John A. Macdonald was born on January 11, 1815. At the age of five, his family moved to Kingston in Upper Canada (later the province of Ontario). His father founded several companies there. Young Macdonald lived in the neighborhoods of Lennox, Prince Edward, and Addington. “He attended the Midland District Grammar School, as well as a private school in Kingston, where he studied rhetoric, Latin, Greek, grammar, arithmetic and geography.”
He was a lawyer by training. He began learning the trade at a very young age, at the age of 15, in the office of a prestigious Kingston lawyer. The latter was gifted in this field and at the age of 19, he decided to open his practice in the city of his childhood.
During the rebellions of 1837-1838, the young man took part in the fighting against the insurgents. In December 1837, Macdonald was in Toronto where he served as a soldier in the attack on Montgomery’s Tavern against the rebels.
Professionally, Sir John A Macdonald was a lawyer for much of his life. Until 1874, he focused on commercial law, where his clients were businessmen and financially healthy companies.
On a personal level, this man was not fortunate. “Macdonald’s personal life, however, was marked by a series of misfortunes. His first wife, his cousin Isabella Clark, was disabled for most of their married life and died in 1857. His first son died at the age of 13, while his second son, Hugh John (born 1850) survived. In addition, in 1867, he became the husband of Susan Agnes Bernard. She gave birth to a daughter in 1869.“
This man would begin his political journey at the municipal level. From 1843 to 1846, he was a city councilor in his native Kingston. He was also elected to the provincial Parliament of the Province of Canada as the Member of Parliament for Kingston.
Thanks to his insightful political counsel and his obvious intelligence, he became Receiver General in 1847 in the government of W. H. Draper, but the latter lost the election a few months later.
“Macdonald remained in Opposition until the 1854 election, after which he participated in the creation of a new political alliance, the Liberal-Conservative Party, which united the Conservatives with an existing alliance between the Reformers of Upper Canada and the majority French-Canadian political bloc, the Blues.“
Upon his return to power, he was given the glorious position of Attorney General of Upper Canada. Later, in 1856, he succeeded in becoming co-premier of the Province of Canada with Étienne-Paschal Taché and later George-Étienne Cartier.
Between 1854 and 1864, Macdonald desired a political union of Upper and Lower Canada, but he met with considerable resistance to this project: “From the Reformist point of view, expressed by George Brown of the Toronto Globe, the ‘dominance’ of French-Canadian influence in the Macdonald government and George-Étienne Cartier posed an obstacle to the legitimate needs and aspirations of Upper Canada.“
This would cause Macdonald to reluctantly agree to form an alliance between the Blues, Conservatives and Clear Grit. The Clear Grit would cooperate in the implementation of constitutional measures. “Macdonald and the coalition played a key role in the Confederation of British North America in 1867, which brought in four new provinces (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) and formed the Dominion of Canada.“
In 1867, Macdonald was appointed Prime Minister of Canada by former Governor General of the Province of Canada and first Governor General of the Dominion Lord Monck.
During his first period in office, from 1867 to 1873, Prime Minister Macdonald was considered the architect of the Canadian nation: “During this period, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories (now Saskatchewan and Alberta), British Columbia and Prince Edward Island joined the four original provinces of Confederation. Construction of an Intercolonial Railway line between Quebec City and Halifax was undertaken and a transcontinental railway to the Pacific coast was planned.” In 1873, he lost power because of the Pacific Scandal.
One of the Prime Minister’s great achievements was the National Policy, which came into effect in 1879, to impose high tariffs on imports, especially from the United States. “The policy was attractive to Canadian nationalists and those with anti-American sentiments and became a permanent feature of Canadian economic and political life. However, the economy as a whole continues to suffer from slow growth, and national policy has had mixed results.”
Macdonald’s main accomplishment during his second term in office, 1878-1891, was the completion of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway. This would link Canada from east to west. This achievement facilitated interprovincial trade between the provinces of the country.
At the national level, the Prime Minister favored cooperation with the mother country, but Canada was still approaching independence: “In 1880, the position of Canadian High Commissioner to Great Britain was created, and in 1877, Finance Minister Charles Tupper represented Canada on the Joint Commission in Washington.”
Tupper, a leading figure in Canadian politics, died on June 6, 1891, at the venerable age of 76.
John A. Macdonald was one of our country’s founding fathers and the first Prime Minister of Canada. “Macdonald’s contribution to the development of the Canadian nation surpassed that of any of his contemporaries.”
In closing, despite some bad policies, concerning Aboriginal people and Louis Riel, it must be recognized that Macdonald is a monument to Canadian history. Without him, Canada would not exist and we must remember his historical legacy.
This brief review of Sir John A. Macdonald’s contribution to Canadian History was written by Simon Leduc, a political commentator at Québec Nouvelles.