Canada’s First Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald


Canada’s first prime minister, and one of its greatest statesmen, was an immigrant.

John Alexander Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1815, and came with his family to the Kingston area of Upper Canada (later Ontario) in 1820. Macdonald’s father was a shopkeeper and miller. Scots were the dominant group of immigrants to Upper and Lower Canada after the conquest of New France and played a key role in shaping the country’s institutions.

Macdonald became a lawyer and a Conservative politician, rising quickly to the leadership of his party. He was chief among the Fathers of Confederation who created the Dominion of Canada in 1867. For his achievement he received a title from Queen Victoria, becoming Sir John Macdonald. On July 1, 1867, Canada’s birth date, Macdonald became the country’s founding prime minister. He remained in office until his death in 1891 except for the years 1874-78 when he and his party were in disgrace because of scandal.

Macdonald saw as his life’s work the building of the Canadian nation. During the Confederation period he had advocated the creation of a very strong central government for Canada, with the provincial governments being much weaker. After 1867 he was eager to add new provinces and territories to the country that had originally consisted only of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Macdonald expanded Canada from sea to sea by acquiring all the territory between Ontario and the Rocky Mountains from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Manitoba and British Columbia became provinces in 1871, and Prince Edward Island joined in 1873.

Macdonald always worried that Canada might be taken over by the United States. He thought it vitally important that the provinces be united by a railway built entirely through Canadian territory. The first attempt to create a Canadian transcontinental railway became the country’s all-time worst scandal in 1874 when it was revealed that Macdonald had promised to give the contract to a rich Montreal businessman in return for election campaign funds. He had to resign in disgrace, and his party lost the 1874 election to the Liberals under Alexander Mackenzie.

Returning to power in the 1878 election (fought during a serious recession), Macdonald was able to subsidize a new company that finished the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, tying Canada together with ribbons of steel. The Macdonald government tried to attract immigrants to settle the western prairies, advertising for newcomers all over Europe. Its policies were hampered by a violent rebellion in 1885 in the Saskatchewan territories led by the prominent Métis (half-French, half-Indian) politician, Louis Riel. Also, the White population of British Columbia objected to any further immigration from Asia, for fear that labourers like the Chinese who had worked on building the railway would permanently undercut wage rates.

Macdonald’s governments levied high taxes (tariffs) on imported manufactured goods to try to stimulate production in Canada. This National Policy, as it was called, helped create factories in eastern Canada, offering good jobs to Canadian workers. But the high cost of living in the country caused many people from rural Canada to leave for the United States.

Macdonald constantly fought the tendency of provinces and rival religious and ethnic groups to weaken Canada with extreme demands. His determination to steer a middle course between the demands of English and French Canadians, Protestants and Roman Catholics, and provinces eager for more power, became a model for later prime ministers that Canadian politics is first and foremost a search for a practical compromise, a moderate course that can appeal to as many major interest groups as possible. Sometimes it fails. When Macdonald allowed the execution of Louis Riel for treason in 1885, he created lasting resentment in Quebec (where it was thought Riel was a madman) and a problem for future Conservative politicians.

Many Canadian historians consider that Macdonald’s achievements as a nation-builder make him the greatest of all Canadian prime ministers, this country’s equivalent to George Washington. Other historians feel that some of Macdonald’s methods, especially his habit of giving government jobs to Conservatives and expecting contributions to the Conservative party from government contractors, encouraged a degree of corruption in Canadian public life that has never been completely eliminated.

But almost all historians agree that John A. Macdonald was totally devoted to Canada and that he was personally honest, clever and friendly even to politicians who disagreed with him. He was a very heavy drinker in an age when alcohol flowed freely everywhere, but his achievements usually outweighed his faults. Referring to one of his Liberal opponents, Macdonald once commented that Canadians preferred a Sir John A. drunk to a George Brown sober. It was true.

Further reading: Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, by Michael Bliss; John A. Macdonald, by Donald Creighton (2 volumes).

Next Instalment: Sir Wilfrid Laurier: The Man with the Silver Tongue

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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