To what extent can one individual influence a nation’s political history? In the case of John Alexander Macdonald, quite a lot. Macdonald, known as “Canada’s Patriot Statesman” and as the father of modern-day Canada, was a driving force in forming and keeping intact a new nation. If Macdonald had not been born, what sort of creature would present-day Canada be? Would it even be a cohesive independent nation? Or would it comprise part of the United Kingdom, or perhaps of the United States? Former Canadian Senator Hugh Segal (b. 1950) said of Macdonald that without him, “we’d be a country that begins somewhere at the Manitoba-Ontario border that probably goes throughout the east. Newfoundland would be like Alaska and I think that would also go for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.” So who was Macdonald and what did he do that so affected the story of his fledgling nation?
Macdonald was born on Jan. 11, 1815, in Glasgow, Scotland. His family was not wealthy or politically prominent. John’s father, Hugh, moved his family to Upper Canada, a British colony in what is now Ontario, in 1820. John proved to be a bright student and finished his formal schooling at the age of 14. He went on to study law and was admitted to the bar of Upper Canada in 1836. Macdonald began his political career when he was elected as an alderman in Kingston in 1843. Kingston was the capital of the fairly new Province of Canada, formed from Upper Canada and Lower Canada (part of present-day Quebec) in 1841. In 1844, Macdonald easily won a seat as a Conservative in the province’s legislature. During the late 1850’s and early 1860’s, he served as co-premier of the Province of Canada. He became known for his ability to see beyond party lines and for his talent for building consensus. In 1864, Macdonald helped establish a coalition of three distinct political parties that agreed to cooperate and govern the Province of Canada together.
In the early 1860’s, the British provinces in North America were considering the idea of confederation. Factors that gave force to this idea included the instability of provincial governments, a desire to expand westward, and fear of U.S. expansion from the south. During a series of conferences from 1864 to 1866, representatives from New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the Province of Canada met to discuss and form a plan for confederation. Macdonald was largely responsible for drafting this plan. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island initially rejected the plan, but the other provinces joined together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867. The Province of Canada became two provinces—Ontario and Quebec. The governor general of the new nation asked Macdonald to become its prime minister, and Queen Victoria knighted Macdonald.
Macdonald served as prime minister from 1867 to 1873 and from 1878 to 1891. He held the office for nearly 19 years and won six majority governments, more than any other prime minister. As prime minister, Macdonald worked tirelessly to expand and strengthen the new nation. His governments fought separatists, bought large areas of land to increase Canada’s area, put down rebellions against westward expansion, and built the Canada Pacific Railway to connect eastern and western Canada. British Columbia, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island all joined the Dominion during Macdonald’s first administration. Macdonald later worked to protect Canada’s developing economy with the National Policy, which imposed high tariffs on American goods. In addition, his government established the North-West Mounted Police, a precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to protect and maintain order in western Canada.
Macdonald died on June 6, 1891, after suffering a stroke. He was 76 years old and had won his final election only three months earlier. Macdonald was buried in a simple grave in Kingston, Ontario. His second and only surviving son, Hugh John Macdonald, became premier of Manitoba in 1900. In 2002, Canada’s government established January 11 as Sir John A. Macdonald Day.