PEDANTIC FRANCOPHOBE OR ABLE JURIST
By George Siamandas
© George Siamandas
Pedantic Francophobe or able first jurist? Adam Thom was the man who was named the first recorder or judge of Rupertsland, on Jan 1838. Thom was born in Scotland in 1802. He studied at King's College where he received his MA in 1824 and later his LLD in 1840. In 1832 Thom came to Montreal and articled to a law firm. He had strong anti French views, which he expressed as a journalist while working for the Montreal Herald. The next year he was teaching classics, math and science at the Montreal Academic Institute. Thom worked with Lord Durham on the issues prior to the 1837 rebellion and helped write the famous Durham report.
In January 5 1838, Thom was appointed to the newly created judicial post of recorder of Rupertsland on the invitation of HBC Gov Simpson who was in London at the time. The pay was good for the time, &500 salary and another &200 living expenses. In 1839 he came to Red River to start his new career. As recorder, Thom's job was to be a legal organizer, adviser, and magistrate. He was to formalize and organize the judicial system for the HBC's Rupertsland district. By July 1839, Thom had set up a new system. And by 1841, he prepared a code of laws that would last for decades.
Thom proved to be poorly regarded by many of Red River's citizens. They knew of his anti-French feelings and were worried about his ability to be impartial given that he was an HBC employee. And even though the post required it, Thom refused to speak French.
Thom tried to uphold the HBC monopoly over trade as early as 1842. He sought to suppress the illicit fur trade by restrictive measures. It all culminated in the May 17 1849 trial of Pierre Guilaume Sayer. Thom found Sayer guilty, but a large crowd of Metis led by Louis Riel Sr. made sure the verdict was not carried out. The Metis presented a petition of grievances against Thom to Gov Simpson and asking for Thom's dismissal. A compromise was reached and Thom agreed to speak French. Thom was very long-winded and very legalistic in rendering his judgements. Finally in 1850 after repeated opposition to Thom, Simpson revoked his appointment as recorder. Simpson wrote of Thom's "unfortunate temper and over bearing manner."
Thom had also exceeded his authority in sentencing a Saulteax Indian to death when it was a case that should have been tried in Upper Canada. He also gave prejudiced evidence in a case and foolishly insulted highly regarded locals such as Cuthbert Grant.
In 1854 Thom left Red River and returned to Edinburgh. He wrote an account of Simpson's trip around the world. He died in London in 1890 at age 88, leaving an estate of &5,310 to his only surviving son Adam. Early history accounts paint Thom an able pioneering jurist. More recent writings see him as a pedantic long-winded dishonest man, out to be an advocate of the HBC, and a hater of the French. There seems to be enough evidence for both views.