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The Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald

1st Prime Minister of Canada
July 1, 1867 - November 5, 1873
September 17, 1878 - June 6, 1891

"When fortunes empties her chamberpot on your head, smile - and say 'we are going to have a summer shower'."

John Alexander Macdonald, 1875


  • January 11, 1815, Glasgow, Scotland
  • Emigrated to Canada in 1820
  • Midland District Grammar School and John Cruickshank School, Kingston, Ontario
The Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald
The Right Honourable
Sir John A. Macdonald
Personal Status
  • Married 1843, Isabella Clark (1811-1856)
  • One son (One other died in infancy)
  • Re-married 1867, Susan Agnes Bernard (1836-1920)
  • One daughter
Professional Life
  • Lawyer (called to the Bar of Upper Canada in 1836)
  • Businessman
  • 1837 Private, the Commercial Bank Guard
  • 1843-1846 Alderman for Kingston, Ontario
  • June 6, 1891, Ottawa, Ontario, while still in office
  • Liberal-Conservative (forerunner of Conservative Party)
  • 1867-1891 Party Leader
  • 1867-1878, 1887-1891 Kingston, Ontario
  • 1878-1882 Victoria, British Columbia
  • 1882-1887 Carleton, Ontario
Other Ministries
  • 1847-1848 Receiver General (Province of Canada)
  • 1854-1858, 1858-1862, 1864-1867 Attorney General (Canada West)
  • 1861-1862, 1865-1867 Militia Affairs
  • 1867-1873 Justice and Attorney General
  • 1878-1883 Interior
  • 1878-1887 Superintendant General of Indian Affairs
  • 1889-1891 Railways and Canals
Political Record
  • Joint Premier, Province of Canada, with Etienne-Paschal Tache 1856-1857, and with George-Etienne Cartier 1857-1858, 1858-1862
  • Co-leader, Great Coalition, with George-Etienne Cartier and George Brown 1864-1865, and with George-Etienne Cartier 1865-1867
  • Father of Confederation 1867
  • Creation of provinces of Manitoba 1870, British Columbia 1871, and Prince Edward Island 1873
  • Red River Rebellion 1870
  • Building of Canadian Pacific Railway 1871-1885
  • North West Mounted Police 1873
  • Pacific Scandal 1873
  • Leader of the Opposition 1873-1878
  • National Policy 1879
  • Northwest Rebellion 1885
  • Creation of the first national park at Banff, Alberta 1885

Descriptive Biography

Fortune emptied her chamberpot on Sir John A. Macdonald's head more than once, and his comment is indicative of the humor of which he met life's set- backs. Canada's first prime minister probably had more obstacles to encounter than any other.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, John A. Macdonald emigrated to Canada with his parents when he was five years old. He articled with a Kingston lawyer at the age of fifteen; by nineteen, Macdonald had his own legal practice. His introductions to politics came in 1843 when he served as a city alderman. The following year, he was elected Conservative representative for Kingston in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, first with Etienne-Paschal Tache and then with George-Etienne Cartier.

Throughout the 1860's, Macdonald worked in support of the Confederation movement. There had been for several years a movement to unite the Maritime provinces. When the Province of Canada showed interest in Confederation, a conference was held in Charlottetown, September 1, 1864. Each province was contending with its own "anti-Confederation" forces, and Newfoundland would reject union outright. The more prosperous Maritime provinces felt Confederation would weaken their autonomy. In Canada East (Quebec), there were fears that Confederation would dilute French-Canadian interests.

Finally, external events hastened the acceptance of Confederation. The American Civil War, the Fenian Raids of 1866 and a generally aggressive American foreign policy caused concern about the defence of the British North American colonies.

Macdonald played a leading role in promoting Confederation, to the point of making alliance with his staunch political rival and Opposition leader, George Brown. With his wide-ranging personal vision and constitutional expertise, Macdonald drafted the British North American Act, which defined the federal system by which the five provinces were united on July 1, 1867.

Macdonald was appointed Prime Minister of Canada and won the federal election the following month. In his first administration, his primary purpose was to build a nation. Communications between the provinces were essential and to this end, Macdonald began the Intercolonial Railway. It would run from Halifax to the pacific coast and include Canada's two new provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia, and the North-West Territories. Under Macdonald's leadership, Canada achieved a certain degree of autonomy from Britain in foreign affairs. He also brought in a system of tariffs to protect Canadian products from foreign imports, especially those from the United States, in order to boost economic growth.

While Macdonald's administration accomplished great things, it also fraught with difficulties. Revelations of the shady dealings between the Conservatives and and the railway syndicate lead to the Pacific Scandal in 1873. Macdonald's government was forced to resign and lost the election in 1874. He regained power in 1878, but political troubles continued. Macdonald's handling of the North-West Rebellion in 1885 and execution of Louis Riel outraged French-Canadians, sparking an antagonism between them and English-Canadians that would continue for years. The federal powers envisioned by Macdonald were weakened by legal challenges launched by the provinces.

In his personal life, Macdonald had his fair share of troubles. At stressful times, he frequently drank to excess. His first wife, Isabella, was an invalid and died in 1856. Of the two boys born to her, only one survived to adulthood. Macdonald married a second time, to Susan Agnes Bernard in 1867. Their joy over a birth of a daughter in 1869 was mitigated by the fact that she suffered from from hydrocephaly, which caused both mental and physical handicaps.

In March 1891, Macdonald won a forth consecutive electoral victory. He died three months later while still prime minister, having forged a nation of geographic size, two European colonial origins and a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds and political views. Grieving Canadians turned out in thousands to pay their respects while he lay in state Parliament and they lined the tracks to watch the train that returned his body to Kingston.

SOURCE: Library and Archives Canada.

See also
Former Prime Ministers of Canada

External Links
Bellevue House National Historic Site

Copyright Craig I.W. Marlatt