48. CPC, 1872–73; 1875; 1879; 1883. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose, 1888), 412–13. Dent, Canadian portrait gallery, IV: 164–65. Political appointments and judicial bench (N.-O. Coté). Read, Lives of judges, 425–34. M. K. Christie, “Sir Alexander Campbell” (ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1950). M. J. Galvin, “Catholic-Protestant relations in Ontario, 1864–1875” (ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1962). Swainson, “Personnel of politics.”