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Alone at the Top
The Path to Power
Leading Canada
Private Life
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Banner: First Among Equals: The Prime Minister in Canadian Life and Politics
Sir John Alexander MacDonald Banner
John Alexander MacDonald.


1815 - 1891

"When fortune empties her chamberpot on your head, smile  --  and say ‘we are going to have a summer shower.’ "  --  Sir John A. Macdonald, ca. 1875

Fortune emptied her chamberpot on Sir John A. Macdonald's head more than once, and his comment is indicative of the humour with which he met life's set-backs. Canada's first prime minister probably had more obstacles to encounter than any other.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, John A. Macdonald emigrated to Canada with his parents when he was five years old. He articled with a Kingston lawyer at the age of fifteen; by nineteen, Macdonald had his own legal practice. His introduction to politics came in 1843 when he served as a city alderman. The following year, he was elected Conservative representative for Kingston in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, first with Étienne-Paschal Taché and then with George-Étienne Cartier. Throughout the 1860s, Macdonald worked in support of the Confederation movement. There had been for several years a movement to unite the Maritime provinces. When the Province of Canada showed interest in Confederation, a conference was held in Charlottetown, September 1, 1864. Each province was contending with its own "anti-Confederation" forces, and Newfoundland would reject union outright. The more prosperous Maritime provinces felt Confederation would weaken their autonomy. In Canada East (Quebec), there were fears that Confederation would dilute French-Canadian interests.

Finally, external events hastened the acceptance of Confederation. The American Civil War, the Fenian Raids of 1866 and a generally aggressive American foreign policy caused concern about the defence of the British North American colonies.

Macdonald played a leading role in promoting Confederation, to the point of making an alliance with his staunch political rival and Opposition leader, George Brown. With his wide-ranging personal vision and constitutional expertise, Macdonald drafted the British North America Act, which defined the federal system by which the four provinces were united on July 1, 1867.

Macdonald was appointed Prime Minister of Canada and won the federal election the following month. In his first administration, his primary purpose was to build a nation. Communications between the provinces were essential and to this end, Macdonald began the Transcontinental Railway. It would run from Halifax to the Pacific coast and include Canada's two new provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. Under Macdonald's leadership, Canada achieved a certain degree of autonomy from Britain in foreign affairs. He also brought in a system of tariffs to protect Canadian products from foreign imports, especially those from the United States, in order to boost economic growth.

While Macdonald's administration accomplished great things, it was also fraught with difficulties. Revelations of the shady dealings between the Conservatives and and the railway syndicate lead to the Pacific Scandal in 1873. Macdonald's government was forced to resign and lost the election in 1874. He regained power in 1878, but political troubles continued. Macdonald's handling of the Northwest Rebellion in 1885 and execution of Louis Riel outraged French-Canadians, sparking an antagonism between them and English-Canadians that would continue for years. The federal powers envisioned by Macdonald were weakened by legal challenges launched by the provinces.

In his personal life, Macdonald had his fair share of troubles. At stressful times, he frequently drank to excess. His first wife, Isabella, was an invalid and died in 1856. Of the two boys born to her, only one survived to adulthood. Macdonald married a second time, to Susan Agnes Bernard in 1867. Their joy over a birth of a daughter in 1869 was mitigated by the fact that she suffered from hydrocephaly, which caused both mental and physical handicaps. In March 1891, Macdonald won a fourth consecutive electoral victory. He died three months later while still prime minister, having forged a nation of sprawling geographic size, two European colonial origins and a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds and political views. Grieving Canadians turned out in the thousands to pay their respects while he lay in state in Parliament and they lined the tracks to watch the train that returned his body to Kingston.

Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.

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