This Week in History


Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th Birthday

For the week of Monday January 5, 2015

John A. Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland on January 11, 1815. As a boy, he and his family moved to the colony of Upper Canada. Nearly half a century later, Macdonald helped make that colony a country, in his role as one of the primary architects of Canadian Confederation. Knighted for his efforts in 1867, Sir John served as Canada’s first Prime Minister from 1867-73, and again from 1878 until his death in 1891.

Photograph of John A. Macdonald
© Library and Archives Canada /C-021291

As Prime Minister, Macdonald engineered and oversaw the rapid expansion of Canada’s borders. Originally, only New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec joined Confederation. Macdonald’s government purchased the vast North-West Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870, more than tripling Canada’s size. He also oversaw the admission of British Columbia, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island into Confederation, making Canada almost as large as it is today!

Another notable accomplishment was the construction of long-distance railways. Macdonald’s government oversaw the completion of the Intercolonial Railway between Halifax and the city of Québec, and by 1885 the Pacific and Atlantic coasts were linked by rail. This opened new opportunities for trade and settlement in the West, and helped bring the nation together. On Macdonald’s advice, the North-West Mounted Police force (which later became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) was established in 1873 to assert sovereignty in, and bring law and order to, these new territories.

The Old Flag, the Old Policy, the Old Leader Campaign Poster from 1891
© Library and Archives Canada /C-006536

Macdonald’s death on June 6, 1891, while still in office caused a nation-wide outpouring of grief. Tens of thousands of Canadians lined up to pay their respects as his body lay in state first in Ottawa, then in Kingston. Memorial services were held in churches across Canada and newspapers paid tribute to “The Old Chief.”

For his contributions to Canadian history, Sir John A. Macdonald was designated as a National Historic Person. You can visit his Kingston residence, Bellevue House National Historic Site. His Ottawa residence, Earnscliffe, is also a National Historic Site, as is his gravesite in Kingston’s Cataraqui Cemetery. The cemetery itself is also a National Historic Site.

This year, celebrate John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday! See Father to a Country to learn about his life and years as Prime Minister. Read more about Confederation in the This Week in History archives: A Dream of a Nation, Partners in Confederation, and Until we meet again. You can also visit Parks Canada's Charlottetown and Québec Conferences of 1864 webpage.

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