Sir John A. Macdonald

Sir John A MacDonald

As one of the Fathers of Confederation and Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald (born January 11, 1815) had a key role in shaping Canada's history. Macdonald was a lawyer, businessman and politician. He was instrumental, along with Sir George-Étienne Cartier, in the negotiations that led to Confederation and later in expanding Canada to the Pacific Ocean. During his years as Prime Minister (1867-1873, 1878-1891), Canada experienced rapid growth and prosperity. Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island joined Confederation, while the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway's transcontinental line was driven into the ground. He also created the North-West Mounted Police, the precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Early life and education

Macdonald’s family came to Canada from Scotland when he was only five years old. They settled in Kingston, Upper Canada. By the age of 15, Macdonald had already begun his legal training and it was not long before he opened his own law office. He had a successful law practice before entering politics, initially at the municipal level. Shortly after his political debut, he ran for the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and won.

Early political career

Macdonald was a charismatic leader and a dedicated politician. His political rise was swift.  He was a moderate conservative during a time when provincial politics were very unstable and parliamentary gridlock led to frequent elections.

“In this context Macdonald's political views proved cautious; he defended the imperial prerogative and state support of denominational education, and opposed the abolition of primogeniture (which stipulated that when a property owner died without leaving a will, his eldest son would inherit everything). Above all, he emerged as a shrewd political tactician who believed in the pursuit of practical goals by practical means.” Footnote 1

The conferences and Confederation

“For years, people had talked about bringing the British colonies in North America together under one government. Macdonald had never been enthusiastic for the idea. He felt that the Province of Canada had a great future ahead of it without being tied to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. But the Province of Canada was becoming more and more difficult to govern and in the early 1860s, he reluctantly changed his mind. Macdonald came to believe that it would be better in the long run to divide the Province into two, giving each part its own government and then for them to join with the other British colonies to form a new country with a federal government.” Footnote 2

Macdonald is often seen as the principle architect of Confederation, having drafted 50 of the 72 resolutions that established the framework for a united Canada. He was also one of the leading speakers in favour of the union at all three Confederation conferences (Charlottetown, Québec and London). He used persuasion and compromise to get the delegates to agree on the terms of Confederation. Together, Sir John–who was knighted for his role-and Sir George-Étienne Cartier made the case for Confederation that resulted in the birth of a nation.

Macdonald after Confederation

Sir John A. Macdonald is remembered for his role in: the expansion of Canada’s boundaries from sea to sea, the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the creation of the North-West Mounted Police, and the development of the National Policy. Not without controversy, his career also included the Pacific Scandal, which led to the downfall of his government, and his handling of the North-West Resistance in 1885, which cost his government substantial support in Quebec. He died on June 6, 1891, soon after winning his fourth election.

Learn more about the political and personal life of Sir John A. Macdonald

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