HARRIS, ROBERT EDWARD, lawyer, businessman, and judge; b. 18 Aug. 1860 in Lequille, N.S., son of Robert Jefferson Harris and Rebecca Ditmars; m. 26 June 1883 Minnie Lascelles Horsfall (d. 1933) in Annapolis Royal, N.S., and they had one son who died in infancy; d. there 30 May 1931.
Writing in his History of the county of Annapolis (Toronto, 1897), William Arthur Calnek observed that “one leading lawyer” was helping to honour the name of Samuel Harris, a New England Planter from Massachusetts who had emigrated to Annapolis Royal by 1762. The lawyer concerned was Samuel’s great-grandson Robert Edward Harris. At 36 years of age he was the head of Harris, Henry, and Cahan, a Halifax law firm that was pioneering a new area of practice – corporate law – and would within a century become the linchpin of the first interprovincial law partnership in Atlantic Canada, Stewart McKelvey Stirling Scales.
Like many ambitious young Maritimers of his generation, Harris had acquired enough formal education to teach in rural schools as a youth. Then, at age 17, he apprenticed himself to a local lawyer, Jacob Miller Owen of Annapolis Royal. Through Owen, he was soon introduced to John Sparrow David Thompson*, who had been appointed attorney general in the Conservative government of Nova Scotia in 1878 and was the senior member of Halifax’s leading law firm. Harris left Owen to become a law student at Thompson and Graham, an office that, together with its predecessors and successors, produced two prime ministers, three ministers of justice, four chief justices of Nova Scotia, and several prominent judges and lawyers. Harris was called to the bar in January 1882. Later that year Thompson, out of government, was elevated to the bench. His departure resulted in a major reorganization of the firm under Wallace Nesbit Graham*, who decided to bring in Robert Laird Borden, a friend and rival of Harris’s, while showing Harris the door. It is unclear why Graham did not want Harris and the snub deeply bothered the young man. In 1890 Thompson, by then federal minister of justice, would try to make amends by appointing Harris a qc, one of the youngest lawyers so recognized in the country.
After this false start in Halifax, Harris practised law in Yarmouth, the metropolis of southwestern Nova Scotia. There he would remain for almost a decade until asked to move back to Halifax by Hugh McDonald Henry, head of Henry and Henry. Henry was seeking to replace his former partner Thomas Ritchie, who had become full-time vice-president, under Thomas Edward Kenny*, of the Merchants’ Bank of Halifax. In 1892 Harris left his Yarmouth law practice in the capable hands of Ernest Howard Armstrong*, later Liberal premier of Nova Scotia, and moved to Halifax. A year after Harris’s return, Henry went to the bench and Harris succeeded him; he would remain head of the Halifax firm until his own promotion as judge in 1915. To compensate for Henry’s departure, Harris brought in as low man Charles Hazlitt Cahan*, whom he had probably met in Yarmouth, Cahan’s hometown.
Harris was in the vanguard of the first generation of Canadian corporate lawyers, and was to Halifax what Zebulon Aiton Lash* was to Toronto. He owed this special position in large part to one major client, John Fitzwilliam Stairs*, the leading industrial and financial capitalist of his time in Atlantic Canada. The two had become acquainted when Harris relocated to Halifax. Harris was soon made legal adviser to the Nova Scotia Steel and Forge Company (known as Scotia), a Stairs firm, and never looked back. He sealed the relationship by going to Glasgow in 1893 to manage the flotation of Stairs’s regional merger, the Acadia Sugar Refining Company Limited. This transaction brought him his first directorship. Stairs thereafter involved Harris in all his promotions as underwriter, director, or executive officer. Following the capitalist’s premature death in 1904, Harris assumed most of Stairs’s executive positions, including the presidency of Scotia. His ten-year reign at Scotia would be notorious for a hostile takeover bid in 1910 by William Maxwell Aitken* and Montreal financiers (among them Rodolphe Forget* and James Naismith Greenshields), which Harris, with the help of Thomas Cantley* and Fleming Blanchard McCurdy*, defeated after a protracted struggle for control. Relations between Harris and Aitken were, and had probably always been, poisonous. The former resented Aitken’s insinuating himself into the Stairs coterie; the latter believed that Harris had reneged on a promise to make him a director of Scotia in return for his support against Senator James Drummond McGregor*, who had also sought the presidency of Scotia after Stairs’s death.
These years were neither easy nor happy for Harris, who lacked the entrepreneurial vision and interpersonal skills of John F. Stairs. The sudden death in 1908 of Stairs’s younger brother George signalled the decline of the family’s business empire, leaving Harris without an anchor. Aitken’s raid on Scotia was the last straw; warding it off took too great a toll. Though only 50, Harris began to look for a second career beyond business but within the field of law. The unexpected federal Conservative election victory in 1911, which saw his old friend Borden become prime minister, opened up the possibility of an appointment to the bench. It seems probable that Harris’s judicial aspirations prompted him to turn down an invitation from the Canadian Pacific Railway Company – a long-standing client of his law firm – to succeed Adam Rutherford Creelman as its general counsel in 1913 (the position went to Edward Wentworth Beatty*).
It would prove no obstacle to judicial preferment that Harris had not engaged in “black-letter” law for over 20 years, his conventional practice having ended in 1892 when he started servicing John F. Stairs’s many enterprises. Harris was a lawyer engaged in big business and his view of the law was strictly instrumental. Where positive law did not exist, it had to be invented. In 1914, for example, he was behind a failed attempt to have a blue-sky securities bill passed in Nova Scotia. Generally speaking, however, he more than compensated for his lack of a regular, hands-on practice by managing his law firm. Harris was also a leading figure in organizing the legal profession itself. He was one of the chief supporters of both the first and the second attempts to launch the Canadian Bar Association, in 1896 and 1914, and he was twice president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.
Few lawyers in Canada have ever gone directly from the presidency of a major industrial corporation to a Supreme Court bench. This unlikely transition was precisely what Harris achieved in 1915, when Chief Justice Sir Charles James Townshend* of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia retired and was succeeded by Wallace Graham, the senior puisne judge and judge in equity. Graham’s position in equity was then taken over by James Johnston Ritchie, a move that opened up a vacancy on the bench. Topping the list of candidates was the leading litigator in Harris’s own firm, Tecumseh Sherman Rogers, who was then in England appearing before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as co-counsel for the appellant Eastern Trust Company (of which Harris was president). According to oral tradition, a telegram from Ottawa arrived at the firm asking for the proper spelling of Rogers’s name. Harris, seeing the message, guessed the reason for it and immediately boarded the train for Ottawa, where he had the order in council appointing Rogers cancelled and another drafted in his own favour. (Small wonder his motto was “Do it now.”) Townshend was so amazed at this coup de main that he referred to Rogers’s defeat in his letter of congratulations to Harris.
Supreme tactician that he was, Harris began positioning himself for the top job from the day he was appointed to the bench, knowing full well that promotion to chief justice normally went according to seniority. Harris had barely two years to wait. Graham dropped dead in October 1917 and the superior claims of Benjamin Russell were discounted. At the time of his preferment on 11 Feb. 1918, Harris was serving on the board established to evaluate the shares of the Canadian Northern Railway, which the federal government was preparing to take over. Appointed at the behest of Prime Minister Borden, he joined Sir William Ralph Meredith*, the government’s choice as arbitrator, and Wallace Nesbitt*, the railway’s nominee, as the non-representative member. If Sir William Mackenzie*, the president of the CNR, was unhappy with the selection of Harris (as historian Theodore D. Regehr maintains), it was no doubt because he suspected that Harris knew rather too much about how Mackenzie, Mann and Company Limited did business. Borden, for his part, wanted someone he could trust, and Harris did not disappoint, owing as he did both of his judicial postings to the personal intervention of the prime minister. The timing of his promotion as chief justice suggests that Borden offered the office as a quid pro quo for Harris’s joining the board of arbitration.
Harris’s desire to be chief justice was driven by ego, not avarice. He remained well off, even though he had seen his income drop by between 70 and 80 per cent after his initial appointment to the bench; he then ceased to be chair of Acadia Sugar Refining, president of Scotia, Eastern Trust, Trinidad Electric, and Demerara Electric, vice-president of Eastern Car, and director of Maritime Telegraph and Telephone, Brandram-Henderson, Camagüey Electric, and the Bank of Nova Scotia (he had replaced Borden on its board in 1912). Harris’s 13 years as chief justice were distinguished by the call of the first woman, Frances Lilian Fish*, to the bar of Nova Scotia in 1918 and the passing of the Judicature Act of 1919. He breathed new life into the Halifax Court House Commission, initiating a major expansion of the courthouse building. Less creditably, he arranged for the appointment of his nephew Reginald Vanderbilt Harris, a lawyer, as protonotary of the Supreme Court. Though Harris’s fellow justices were for the most part better lawyers and judges, he was workmanlike and assiduous, conceiving his role to be that of chief executive officer or managing director of the court. He delivered no significant judgements, but studied continually to bring himself up to date with developments in mainstream Canadian law. He was careful to recuse himself from cases involving the British Empire Steel Corporation, a 1920–21 merger which swallowed up both Scotia and its competitors and led to their restructuring in 1928 as the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation. His successor, Joseph Andrew Chisholm*, another Borden appointee and alumnus of the Graham firm, damned him with faint praise – “no Chief Justice ever excelled him in efficiency” – a tribute which Harris would have recognized as the backhanded compliment it was.
Over the course of the 1920s Harris was afflicted with angina, which became so severe that in February 1931 he was obliged to take a six-month leave of absence. Though he seemed to rally, at the end of May he returned to Annapolis Royal, where he and his wife maintained a home, to die. His remains were interred in the Harris family burying ground, Oak Hill in Lequille, a cemetery that had been in continuous use for nearly 170 years.
Harris was the first and only corporate lawyer ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, but his importance lies in his law firm, the foundation upon which was built the largest and most influential corporate practice in the Maritime region. Though not many of the companies with which he was associated have survived, his law firm has flourished and remains more or less synonymous with big business in Atlantic Canada. An unsophisticated man, largely an autodidact with few intellectual interests, Harris nevertheless relished imperial spectacle and the viceregal trappings of his office. In March 1930 he and his wife donated to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly its present mace, and he presided frequently and enthusiastically as administrator of the government in the absence of the lieutenant governor. Like other self-made and uncultured individuals, he combined ruthless efficiency, overweening ambition, and raw intelligence in his business and professional life with profound simplicity outside it.
Harris’s devotion to the Church of England was so earnest that in 1893, the year after he arrived in Halifax, he was elected a vestryman at St Paul’s, the first cathedral of Anglicanism in Canada. Seven years later he was a churchwarden. Harris was also first chancellor of the diocese of Nova Scotia, serving from 1905 until 1915. In 1932 a plaque would be placed in St Paul’s commemorating his wife’s donation in his memory of chimes for the organ. “I knew him well,” declaimed the primate, Clarendon Lamb Worrell, towards the end of his sermon on this occasion, “and I knew him to be a deeply religious man.”
In 1922 Harris succeeded the former chief justice, Townshend, as chancellor of the University of King’s College. He threw himself into the resurrection of King’s, whose home in Windsor had been destroyed by fire in February 1920. In 1922 he chaired the conference held in Halifax to consider a union of the universities and colleges of eastern Canada. University federation failed completely, except in the case of King’s, whose relocation to Halifax and Dalhousie University in 1923 was largely thanks to Harris’s efforts and determination. In May 1929 Harris triumphantly laid the cornerstone of the new King’s building on Dalhousie’s Studley campus. He also made the college his sole residuary beneficiary. The legacy was worth at least $250,000, truly a king’s ransom in the Nova Scotia of 1931.
An oil portrait of Robert Edward Harris, painted by Henry Harris Brown, hangs in the Law Courts Building in Halifax. As chief justice, Harris was ex officio vice-chair of the board of trustees of the Public Arch. of N.S. (now NSA) and his “selected papers” were donated to the new repository in 1932. Though extensive, they were evidently winnowed either by Harris himself or by his widow or nephew after his death and contain nothing about his private life and little about his public career before 1915. A history of Harris’s law firm is in preparation by the authors.
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.12586. LAC, R231-0-0; R4642-0-2; R6113-0-X. NSA, MG 1 (Robert E. Harris fonds), vols.391–404. Parliamentary Arch., House of Lords Record Office (London), BBK (Beaverbrook papers). Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles, Southern exposure: Canadian promoters in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1896–1930 (Toronto, 1988). Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie, Beaverbrook: a life (London, 1992). J. A. Eagle, “Sir Robert Borden and the railway problem in Canadian politics, 1911–1920” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1972). R. B. Fleming, The railway king of Canada: Sir William Mackenzie, 1849–1923 (Vancouver, 1991). J. D. Frost, Merchant princes: Halifax’s first family of finance, ships and steel (Toronto, 2003). Philip Girard, “The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia: confederation to the twenty-first century,” in The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, 1754–2004: from imperial bastion to provincial oracle, ed. Philip Girard et al. (Toronto, 2004), 140–203. G. P. Marchildon, “Corporate lawyers and the second industrial revolution in Canada,” Saskatchewan Law Rev. (Saskatoon), 64 (2001): 99–112; “International corporate law from a Maritime base: the Halifax firm of Harris, Henry, and Cahan,” in Essays in the history of Canadian law, ed. D. H. Flaherty et al. (10v. to date, [Toronto], 1981– ), 4 (Beyond the law: lawyers and business in Canada, 1830 to 1930, ed. Carol Wilton, 1990), 201–34; “John F. Stairs, Max Aitken and the Scotia Group: finance capitalism and industrial decline in the Maritimes, 1890–1914,” in Farm, factory and fortune: new studies in the economic history of the Maritime provinces, ed. Kris Inwood (Fredericton, 1993), 197–218; Profits and politics: Beaverbrook and the Gilded Age of Canadian finance (Toronto, 1996). G. P. Marchildon and Barry Cahill, “Corporate entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada: the Stewart law firm, 1915–1955,” in Essays in the history of Canadian law, ed. D. H. Flaherty et al. (10v. to date, [Toronto], 1981– ), 7 (Inside the law: Canadian law firms in historical perspective, ed. Carol Wilton, 1996), 280–319. T. D. Regehr, The Canadian Northern Railway, pioneer road of the northern prairies, 1895–1918 (Toronto, 1976).
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Cite This Article
Barry Cahill and Gregory P. Marchildon, “HARRIS, ROBERT EDWARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harris_robert_edward_1E.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 and Gregory P. Marchildon|
|Title of Article:||HARRIS, ROBERT EDWARD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2016|
|Year of revision:||2016|
|Access Date:||June 6, 2023|