Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Sir John George Bourinot


BOURINOT, Sir JOHN GEORGE (1837-1902) journalist and historian, was born at Sydney, Cape Breton, N.S., 24 October, 1837. He was the eldest son of the Hon. John Bourinot, senator, whose family came originally from Normandy and settled in the Island of Jersey, when the Huguenots were driven out of France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. His mother, Mary Jane, was the daughter of judge Marshall of Nova Scotia, a well-known temperance advocate and writer on religious and social topics. Bourinot received his elementary education under the tutorship of Rev. W. Y. Porter, who was quick to recognize and comment upon his pupil's intelligence and literary gifts.


On his matriculation in 1854 Bourinot was sent to Trinity College, Toronto, where he soon became one of the leading members of his class, both socially and scholastically, winning the coveted Wellington Scholarship for Classics, as well as other minor awards.


He did not, however, proceed on the termination of his arts course, to the study of law or medicine, as he dreaded a life of professional routine. So he became parliamentary reporter, and three years later, editor, when he founded the Halifax Reporter (1860). From 1861-1867 he served as the chief official reporter of the Legislative Assembly of his province, going to Ottawa the following year as member of the Hansard staff. There he was appointed shorthand writer to the Senate (1868-1873), becoming at the end of this period second clerk assistant to the House, first clerk assistant in 1879, and finally chief clerk of the House of Commons (1880) a position he retained until his death.


Bourinot, now in congenial surroundings, began the activities upon which his fame rests. He published his Intellectual Development of the Canadian People (Toronto, 1881), which had first appeared in the pages of the Canadian Monthly, of which Bourinot was for long a leading contributor, a careful, elaborate treatise on the subject, which dealt mainly with Canada subsequent to the union and served besides to attract attention to the robust intellectual qualities of the author. Thenceforward Bourinot's published work issued in a steady stream. He became a constant and valued contributor to the journals and newspapers of Canada, England and the United States. His Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in Canada (Montreal, 1884, 4th ed. 1916) has become an accepted authority throughout the Dominion and is quoted as a standard reference in the Parliaments of other dominions. An important monograph entitled Historical Descriptive Account of the Island of Cape Breton ( Montreal, 1892), was a model of painstaking labour and accuracy, and sufficiently exhaustive to have precluded much further work in that field. A profound lover of his native land he used his pen to arouse interest in her history and destiny. He was one of the early advocates of imperial federation and was an executive member of a committee appointed at a public meeting to promote federation, held in Montreal in 1885. His contributions to the papers of the Royal Colonial Institute, London , attracted considerable attention. One of these, in which reference was made to Bourinot's ideas of imperial federation, provoked a whole chapter of discussion in Justin McCarthy's History of Our Own Times. Blackwood's Magazine, to which Bourinot was one of the very few Canadian contributors, published his essay on the "Progress of the New Dominion", which the London Times characterized as "the best article that has yet appeared on the subject in a British periodical". The Westminster Review, the London Quarterly, the Scottish Review, and other leading British publications conveyed many interesting facts about Canada to their readers by means of timely and scholarly articles written by Bourinot.


From the organization of the Royal Society of Canada in 1882 he was its honorary secretary and remained so while he lived. To his efforts the Society largely owed its success, and he was its president in 1892. He did the main work of supervision of the publication of nineteen volumes of its Proceedings. No one can sufficiently appreciate the attention he gave to the Society's business, and the interest he took in its work. His zeal was unflagging, and during the long series of years he had served as honorary secretary he had acquired such a knowledge of the Society's work that the chief part of its administration had of necessity gravitated to him. Moreover, Bourinot's personal acquaintance with so many of the Society's members, and with such a large number of the literary men of Canada, was invaluable. Many monographs of great value written by his hand enrich the Transactions of the Society. His wide knowledge of all matters connected with the working of constitutional and representative governments is displayed in contributions on the comparative politics of the great self-governing colonies of England , and his learning in political science is manifested in his comparisons of our system with the institutions of other free countries.


Gradually honours flocked upon him. He was elected honorary member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1883. He received recognition honoris causa from almost all the universities of Canada : Queen's LL.D. (1887); Trinity D.C.L. (1889); University of New Brunswick D.C.L. (1890); Bishop's University, Lennoxville, D.C.L. (1895); Laval University, Quebec, D. ès L. (1893). In 1890 he was created C.M.G. and in 1898 K.C.M.G.


Bourinot married three times: in 1858 Delia, daughter of John Hawke; in 1865 Emily Alden, daughter at Albert Pillsbury, the American Consul at Halifax , and in 1889 Isabelle, daughter of John Cameron, of Toronto. He had one daughter and four sons.


Bourinot died in Ottawa, 13 October, 1902, and was buried in Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa.


Other published works of Bourinot were: Local Government in Canada (Baltimore, 1887); Manual of the Constitutional History of Canada ( Montreal, 1888); Federal Government in Canada ( Baltimore, 1889); How Canada is Governed (Toronto, 1895, 12th ed., 1928); The Story of Canada (London, 1897); Canada under British Rule (Cambridge, 1900); Lord Elgin (Toronto, 1903).


[ Morga, Can. Men, 1898; Wallace, Dict. Can. Biog. 1926; Rose, Cyc. Can. Biog. 1886; Proc. Roy. Soc. Can. 1903; bibliography in Proc. Roy. Soc. Can. 1894; Dict. Nat. Biog. supp. ii, Canadian Press, 14 Oct. 1902; private information.]


Source: H.C.B. : L.G. in Charles G. D. ROBERTS and Arthur L. TUNNELL, A Standard Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The Canadian Who Was Who, Vol. 1, Toronto, Trans Canada Press, 1934, pp. 65-66. A few minor typographical errors have been corrected.








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