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Mackenzie: a man who embodied change

For the week of Monday August 25, 2003

On August 28, 1861, William Lyon Mackenzie passed away in Toronto. Over his lifetime, this outspoken man was a merchant, journalist and politician. However, he is best remembered as a great political reformer.

William Lyon Mackenzie, 1931
© Library and Archives Canada / C-011095
Born in Scotland on March 12, 1795, Mackenzie left his homeland for Canada in 1820. After working for a while in Montréal on the construction of the Lachine Canal and as a journalist with the Montreal Herald, he eventually settled in York, now Toronto, where he became a merchant and then again a journalist. In 1822, he married Isabel Baxter with whom he had 13 children.

From the time he arrived in Canada, Mackenzie had a taste for change. In 1824, he founded the Colonial Advocate, a newspaper in which he clearly expressed his political opinions and, in 1828, he was elected as the legislative member for York. From that moment, he began to call for radical reforms in Upper Canada’s electoral system, and in the sectors of agriculture and commerce. His repeated attacks on the Tory Party led to his expulsion from the Assembly several times, but he always managed to get re-elected. When Toronto was founded in 1834, Mackenzie held the most prestigious position of his career, namely that of the city’s first mayor. Although he was defeated in the municipal elections of 1835, his victory in the provincial elections a few months earlier provided some consolation.

Proclamation of William Lyon Mackenzie, 13 December 1837
Proclamation of William Lyon Mackenzie, 13 December 1837
© Archives of Ontario / F37 #6
Though Mackenzie at first supported the ties between Canada and Great Britain while professing a certain admiration for American institutions, he quickly changed his opinion to solely support the American system, which he considered less corrupt and more democratic. Disappointed with his country’s administration, Mackenzie even drafted a declaration of independence and led the 1837 Rebellions in Upper Canada. But, lacking strength in numbers and being poorly organized, the rebels were quickly defeated, and Mackenzie was forced to flee to the United States. Supported by American sympathizers, he attempted another unsuccessful incursion into Canada. The following years were difficult for Mackenzie, who faced a number of personal problems, including major financial difficulties. He was finally pardoned in 1849 and returned permanently to Canada in 1850. He then returned to politics, but his speeches no longer had the same impact as in the past.

Right until his death, William Lyon Mackenzie advocated ambitious reforms whose influence would still be felt years later. This politician was designated as a person of national historic significance in 1949.

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