James Cockburn (1819-1883)

Backgrounder

James Cockburn is one of the Fathers of Confederation. In 1864, he attended the Québec Conference, during which delegates negotiated the terms of Confederation, later defined in the British North America Act of 1867, which helped to build the constitutional foundations for a new country called the Dominion of Canada. After Confederation, Cockburn was the first Speaker of the House of Commons.

Born in England, Cockburn moved to Montréal with his family in 1832. As a young man, he studied law in Toronto and then established a legal practice in Cobourg, Ontario. In the 1850s, Cockburn entered politics, serving as a town councillor in Cobourg before entering the legislature of the Province of Canada as the representative for West Northumberland in 1861. After initially opposing their politics, he soon came to support such Liberal-Conservatives as John A. Macdonald. A Cabinet minister, in 1864, he attended the Québec Conference, where delegates negotiated the terms of federal union within British North America. When the first session of the first Parliament of the new Dominion of Canada convened in November 1867, Cockburn was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, a position he held until 1874.

Cockburn lost his seat in 1873, but he returned to the House of Commons in 1878. He pursued patronage throughout his political career, receiving some support from Macdonald, who set him to work on the codification of Dominion Statutory Law in 1881. Cockburn’s health was declining by this time. He died in 1883.

James Cockburn has been well-remembered in the town of Cobourg. A room in Victoria Hall has been refurbished to resemble the offices used by Cockburn in 1860-65, and since the late 1990s, the civic holiday in August has been known as James Cockburn Day.


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