1815 - 1891

Sir John A. Macdonald

Canada 150

Canada's First Prime Minister
Accessible version: http://canada150.gc.ca/eng/1420737151054
This iconic photo of John A. Macdonald was taken in 1870 by George Lancefield. Sir John was 55 years old, in the middle of his first tenure as Prime Minister of the new Dominion of Canada. [Credit: Library and Archives Canada/C-005327]

“Let us be English, or let us be French, but let us always be loyal, and above all, let us be Canadians.”

Source: "Sir John A. Macdonald by the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney”, MacDonald and Laurier Days.

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. Kingston, in the 1820s, with a population of 3,000, was one of the most important settlements in Upper Canada and had the best schools available in the area. At fifteen, Macdonald left school to start his legal training in the law office of a prominent Kingston lawyer, George Mackenzie and, at the age of twenty, became qualified to practice as a lawyer and opened his own law office. He had a successful law practice before entering politics, initially at the municipal level. Shortly after his political debut, Macdonald ran as a representative for Kingston for the Legislative Assembly in 1844 and won.

An early painting of Sir John.  The artist is unknown but this portrait in oil was painted between 1842-1843, depicting the future Father of Confederation at the age of 27 or 28.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1960-123-1, C-004811

FAMILY LIFE

In 1843, Macdonald met and married his first wife, a cousin named Isabella Clark. The marriage was happy at first, but became Macdonald's greatest source of grief after his bride developed a debilitating, mysterious illness. The disease would ebb and flow for the better part of 13 years, and eventually claim her life. Their first child, John Alexander, died tragically after 13 months. Their second son, Hugh John Macdonald, would go on to become premier of Manitoba.

Portrait of Isabelle Clark Macdonald, by William Sawyer, 1852

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.

EARLY POLITICAL LIFE

In 1844 John Alexander Macdonald became the elected member for Kingston in the Legislative Assembly of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), beginning a distinguished 47-year political career during which he would become the first prime minister of Canada in 1867.

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. 

(The Canadian Encyclopedia)

This is a daguerreotype portrait of John A. Macdonald cased in a gold locket which was possibly carried by Macdonald himself. The locket also contains portraits of his first wife Isabella and his son Hugh John, both copied from oil paintings. When this portrait was made, John Alexander Macdonald was the newly elected member for Kingston in the Legislative Assembly of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), just beginning a distinguished 47-year political career during which he would become the first prime minister of Canada in 1867. 

Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1968-086 / PA-121571

THE CONFERENCES AND CONFEDERATION

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.

Fathers of Confederation at Fanningbank, Lieutenant Governor's residence  Credit: George P. Roberts / Library and Archives Canada / C-000733 
A draft of British North America Act with Sir John A. Macdonald's hand writing on it. (Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

“As to his statesmanship, it is written in the history of Canada. It may be said without any exaggeration whatever, that the life of Sir John A. Macdonald ... is the history of Canada." -  Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

This photo was likely taken in 1878, shortly after Sir John was returned to power after leading the Opposition from 1873 to 1878. He would remain Prime Minister for the rest of his life.   

Credit: Eldridge Stanton/Library and Archives Canada/PA-034028

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 a National Policy that levied high tariffs on imported goods to shield Canadian manufacturers from American competition.

Sir Sam Steele: A great frontier hero, Mounted Policeman, and soldier of the Queen. [Credit: Citizenship and Immigration Canada]

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.

Members of the train crew pose with a westbound Pacific Express, at the first crossing of the Illecillewaet River near Glacier, B.C., 1886. [Credit: Citizenship and Immigration Canada]

MACDONALD'S CONTRIBUTION TO CANADA

Macdonald's contribution to the development of the Canadian nation far exceeded that of any of his contemporaries, yet he was not by nature an innovator. Confederation, the CPR, and the protective tariff were not his ideas, but he was brilliant and tenacious in achieving his goals once convinced of their necessity. As a politician he early developed shrewdness and ingenuity. […] He was particularly concerned with maintaining the British connection to Canada, including the tradition of parliamentary supremacy, against the threat of American economic and political influences, such as the doctrine of constitutional supremacy. (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

This photograph was taken in 1888.  Sir John A. was 73.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-002829

SIR JOHN A. MACDONALD TODAY

Monuments, tributes, schools, bridges, roads and an airport have all been built or named to honour the life and legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald.  In addition, every year on the anniversary of his birth—January 11—Canadians mark Sir John A. Macdonald day. It is a day not only to learn more about this extraordinary man’s role in building our country, but to reflect on the fact that from the very beginning, Canada was a vision built through coalition and conciliation. Sir John A. Macdonald showed us that we can achieve much by working together.

The Macdonald-Cartier Bridge in Ottawa.
The Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, 

The statue of Sir John A. Macdonald graces the ground of Parliament Hill.  It was designed by Quebec artist Louis-Philippe Hébert.

Photo credits: 

statue (top): Public Works and Government Services Canada

bridge (left): Public Works and Government Services Canada

parkway (left): The National Capital Commission

The Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald painted by Henri Sandam 1889 is part of the House of Commons Collection. Sir John was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1867 for the role he played in creating Confederation. [Credit: House of Commons Collection]

CELEBRATING THE 200TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF SIR JOHN A. MACDONALD

On the road to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, we will mark a broad range of significant anniversaries and accomplishments that have made Canada the strong, proud and free country it is today. In 2015, we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of our first Prime Minister and Father of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald and the 50th anniversary of the creation of the National Flag of Canada. The Government of Canada invites Canadians to learn more about the major events that have shaped their country’s history and express their pride in everything that Canada represents.

Canada Post and Canadian Mint will unveil of a special stamp and a two-dollar circulation coin for the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald's birth on January 11.

The Royal Canadian Mint proudly celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of our nation’s primary architect and first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. For the occasion, a two-dollar circulation coin was unveiled during community celebrations in Kingston, Ontario on January 11, 2015.

Five million of this commemorative coin began to circulate across Canada on Monday, January 12, 2015.

In addition to the two-dollar circulation coin, the Royal Canadian Mint has produced three striking collector coins, in silver and in gold, in tribute to Sir John A. on this milestone anniversary.

Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

Designed by Montréal's Paprika, this commemorative stamp mixes a traditional photo with modern design to create a fresh look at a subject who has appeared on stamps many times over the past 100 years.

Macdonald was first featured on a Canadian stamp in 1927, issued for the celebration of the diamond jubilee of Confederation.

Credits: Story

Created  by  — The Government of Canada for the 150th Anniversary of Confederation (1867-2017) 
Créé par — Le gouvernement du Canada pour le 150e anniversaire de la Confédération (1867-2017)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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