This Week in History


Birthday of Canada's First Prime Minister

For the week of Monday January 5, 1998

n January 11, 1815, John Alexander Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland. When he was five, his family moved to Kingston, Upper Canada (now Ontario). He attended school in Kingston, and later began a successful law practice there. The young lawyer was bright, charming and witty, so it was not long before John A. got into politics. Macdonald was one of the leaders who did most to bring about Confederation. When the new country, Canada, was established in 1867, he was knighted and became our first Prime Minister.

Sir John A Macdonald (1815 - 1891)
Sir John A Macdonald (1815 - 1891)
National Archives of Canada / PA-027013
After Confederation, Macdonald won five of the six federal elections he fought, and was Prime Minister from 1867-73 and from 1878-91. Sir John A.'s government negotiated the enormous real estate transaction that brought the province of Manitoba and the northwest into Confederation. Another great accomplishment was building long-distance railways. First came the "Intercolonial" between Halifax and the city of Québec, and by 1885 transcontinental railways connected the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. The railways linked the regions to each other and opened the west to settlement. After 1878, Macdonald's governments promoted a "national policy" to encourage Canada's economic development.

Along with Sir John A.'s success came conflict, occasional failure and even shame. For example, the election of 1872 was won with financial help from businessmen who then expected to receive the contract to build the Pacific railway to British Columbia. This "Pacific Scandal" toppled the government in 1873. Macdonald's handling of westward expansion was also marred by the North-West Rebellion, and the resulting execution of Louis Riel. This event cost Macdonald much of his French-Canadian support.

Bellevue House
Bellevue House
© Parks Canada
Despite the scandals that hurt Sir John A., he is honoured as a great political leader and Prime Minister. Sir John A. Macdonald is commemorated by Historic Sites and Monuments Board plaques at Adolphustown, Ontario, and Kingston, Ontario. Bellevue House, a rare Italianate villa which was once Macdonald's home in Kingston, is also commemorated for its architecture, and for its place in Sir John A.'s life.

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