Canada's electoral history from 1867 to today

Parliamentarians who died while in office

by Maurice Y. Michaud (he/him)

Thomas Robertson (18521902)
© Photo — Public domain

There's just something about this man's photograph that intrigued me the moment I set eyes on it.

Sure, he's a handsome dude. And he clearly wasn't old when this photo was taken. But it's... it's... it's maybe because I just caught myself referring to him as a "dude" because I could easily imagine bumping into a hipster who would look exactly like him at a Starbucks in 2023.

But it certainly wouldn't be this dude, though. He died on April 19, 1902, while sitting as one of the two MLAs for Shelburne County and (very briefly) Speaker of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly. His name was Thomas Robertson and he was only 49 when he died. This picture was likely taken a decade or more before that, when he was the federal MP for Shelburne.

And guess what? His co-MLA for Shelburne County, Thomas Johnson — or Johnston, depending on who you ask — also died in office about 15 months later, on July 30, 1903. Except that Johnson was 81. I have never seen a picture of that gentleman but I can imagine the contrast between the two men even though both were Liberals. And that they technically both worked until the day they died. I say "technically" because Robertson died while staying with his brother in Dell Rapids, South Dakota, "attempting to recover from an illness." That obviously didn't work out for him, poor guy.

Sorry if I sound disrespectful, but you have to understand something: I've done so much research on all these people that I sometimes feel like I know them. Granted, because there are so many, I often struggle to remember their names. For instance, it wasn't the name "Thomas Robertson" that came to mind when I started writing this. Rather, I remembered "that 19th-century could-be-a-modern-day-Starbucks-dude from Shelburne who died in office," and pulled up some Nova Scotia election results from the 1890s to recall his name.

People like him are just more memorable to me. I'm also thinking of another Nova Scotian, Yarmouth MP Bowman Law, who was one of the seven (and only MP) to die in the fire that destroyed much of the Canadian Parliament buildings on the night of February 3, 1916. Or Shaughnessy Cohen, who died in the House of Commons on December 9, 1998, seconds after she had stood to address the House. The dramatic ones have a way of standing out, of course, but that's probably because, well, death is part of everyday life and the rules — from gravity to living and dying — are no different for those who hold public office than they are for the rest of us. We simply notice more because their positions are more visible.

Find the identity of the people behind the numbers below...
 

Statistics

That being said, the fact remains that a surprising 6.81% of the 14,266 Canadian parliamentarians have died while in office, for a total of 971 in the 157 years covered by this website. The first person to die in office was Vital Hébert, while the last one was Derek Meyers. To this day, Thomas D'Arcy McGee remains the only one to have been assasinated while in office.

However, what is perhaps more noteworthy is that deaths in office do not happen as often today. In fact:

  • The first table clearly shows that, starting at the 1975 to 1999 date range, there is a marked decline in the number of deaths in office.
     
  • However, the data in the second table, other than echoing that post-1975 decline, does not seem to have a particular pattern of its own with respect to age at death.
Deaths in office, 1867–2023
F: Federal    P/T: Provincial/Territorial
Years AB BC MB NB NL NS NT NU NW ON PE QC SK YT Total
F P F P F P F P F P F P F T F T F T F P F P F P F P F T F P
1867—1874 1 2 4 6 4 3 6 7 3 5 19 22
1875—1899 4 13 1 10 5 9 3 6 1 27 29 1 9 29 17 70 94
1900—1924 2 12 2 6 2 8 6 10 4 13 1 37 32 3 12 22 27 5 78 126
1925—1949 4 16 2 20 4 14 7 18 5 10 25 37 2 10 28 28 4 16 81 169
1950—1974 3 17 2 13 5 20 3 19 3 2 9 1 1 26 29 2 8 12 27 2 9 58 155
1975—1999 2 6 1 5 1 4 1 5 4 6 1 4 6 7 1 3 2 16 43
2000—2023 2 1 2 1 1 2 2 1 4 4 2 5 3 1 1 2 6 2 12 30
Total 13 52 13 59 16 58 25 64 1 8 18 50 1 1 2 2 130 143 9 44 101 113 7 39 4 334 639
F+P (Total) = 973* – 1 (George-Étienne Cartier → CA & QC) – 1 (J. Sandfield Macdonald → CA & ON) = 971
* Up until about 1872-74 (depending on the jurisdiction), a parliamentarian could sit in his provincial legislature and the Commons.

Greyed out cells indicate the absence of the jurisdiction.
There is a clear decrease in the frequency of deaths in office after 1975. Would you happen to know why?
Deaths in office by age and gender, 1867–2023
Years Age Total
18–29 30–39 40–49 50–59 60–69 70++
M F X T M F X T M F X T M F X T M F X T M F X T M F X T
1867—1874 1 1 12 12 10 10 10 10 6 6 39 39
1875—1899 2 2 18 18 45 45 53 53 37 37 9 9 164 164
1900—1924 7 7 44 44 67 67 63 63 23 23 204 204
1925—1949 4 4 34 34 80 80 99 99 33 33 250 250
1950—1974 1 1 3 3 32 32 67 1 68 73 2 75 33 1 34 209 4 213
1975—1999 5 5 9 2 11 16 4 20 17 17 6 6 53 6 59
2000—2023 2 1 3 7 7 13 3 16 12 1 13 3 3 37 5 42
Total 4 4 51 1 52 181 2 183 306 8 314 307 3 310 107 1 108 956 15 971

Seeing such a sharp trend change obviously got me wondering as to why it is happening, for there are more MPs and MLAs today than there were 100 years ago. What could possibly explain it? We know from Statistics Canada that life expectancy of men at birth has gone from 58.8 years in 1920–22 to 79.3 years in 2009–2011, while that of women in that same time bracket has gone from 60.6 to 83.6 years, but could that be the only explanation? Are people in public office younger today? Or perhaps a combination of both?

As you can see, I have the raw data, so I guess I just need to come up with a way of testing those hypotheses. Any statistician or demographer out there willing and able to help me?



© 2019, 2023 :: PoliCan.ca (Maurice Y. Michaud)
Pub.: 14 Jun 2022 18:37
Rev.: 13 Nov 2023 00:20 (but data presented dynamically)