Gordon Sidney Harrington | The Canadian Encyclopedia

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Gordon Sidney Harrington

Gordon Sidney Harrington, labour lawyer, military officer (colonel), politician, premier of Nova Scotia (born 7 August 1883 in Halifax, NS; died 4 July 1943 in Halifax, NS). Educated at Dalhousie University, Harrington practised law in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. During the First World War, he served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1915–17, and with the Overseas Military Forces of Canada from 1917–20. After the war, he became an MLA for Cape Breton Centre in 1925. He succeeded Edgar N. Rhodes as premier of Nova Scotia in 1930. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, Harrington and the Conservatives were defeated just three years later by the Liberals in 1933. Harrington remained an MLA for Cape Breton South until 1937. A skillful administrator, Harrington’s legacy includes his instrumental involvement in the repatriation of Canadian soldiers after the First World War and his role in ending labour disputes in the Cape Breton mining industry.

Gordon Sidney Harrington

Early Life and Career

Gordon Sidney Harrington was born into a well-connected family in Halifax. His father, Charles Sidney Harrington, was a prominent lawyer and law partner of Robert L. Borden, eighth prime minister of Canada. His mother was part of the deWolf family, for whom Wolfville is named.

Harrington served in the non-permanent militia (66th Battalion, Princess Louise Fusiliers) starting in 1899, and eventually obtained the rank of captain. (See Infantry.) While serving, he also studied law at Dalhousie University. Harrington later graduated and was admitted to the bar on 19 October 1904.

Though he practiced for a short time in Halifax, Harrington soon moved to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, where he established a practice with a classmate, John MacKinley Cameron. Harrington had a strong interest in industrial and labour conditions (See Labour Law.) By 1909, he was providing legal counsel to the United Miner Workers of America (UMWA) District 26, in its conflict with the Provincial Workmen’s Association and the Dominion Coal Company. (See Labour Relations and Mining.) The conflict led to 2,500 members of the UMWA going on a lengthy strike on 6 July 1909 and the company later requesting the militia be deployed to protect property. The strike lasted until April 1910 in Cape Breton.

The UMWA lost the long and bitter strike and saw its members depleted to the point that in 1913, it lost its charter status. The strike caused distrust between workers and management, as well as division within the community. However, Harrington’s support for the miners would be well remembered by the workers.

Harrington married Catherine Agnes MacDonald, a daughter of a coal miner from Reserve Mines. Interested in civic politics, Harrington ran and was elected mayor of Glace Bay in 1913, at age 29.

The First World War

With the outbreak of the First World War, Harrington resigned as mayor to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). In 1915, he enlisted with the 85th Battalion and retained the rank of Captain he had with the 66th Regiment, before being promoted to Major.

He was transferred in February 1916 to supervise the recruiting of men into “B” Company, 185th Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders). As second-in-command under Colonel Frank Parker Day, Harrington and the men of the 185th sailed overseas from Halifax on S.S. Olympic (sister ship of Titanic) on 13 October 1916.

Upon arriving overseas, Harrington was later posted to the command of the 17th Reserve Battalion of the 5th Reserve Brigade with a complement of 800 men, whose job it was to reinforce the 25th and 85th Battalions.

Overseas Military Forces of Canada

By April 1917, Harrington was assigned to support the recently formed, civilian-run Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada (OMFC). The OMFC was headed by Sir Edward Kemp, who was in charge of all matters affecting the overseas Canadian forces, including negotiations with the British government on matters relating to allotment of reinforcements, appointments and the like. Harrington became the secretary of the organization. For a seven-month period in 1917–18, Harrington also acted for Deputy Minister Walter Gow while Gow was on extended sick leave in Canada.

Harrington became ill with influenza during the 1918 pandemic and required time in a hospital to recover. The illness left long-term side effects on his physical health.

By 1918, Gow had resigned. Harrington was appointed deputy minister and promoted to the rank of colonel. Prime Minister Robert L. Borden praised Harrington, saying:

My chief experience with Gordon Harrington was during the war [where] he found his métier in the organization of the Canadian Overseas Ministry. Both Sir George Perley and Sir Edward Kemp formed a high opinion of Harrington’s character, ability and devotion to duty. He rendered to our country service that could hardly be overestimated.


At the end of the war, the OMFC assumed greater responsibility in the demobilization of the Canadian Corps in France back to Canada. Troops returned primarily through the ports of Halifax (still recovering from the massive explosion the previous year that had destroyed most dockside facilities) and Saint John, New Brunswick, as they were the only large, ice-free Canadian ports. Up to that time, it was the largest movement of people in Canadian history, involving 267,813 soldiers and an estimated 54,000 dependents in over 50,000 trans-Atlantic departures.

By August 1919, most of the Canadian soldiers had left Britain for Canada. However, Harrington’s work at the OMFC was not over. There were lingering issues related to missing Canadian soldiers, graves and gravestones, as well as soldiers in hospital, the disposal of military equipment and supplies, and settlements with the British War Office that needed to be finalized. Upon his return to Canada, Harrington was asked to continue his work with the OMFC based in Ottawa. He had to make a return trip to Britain to negotiate further financial settlements with the British War Office, which were settled on 27 May 1920.

By July 1920, Harrington demobilized and was granted six months’ leave of absence with pay and allowances. He was struck off strength on 5 January 1921.

Political Career

Harrington settled in Sydney, Cape Breton and once again became actively involved in labour–management issues. He resumed his law practice as senior counsel to District 26 United Mine Workers of America, which had regained its chartered status in 1919. (See Cape Breton Strikes 1920s.) His support from the miners contributed to Harrington’s victory in the 1925 election. He was elected a Conservative MLA in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, representing Cape Breton Centre.

At that time, the Conservative party had won an overwhelming majority, leaving the Liberals with just three seats after having been in power for 43 years. Shortly after being elected, Harrington was appointed Minister of Public Works and Mines by then Premier Edger N. Rhodes. During the Rhodes’ government, a number of socially progressive measures, including a minimum wage for women and improved access to education were accomplished with a great deal of support and input from Harrington.

When Rhodes left provincial politics, Harrington became the 11th Premier of Nova Scotia in 1930. Among Harrington’s accomplishments in office include the formation of the Department of Labour in Nova Scotia. However, with the start of the Great Depression, his government was defeated by the Liberals in 1933. Harrington still remained an MLA in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly until 1937.

On 20 July 1935, Harrington was appointed by R.B. Bennett as Chief Commissioner of the newly created Employment and Social Insurance Commission. Harrington resigned after Bennett was defeated in the 1935 election.

Harrington died on 4 July 1943 at the age of 59. He was laid to rest at the Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax.

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