Sir John A MacDonald – The First Prime-Minister

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Sir John A. MacDonald was Canada’s first Prime-Minister. He is often called the Nation Builder and the Father of Confederation, as it was his driving vision and tireless effort that forged 5 disparate and competing provinces into a single federated country. Often called today “John A.”, he is a icon of Canadian history and a recognizable name to every Canadian.

Born in 1815 to nobility in Scotland, his family moved to Kingston, in Upper Canada (today Ontario) when he was just a boy. He studied law and became a successful legal expert with the colonial administration. In 1844 he successfully won a seat to the provincial legislature representing Kingston and served until 1857 when he was elected as Premier of the Province of Canada.

The mid-19th Century were troubling times for Canada. Five separate  provinces of the east (today’s Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI) as well as a growing western territory were in constant trade wars with each other. The United States was growing into an economic, political and military giant and had tried twice before to invade. Groups of Irish Americans, called Fenians, were continuously raiding into the Canadian territories and runaway slaves were escaping to Upper Canada and Nova Scotia in droves. In addition, the British Crown was steadily retreating into itself, withdrawing military and political support from the continent and leaving the provinces to fend for themselves.

Sir John A saw disaster looming. Either Canada would be swallowed up by America or five poor, failed states would be left to rot on the vine. He saw only one choice: confederation.

Sir John A MacDonald

Sir John A MacDonald

In 1861 the United States erupted into Civil War. Many people in the Canadian provinces feared a renewed American attack. Between 1861 and 1863 Sir John A worked tirelessly to lobby the leaders and influential people in all the Canadian territories to join into a confederation. Canada West was growing in population as settlers moved into the great prairies and the first groups of Europeans began to settle on the Pacific coast. John A travelled coast-to-coast and even to England and met personally with Queen Victoria in London to discuss the matter. By the end of 1863 he finally had the support he needed, and in 1864 Sir John A asked the Governor-General to dissolve the Upper Canada legislature and in its place called a conference of all the Canadian leaders. They met in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

John A with the leaders of Canada's provinces at the Charlottetown Conference.

John A with the leaders of Canada’s provinces at the Charlottetown Conference.

The Charlottetown Conference laid the foundations of Confederation. Delegates agreed to form a Great Coalition consisting of Upper Canada, Quebec, the Maritimes and Canada West. They hammered out the details of the idea of a confederated nation, and agreed to meet again in the future. A month later delegates met again in Quebec City and after several long weeks of discussion came out with 72 points of confederation, which would serve as the basis of a constitution for the new nation. Finally, in early 1865, delegates of the Great Coalition met again and voted 91 to 33 in favour of Confederation. The final act of becoming a nation couldn’t go forward until the British Parliament approved of it. In 1866 Sir John A led a delegation to London where they lobbied hard for nearly a year until finally, in 1867, Confederation received Royal Assent and the nation of Canada was born.

Canada held its first general election that same year and Sir John A. MacDonald, the tireless workhorse and visionary of Confederation, was elected as Canada’s first Prime Minister with an overwhelming majority. There was a lot to do. The country had been created on paper but had no federal infrastructure of its own. There was no unified tax policy, tariffs between the different provinces still impeded domestic trade. Roads and bridges and railways needed to be funded and built. Relations with America, which had just come out of a bloody civil war and looked at the new and huge country to the north which had suddenly appeared overnight with suspicion, were extremely poor. There wasn’t even a unified code of laws for any federal government to work with!

Painting which hangs in the Senate today showing Sir John A at the creation of Canada.

Painting which hangs in the Senate today showing Sir John A at the creation of Canada.

John A decided that the most important first step was to secure the entire dominion, so he concentrated his efforts on building a railway from coast to coast and incorporating the territories of the Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta into Confederation and, most importantly, creating a Province out of the independent colony of British Columbia on the Pacific. As the railway was being built, John A formalized a federal tax code, broke down trade tariffs and built up a federal government complete with ministries and buildings to house a government bureaucracy. He also had Upper Canada renamed “Ontario”.

In 1872 Sir John A was the incumbent in the general elections, but a series of sponsorship scandals relating to railway contract procurals appeared in the press and John A’s Tory Party lost the election to the Liberal Party, and Alexander MacKenzie became Canada’s second Prime Minister. Sir John A waited in the opposition for the inevitable mistakes his opponent would make.

In the 1878 elections the Tory’s were swept back into power and Sir John A MacDonald once again became Prime Minister. He would win another three elections, serving as Prime Minister until 1891 for a total of 19 years! During this time his vision of a nation that stretched coast-to-coast would be realized; in 1886 Sir John A traveled to Victoria, British Columbia and pounded the last spike of the Canadian National Railroad (this golden spike is on display in Esquimault, BC). He also oversaw the formation of the Northwest Mounted Police, which would become the world-famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1888 he also included Yukon and the Northwest Territories under Canada’s government.

Sir John A MacDonald attempted to run in a sixth election in 1891, but the strain of constant politicking finally got to him and he succumbed to poor health and had to withdraw from the race. A few weeks of rest in his mansion seemed to help him, and visitors noticed that even though he was 76 years old, he seemed full of energy and laughter. This didn’t last long, as in May of that year he suffered a final stroke and passed away.

Sir John A MacDonald was Canada’s first Prime Minister and also the recipient of Canada’s first national funeral. His open casket lay in the Senate chamber for several days while more than 50,000 mourners from all walks of life passed by. He was buried, with full military honours, in his  hometown of Kingston, Ontario.

Sir John A's casket in the Senate Chamber.

Sir John A’s casket in the Senate Chamber.

Sir John A MacDonald’s influence can be seen everywhere in Canada today, from the $10 bill to more than a hundred high schools named after him to statues in dozens of cities. More than 100 books have been written about Sir John A, as well as a dozen documentaries and feature films and even a musical play! Sir John A MacDonald, the Father of Confederation, will live on in Canada forever.

Sir John A's wife, Isabella.

Sir John A’s wife, Isabella.

Canada's first Prime Minister and founding father has a humble and non-descript grave in Kingston, Ontario.

Canada’s first Prime Minister and founding father has a humble and non-descript grave in Kingston, Ontario.

The MacDonald's mansion in Ottawa, today a National Historic Site.

The MacDonald’s mansion in Ottawa, today a National Historic Site.

Just one of more than a hundred high schools named after John A MacDonald.

Just one of more than a hundred high schools named after John A MacDonald.

One of the best-selling biographies of the famous Prime Minister.

One of the best-selling biographies of the famous Prime Minister.

Sir John A's statue outside of Parliament, Ottawa.

Sir John A’s statue outside of Parliament, Ottawa.

A statue of Sir John A in Charlottetown, PEI.

A statue of Sir John A in Charlottetown, PEI.

Postage stamp circa 1890

Postage stamp circa 1867

Opening of a new parkway in Ottawa.

Opening of a new parkway in Ottawa.

Sir John A MacDonald action figure!

Sir John A MacDonald action figure!

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