The first Prime Minister of Canada was truly a founding father. Instrumental in the politics of Upper and Lower Canada he helped bring the provinces of Upper and lower Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick together in 1867 to form Canada. He then brought British Columbia, PEI, and the great North West Territories into the Canadian Federation. A Scottish highlander and proud Canadian Orangeman, he was a master of recognizing the human condition and dealing with it in whatever form was required. His wisdom in politics and his passion for Canada served to drive him and his ambitions for the country at an astounding pace. His main accomplishments as Prime Minister of Canada also include the building of the Trans-Canadian railroad, his deft handling of relations with the United States, rising to the challenge of the Northwest rebellion and his balancing of French and English interests in acceptable terms for most.
His private life was full of tragedy and sorrow. He watched for more then a decade while his first wife, desperately ill, died slowly. His son died as a baby and his daughter was born retarded. He would return late at night from a session in the commons to hold and rock his little baby girl to sleep. It is little wonder, in his day and age, that he sometimes turned to the bottle for solace.
The public however was quite tolerant of his indulgence and MacDonald himself often claimed that the public quite frankly preferred John A. drunk to his enemies sober. During a campaign speech, after a particularly long evening he was unable to hold his own and threw up on the back of the platform. His opponent pointed and said "Is this the man you want running your country, a drunker." MacDonald pulled himself together and stood up for his rebuttal and quietly said " I get sick sometimes not because of drink or any other cause, except that I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honorable opponent."
MacDonald’s family left Glasgow Scotland in 1820 and emigrated to Kingston Ontario. He grew up under stressful financial circumstances and by fifteen was out working and soon thereafter was articling at a law firm. He answered the call in 1837 when William Lyon Mackenzie lead the march on York and tried to upset the family compact.
In 1840 when Upper and Lower Canada set up a joint legislative assembly, MacDonald opposed this union and also spoke out against expanding the union to the Maritimes. He joined the joint Canadian parliament in 1843 and supported the conservative forces in the house. MacDonald realized that the governing power in the joint Canada House would have to be a wide coalition of interests and beliefs.
MacDonald’s great opponent, George Brown led the Clear Grits, "all sand and no dirt, clear all the way through." He was an anti-papist and hence never gained much support from Lower Canada. MacDonald was very open to dealing and ruling with the Lower Canadian population, be they English or French. He developed a great ally in George Etienne Cartier who led the Lower Canadian section of their party supporters.
By 1864 the forces, which would lead to the greater Canadian Confederation, were well under way. The American Civil War raged across the great landscape of the United States and the political philosophy of American federalism was becoming well established. It also presented the British Colonies in North America with a frightening specter of a huge standing army south of the boarder that could easily roll into Canada and the Maritimes and swallow them up with little trouble. There were many in the United States who felt that this should be done and that it was the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the United States to take over all of North America. In 1864 MacDonald’s conservative government was defeated in the house and the Governor, Lord Monck, was ready to dissolve the assembly. George Brown at that point rose to the occasion and offered MacDonald the opportunity to forma coalition government. The offer was accepted under the leadership of Sir Etienne Tache and the movement towards confederation had begun.
The leaders of the movement, with John A MacDonald at the forefront sailed to Prince Edward Island in 1864 and meet with the maritime leaders who themselves were looking at their own union. With Champaign and banqueting as their allies, MacDonald and company managed to convince enough of those assembled at Charlottetown that a grander Canadian Union would be the answer. They agreed to reassemble at Quebec City and the Quebec resolutions were hammered out which would form the basis of the new Canadian Confederation or the British North America Act.
Although MacDonald was a late convert to federalism he did become its main supporter. MacDonald’s influence is reflected throughout the documents and most of it is in fact written in his hand. He and his colleagues tried to learn from the American experience what not to do and come up with a better option.
In 1865 MacDonald, Brown and several other of the fathers of confederation set sail for England where they meet with the Queen, partied often and worked to get the required acts passed in Westminster.
In the meantime an Irish group known as the Fenians invaded Canada from the United States on June 1st, 1866. They were determined to recruit the Canadians to their cause and create an anti-British nation in North America. These invaders were quickly forced back across the border but the result of their invasion was to so infuriate Canadians and inflame anti-American feelings that New Brunswick and Nova Scotia quickly approved of the move towards confederation and during the spring of 1866 the British Parliament passed the British North America Act and set July 1st, 1867 as the date when the new nation would come into being. MacDonald was chosen as the obvious man to become the first Prime Minister and was proclaimed Knight Commander of the Bath and hence became Sir John A. MacDonald.
On July 1st, 1867 Sir John A. MacDonald and his wife led the ceremonies which official oversaw the birth of Canada in the sleepy lumber tow of Ottawa. During the summer of 1867 Sir John A. MacDonald easily won the national election against his rival George Brown. In November of 1867 MacDonald at the age of 52 opened the first Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. MacDonald’s first year was spent overcoming the anti-federalism of Joseph Howe and winning them over to the idea that Canada was going to make it. He recruited Howe into his cabinet and secured the support of the Maritimes for the great Canadian experiment.
William McDougall set in motion a process whereby Canada formally requested that Rupert’s land be awarded to Canada as a part of the new nation. The United States was anxious to purchase the land which had belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company since 1670 and offered the British Government $10,000,000 for it. The Canadian Government eventually did buy it for £300,000 and Sir John A. MacDonald found himself and his country with an additional 1/3 of the North American continent added to Canada.
MacDonald appointed William McDougal as the Lieutenant Governor of the huge territory and he set out for the Red River settlement to establish his authority. The metis in the settlement did not accept the transaction of their land by the British government to Canada and decided to set up their own government. This action was lead by the fiery metis leader Louis Riel. This situation developed into one of the most challenging of MacDonald’s political career. He refused to deal with Riel and instead of recruiting him into the great Canadian experiment, MacDonald dealt with him as a rebel and thus the Red River Rebellion began.
The interest of the United States in the area forced the Canadian Government to act and MacDonald sent Donald Smith west to offer inducements to the settlement and its leaders to join Canada on a friendly basis. Unfortunately events out ran the arrival of Smith and an Anglo Saxon settler named Thomas Scott tried to strangle Riel and was sentenced to death for his act. He was shot by a firing squad. The population of Ontario reacted immediately and about 12,000 volunteers headed west to capture the metis rebels and serve them with frontier justice. Riel fled and the settlement was safely cooped into Canada and in 1870 the province of Manitoba was officially formed. MacDonald offered Riel £1000 to stay away but he did return and in 1874 was elected to the Canadian Parliament. MacDonald considered him a clever fellow and Riel even managed an appearance in Ottawa at the House of Commons.
MacDonald’s next step was to bring British Columbia into Confederation. BC had been inundated with American prospectors during the Barkerville gold rush in the 1850’s and quick action by Governor Douglas brought the colonies of Vancouver Island and the mainland together as the British Colony of British Columbia in 1866. BC was cut off from the rest of Canada by the mountains and a large number of its inhabitants were pushing for joining the United States. MacDonald, as shrew as he could be, offered the people of BC a link to the east by railroad as an inducement to joining Canada. The deal was done and the railway issue became the one overwhelming project of the remainder of his career.
MacDonald’s personal problems once again began to overtake his political challenges. By this time it had become quite clear that their child Mary was retarded and she would never be able to lead a normal life. MacDonald deeply in debt and not sure if he would be able to support his family began to drink heavily again.
In 1870 MacDonald had to pull himself together to once again face the problem of living next to the United States. The British North America Act had granted Canada the right to control its internal affairs, but foreign affairs were still handled by the British Authorities. The United States decide to cancel the reciprocal across-the-boarder trade agreement, Canada responded by canceling U.S. fishing rights in Canadian waters. That year saw four small Canadian vessels seize several hundred American fishing boats for trespassing in Canadian waters. This crisis lead to a conference in Washington where all of the issues left over from the Civil War were to be resolved. Sir John A. was included as a member of the British delegation and quickly become disliked by the American and British delegates because of his protection of Canadian interests. He won compensation from the British for the Fenian raids and conceded fishing rights to the Americans in Canadian waters for ten years.
The pursuit of an investor's group which would be able to build a trans-Canadian railway led to the development of questionable relationships with a consortium which also contributed heavily to the Conservative party and MacDonald's Quebec lieutenant Cartier. The resultant scandal forced MacDonald to call an election in 1874 which he lost to the Liberal party under Alexander MacKenzie. Luckily for MacDonald the Liberal term of office coincided with a difficult recession in Canada.
By 1878, the country was again ready to give MacDonald a chance and the Conservatives were re-elected with a clear majority. MacDonald quickly took advantage of this second chance at power to once again ask for bids to build the railroad across the country. The Canadian pacific was awarded to right to build the railway in 1880 and were given 10 years to complete it. By November 1885 the last spike of the railway was driven at Cragellachie by Donald Smith. MacDonald won re-election 3 more times and developed a what has become know as the national policy which rested on the three themes of the transcontinental railway, immigration form Europe for Manitoba and the North West Territories which would buy supplies from Eastern Canada and the growth of the farms in the West which would sell their foodstuffs to Eastern Canada.
By 1891 MacDonald conducted his last campaign and won a majority for the Conservatives. The election had however, taken to much out of him and on June 6th, 1891 he passed away in Ottawa and the Father of Canada was universally mourned by Canada and the British Empire.
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