John Alexander Macdonald

John Alexander Macdonald
John Alexander Macdonald

John A. Macdonald, the Scots-born Ontario lawyer who became the Canadian Confederation’s first (and third) prime minister, was in many ways modern Canada’s founding father.

He helped draft the British North America Act that established the Confederation in 1867 (for which he was knighted by Queen Victoria) and forged a close and fruitful political relationship with George-Étienne Cartier, leader of Québec’s French-Canadians.

Macdonald began his long political career in 1843 as an alderman in Kingston, his home town. As a founder of Canada’s Conservative Party, heir to the outdated Tories, Macdonald had the inspired idea to call himself and his supporters Liberal-Conservatives in what would be, for a time, a successful attempt to corner the Canadian political landscape. Macdonald’s party would lead Canada for all but four years between 1867 and 1896.

Quick-witted, humorous, and hardworking, despite an occasional drinking problem, Macdonald first came to public attention by taking on high-profile criminal cases before finding a somewhat more lucrative niche in banking and real estate law.

In 1854 he was named Upper Canada’s attorney general. During the 1860s Macdonald took on the duties of the newly created post of minister of militia affairs, and served in that capacity during Fenian raids on Ontario.

Although historians argue about how much credit Macdonald deserves for working out the details of confederation, his selection as Canada’s first prime minister was widely acclaimed. Macdonald believed that Canada’s new federal government should eventually dominate individual provinces, but realized the limits of his power to make that happen.

He worked hard to gain many provinces’s reluctant assent to the new dominion and deftly used political patronage to cement new relationships among Canada’s diverse regions.

Politically tougher was the 1871 Treaty of Washington, involving Britain, the United States, and Canada. Macdonald managed his country’s negotiations, visiting the United States for the first time in 20 years.

Important issues of Canadian fishing rights, Fenian attack reparations, and trade reciprocity hung in the balance. (Canada and its leader were treated by the other powers as somewhat of a third wheel.)

Criticism directed at Macdonald’s treaty-making was mild compared to the events that ended his first prime ministry. At issue was Canada’s long-anticipated transcontinental railroad. Huge sums were at stake; competing groups of American and Canadian businessmen vied for the most favorable terms.

Macdonald’s close Québec ally Cartier spearheaded demands for unusually large political contributions in return for favorable government action, but Macdonald’s hands were not entirely clean. His government was forced to resign in November 1873.

By 1878 he and his party had regained power. His second period of leadership saw the successful completion, at last, of the Canadian Pacific Railway by a syndicate of Canadian, American, and European investors.

Less happily, in the same year of 1885, the aging prime minister faced the ordeal of Louis Riel’s Northwest Rebellion resulting in the French-Indian rebel’s execution. Since Cartier’s death in 1873, Macdonald could no longer depend on a strong French voice to maintain harmony between French and English Canadians.

Shortly after a difficult 1891 reelection, Macdonald suffered a stroke and died a week later. Thousands attended his state funeral in Ottawa. His body was taken by train to Kingston where Canada’s first national leader was buried in a family plot in Cataraqui Cemetery.