This Week in History


The First Liberal Prime Minister of Canada

For the week of Monday March 1, 2004

On March 6, 1873, Alexander Mackenzie was appointed Leader of the Liberal Party. That same year, this politician with egalitarian and reformist values formed the first Liberal government in the Dominion of Canada.

Alexander Mackenzie, Prime Minister of Canada (1873-1878)
© Library and Archives Canada / C-0020052

Born in Logierait, Scotland, on January 28, 1822, Alexander Mackenzie was born in a large but poor family. The death of his father in 1836 left he and his family in a difficult position. Alexander quit school, and he and his older brothers worked hard to provide for the family. But at age 20, he followed the love of his life, Helen Neil, and immigrated to Canada.

Upon his arrival, Mackenzie settled in Kingston, Ontario. A stonemason by trade, he quickly found work in building and canal construction. He became a prosperous businessman early on and involved himself in Canada’s political life. In 1852, he was editor of the Lambton Shield, a newspaper supporting the Reform Party, later to become the Liberal Party. He became friends with party leader George Brown, and gained public exposure. In 1861, he ran in the provincial election and became MP for Lambton.

With the approach of the Confederation, the Reform Party and the Conservatives united in 1864 to create the Great Coalition. Mackenzie was against this idea. The following year, Brown resigned from the coalition cabinet. Brown tried to form an opposition party with national aspirations, the Liberal Party, but chose to give up politics in 1867, which left his party with no leader.

The Good-Bye At The Door
© Library and Archives Canada / C-064314

The same year, Mackenzie was elected to federal Parliament. He was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 1871 to 1872. In 1873, he became the federal Minister of Public Works and Leader of the Liberal Party. Until Mackenzie, the country never had a leader of the opposition. That same year, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald resigned after the Pacific scandal was made public. The bribes taken by the Conservative Party damaged Macdonald’s reputation and this allowed Mackenzie to achieve power.

During his term as Prime Minister, Mackenzie reformed the electoral system, introduced the secret ballot, created the Supreme Court of Canada, founded the Royal Military College, created the Office of the Auditor General, and completed the Intercolonial Railway construction. Unfortunately, he lost the 1878 election to Macdonald’s Conservatives and resigned from his position as Leader of the Opposition. He did, however, remain an MP until his death in 1892.

The Honourable Alexander Mackenzie was commemorated as a person of national historic significance in 1957, and a plaque was erected in his honour in Sarnia, Ontario.

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