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Sir John Alexander Macdonald

The Man Who Helped Make Canada The Country It Is Today


Pamela Atwell


    Sir John A. Macdonald was one of Canada’s founding fathers. He is most remembered as being Canada’s first Prime Minister, running the government from July 1, 1867 until November 5, 1873. Macdonald would become Prime Minister once again on October 17, 1878 and would stay in this position until June 6,1891. While he was leader of the country he faced his own share of political obstacles, including Confederation, the Metis rebellion and threats of an American he is among the greatest leaders Canada has ever seen and played a significant part in the forming of Canada as a country.

    John Alexander Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland on January 11, 1815. His family immigrated to Canada (Kingston, Ontario) in 1820; Macdonald was five years old at the time. In 1829 Macdonald ended his schooling; his parents could not afford to send him to university. Macdonald would later say that if he had went to university he would have ended up in literature, not politics. (Waite, John, 7-10)

    In 1830 Upper Canada had no law schools; at that time if you wanted to be a lawyer you would learn what you needed to, by becoming a lawyer’s apprentice. That is what Macdonald did; he became the apprentice of a lawyer named George Mackenzie. For four years Macdonald did on-the-job training until 1834 when Mackenzie died. At this time he returned to Kingston and opened his own law office, and a year later he was admitted to the bar. (Swainson, 16-18)

    In 1842 Macdonald took a break from his responsibilities. He traveled to Scotland to visit his relatives; this would be a trip that would change his life forever. It was this time in Scotland that Macdonald met his cousin Isabella Clark, Macdonald’s future wife. The two got along really well, when Macdonald returned to Canada that summer, Isabella promised him she would visit him in Canada the following summer.

    After Macdonald was back in Kingston, Ontario he entered active politics. Kingston was a conservative town, so when Macdonald entered politics he therefore joined the Conservative Party. In 1843 Macdonald was elected an alderman in Kingston, then in 1844 he won an election giving him a seat in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. The members of the Assembly quickly recognized Macdonald’s political abilities, resulting in him being made Receiver General in 1844 for the Conservative Government. This position gave him a seat on the Executive Council in the Province of Canada. The Conservative government of William Draper was defeated a year later so for the next few years Macdonald assisted in the rebuilding of the Conservative Party. ("Macdonald, Sir")

    Macdonald felt the key to Canada’s success, as a country, would rely on its connection to its mother country, Britain. Macdonald showed these feelings in his first address to the electors:

                                        I therefore need scarcely state my firm belief that the prosperity

of Canada depends upon its permanent connection with the mother country, and that I shall resist to the utmost any attempt (from whatever quarter it may come) which may tend to weaken that union. ("Macdonald, Sir John")
    True to her promise, Isabella Clark came to Canada during the summer of 1843. Macdonald and Clark hit it off during the summer and thus got married on September 1, 1843. Approximately one or two years after the two were married Isabella became rather ill, she was at death’s door on many occasions leading up to her death in 1857. From this marriage Macdonald received two sons, the first was born in August of 1847 and eventually died in 1848. Isabella gave birth to their second son in 1850, named Huge John Macdonald. During the time of her illness Macdonald continued with his political career under constant strain and tension. (Waite, Macdonald, 25-26)

    The Conservative Party became part of a Liberal-Conservative Coalition in 1854. With the Conservatives back in power Macdonald became the attorney general for Upper Canada. In 1856 Macdonald achieved his first real sign of power, as Etienne Tache and Macdonald became the associate prime ministers of the Province of Canada. At first Tache was senior prime minister but he retired the following year and Macdonald took over the senior position. George Cartier then became Macdonald’s associate prime minister. Two years later the Conservative Party went down to defeat, so both men resigned their positions. A week later the governor general asked Cartier to become the senior prime minister and to form the new government. Cartier accepted and Macdonald took over the role of associate Prime Minister.

    After the election of 1862 the Conservative Government was defeated, so Macdonald served as leader of the opposition party until 1864. Then in 1864 the Conservatives got control over the government once again. Tache came out of retirement that year, so Tache and Macdonald were once again associate Prime Ministers.

    Between the years of 1864 and 1867 Macdonald promoted a Confederation of all the North American Provinces. On September 1st 1864 a conference was held in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. I t was at this conference that Macdonald met with representatives of the Maritime Provinces, so he could try and convince them to join Canada. The main reason for this conference was to propose a confederation to the Maritime Provinces. Macdonald, Cartier, Brown and Galt all gave speeches that were successful in getting others to agree to the idea of Confederation. The enthusiasm that was created from this conference gave Macdonald and the others who fought so hard for Confederation the power to continue their fight until they met their goal.

The Fathers of Confederation

"Canadian Constitutional Documents"

Macdonald had some concerns about how the Confederation would be carried out. In a letter written to the Electors of the City of Kingston, Macdonald expressed these concerns:

                    The Government will not relax its exertions to effect a

                    Confederation of the North American Provinces. We

must however endeavor to take warning by the defeacts

in the Constitution of the United States, which are now

so painfully made manifest, and to form (if we succeed

in a Federation) an efficient central Government. ("Letters", 347)

    A month after the Charlottetown Conference delegates from all the provinces met in Quebec. It was at this Quebec Conference that Macdonald created the plan for Confederation, or the Quebec Resolutions. The Final decisions about the Confederation were made in London in 1866. One year later, in 1867, the British government passed the British North American Act. The passing of the British North American Act confirmed the creation of the Dominion of Canada.

    The governor-general, Viscount Monck, asked Macdonald to become the first Prime Minister of the Dominion after the creation of the Dominion. Macdonald accepted the offer! Macdonald would now go down in history as Canada’s first Prime Minister. Canada officially became a Dominion on July 1st, 1867; it was on this day that Queen Victoria knighted Macdonald for his achievement in successfully creating the Confederation. Macdonald would now be known as Sir John A. Macdonald.

    In February of 1867 Macdonald's personal life took a turn for the better. He married a woman named Susan Agnes Bernard. Agnes could give Macdonald what his former wife could not. Agnes was able to entertain his business associates and support Macdonald whenever he needed it. From the marriage Macdonald got a daughter named Mary. Mary was doomed to live her whole life crippled and mentally challenged. No matter what Mary's medical condition was Macdonald adored his baby girl. Agnes would live until 1921.

    Macdonald’s first term as Prime Minister would last from 1867 till 1873. Throughout his term Macdonald’s main goal was to enlarge the Dominion across the continent. A deal was made with the Hudson Bay Company in 1869. The Canadian government agreed to buy the companies land for $1.5 million. The Hudson Bay Company accepted this offer; even-though the United States offered to pay thirty times this amount. ("Sir John A.")

    After the Canadian government purchased the land they sent surveyors out to survey the land. Once these surveyors arrived at the Red River Settlement, in October of 1869, the Metis, led by Louis Riel arrested them. The Metis lived in the Red River area and were not happy about becoming Canadian; they were worried that the Canadian Government would not grant them any land titles. Macdonald would negotiate with Riel and the Metis and an agreement was reached. Manitoba entered the Confederation. ("The Life and ")

    British Columbia entered the Confederation in 1871. The main reason they joined was they were promised a railway that would connect British Columbia to the rest of Canada. Two financial groups were competing for the right to build the railway. It was then they learned that Sir Hugh Allan, head of one of the companies, had given a large sum of money for the election campaign of the Conservative Party, in 1872. The Liberal Government claimed the Conservatives had given Allan's company the right to build the railway only because he helped the Conservative election fund. This dispute would be known as the Pacific Scandal.

    Macdonald would claim he was innocent but evidence showed he was not. The scandal resulted in the Conservative Government resigning. Macdonald was no longer Prime Minister. The Scandal destroyed Macdonald's government, but he didn't seem to upset about the situation. The following is how Macdonald told his wife about his resignation:

                    "Well, that's got along with,"

                    "What do you mean?" replied his wife

                    "Why, the government has resigned. It's

a relief to be out of it." Answered John. (Swainson, p.103)
    After the government's resignation, Macdonald led the opposition party in the House of Commons. Macdonald worked hard to rebuild the Conservative Party: his work would eventually pay off. Macdonald organized a program entitled the National Policy. The idea behind the policy was to develop Canada by protecting its industries against those of other countries. Canadian people agreed with this idea and so in 1878 the Conservatives were reelected and Macdonald was Prime Minister once again. ("Macdonald")

    Macdonald's second term lasted from 1878 until 1891. His second term started off on a positive note, but it wouldn't last long. In 1855 the unity of the country was being threatened. The Metis rebelled for a second time; Riel led them once again. Riel would surrender and be sentenced to hang. This sentence caused friction between the English and the French Canadians. The friction present threatened the split up of the Confederation.

    Macdonald's next problem was the provincial premiers. In 1887, five of the premiers attended a meeting in Quebec. They wanted to make changes to the British North American Act. These changes would have decentralized the Canadian Government. This was never considered a serious threat, but was a sign of the growing strength of provincial ideas against those of the federal government.

    Macdonald fought the election of 1891 with all he had, but the 76-year-old could not take it. The campaign was too much for him to handle. On May 29, 1891 Macdonald had a stroke and would be at death’s door until he passed away on June 6th in Ottawa. He would be buried in Kingston, Ontario. After forty-six years in of a difficult political career Macdonald was able to stay true to the policy he told the electors in 1844. "A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die."

    When Macdonald died, Canada lost one of its greatest leaders. Without his achievements Canada may never have become a country. Wilfrid Laurier portrayed the affects of Macdonald's death perfectly in a speech to the Parliament.

In fact the place of Sir John A. Macdonald in this country was so large & so absorbing that it is allmost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country, will continue without him. His loss overwhelms us. (Swainson, 149)

"Canadian Constitutional Documents"

Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald. Ottawa, 1969

"Macdonald, Sir John A." The World Book Encyclopedia. 1998. Edition, Volume 13

"Macdonald, Sir John Alexander." Encyclopaedia Britanica. 1964 Edition, Volume 14.

"PM Descriptive Biography: Sir John A. Macdonald" .

"Sir John A. Macdonald" .

Swainson, Donald. JOHN A. MACDONALD – The Man and The Politician. Toronto, 1971

"The Life and Times of Sir John A. Macdonald".

"The Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald".

Waite, P. B. John A. Macdonald. Don Mills, 1976

Waite, P. B MACDONALD – His Life and World. Montreal, 1975

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