This Week in History


Father to a Country

For the week of Monday December 29, 2014

On January 3, 1865, John A. Macdonald rose in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada to present a proposal for the new country of Canada. How did a young Scotsman come to father a country on the far side of the Atlantic? Well, it all began in 1820 when he crossed the ocean with his parents.

A young John A. Macdonald
© Library and Archives Canada / C-004811

Macdonald came to Canada from Scotland at the age of five and his family settled in Kingston, Ontario. Just 10 years later, he began apprenticing with a local lawyer, George Mackenzie. By 1835, the young John A. had opened his own legal office. Local businessmen encouraged Macdonald to enter politics and, in 1844, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, today the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. At that time, Ontario was Upper Canada and Quebec was Lower Canada.

John A. became Attorney General in 1854. Now in cabinet, he encouraged an alliance of conservative and progressive minded Upper Canadians to form the Liberal-Conservative Party. In coalition with George-Étienne Cartier’s Lower-Canadian Bleus, also conservatives, they dominated colonial politics for most of the 1850s. This group became even larger when George Brown of the Clear Grit liberal party proposed the Great Coalition, inviting them to work with the Maritime colonies to form a confederation.

John A. Macdonald at the Notman studio in Montréal, Quebec
© McCord Museum / William Notman / 1863

Macdonald worked tirelessly to promote Confederation. He led the delegation from the Province of Canada at the Charlottetown and Québec Conferences in the fall of 1864, where the foundations of the new Dominion of Canada were laid. In December 1866, he travelled to England with other Fathers of Confederation and chaired the London Conference. Macdonald had to plan everything meticulously in order to pass the newly drafted constitution, the British North America Act, through an unstable British Parliament. The Dominion of Canada was proclaimed in 1867, and John A. was asked to be its first Prime Minister.

Chief architect of Confederation and Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald has been designated a National Historic Person. In Kingston, you can visit his former residence, Bellevue House National Historic Site, or his gravesite in Cataraqui Cemetery. Earnscliffe in Ottawa, his residence while Prime Minister, has been designated a National Historic Site, and the Charlottetown and Québec Conferences of 1864 are National Historic Events.

This year, we celebrate John A Macdonald’s 200th birthday! Learn more about his years as Prime Minister, or read more about Confederation in the This Week in History archives: Until we meet again, Partners in Confederation, Sir Charles Tupper Fights for Confederation and A Patriote and Father of Confederation is Born. Also visit Parks Canada's Charlottetown and Québec Conferences of 1864 webpage.

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