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History

Sir John A. Macdonld: The Politician
Sir John A. Macdonld
© Library and Archives Canada / C-006513

Sir John A. Macdonald: The Politician

Available Information

Sir John A. Macdonald: The Man

Macdonald's Early Political Life

Confederation

Sir John A. Macdonald

Susan Agnes Bernard

Enlarging Canada's Boundaries

Red River Rebellion

British Columbia and the Railway

The Pacific Scandal of 1873

The National Policy

The Completion of the Railway

The North-West Rebellion

Macdonald's Last Years


Macdonald's Early Political Life

Hugh John Macdonald 1850-1929 circa 1866
Hugh John Macdonald 1850-1929 circa 1866
©Library and Archives Canada / C-020317

When Macdonald became a member in 1844, the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada was a chaotic mix of political groups. In Canada West, there were three identifiable groups: conservative members of the Family Compact, newer, moderate conservatives like Macdonald, and reformers. In Canada East, there were the radical Rouges and the conservative Bleus. No one of these political groups on its own had enough members to form a government. Sometimes the reformers of Canada West and Rouges formed a large enough coalition that they had a majority in the Assembly and became the government. Sometimes the conservatives and the Bleus along with some moderate reformers had enough members of the Assembly that they were able to form a government. Because these coalition governments rarely kept for long the support they needed to stay in office, elections were a frequent occurrence.

Macdonald's political star began to rise very early - in 1847 he was offered his first government post. Thereafter, whenever the coalition that he supported had a majority in the Assembly, Macdonald was selected to join the ministry (known today as the cabinet). A political friend at the time said of Macdonald: "He can get through more work in a given time than anybody I ever saw and do it well." But provincial politics were very unstable in these years and Macdonald was out of the government about as often as he was in it.

A melancholy personal life was the background to the years when Macdonald was making his name in provincial politics. Isabella gave birth to their second child, Hugh John, in 1850, but her illness was never cured and, after her death in 1857, Macdonald had no settled home life. Hugh was left in the care of his grandmother and Macdonald's two sisters, and Macdonald himself led a bachelor's existence in rented quarters while attending to government business.

Confederation

Macdonald became one of the leading politicians in the Province of Canada and his greatest challenge was Confederation. For years, people had talked about bringing the British colonies in North America together under one government. Macdonald had never been enthusiastic for the idea. He felt that the Province of Canada had a great future ahead of it without being tied to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. Reluctantly, he changed his mind in the early 1860s. There were many reasons but probably the chief one was that the Province of Canada was becoming more and more difficult to govern. Macdonald came to believe that it would be better in the long run to divide the Province into two, giving each part its own government and then for them to join with the other British colonies to form a new country with a federal government.

Convention at Charlottetown, P.E.I., of Delegates from the Legislatures of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island to take into consideration the Union of the British North American Colonies. (September 11, 1864)�D;�A;
Charlottetown Conference, Prince Edward Island, 1864
George P. Roberts / Library and Archives Canada / C-000733

In 1864, the Maritime Provinces decided to hold a meeting about forming a union between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. The Province of Canada sent delegates to this meeting in Charlottetown in September. Among them was Macdonald who was one of the principal speakers in favour of a federal union. The meeting was adjourned until October, when the delegates were to come together again at Quebec to continue to talk about joining together.In Quebec Macdonald defended the federal scheme with two strong arguments - the advantages that would result from the separate colonies coming together under a strong central government and the desirability of maintaining British institutions and the parliamentary system. It wasn't easy for Macdonald to sell his ideas to all of the delegates. But, due to his powers of persuasion and his ability to find a compromise, the delegates agreed on the terms of Confederation. Canada was born on 1 July, 1867.

Sir John A. Macdonald

Macdonald was knighted by Queen Victoria as a mark of appreciation for his role in bringing about Confederation. He became Canada's first prime minister and, between 1867 and his death in 1891, held that office for nineteen years. Macdonald played a major role in the birth of Canada and he devoted the remainder of his life to giving shape to the new country. His accomplishments as prime minister were summarised by another great politician, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in these words: "As to his statesmanship, it is written in the history of Canada. It may be said without any exaggeration whatever, that the life of Sir John A. Macdonald ... is the history of Canada."

Susan Agnes Bernard

Susan Agnes Macdonald 1836-1920 circa 1881
Susan Agnes Macdonald 1836-1920 circa 1881
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-27050

Macdonald led a bachelor's life for ten years following the death of his wife Isabella but he eventually became acquainted with an attractive young woman, Susan Agnes, the sister of his secretary, Hewett Bernard. The details of their courtship are sketchy. It is said that he accidentally met her on a London street when he was attending a conference to work the details of Confederation, and a close attachment between them quickly developed. Whatever the case, they married in February of 1867 and Macdonald gained a wife who was truly a helpmate, an ever-present support during the rest of his political career.

As prime minister, Macdonald is commonly remembered for four main accomplishments: the enlargment of Canada's boundaries from sea to sea, the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway; the defeat of the North-west Rebellion and the development of the National Policy.

Enlarging Canada's Boundaries

Canada prior to Confederation
Canada prior to Confederation
© Library and Archives Canada

The Latin motto on Canada's coat of arms reads, "A mari usque ad mare" - in English that means "from sea to sea". In 1867, Canada consisted of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. All the rest of what is now called Canada was controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company or was part of the British colony of British Columbia. One of the first major accomplishments of Macdonald's government was to acquire from the Hudson's Bay Company what was called Rupert's Land - a huge territory north and west of Ontario and Quebec and east of British Columbia. That was in 1869. In 1871, the British colony of British Columbia was persuaded to join the Dominion of Canada. Within four years of Confederation, Canada extended from sea to sea.

Red River Rebellion

Even before the purchase of Rupert's Land was completed, the Dominion of Canada sent surveyors out to the only part of the territory that actually had a settled population: the Red River Settlement around present-day Winnipeg. To the inhabitants of the Settlement it seemed as though the Canadians had come, without consulting them, to take over what they considered to be their land. When the newly appointed Canadian lieutenant-governor arrived, they refused to allow him to enter the Settlement. They then took control of the Hudson's Bay Company trading fort, Fort Garry, and set up their own government with a man named Louis Riel at its head. This government sent delegates to Ottawa to negotiate the entrance of the region into Confederation.

Fort Garry
Fort Garry
Library and Archives Canada / C-002637

There was a happy outcome to what was called the Red River Rebellion when the Province Manitoba was created, giving the Red River settlers their own provincial government. But some violent acts had occurred during the rebellion. Some Canadians, particularly from Ontario, believed that Louis Riel should be punished. He fled to the United States where he remained in exile until 1885.

British Columbia and the Railway

Cartier
Cartier
© Library and Archives Canada

Macdonald put his good friend, Sir Georges-Etienne Cartier in charge of the negotiations with the government of the colony of British Columbia. British Columbia agreed to enter Confederation but on the condition that a railway running from Ontario to British Columbia would be started within two years and finished within ten years of when it was started. Cartier agreed and Macdonald accepted this condition. British Columbia joined Canada on July 20, 1871 which meant construction of the railway had to start in 1873 and be finished by 1881.

On the surface, the railway seems an extraordinary demand for British Columbia to have made. Everyone knew that it would be very expensive and very difficult to construct. Aswell, for most of its length, it would be passing through uninhabited or sparsely populated areas. Why did Macdonald agree? There were several reasons. Having bought Rupert's Land, which went as far as the Rockies, he wanted to make sure that Canada would have access to the Pacific Ocean. That meant bringing British Columbia into Confederation - and that meant the railway. But the other point was that Rupert's Land was empty. Macdonald's dream was that it would become populated and prosperous. That meant a railway.

The Pacific Scandal of 1873

The promise to British Columbia of a railway almost destroyed Macdonald's political career. Macdonald did not want the government to build the railway. He wanted a private company to do the job, with whatever support the government could provide. There were two companies who sought the charter to build the railway, that of a Montreal businessman named Hugh Allen, and that of a Toronto businessman David MacPherson. Because of the size of the project, Macdonald's cabinet tried to get the two groups to join together into one company. This idea might have succeeded except that Allen wanted the controlling interest in the company and he wanted to be president.

Whither Are We Drifting ?
"Whither we are driftng"
© McCord Museum / M994X.5.273.73

Just at this time a general election was taking place. Allen, thinking that it would ensure his getting the railway contract, poured money into Macdonald's campaign. He claimed later to have given the Conservative Party $350,000. Macdonald's party won this 1872 election. Allen's company was given the charter to build the railway. Everything seemed to be going well with the promised railway. But in 1873 the storm hit. Macdonald's Liberal opponents demanded that a parliamentary committee be struck to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the grant of the Canadian Pacific railway charter to Hugh Allen. This was the first step in what became a huge scandal, with Macdonald being accused of having promised Allen the charter if he would contribute money for the campaign. In the end, Macdonald was forced to resign and the Liberals came to power. He was out of office until 1878 when the election saw his party swept back into power. He was never again out of office until his death in 1891.

The National Policy

Conservative poster, 1891
Conservative poster, 1891
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-33-1115

The National Policy began as a proposal to protect Canadian manufacturers from cheaper foreign products. It was put forward by Macdonald and his party in the 1878 general election with the slogan "Canada for Canadians". The National Policy, as it was implemented in the budget of 1879, included much more than protection. The encouragement of immigration, the development of agriculture in the west, the growth of industry in the east, the improvement of railway and harbour facilities to promote the movement of goods and people across the country: these were other elements of Macdonald's grand vision.


The Completion of the Railway

After their return to power in 1878, the Conservatives were determined to find a solution to the problem of finishing the railway promised to British Columbia and vital to the settlement of the West. A series of difficult negotiations ended with an agreement with a group of businessmen to build the railway for a cash subsidy from the government of twenty-five million dollars and a grant of crown land of twenty-five million acres.

Aboard The Jamaica
"Aboard 'The Jamaica'"
© Library and Archives Canada

The building of the railway was almost constantly in crisis during the years from 1880 and 1885. All through this time there were problems with money. The railway ate money, both in its construction and in the fact that the officers felt compelled to pay dividends to shareholders. Interestingly, the problems seemed to be entirely money, the engineering side of the building of the railway, under the direction of William Van Horne, seems to have gone remarkably smoothly. The end of 1885 saw the completion of the railway and, in 1886, Macdonald took a train ride across the country. It is an interesting fact that, until the completion of the railway, it was easier for someone like Macdonald to go to Europe than to British Columbia. When he took his train trip in 1886, it was the first time that Macdonald had ever been west of Ontario, even though he was the prime minister of Canada.

The North-West Rebellion

Louis Riel
Louis Riel
Notman Studio, Library and Archives Canada / C-002048

The National Policy, which included the building of the railway, was a good thing for the country. There was, however, a negative side to it that contributed to the North-west Rebellion. Rebellion had been brewing for some time before it finally broke out in 1885. The cause was similar to that of the Red River Rebellion fifteen years earlier, that is the property rights of the existing inhabitants of the area.

The North-west was the area that we now call Alberta and Saskatchewan, but the rebellion itself broke out in an area around Saskatoon, Battleford and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan. Louis Riel was called back to Canada by some of the inhabitants of the area to negotiate their grievances with the Dominion government. However a skirmish at Duck Lake led to troops being sent in, on the newly constructed railway and a final defeat for the rebellion at Batoche. Although he could have fled the country with others of Rebellion's leaders, Riel surrendered. That summer, he was tried in Regina, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was carried out on November 15, 1885.

Macdonald's Last Years

With the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, Macdonald had six more years as prime minister. They weren't boring years - he was still very busy caring out his responsibilities. But the great accomplishments had been achieved by then. He often thought of retiring but could never quite bring himself to do so. Nor did the Conservative Party want him to retire - he was their biggest asset as far as winning elections was concerned. The election of 1891 was Macdonald's last election. He was seventy-six years old and he led his party to yet another victory, campaigning hard for his vision of Canada's future. He won, but two months later suffered a stroke and died shortly after.

The Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald (Henri Sandham, 1889)
The Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald (Henri Sandham, 1889)
© House of Commons Collection, Ottawa

Sir John A. Macdonald: The Man