Sir John A. MacDonald: Son of Scotland, Father of Canada

It’s impossible to write about the history of Canada without mentioning Sir John A. MacDonald. A proud Scotsman, MacDonald served as Canada’s first (and third) Prime Minister. He was also hugely influential in creating the Confederation of Canada, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. He is revered for his key role in the formation of the country as we know it today, and is heart-warmingly referred to as ‘The Father of Canada’.

Despite these accolades, MacDonald arrived in Canada from a very humble background. Born in Glasgow on 11 January 1815, to Hugh MacDonald and Helen Shaw, the MacDonalds emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1820. John’s father, Hugh, was a woefully unsuccessful businessman and emigration did little to improve this. He was responsible for running several businesses into the ground, in both Scotland and Canada. Due to his father’s continual failure in business, John was forced into work from an early age, leaving School at 15 and training to become a lawyer to earn money and support his family.

Whetting his political appetite

MacDonald was determined to make a name for himself early in his professional career. He took on high profile cases, quickly attracting praise for the quality of his defence. It’s in the courtroom, learning and refining the art of argument and persuasion, that allowed him to become such an influential and established politician later in life.

MacDonald’s first political experience came at the age of 28, when he ran for the post of Alderman in his hometown of Kingston. He won a landslide victory, securing 156 of the 199 votes. Just 18 months later he stood as a Conservative candidate in the election for the newly formed Province of Canada. The result was another landslide victory, winning 275 of the 317 votes. This is where MacDonald’s political career really took off, eventually forcing him to give up his legal practice and concentrate full time on politics. Over the next decade, as his popularity increased, John served a number of prominent government roles. Amongst these, he served as Queens Counsel and Attorney General before eventually becoming leader of the Conservative party in 1856.

Creating the Confederation

In 1864 MacDonald began working towards creating a new Confederation of Canada, with the aim of uniting western colonies like British Columbia with the eastern Province of Canada. It was during this time that MacDonald stunned all of Canada by forming an alliance with opposition leader George Brown. The two were not only seen as political rivals, but were generally believed to hate each other. However, they set aside their differences, forming what became known as the ‘Great Coalition’.

Within a year, Canada’s assembly formally approved Confederation, and MacDonald set sail for London to gain Royal Assent. After passing through both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the British North America Act, which would form a major part of Canada’s constitution, was given Royal Assent on 29 March 1867. All that was left was to select a date that the new union would come into being.

Though we celebrate Canada Day on 1 July, it was not the preferred date for the birth of the Confederation. MacDonald preferred 15 July, with the British wanting 22 May, before both settled on 1 July. The day proved to be a landmark one for MacDonald; as well as personally being appointed as Canada’s first Prime Minister, he was also given a knighthood for his services to the British Empire. MacDonald went on to cement his position as Prime Minister by winning the first general election, held during the same year.

Prime Minister MacDonald

MacDonald served two terms as Canadian Prime Minister, with his first running from 1867 until 1873. However, his party was removed over a scandal involving one of MacDonald’s other major contributions to Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Despite this scandal, MacDonald avoided much of the fallout and remained a prominent political figure.

His popularity was reinforced when, during the 1878 election, he was once again elected as Prime Minister. His devotion to Canada was such that, despite suffering a stroke which left him paralysed and unable to speak, he still continued as the country’s leader. MacDonald remained mentally alert, and fought on bravely for several days before eventually dying in office on 6 June 1891.

MacDonald's legacy

Since his death, many memorials have been placed across the length and breadth of Canada, with one also being placed in Scotland, in his hometown of Glasgow. However, MacDonald’s true monument is Canada itself. Wilfrid Laurier, opposition leader, paid tribute to MacDonald after his death, stating in the House of Commons that:

‘In fact the place of Sir John A. MacDonald in this country was so large and so  absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country, the  fate of this country, will continue without him. His loss overwhelms us’.

MacDonald spent much of his life shaping Canada into the image that we now celebrate every July. He brought together people from opposing walks of life and helped develop a strong sense of community that tied together French and British elements to create a new identity. More than that, he then built on this early creation, after pushing through the confederation, by bringing British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories into this union.

Canada 150 - Scottish influencers

Last updated 1 Jul 2017