William Alexander Henry (December 30, 1816 - May 3, 1888)

William Alexander Henry, Attorney General for Nova Scotia in 1864, was a delegate to all three Confederation conferences. He went on to become mayor of Halifax, and later one of the first judges appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

William Alexander Henry was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His family moved to Antigonish soon after. He attended Halifax High School before studying law. After being admitted to the bar, he established practices first at Antigonish, and later at Halifax. He was married twice, first in 1841 to Sophia C. McDonald (d. 1845), then to Christianna McDonald in 1850.

Henry was first elected in 1840 as a Liberal member for Antigonish, and represented the region almost continuously from that time until 1867. (Although he was defeated in 1843, he was re-elected in 1847 for his support of responsible government.) He attained the post of provincial secretary in 1856, but resigned the next year over the dismissal of the exciseman of the Port of Halifax. He transferred his support to the Conservative Party, and was elected as a member of that party in 1859. However, because of disputed results in some areas, the Liberals took control of the government. When the Conservatives finally regained power in 1863, Henry was appointed solicitor general, then attorney general in 1864.

Like some of his colleagues, Henry showed little interest in the idea of union prior to the Charlottetown Conference. His opinion changed dramatically after the meeting. He returned to Nova Scotia convinced that British American union would be the best means of achieving such benefits as free trade and the construction of the Intercolonial Railway. He took an active part in the social activities and the more serious negotiations of the Québec Conference. However, he faced the difficult task of defending the Québec Resolutions against the anti-Confederation movement.

After the Nova Scotia Assembly approved union in the spring of 1866, Henry was part of the delegation that travelled to the London Conference that year to compose the legislation. (Tradition holds that he was one of the gentlemen who actually adapted the Québec Resolutions into the British North America Act. Although he had objections about the limited number of senators, and the division of federal and provincial powers, Henry voted to accept the final agreement.

Once Confederation was achieved, Henry ran for the Antigonish seat in the Nova Scotia federal election of 1867. As Antigonish was one of the most anti-Confederation regions of the province, he suffered defeat for the first time in 24 years. He returned to his law practice in Halifax (although he would run for office again in 1869, losing in Richmond). In 1870, he was elected the mayor of Halifax. He was also the president of the Charitable Irish Society in 1873.

It was at around this time that Henry returned his allegiance to the Liberal party. While he still supported Confederation, he was dissatisfied with John A. Macdonald's leadership of the Conservatives, and resentful at being passed over for a judgeship in Nova Scotia. This resentment must have been appeased, in some measure, with his appointment to the newly created Supreme Court of Canada in 1875. Henry was a diligent attendee at the Court, and contributed greatly to reforms that helped it to run smoothly. He died at Ottawa.


  • Blakeley, Phyllis R. "Henry, William Alexander." Dictionary of Canadian biography. Ed. Francess G. Halpenny. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1982. Vol. 11, p. 398-400.

  • "Henry, William Alexander". Macmillan dictionary of Canadian biography. Ed. W. Stewart Wallace. 4th ed. Toronto : Macmillan of Canada, 1978. P. 354.

  • Kernaghan, Lois. "Henry, William Alexander". Canadian encyclopedia : year 2000 edition. Ed. James H. Marsh. 3rd print ed. Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1999. P. 1065.

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