A proud Scotsman, Macdonald served as Canada’s first – and third – Prime Minister and was hugely influential in creating the Confederation of Canada, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017. At times plagued by controversy and scandal, he is remembered in Canada for his key role in the formation of the country as we know it today, with his work resulting in him becoming known as ‘The Father of Canada’.
Macdonald was born in Glasgow on 11 January 1815, to Hugh Macdonald and Helen Shaw, with the Macdonald family emigrating from Scotland to Canada just five years later, in 1820. Despite rising to the highest position in the land, Macdonald and his family arrived in Canada from a humble Scottish background.
John’s father was unsuccessful as a businessman and emigration did little to improve his business acumen. During his life he was responsible for running several businesses into the ground, in both Scotland and Canada. Because of his father’s continued failure in business, John was forced into work from an early age. After leaving School at 15, he trained to become a lawyer in a bid to earn money to support his family.
Climbing the ranks
Macdonald was determined to make a name for himself early in his professional career. He took on high profile cases, attracting attention for the quality of his defence. It’s undoubtedly here, learning and refining his rhetoric in the courtroom, that laid the foundation for his later political life.
His first political experience came at the age of 28, running for the post of Alderman in his hometown of Kingston. He won a landslide victory, securing 156 of the 199 votes. Just 18 months later he stood as a Conservative candidate in the election for the newly formed Province of Canada. The result was another landslide victory, winning 275 of the 317 votes. It’s here where Macdonald’s political career really took off – forcing him to give up his legal practice and concentrate on politics full-time.
Over the next decade, Macdonald’s private and professional lives began to travel in different directions. Professionally, he steadily climbed the political ranks, working a number of prominent government roles including Queen’s Counsel and Attorney General before becoming leader of the Conservative party.
However, his personal life did not fare so well, leading to problems with alcohol. His wife Isabella became increasingly ill, eventually having to move far from Macdonald, leading to him rarely seeing her. As well as this, Macdonald’s first child, John Jr, died suddenly whilst still in its infancy. Though they both had a second child, Isabella died just a few years later, leaving Macdonald a widower with an infant son.
The ‘Great Coalition’
In 1864 Macdonald began working towards creating the Confederation of Canada, aiming to unite western colonies like British Columbia with the eastern Province of Canada. In a large part, this was made possible due to the unprecedented alliance between Macdonald and his long-time rival, George Brown. The two were not only political rivals, but were generally believed to hate each other. However, setting aside their differences, they formed what became known as the ‘Great Coalition’.
Within a year, Canada’s assembly formally approved Confederation, and Macdonald set sail for London to gain Royal Assent. After passing through both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the British North America Act, which would form a major part of Canada’s constitution, was given Royal Assent on 29 March 1867. All that was left was to select a date that the new union would come into being. Surprisingly, 1 July was not the preferred date for the birth of the Confederation – Macdonald preferred 15 July, with the British preferring 22 May.
Scandal and re-election
1 July 1867 proved to be a landmark day for Macdonald – as well as being appointed Canada’s first Prime Minister, he was also given a knighthood for his services to the British Empire. Macdonald then went on to cement his position as Prime Minister by winning the first general election, held during the same year.
Macdonald served two terms as Canadian Prime Minister. His first, which ran from 1867 until 1873, ended unceremoniously, due to his involvement in the negotiations in the contract for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Macdonald maintained throughout that he did not profit personally from the scandal and surprisingly managed to avoid much of the fallout, remaining a prominent political figure.
In 1878, he was once again elected as Prime Minister – a post he went on to hold right up until his death. His dedication to Canada was such that, despite suffering a stroke which left him paralysed and unable to speak, he still continued as the country’s leader. Macdonald remained mentally alert, and fought on for several days before dying in office on 6 June 1891.
Recently, controversy has surrounded some of Macdonald’s government’s policies in relation to the indigenous people of Canada during his time both as Prime Minister and Minister of Indian Affairs. This includes the development of the Residential School system, which forcibly removed many thousands of indigenous children from their families to ‘westernise’ them. As well as this, Macdonald’s government also withheld food rations from some western indigenous communities, in a bid to pressure them to move into reservations.
Since his death, monuments of Macdonald have been placed across Canada, as well as in his hometown of Glasgow in Scotland. However, Macdonald’s true monument is undoubtedly Canada itself. Wilfrid Laurier, opposition leader, paid tribute to Macdonald after his death, stating in the House of Commons that:
‘In fact the place of Sir John A. Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country, the fate of this country, will continue without him. His loss overwhelms us’.
Macdonald spent much of his life shaping Canada into the image that is now celebrated every July. More than that, he then built on this early creation, by bringing British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories into this union.