O’CONNOR, WILLIAM FRANCIS, lawyer, educator, civil servant, and author; b. 3 Sept. 1873 in Halifax, son of Martin O’Connor, a mason, and Ann Redmond; m. there 26 April 1900 Ellen Mary Veale, daughter of a ship captain, and they had three daughters, one of whom predeceased him; d. 16 Dec. 1940 in Ottawa.
Born to Irish Roman Catholic parents of limited financial means, William Francis O’Connor attended school in Halifax and left at the age of 12. Having initially found employment at a shoe store, he spent the next ten years working in various retail, wholesale, and accounting businesses. Following three months of night study, he passed matriculation exams and entered Dalhousie law school in 1895. He took a part-time job at the Halifax Herald where, as a member of the night staff, he worked hard, arriving at 8:00 llb in 1898, O’Connor joined the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. The next year he was awarded a by King’s College, Windsor, and he would be named a kc in 1909. Between 1898 and 1916 he was a partner in several Halifax law firms; he also taught law courses at his alma mater between 1906 and 1916.
O’Connor had considerable faith in his own abilities and rarely backed down from a fight. For example, in 1913 he curtly discharged one of his colleagues, Thomas Joseph Neil Meagher, on learning that he was spreading rumours that O’Connor had used the practice’s name to raise personal funds at a bank. He then argued at length over the small sums of money allegedly owed Meagher. In 1926 he sued the chief justice of Quebec’s Superior Court, Sir François-Xavier Lemieux, who had dismissed him as one of the co-counsels of the federal royal commission on customs and excise. He also took legal action for slander against Gordon Waldron, the commissioner examining violations of the Combines Investigation Act, after the latter made a disparaging remark about O’Connor in a September 1929 hearing. The plaintiff litigated all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, which ruled that his appeal would be allowed.
O’Connor moved between private practice and government service, working in Halifax, Ottawa, and Toronto. He had briefly dabbled in electoral politics, losing a bid to enter Nova Scotia’s House of Assembly as a Conservative in 1906. He formed a close connection with Robert Laird Borden, who also had roots in the Halifax legal community. After Borden resigned as prime minister in 1920, he hired O’Connor to organize his public papers in preparation for writing his memoirs. O’Connor warned his friend that the “memoirs will have two primary requirements – that they be intimate and interesting. To make them intimate you will have to overcome yourself. To make them interesting will result from the overcoming of yourself.” His relationship with Borden and his capacity for hard work secured O’Connor a series of government appointments. During World War I he served in the Department of Justice, where he prepared legal opinions on the internment of those considered enemy aliens. Minister of Justice Charles Joseph Doherty was asked to create a bill granting the government emergency powers to meet the war’s demands. He was unsuccessful, and O’Connor was brought in to do the job. He advised that blanket measures were needed, and the result, the War Measures Bill, obtained the support of the opposition Liberals led by Sir Wilfrid Laurier*, and received third reading on 21 Aug. 1914. O’Connor also drafted the War-time Elections Bill in 1917, and that year he was the general returning officer in the federal election, assuming responsibility for polling stations in Canada and overseas. Having been selected in December 1914 to represent the Department of Labour on the commission set up in 1913 to investigate the rising cost of living, he had become acting commissioner in November 1916. His report on cold-storage facilities, released eight months later, caused a public outcry since the William Davies Company, the meat-packing operation headed by Sir Joseph Wesley Flavelle, now chair of the Imperial Munitions Board, was found to have made a spectacular amount of money from bacon sales in the previous year. In April 1918 O’Connor resigned his position, claiming that there had been interference from labour minister Thomas Wilson Crothers.
In July 1919 O’Connor was named to the government’s newly formed and ill-fated tool of economic regulation, the Board of Commerce of Canada. He had lobbied hard to become its chief, but Hugh Amos Robson*, a former member of the Manitoba bench, was chosen; the third commissioner was James Murdock*. The board launched inquiries into the sugar trade and the prices of foodstuff, footwear, and retail clothing. A number of highly interventionist decisions to set acceptable profit margins – O’Connor was considered particularly aggressive – angered business leaders such as Sir William Price*. As a result, the Supreme Court of Canada, under Chief Justice Sir Louis Henry Davies*, was asked to give an opinion on the board’s constitutionality. O’Connor, who had been designated acting chief commissioner after Robson’s resignation in February 1920, was directed by the cabinet to represent the government. The court divided evenly in its decision [see John Idington*], and the legal uncertainty over the board’s future led him to resign in June 1920. He returned to private practice, first in Ottawa and, from 1928 until 1934, in Toronto.
A minor scholar, O’Connor published several articles on Canadian law, though he failed to finish a book on bankruptcy he contracted in 1919 to produce for the Carswell Company. He completed his most famous work after his 1935 appointment as law clerk and parliamentary counsel of the Senate. During the 1920s and 1930s the Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had struck down as unconstitutional a number of pieces of legislation, such as measures proposed as part of Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett*’s New Deal in 1935. Critics argued that the courts had fettered the state’s ability to combat the effects of the Great Depression through new social programs and regulatory initiatives. The Senate asked O’Connor, who had long taken an interest in constitutional matters, to write a report on the history of the British North America Act and its interpretation. His lengthy assessment, published in 1939, concluded that the judiciary had badly misinterpreted the act and incorrectly limited the powers of the Canadian government. His findings helped shape debates about the judicial interpretation of the BNA Act for several decades, and strengthened the movement to eliminate appeals to the JCPC.
O’Connor died in his sleep. His great self-confidence, his willingness to work hard, and a reputation for fearlessness had made him a valuable civil servant and a figure in the debates over issues such as the constitution and big-business practices. He failed to realize any significant accomplishments, however, probably because he was not a devout student of a single topic. Giving his time to various interests, he found some success in all his endeavours.
William Francis O’Connor’s most significant publication is the Report pursuant to resolution of the Senate to the Honourable the Speaker by the parliamentary counsel relating to the enactment of the British North America Act, 1867 … ([Ottawa], 1939). He also wrote half-a-dozen legal articles, of which the most important is “Property and civil rights in the province,” Canadian Bar Rev. (Toronto), 18 (1940): 331–84, and various documents for the federal government.
LAC, R2008-0-9. NSA, “Nova Scotia hist. vital statistics,” Halifax County, 1900: www.novascotiagenealogy.com (consulted 11 Feb. 2013). “Former college professor dies,” Halifax Chronicle, 17 Dec. 1940: 1. “Prominent native of province dies,” Halifax Herald, 17 Dec. 1940: 1. R. C. Brown, Robert Laird Borden: a biography (2v., Toronto, 1975–80), 2. O’Connor v. Waldron , Dominion Law Reports (Toronto), 1: 260–63.