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A Presbyterian of Irish descent and born in Hebron, Nova Scotia, son of Charles Cahan Jr. (1838–1908; Irish-Scottish ancestry, who was the son of Charles Cahan Sr. (1806–1889) and Jennie Hazlitt (1808–1850), and Theresa (Flint) Cahan (1838–1918; New England ancestry). Siblings included Frank D. Cahan (1863–1936), Jennie M. Cahan (1866–1918) and Loie S. Cahan (1871–1881).
He was educated at Yarmouth Seminary and Dalhousie University. Married Mrs. Mary J. Hetherington, Halifax, Nova Scotia, March 1887 (deceased, July 1914); secondly, Miss Juliette Elisa Charlotte Hulin, Paris, France, January 1918. Charles Cahan had two sons (John Flint Cahan 1889-1928; Charles H. Cahan Jr. 1887-1970) and one daughter (Lois Theresa 1891-1964).
Charles Cahan was on the Editorial Staff, as chief editorial writer, of the Halifax Herald and Mail, 1886–94; called to Nova Scotia Bar, 1893; called to Quebec Bar, 1907; designated K.C., Nova Scotia, 1907; designated K.C., Quebec, 1909; practised corporate law at Halifax, Nova Scotia as a partner at Harris, Henry & Cahan, 1893–1908; and in Montreal, Quebec, from 1908.
Cahan was a member of the Nova Scotia Legislature for Shelbourne, 1890–94; an unsuccessful candidate to the House of Commons for Shelbourne and Queen's, 1896, and for Cumberland, 1900; declined nomination for Montreal, 1911; unsuccessful candidate for Maisonneuve, P.Q., 1917; declined portfolio in Dominion Cabinet, 1896; was for several years Hon. Secretary, Halifax Branch, Imperial Federation League; Hon. Secretary, Liberal-Conservative Association, Nova Scotia; Leader of Liberal-Conservative Party in Nova Scotia Legislature, 1890–94. For some time Charles Cahan was the Director of Public Safety for Canada during the war.
In his article, 'The Role of Lawyers in Corporate Promotion and Management: A Canadian Case Study and Theoretical Speculations' (see link below), Marchildon states, "With his four-year arts degree, as well as a law degree from the Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, Charles Cahan was one of the few formally educated practitioners in late nineteenth century Canada. This gave Cahan flexibility and, rather than immediately pursuing a legal career, he worked first as a newspaper editor and then became a politician. Only when he was electorally defeated in 1896 did he turn to the practice of law."
Between 1887 and 1891 an attempt by Charles Cahan and others to secure a federal civil service appointment for John James Stewart, owner of the Halifax Herald and Mail, had come to nothing. This result Cahan attributed to the influence of Sir Charles Tupper and his son Charles Hibbert Tupper, who were both occasional critics of Herald policies.
In 1901, as a former Conservative house leader and close business associate of John Fitzwilliam Stairs, the leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal-Conservative Union, Cahan managed the provincial campaign for Stairs.
In 1902 Charles Cahan became general counsel and on-site manager of the Mexican Light and Power Company Limited.
Marchildon (see below) states, "Charles Cahan and Almon Lovett were among the most active promoters, financiers, and managers of the new industrial enterprises during the first Canadian merger wave of 1909-1912."
Charles Cahan was a guest speaker at the Empire Club of Canada in 1919 on the subject of propaganda and in 1929 on the subject of constitutional issues.
He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws from Dalhousie University in 1919.
Charles Cahan was first elected to the House of Commons in the 1925 election as a Conservative Party Member of Parliament in the riding of St. Lawrence—St. George, and was re-elected on four consecutive occasions, serving in the House of Commons until 1940. He served as Secretary of State of Canada in the 1930-1935 cabinet of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.
He was a candidate for the Conservative Party leadership at the 1927 Conservative leadership convention, finishing in third place. Cahan's policies were clearly ahead of their time, as in a review of Glassford's book, "Reaction and Reform: The Politics of the Conservative Party under R.B. Bennett, 1927-1938", it is stated, "The title of the book is most clearly revealed, perhaps, in the conflicts within the party that Bennett was unable to resolve. Glassford's party had three parts: the populists led by H.H. Stevens; C.H. Cahan's rugged individualists; and Bennett's paternalistic Conservatives somewhere in between. In the end Bennett cast Stevens aside, rugged individualism seemed a pitiful response to the Depression, and the radical tone of Bennett's rendering of paternal conservatism was branded either as heresy or a cynical power grab...In the epilogue, after racing through Tory leaders since Bennett, he states that with the election of Brian Mulroney, the old struggle between reaction and reform had taken an interesting twist. Under the imported titles of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, the laisser-faire principles of C.H. Cahan acquired a whole new respectability, though it is doubtful that many in the party had ever heard of him. State intervention of the sort advocated by H.H. Stevens and R.B. Bennett in the 1930s, and adopted as fundamental party policy in the intervening years, began to lose favour."
In 1927 Charles Cahan advocated for an independent Supreme Court of Canada, but stated, "We must give to our own Supreme Court a higher standing, and create greater confidence in its decisions on the part of the people of this country before we can abrogate the right of appeal to the Privy Council." After having publicly lamented that the poor quality of the Supreme Court prevented the abrogation of appeals, in the late 1930s he attacked the Privy Council’s interpretation of the BNA Act and demanded the end of appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Like many Canadian legal scholars, Cahan believed that the Privy Council had deliberately attempted to alter the true meaning of the Canadian Constitution. He concluded that members of the Privy Council were “personally ignorant” of Canada yet arrogated “to themselves a prescience and clairvoyance which entitles them to substitute their judgments and even their personal preferences, for the deliberate legislative enactments of the elected representatives of the people who sit in the parliament of Canada”. Cahan introduced a bill in 1939 to abolish appeals, and, after the bill received considerable support in Parliament, the Minister of Justice, Ernest Lapointe, referred it to the Supreme Court, thus affording the Court an opportunity to adjudicate its own pre-eminence. The Court found that it was within the Dominion government's authority to end appeals to the Privy Council unilaterally without the approval of the provinces. The government postponed the implementation of the legislation until after the Second World War, and after an unsuccessful appeal to the Privy Council of the Supreme Court's decision. Finally, in 1949 the government enacted legislation establishing that new litigation could not be appealed to the Privy Council.
In 1929 Charles Cahan moved in the House of Commons that a special committee be formed to reconsider the 1919 Nickle Resolution, which had marked the earliest attempt to establish a Canadian government policy forbidding the British, and, later, Canadian, Sovereign from granting knighthoods, baronetcies, and peerages to Canadians, and set the precedent for later policies prohibiting Canadians from accepting or holding titles of honour from Commonwealth or foreign countries. He noted that the Nickle Resolution favoured foreign sovereigns over Canada's own sovereign, because, since 1919, some 646 foreign orders had been conferred upon persons resident in Canada by foreign, non-British sovereigns. The vote on February 14 on Charles Cahan's motion showed that Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Conservative leader of the opposition, Richard B. Bennett, both voted "yea" with Charles Cahan, but the motion was defeated.
Relations between Canada's religious communities was an important issue that Charles Cahan had to deal with as Secretary of State. As stated by McEvoy in 'Religion and Politics in Foreign Policy: Canadian Government Relations with the Vatican', "Cahan, though a Presbyterian, had forged close contacts with the Catholic clergy both in his native Nova Scotia and later in Quebec. He had come to the conclusion that domestic peace in Canada was largely dependent upon the happiness of the French Canadian people and clergy. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to him, he now found them in June 1931 “disposed to be anxious and sorrowful” and felt strongly that everything possible should be done to alleviate their discontent. Finding Bennett unwilling to intervene, Cahan wrote on his own responsibility to the British Chargé d'affaires to the Holy See, George Ogilvie-Forbes, requesting him to raise the matter delicately at the Vatican, an initiative approved by Archbishop Gauthier of Montreal...In September 1931 Ogilvie-Forbes told Cahan that “the subject of your last letter has reached the proper and highest quarters.”" In 1934 Cahan had to deal with another minor crisis within the Catholic community, "Problems of precedence occurred at a state dinner following the opening of Parliament in January 1934. Cardinal Villeneuve had been ranked not only behind the apostolic delegate but also behind Archbishop Forbes of Ottawa, who had seniority as an archbishop. Villeneuve, who considered himself as head of the church in Canada, refused to attend. The incident received some press coverage, particularly in Quebec where it was regarded as an affront to the cardinal. Cahan, who was the responsible minister, suffered a few sleepless nights and, as he told an understanding Mackenzie King, even offered to resign over the incident. Fortunately for Cahan, King promised to see that his Liberal followers did not exploit the issue." McEvoy summarizes Bennett's versus Cahan's approach to relations with the community as follows, "The Protestant attitude was a mixture of principle and prejudice. The politicians, on the other hand, recognizing the impossibility of divorcing the church from political affairs, sought to use the church for their own ends. To Cahan, a contented French-Canadian clergy could help ensure domestic peace in Canada; to Bennett, strong leadership among English Canadian Catholics could make the church a buttress of the social order during a time of depression and questioning of the system. Each sought to influence church appointments to achieve his goals." 
As Secretary of State of Canada, Charles Cahan was a Canadian delegate to the League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations) in 1932, at which he gave a speech on Canada's position in respect of the then dispute between Japan and China. This speech provoked a minor political incident due to what was taken to be Canada's implicit recognition of Japan's then occupation of China. The speech prompted an arguably prescient critique at the Empire Club by W.L. Grant entitled, "Does Canada Take the League of Nations Seriously".
Charles Cahan was a guest speaker at the Canadian Club of Ottawa in 1939 on the subject of Pan-American relations (see link below).
Cahan lost his seat in the 1940 general election.
Cahan died on August 15, 1944, and is buried at Riverside Cemetery, in Hebron, Nova Scotia.
Cahan was a member of the American Economic Association, and American Academy of Political and Social Science. He was a member of the following clubs: Montreal; Mount Royal; Royal Montreal Golf ( Montreal); Halifax (Halifax, N.S.); University and Bankers' Clubs (New York City); Empire; Royal Colonial Institute (London, England).
He is a member of the Nova Scotia Railway Hall of Fame.
- Charles Cahan – Parliament of Canada biography
- The Role of Lawyers in Corporate Promotion and Management: A Canadian Case Study and Theoretical Speculations by Gregory P. Marchildon, Johns Hopkins University
- Marriage announcement in the New York Times
- Quebec History Marianopolis College re: Charles Cahan
- League of Nations Delegates re: Charles Cahan
- Nova Scotia Railway Hall of Fame re: Charles Cahan
- Empire Club lecture (1929) by Charles Cahan, "Pending Developments in the Constitution of the British Empire"
- Empire Club lecture (1919) by Charles Cahan, "A Pernicious Propaganda"
- Canadian Club of Ottawa lecture (1939), "Pan-American Relations"
- Dalhousie University Honorary Doctor of Laws re: Charles Cahan
- Photo of Residence of Hon. Charles H. Cahan, Halifax, 1931
- Riverside Cemetery
- Empire Club (1933) by W.L. Grant, "Does Canada Take the League of Nations Seriously?"
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:Stewart. .
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:Stairs. .
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:Pearson. .
- Review of "Reaction and Reform: The Politics of the Conservative Party under R.B. Bennett, 1927-1938". .
- Brown, R. Blake (2002) McGill Law Journal Vol. 47 559, The Supreme Court of Canada and Judicial Legitimacy: The Rise and Fall of Chief Justice Lyman Poore Duff. .
- Debates of the Senate (Hansard). .
- McEvoy, F.J. CCHA Historical Studies 51 (1984) 121-144, Religion and Politics in Foreign Policy: Canadian Government Relations with the Vatican. .
- Oblas, Peter Canada's Far West Policy: China and Japan 1929-1932. .