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John A. Macdonald (c. 1815-1891)

John A. Macdonald (c. 1815-1891)

Published: 02/15/2011 by Sarah Kitteringham

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Canada’s first Prime Minister was a man who truly rose to the challenge of forging and governing a vast nation. Despite the tragedy that consumed his private life, Macdonald was the main initiator behind the British North America Act and deftly handled the building of the Trans-Canadian railroad. 

John was born in Glasgow, Scotland to Hugh and Helen Macdonald. His poverty stricken family immigrated to Kingston, Upper Canada, where at age 15 Macdonald was forced to make his own living. He departed by steamboat to Toronto to undergo a law apprenticeship.

During the Rebellions of 1837 Macdonald served in the sedentary militia, intended to combat the uprising against the Anglican elite. He legally represented one such rebel who was acquitted and the following year advised the Hunter Patriot insurgents who attempted to liberate Canada from “British oppression” at the disastrous Battle of the Windmill.

After his father’s death, Macdonald embarked on a lengthy vacation where he met his first cousin and future wife Isabella Clark. The decade proved fruitful; MacDonald was elected Alderman in Kingston, became a Conservative representative in parliament, created the Queen’s Counsel and was appointed Receiver General. He retained his congenial magnetism despite personal tragedy (his first child passed away) and the folding of the conservative party. Always the trailblazer, Macdonald co-founded the Liberal-Conservatives with George-Étienne Cartier, and served as Attorney General.

Macdonald was appointed then elected Joint Premier the same year his wife tragically passed. He resigned and then regained control with Cartier as Premier and Macdonald as Deputy. After multiple disputes in parliament, discussion turned to constitutional reform and unity of Canada. The Charlottetown Conference and the Quebec Conference lead the Canadian Legislative Assembly to approve confederation. After formalization was granted by British Parliament, the British North America Act of 1867 was drafted, defining the operation of the government. 

Macdonald remarried and was appointed, then elected, as the Dominion of Canada’s first Prime Minister. The Father of Confederation subsequently began uniting and broadening the country alongside the birth of his daughter, the severely mentally and physically ill Margaret, who he adoringly nicknamed “Baboo”.

Intent on unifying Canada, Macdonald spearheaded the purchasing of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Métis population did not accept the transaction, instead deciding to form their own government under Louis Riel. The Red River Rebellion and the Manitoba Act was passed the same year, creating the province from a segment of the Northwest Territories.

The determined Macdonald signed British Columbia and Prince Edward Island into confederation and spearheaded the creation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP). Unfortunately, Macdonald accepted bribes for railway construction contracts and was forced to resign in 1873.  The public forgave this blunder and re-elected Macdonald in 1878 based on the strength of his National Policy trade promotion plan, which promoted protectionist measures to develop industry, and his vow to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The year it was completed in 1885, the CPR aided in the squashing of the North-West Rebellion as 3000 troops were transported to the skirmish. Louis Riel and several leaders were subsequently executed.

Macdonald suffered a severe stroke in office and passed away shortly after. Over a century later, its fitting that Macdonald is recalled as a pragmatic and patriotic visionary whose strength of character united a fragmented population into a great nation. 


Canadian Museum of Civilization


Collections Canada: Confederation for Kids

Canadian Heritage: Sir John A. Macdonald


Photo © Public Domain/ Credit: Library and Archives Canada, C-006513.