Canada’s first prime minister, and one of its greatest
statesman, 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 1874-8 when he and his party were in disgrace
because of scandal.
Macdonald saw his life’s work as 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
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 for 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
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