Of First Ministers and Lost Chances

New musical explores the what-ifs that surround the life of Canada’s fourth prime minister.

Written by Mark Collin Reid

Posted June 30, 2021

Some say he could have become one of Canada’s best prime ministers. Sadly, the life of Sir John Thompson was cut short — he died of a heart attack at Windsor Castle in England, in the presence of Queen Victoria, no less.

Now the Nova Scotian politician’s story is being set to song in a new musical scripted by a former newspaper journalist. Titled The Great Might-Have-Been: A Musical about a Lost Canadian Opportunity, it was written by David Ellis Heyman with music by Steve Barker.

The lost opportunity mentioned in the title relates to the plan by Thompson, Canada’s fourth prime minister, to grant Canadian women the vote in the 1890s — more than two decades before women’s suffrage actually came into effect. Heyman, who lives in Victoria, said the idea for the musical came from a friend of his wife. She “knew I was a history buff,” Heyman said, “and asked me if I had a story for a Canadian version of Hamilton,” the popular Broadway musical about American founding father Alexander Hamilton. “I immediately thought of Sir John Thompson and his all-too-short term as prime minister from 1892 to 1894.”

Thompson served as premier of Nova Scotia in 1882 before being elected to the House of Commons, where he served as minister of justice in Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government.

Thompson held progressive views on women’s suffrage and, upon taking office as prime minister, found a common purpose with Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks Hamilton-Gordon, Lady Aberdeen, the wife of Governor General John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon. Lady Aberdeen was an advocate of women’s suffrage and urged Thompson to grant women the right to vote. The prime minister was poised to bring a women’s suffrage bill to Parliament but died before it could be introduced.

“As it was,” Heyman said, “the vote was half-heartedly introduced by Thompson’s successor, Mackenzie Bowell, and was soundly voted down, in no small part due to an anti-suffrage speech by Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier.”

The musical’s cast of characters includes Thompson, Lady Aberdeen, Laurier, Sir John Abbott (Thompson’s predecessor as prime minister), and Thompson’s wife, Annie. It will debut at the Nanaimo Fringe Festival in Nanaimo, B.C., and will run from August 12 to 22. Actress Shauna Solomon, the friend who inspired the musical, will play Lady Aberdeen.

Heyman, a former newspaper reporter, said Thompson’s life is an intriguing what-if story. “Many feel that, if he’d served his full term, he might well have ranked with our greatest prime ministers and might even have supplanted Sir Wilfrid Laurier as our first great twentieth-century leader.”

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This article originally appeared in the August-September 2021 issue of Canada’s History.

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