Tag Archives: sir john a macdonald

Happy (Belated) Birthday, John!

Yesterday, January 11, 2015, was Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th Birthday.  I believe that such a date must be recognized.  And so, today, I will tell you a few things to know about him.

Canadian election campaign poster from 1891

Figure 1: English: “The Old Flag – The Old Policy – The Old Leader”. 1891 Canadian election campaign poster for Sir John A. Macdonald. Français : “Le vieux drapeau, les vieux principes, le vieux chef”. Campagne électorale de 1891.

Basic details of his life are:

  • He was born John Alexander Macdonald, on January 11, 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland, (UK)
  • He died June 6, 1891 at the age of 76 in Ottawa, Ontario
  • His final resting place is at the Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, Ontario
  • He was a Conservative
  • He married twice, first with Isabella Clark until her death (1843-1857) and Agnes Bernard until the day he died (1867-1891)
  • He had 3 children
  • He was a Lawyer
  • Though he was brought up a Presbyterian, he converted to Anglican
  • He was the first Prime Minister of Canada (1867–1873, 1878–1891)
  • The dominant figure of Canadian Confederation, he had a political career which spanned almost half a century
  • Macdonald served 19 years as Canadian Prime Minister (only William Lyon Mackenzie King served longer)
Animation of the changes to the borders of Canada

Figure 2: Animation of the changes to the borders of Canada. Date: 15 July 2009. Source Author: Golbez (

Macdonald was designated as the first Prime Minister of the new nation, and served in that capacity for most of the rest of his life, losing office for five years in the 1870s over the Pacific Scandal (corruption in the financing of the Canadian Pacific Railway). After regaining his place in the government, he saw the railroad through to completion in 1885, and it helped unite Canada as one nation. Macdonald is credited with creating a Canadian Confederation despite many obstacles, and expanding what was a relatively small country to cover the northern half of North America. By the time of his death in 1891, Canada had secured most of the territory it occupies today.  Figure 2 shows how the boundaries in Canada have changed since Confederation.

John initially attended local schools. When he was aged 10, his family scraped together the money to send him to Midland District Grammar School in Kingston. Macdonald’s formal schooling ended at 15, a common school-leaving age at a time when only children from the most prosperous families were able to attend university.  Nevertheless, Macdonald later regretted leaving school when he did, remarking to his private secretary Joseph Pope that if he had attended university, he might have embarked on a literary career. I wonder how different our history would be if hadn’t persued politics.

In March 1844, Macdonald was asked by local businessmen to stand as Conservative candidate for Kingston in the upcoming legislative election.  Macdonald followed the contemporary custom of supplying the voters with large quantities of alcohol.  In the era preceding the secret ballot when votes were publicly declared, Macdonald defeated his opponent, Anthony Manahan, by 275 “shouts” to 42 when the two-day election concluded on 15 October 1844.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal believes that Macdonald’s true monument is Canada itself:

“Without Macdonald we’d be a country that begins somewhere at the Manitoba-Ontario border that probably goes throughout the east. Newfoundland would be like Alaska and I think that would also go for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. We’d be buying our oil from the United States. It would diminish our quality of life and range of careers, and our role in the world would have been substantially reduced.”

Macdonald’s biographers note his contribution to establishing Canada as a nation. Swainson suggests that Macdonald’s wish for a free and tolerant Canada became part of its national outlook:

“He not only helped to create Canada, but contributed immeasurably to its character.”

Gwyn said of Macdonald, his accomplishments were staggering: Confederation above all, but almost as important, if not more so, extending the country across the continent by a railway that was, objectively, a fiscal and economic insanity … On the ledger’s other side, he was responsible for the CPR scandal, the execution of Louis Riel, and for the head tax on Chinese workers. He’s thus not easy to scan. His private life was mostly barren. Yet few other Canadian leaders — Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker for a time, Wilfrid Laurier — had the same capacity to inspire love.

To read more about Sir John A, I suggest CBC Archives where you can find a host of multimedia content; another impressive site would be the Dictionary of Canadian Biography article by J. K. Johnson and P. B. Waite; if you enjoy looking at archived documents, the best place would be the Library and Archives Canada: gallery of papers; another great place is the The Canadian Encyclopedia.



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Thanks to the Celts!

In thе bеgіnnіng, Canada wаѕ a vаѕt piece оf land that had bаrеlу bееn examined. Mаnу of the first explorers wеrе Scots like Dаvіd Mасkеnzіе or Sіmоn Frаѕеr, whо both mарреd оut a large раrt оf our country. A Welshman nаmеd Sіr Thomas Button lеd thе first expedition fоr thе Nоrthwеѕt Pаѕѕаgе in 1612, whіlе Welsh саrtоgrарhеr Dаvіd Thоmрѕоn is rеfеrrеd tо аѕ Cаnаdа’ѕ Greatest Gеоgrарhеr. Aѕ more аnd mоrе ѕеttlеrѕ саmе, іt brought аbоut the Hudson Bау Cоmраnу and thе Nоrth Wеѕt Cоmраnу, both сruсіаl іn mapping оut thе bоundаrіеѕ of Cаnаdа.

Thomas Button

Admiral Sir Thomas Button, after an original oil in possession of G. M. Traheren, Glamorganshire, Wales. Source

Whіlе ѕоmе voluntarily саmе to Cаnаdа fоr a new life аnd орроrtunіtіеѕ, others had lіttlе сhоісе in leaving their homeland and coming here.  Mаnу Irіѕh lеft tо ѕаvе themselves frоm starvation duе to роtаtо famine. Fоr others, rеlіgіоuѕ dіѕрutеѕ wеrе the саuѕе for dераrturе. Whаtеvеr thе rеаѕоn, thousands left hоmе fоr a nеw wоrld. Many ships were оvеrсrоwdеd аnd unѕаnіtаrу, causing mаnу dеаthѕ. Hіt hаrdеѕt bу this were thе Irish; many dіdn’t survive thе journey. Fоr those lucky еnоugh tо аrrіvе ѕаfеlу, their nеw lіvеѕ wеrеn’t еаѕу. Thе fіrѕt settlers had to clear the lаnd аnd рrераrе іt tо grоw fооd аnd tо buіld ѕhеltеr. It was not еаѕу аnd many rеturnеd hоmе. Those соurаgеоuѕ еnоugh to ѕtау mаnаgеd tо buіld a new lіfе. Mаnу new tоwnѕ were сrеаtеd, оftеn nаmеd аftеr thоѕе whо founded them оr in rеflесtіоn оf whеrе thеу came frоm.

Canada bеgаn tо tаkе shape аnd Confederation саmе аbоut іn 1867, wіth Sіr Jоhn A. MасDоnаld, a Scotsman, bесоmіng оur fіrѕt Prime Minister. Irishman Thomas D’Arсу MсGее wаѕ аlѕо a Fаthеr of Cоnfеdеrаtіоn. Aѕ the соuntrу grеw, nеw dеvеlорmеntѕ аnd іnvеntіоnѕ came to lіght. Thе Sсоtѕ gave uѕ standard tіmе (Sir Sandford Fleming), аnd thе RCMP (Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald).  They gаvе us the modern trасtоr (James G. Cockshutt).

Thanks tо thеіr hаrd work and dеtеrmіnаtіоn, thе Scottish, Irish, and Wеlѕh people played a large part of making thіѕ соuntrу whаt іt іѕ tоdау.


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This Week in Canadian History – November Week 3

English: View of the Battle of Windmill Point,...

English: View of the Battle of Windmill Point, below Prescott, Upper Canada, (from the Ogdensburg side of the St. Lawrence). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir John A. Macdonald‘s place in Canadian history is that of architect of Confederation and the first prime minister.  It is easy to forget that he was also a practicing lawyer from Kingston, Ontario.

Macdonald lost one of his most important law cases as the result of an incident that took place on November 13, 1838, during the rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada.  An American leader of the Brotherhood of Hunters, John Birge, raised a force of 400 men to attack Prescott, Ontario, and thus drive a wedge between Upper and Lower Canada.  In recruiting speeches throughout New York, Birge claimed that nine-tenths of the population of Upper Canada and four-fifths of the militia were “oppressed” and ready to join his invasion force.

The invasion force sailed from Sackets Harbor on November 11, 1838, but as it came closer to Prescott, Birge developed a convenient stomach ache, and asked to be put on shore at Ogdensburg.  About half the force deserted with him.

Command then fell on a former Polish officer, Nils Von Schultz  (He was born Nils Gustaf Ulric in October 1807; in 1836, he changed his name to “Von Schoultz” and had been drawn into a secret society known as the Hunters’ Lodges.)  He was a brave, competent soldier, and under his direction, the invaders managed to capture a windmill on the river bank below Prescott and some stone houses, which they made into forts.  They unfurled a Patriot flag, made by the women of Onondaga County, New York, on which they embroidered a star, an eagle, and the words, “Liberated by the Onondaga Hunters.”

Von Schultz expected help from the Canadians, whom Birge had claimed would join them.  Instead, a British naval detachment from Kingston arrived on the scene on November 13.  It was followed by Canadian militia which, far from being disloyal, attacked the windmill.  Von Schultz and his deluded men fought bravely, but had to surrender after three days.  British and Canadian troops had seventy-six men killed or wounded, while the Hunters lost thirty-seven.

The invaders were taken to Kingston where the leaders were defended by the young lawyer, John A. Macdonald.  Von Schultz was the only one who pleaded guilty.  He said he had thought that Canadians wanted to be liberated, but he had been misled by the Hunters.  Eight of them, including Von Schultz, were hanged at Fort Henry on December 8, 1838. although Macdonald did his best for them.

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You Go No Further!

English: Councillors of the Provisional Govern...

English: Councillors of the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation. Front row, L-R: Robert O’Lone, Paul Proulx. Centre row, L-R: Pierre Poitras, John Bruce, Louis Riel, John O’Donoghue, François Dauphinais. Back row, L-R: Bonnet Tromage, Pierre de Lorme, Thomas Bunn, Xavier Page, Baptiste Beauchemin, Baptiste Tournond, Joseph (Thomas?) Spence Français : Conseillers du gouvernement provisoire de la nation métisse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most dramatic scenes in Canadian history took place in Manitoba on October 11, 1869.  Canada was in the process of taking over the huge Northwest Territory.  The mixed heritage settlers, known as Métis, who had lived and hunted there for many years, were greatly disturbed because they did not know what would happen to their lands.  They had no legal papers showing that they owned anything.  They simply had “squatters rights.”

The Métis were led by twenty-five year old Louis Riel.  His grandmother had been the first white child born in the Red River settlement, and his father had played a leading part in breaking the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly.  Young Riel had been educated in Montreal, and was known to be brilliant, but vain and unstable.

When Sir John A. Macdonald‘s government decided to take over the territory, it moved quickly, for a number of reasons.  Ottawa had received secret information that the United States was planning to take over the area and had agents working there (see my Sept. 28 post: They Will Become So American!).  Although a number of local organizations had been formed to provide some control, the sooner Canada could take over, the better it would be.

The greatest difficulty was that the Métis and other settlers were badly informed.  Practically no official information was given to the few newspapers.  The Canadian Government had no intention of depriving the Métis of their holdings, but it was necessary to survey the area, so that fair shares could be allocated to all claimants.  Public Works Minister William McDougall sent out survey parties to do the preparatory work, without explaining their purpose to the settlers.

On October 11, one of the survey crews began working on land claimed by André Nault, a cousin of Louis Riel.  Nault tried to stop them, but they waved him away, so he saddled a horse and rode for help.  In a short time he came back with sixteen Métis whose leader put a moccasined foot on the surveyors’ chain and said “You go no further.”

So, Louis Riel appeared on the stage of national affairs, and the part he played has not been forgotten, even today.  It was the beginning of the Red River uprising, which still influences the political life of Canada.

To learn more about this, I highly suggest going to the Centre du patrimoine. And if you want to read even more, I would also recommend the Métis Nation of Ontario, and the Manitoba Historical Society, and finally the CBC – a People’s History.

“Whereas, it is admitted by all men, as a fundamental principle, that the public authority commands the obedience and respect of its subjects.  It is also admitted that a people, when it has no Government in preference to another, to give or to refuse allegiance to that which is to refuse allegiance to that which is proposed.”

Proclamation of the Provincial Government of the Northwest, Dec. 8, 1869, signed by John Bruce and Louis Riel

“If ever, in time to come, we should have the misfortune to become divided — as foreigners have sought before — that will be the signal for all disasters which we have until now so happily avoided.  But let us hope that the lessons of the past will guide us in the future!

Louis Riel, 1870


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What’s Five Years Between Friends?

English: Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conserv...

English: Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservatives ride the National Policy into power in the 1878 election. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Until 1939, the battlegrounds of election campaigns were the big public meetings at Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.  Political writers and commentators could usually judge who was going to win an election by the reception given the Conservative or Liberal leaders in those places.

One of the greatest political campaigners was Sir John A. Macdonald.  He really began the tariff issue by introducing what was called “The National Policy” before the election on September 17, 1878.  His government had been forced to resign in 1873 owing to a campaign fund scandal.  Macdonald sat back quietly for almost five years and watched Liberal Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie struggle with a severe depression.

As the time for the next election drew nearer, the question was whether nor not Mackenzie would try to improve economic conditions by making a reciprocal trade deal with the United States.  When Mackenzie committed himself to reciprocity, Macdonald trotted out his “National Policy” of higher tariffs for prosperity.  Years later, Dalton McCarthy, who was Macdonald’s chief  aide in Ontario, admitted that if Mackenzie had based his campaign on higher tariffs, Macdonald would have advocated reciprocity.  Nevertheless, the high-low tariff battle continued until 1939 when World War II made it clear that nations do better through economic co-operation than through competition.

Macdonald was also largely responsible for the old system of spectacular public meetings.   It has been said that he made after-dinner speeches popular.  In the 1878 campaign he introduced the “political picnic.”  Tables were set under the trees.  There were plates of cold chicken, tongue, ham, frosted cakes and mounds of strawberries, and jugs of iced lemonade and raspberry cordial.  People came from miles around in their horse-drawn carriages, dressed in their Sunday-best.  After a delightful luncheon, Macdonald would speak from a specially built platform to a well-nourished, warm-hearted audience.  One such picnic at Belleville, Ontario, was attended by 15,000 people.

Macdonald won the election of 1878, despite the fact that he was defeated in his own constituency.  A safe seat had to be found for him in Victoria, B.C.   Sir John remained prime minister until his death 13 years later.  Political picnics and public meetings lasted far longer than that.

To learn more about today’s post, I suggest visiting Canada Info and the Canadian Encyclopedia, as well as Canada History.

“Not only is this country made a slaughter market by being overwhelmed by the sweepings of the United States, but it has sometimes been made a sacrifice market by ruinous proposals for the purpose of suppressing any given trade.  We all remember what the salt manufacturers of the Untied States did when the salt manufacturers first opened work in Goderich.  The salt manufacturers of Syracuse and Salena sent in their salt with instructions to undersell Canadian salt on the Canadian market, to crush this infant industry.  The shoe trade was dealt with in the same way by the leather manufacturers of the United States.”  – Sir John A. Macdonald, Advocating the National Policy


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Rose Acted As a Dancing Bear

English: Chinese at work on C.P.R. (Canadian P...

English: Chinese at work on C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway) in Mountains, 1884. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The building of the C.P.R. transcontinental is one of the most fascinating stories in Canadian history, and many books have been written about it.  The agreement creating it was signed in London, England, on September 14, 1880.

The first C.P.R. was organized by Sir Hugh Allan of Montreal, but was disbanded when it was discovered that he had contributed a large sum of money to Sir John A. Macdonald and other members of the Government for an election campaign.  The Macdonald government had to resign and was out of office for five years.  Strangely enough, the man who struck the last blow forcing the Macdonald government to resign was Sir John’s old friend Donald A. Smith, who had been his emissary in dealing with Louis Riel during the Red River uprising.

When the C.P.R. company was formed in 1881, Donald Smith could not be included among the board of directors because he had defeated the Macdonald government.  He and George Stephen of the Bank of Montreal, had made a fortune from the St. Paul and Pacific Railway in the United States, although it had gone bankrupt.  George Stephen was president of the new C.P.R. and one of the directors was John Rose, a lifelong friend of Macdonald’s.  When they were young they had put on shows in the United States in which Rose acted as a dancing bear while Macdonald provided musical accompaniment.  There was more profit in railway building.

The House of Commons passed the C.P.R. bill on February 1, 1881.  It gave the company $25 million, and 25 million acres of land for development.  The C.P.R. was also given 710 miles of railway that had been built by the Government at a cost of nearly $38 million.

The transcontinental was completed on November 7, 1885, at Craigellachie, British Columbia.  Once again Donald A. Smith got in the last blow.  By this time he had become one of the directors, and as such, he was given the honour of driving home the last spike.

To read more about today’s post, I recommend a visit to the Virtual Manitoba for an article, “The Brandon, Saskatchewan and Hudson’s Bay Railway.”


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Welcome British Columbia!

English: Joseph Trutch, June 1870. Photo by Wi...

Joseph Trutch, June 1870. Photo by William James Topley. Online from Library and Archives Canada PA-025343 Category:British Columbia public domain photographs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Canada from sea unto sea became a reality on July 20, 1871, when British Columbia entered Confederation.   The extension was not achieved easily and Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland were yet to come.  Alberta and Saskatchewan were in Confederation, but as Northwest Territories, they did not become separate provinces until 1905.

Between 1867 and 1871, there was a great deal of support in British Columbia for a movement to join the United States.  Nevertheless, in May 1870, three delegates left Victoria for Ottawa to discuss terms for joining Canada.  One of them was Dr. J. S. Helmcken who had been the leader of the movement for joining the United States!  He began to change his mind when the delegates were travelling through the United States to Ottawa by the Union Pacific Railway.  He saw how that railway had been put through the Sierra Mountains and realized that it might be possible to build a railway through the Rockies.  Surveyor Pallister disagreed.

When the delegates arrived in Ottawa, they were received by Sir George Etienne Cartier, because Sir John A. Macdonald was ill.  The negotiations were easy.  Some of the British Columbia delegates thought they might have to settle for a wagon road through the mountains, but Canada promised to begin building a transcontinental railway within two years and to have it completed within ten.  Canada also agreed to take over British Columbia’s debt.  The province would have the same form of government as the others and send three senators and six M.P.’s to Ottawa.

In recent years there has been a good deal of co-operation between British Columbia and Quebec.  After completing the Columbia river Power Agreement, the Government of British Columbia under Premier W.A.C. Bennett lent Quebec $100 million, saving the province $750,000 which would have been paid in legal fees and brokers’ commissions if the money had been raised through the usual channels.

This friendship may stem, in part, from Joseph Trutch of British Columbia said: “We must all remember in British Columbia that to Sir George Cartier and his followers in Lower Canada, we owe the position we are now in — and especially the Canadian Pacific Railway.”

There are many places to visit (virtually and physically) and books to read about this; but let me suggest a few sites. There’s Library and Archives Canada, and then Canadian History Project, as well as a new site I just found, at Multicultural History Society of Ontario. And finally, About Online for an amazing article written by Susan Munroe.


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