A native and resident of Halifax, Senator Cowan studied at Dalhousie University where he obtained his Arts and Law degrees. He then attended the London School of Economics, receiving a Master of Laws degree. In 2009, Dalhousie University awarded him the degree Doctor of Laws (honoris causa).
Senator Cowan has practiced law in Halifax since 1967 and is a partner at Stewart McKelvey, the largest law firm in Atlantic Canada. In 1983, he was appointed as Queen’s Counsel.
For many years Senator Cowan was actively engaged in the life of Dalhousie University, serving as a member of the University’s Board of Governors and chairing a wide array of committees. From 2000 to 2008, he served as Chair of the University’s Board of Governors.
Senator Cowan is Secretary and a former Director of the Halifax International Airport Authority, the former Vice-Chair and Chair of the Planning Committee of the Waterfront Development Corporation Ltd., a former Director of the Federal Business Development Bank, and a former Director and trustee of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
Senator Cowan was Director, Chair and Vice-President of both Camp Hill and Abbie J. Lane Hospitals, and Vice-Chair of the Metropolitan Mental Health Planning Board. He was also Director of the Nova Scotia Division of the Canadian Cancer Society and a founding Director of Landmark East School, a school for children with learning disabilities in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Senator Cowan was appointed on the recommendation of Prime Minister Paul Martin on March 24, 2005, and sat in the Senate as a member of the Liberal Party of Canada. He was named Opposition Whip in the Senate on January 18, 2007, and was appointed Leader of the Opposition in the Senate on November 3, 2008. In June 2014, the Senate Liberal Caucus reaffirmed Senator Cowan’s leadership through internal elections, a position he held until stepping down in June 2016.
Senator Cowan’s Bill S-201 to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination, including by employers and insurers, passed the Senate in April 2016. It is now before the House of Commons. In the previous Parliament, he also proposed legislation to address the criminal justice system’s approach to persons suffering from mental illness. Senator Cowan was a member of the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying.