Historical vignette: Newton Wesley Rowell

Researched and Written by: Roy Schaeffer



Newton Wesley Rowell was one of the most remarkable individuals to hold the office of Treasurer. He was called to the bar in 1891 and quickly established himself as a leader of the profession in Ontario. An extraordinarily active member, he served as a bencher from 1911 until 1940, Treasurer from 1935-36, was president of the Canadian Bar Association, and a law school lecturer. He participated in many of the major cases of the early twentieth century, acting for Henrietta Edwards in the 'persons' case which resulted in the recognition of the right of women to sit in the Canadian Senate. His extraordinary career included the following list of activities and accomplishments: he was a national leader of the temperance movement and a crusader for prohibition; active in the Presbyterian Church, he was responsible for drafting the legislation that created the United Church of Canada; a philanthropist, he committed half his annual earnings to the support of such causes as the Hospital for Sick Children, the University of Toronto (where he served as a governor), and religious and medical missions in the third world (he served as governor of the West China Union University); he was chairman of the influential 1937 Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations (the Rowell-Sirois Commission); he was appointed Chief Justice of Ontario in 1936.




Rowell was one of the era's most respected political figures. He served as Leader of the Liberal Party of Ontario for six years. On entering the federal House in 1917 he became a cabinet minister in the Union government of Robert Borden. He was the founder and first minister of the Department of Health, served as President of the Council and was a member of the Canadian War Cabinet and the Imperial War Cabinet.


It was as a result of the latter service that he came to play a role on the world stage. Newton Rowell, as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet and Acting Minister of External Affairs, was responsible in large part for ensuring full participation by Canada as a sovereign nation at the Versailles peace conference. He demanded that Canada take its own distinct interests to that conference and act as an equal signatory to the document. His interest in foreign affairs led to his appointment as Canadian delegate to the first session of the League of Nations, where Canada's voice was heard for the first time in a global forum. One of Canada's first and most capable diplomats, he remained an active exponent of collective security and international dispute settlement. Despite his vast array of interests and commitments, Mr. Rowell generously chose to donate a portion of his library to the Law Society, a portion which included his copy of the Versailles Treaty and published documents in connection with the establishment of the League of Nations and the International Court of Justice.