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excerpt: Sir John A. Macdonald by Michael Bliss

The Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald
1867-1873; 1878-1891

Canadians knew him as a rascal and scoundrel, the only prime minister ever to resign in disgrace. They also knew him as the founding father of the country. They elected him twice before the Pacific Scandal—and four times after it!

John Alexander Macdonald’s family emigrated to British North America from Scotland in 1820 when he was five years old. He never really had a career outside of politics. Trained as a lawyer, he first ran for office in Kingston, Upper Canada in his early twenties; by the 1850s he had become the leading Conservative politician in the Province of Canada.

He presented himself as a “progressive conservative,” interested both in economic development and in maintaining good relations with the French majority in Lower Canada, led by George-Etienne Cartier. For several years Macdonald and Cartier served as co-premiers of the profoundly divided, sometimes ungovernable province.

In 1864 they agreed to form a coalition government with their opponents, George Brown’s Reform Party, on a platform of persuading Britain’s Atlantic provinces to unite with Canada in a wider confederation. Macdonald quickly emerged as the constitutional mastermind among the Fathers of Confederation. When the Dominion of Canada was born on July 1, 1867, with four founding provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick), Macdonald, leader of the Liberal-Conservative Party, took the oath of office as prime minister.

In his first terms Macdonald brought the vast Northwest Territories, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island into Canada. He also began negotiations to build a transcontinental railroad to serve as a national backbone. His slapdash approach to governing—jobs and contracts were lavished on supporters; money and liquor flowed freely at elections—did him in when it was revealed that he had promised the presidency of the Pacific railroad in return for huge campaign contributions. A not-often-sober Macdonald quit his office in 1873. His career seemed ruined.

He was actually lucky to be out of office during the severe depression that followed. In 1878 he sailed back into power on a platform of stimulating Canadian industries through protective tariffs. Just as he implemented that “National Policy,” the breezes of prosperity returned. Soon a new syndicate agreed to build the railway. The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was an epic feat of steel driving that stretched both the company and the Macdonald government to the brink of collapse. The last rails had still to be laid in 1885 when troops were rushed by CPR to suppress violent rebellion on the prairies led by Louis Riel, chief of the disgruntled Métis people.

With the railway finished, rebels vanquished and factories flourishing under the National Policy, Macdonald’s last years in office might have gone smoothly. But the country was still raw, a gaggle of squabbling provinces dwarfed by the giant, expansive United States. Macdonald hung on, a master political manipulator. By hook and by crook he held the line against provincial governments that wanted to strip Ottawa of its powers, French Canadians outraged by the execution of Riel and a Liberal opposition dedicated to free trade to stem a massive “brain drain” to the United States.

He fought his toughest, most bitter election campaign in 1891, charging that the Liberal Party planned to betray Canada to the United States. “As for myself,” Macdonald said, “a British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.”

The old chieftain died in office six months later. Even Macdonald’s opponents had trouble imagining Canada’s future without the leader who had spent his life making the young country a reality.

Michael Bliss

Notable events

Co-leader, Great Coalition, with George-Etienne Cartier and George Brown (1864-1865), and with George-Etienne Cartier (1865-1867)
British North America Act creates the Dominion of Canada
Purchase of Rupert’s Land and North West Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company
Manitoba becomes 5th province
Red River Rebellion
British Columbia becomes 6th province
Start of the Canadian Pacific Railway
Prince Edward Island becomes 7th province
North West Mounted Police established
“Pacific Scandal” defeats government
Leader of the Opposition
“National Policy”
Northwest Rebellion. Riel tried and hanged for treason
Last spike of CPR at Craigellachie
Manitoba passes School Act


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