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Stone by Stone: The Prime Minister who Built Canada

For the week of Monday, January 23, 2017

On January 28, 1822, Alexander Mackenzie was born in Logierait, Scotland. Known for being Canada’s second prime minister, Mackenzie was also a gifted stonemason and a highly successful contractor during a key period of Canadian growth.

Alexander Mackenzie, March 1870
© Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-026309

Following his father’s death, Mackenzie, only 13, left school and apprenticed as a stonemason. In 1842, he settled in Kingston, Ontario, where he developed a reputation as a skillful and reliable worker. Among his projects are a bombproof arch at Fort Henry, and Kingston’s Martello Towers, part of the city’s fortifications. He was also involved in building the Welland Canal in southwestern Ontario, the Lachine Canal in Montréal, and the Beauharnois (now Soulanges) Canal, where he suffered a leg injury, near Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Québec.

After marrying his sweetheart Helen, the couple moved to Port Sarnia in 1847. With his brother, he started a construction business, building churches, banks, jails, and courthouses across what is now southern Ontario. They even submitted an unsuccessful bid to build the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

Mackenzie became politically active and was eventually elected to the first Canadian Parliament. In 1873, he became the official leader of the Liberal Party. When John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government fell, Mackenzie became both Canada’s prime minister and minister of public works.

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View of West Block of Parliament and the Mackenzie Tower, named after Alexander Mackenzie, from Wellington Street, Ottawa
© William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-008760

Mackenzie was a hands-on leader, and oversaw the expansion of Parliament’s West Block, even planning a secret staircase out of his office to avoid patronage seekers. In 1878, the Liberal Party lost the election and Mackenzie gave up the party’s leadership. Afterwards, he represented the riding of Lambton until 1882, when he began representing the riding of York East. He served there until his death in 1892.

Alexander Mackenzie is a national historic person. Fort Henry, the Kingston Fortifications, and the Parliament Buildings are national historic sites. Building the Soulanges Canal and the Welland Canal are designated national historic events. To learn more about Alexander Mackenzie, read The First Liberal Prime Minister of Canada in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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