This Week in History


A Scandal Exposed

For the week of Monday November 1, 1999

On November 5, 1873, Sir John A. Macdonald, Father of Confederation and Canada's first prime minister, was driven from office by financial scandal.

John A. Macdonald

John A. Macdonald
© Library and Archives Canada / PA - 027013

Born on January 11, 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland, Macdonald moved to Kingston, Upper Canada, as a child. In 1844 he won his first election, representing Kingston in the Legislative Assembly. In the divided politics of his day, Macdonald prospered as a Conservative member who co-operated easily with his French-Canadian colleagues. In 1864, he joined George-Étienne Cartier and George Brown to form the multi-party "Great Coalition" which led to Confederation of the British North American provinces in 1867.

With the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870, and British Columbia's decision to join confederation in 1871, Macdonald realized the Dominion needed strong economic expansion to survive. To accomplish this, he believed a transcontinental railway was needed. In 1871, the cabinet decided that the railway would be built by a private company and not under government ownership. The negotiations for a contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway landed Sir John A. in hot water.

The liberals broke the "Pacific Scandal" on April 2, 1873, claiming that, during the 1872 election campaign, Macdonald's administration promised the Canadian Pacific Railway contract to shipping millionaire Sir Hugh Allen in exchange for campaign funds. Macdonald claimed his "hands were clean." But, on July 18, incriminating telegrams appeared in Liberal newspapers showing that during the campaign Macdonald, and especially Cartier, had indeed received additional funds from Allen, totalling more than $350,000. Macdonald was forced to resign.

'I admit I took the money and bribed the electors with it, <br>is there anything wrong with that?' Cartoon deploring the political morality during the Pacific Scandal

"I admit I took the money and bribed
the electors with it, is there anything
wrong with that?"
Cartoon deploring the political morality
during the Pacific Scandal

© LAC / J.W. Bengough / C-78604

Macdonald returned to office in 1878 campaigning on his "National Policy." It called for completion of the transcontinental railway and settlement in the West, and included high protective tariffs on foreign imports to encourage Canadian manufacturers. Macdonald accomplished much during his career and witnessed the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. He died on June 6, 1891 while still in office. The scandal is remembered only as a blot on the records of several highly successful Canadian statesmen, notably Macdonald and Cartier.

Sir John A. Macdonald is commemorated by Historic Sites and Monuments Board plaques at Adolphustown, Ontario, and Kingston Ontario. Bellevue House, Kingston, which was once Macdonald's home, is commemorated for its architecture and for its place in Macdonald's life.

Date Modified: