Sir John A. Macdonald




Watch the new Sir John A Macdonald Heritage Minute!

Macdonald wasn’t just the founder of a nation that otherwise, almost certainly, would not have survived. He shaped a nation that has gone on to thrive to a degree exceeded or matched by very few among the near 200 nations around the planet. If Macdonald were told this today his likeliest response would be to shrug and then turn his attention to his plans for the next election campaign.
— Richard J. Gwyn

Born 11 January 1815, in Glasgow, Scotland; Died 6 June 1891, in Ottawa, Canada. Sir John A. Macdonald was a dominant force behind the production of the British North America Act and the union of provinces which became Canada. As the first prime minister of Canada, he oversaw the expansion of the Dominion from sea to sea. His government dominated Canadian politics for a half-century, setting policy and leadership goals for future generations of politicians.

John Alexander Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1815 on the 10 or 11 of January (his exact birthdate remains a mystery), and moved to Kingston, Ontario (then Upper Canada) with his parents when he was five. Macdonald showed incredible promise from a very young age, articling with a prominent Kingston lawyer when he was only fifteen. At the age of 29, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the then united Province of Canada to represent Kingston (The Province of Canada consisted of Canada West and Canada East, formerly known as Upper Canada and Lower Canada).

In 1856, Macdonald, leader of the Conservative Party, became joint premier of the Province of Canada with Étienne-Paschal Taché, the leader of the Parti bleu. Taché’s successor, Montréal lawyer George-Étienne Cartier, governed with Macdonald from 1857-62, starting a political relationship that had a profound influence on Canadian politics and would shape the country’s future.

Between 1856-64, there were growing concerns from the Clear Grit Party (the precursor to the Liberal Party) t(hat Canada West’s needs and aspirations were frustrated by the domination of Canada East’s French-Canadian influence in the government of Macdonald and Cartier. Consequently, the government found itself in a stalemate. The leader of the Clear Grits, George Brown, founder and editor of the country’s most powerful and influential newspaper, the Toronto Globe, put forth a proposal for a new coalition. In an effort to restore communication between the province’s political and sectional forces, Macdonald reluctantly accepted Brown’s proposal for a new coalition of Conservatives, Clear Grits, and Bleus, who would work together for constitutional change. The Great Coalition of 1864 proved to be a turning point in Canadian history, paving the way for the Charlottetown Conference, where Macdonald, Brown and Cartier were key figures at the proceedings that set Confederation in motion. The three party leaders sailed from Québec City aboard the Queen Victoria steamship, arriving in Charlottetown for the conference from 1-7 September, 1864.

The Charlottetown Conference was initially organized by the three Maritime colonies (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) to discuss a union of their three provinces. This was in reaction to failed attempts to persuade the Province of Canada to contribute to the construction of a railway from Halifax to Québec. Cabinet members from the Province of Canada —not originally on the guest list — saw in this conference an opportunity to discuss the union of all the British North American colonies. The Province of Canada’s insistence on partaking in the proceedings was prompted by a fear of annexation by the United States, which was still in the midst of a Civil War. The creation of a massive United States army, combined with Britain's desire to reduce its financial and military obligations to its colonies in North America, provided clear incentive to build a stronger nation through a new political structure. Confederation with the Province of Canada had already been widely debated for many years in the Maritimes, and the hosts welcomed the presence of eight of the twelve members of the Province of Canada's Great Coalition cabinet, including Macdonald, Brown and Cartier. Cartier was one of only two French speakers at the Conference; the other was Irish Catholic orator Thomas D'Arcy McGee from Canada East.

On arrival in Charlottetown, the delegates found no hotel vacancies, thanks to a visiting circus. They stayed aboard the Queen Victoria, and entertained delegates at sea following discussions in the legislative council chamber of Charlottetown’s Province House. In these talks, Macdonald stressed the need for a strong, highly centralized, unitary form of government, while conceding the necessity of a federal arrangement to accommodate strong racial, religious and regional differences. Cartier was determined that Confederation should guarantee French Canadian autonomy in Canada East, and Brown stressed that Canada West wished to run its own affairs.

On 3 September, the Canadians hosted a champagne luncheon on board the Queen Victoria during which someone quoted words from the Anglican marriage ceremony: “If anyone knew any reason why the provinces should not be united in matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” General laughter confirmed for some that the marriage banns of a new Canada had been proclaimed, and that union would proceed. Even though the Maritime delegation had not yet agreed to Confederation, that playful moment was interpreted by George Brown as proof that they would come to accept the new, wider vision of nationhood.

After a private discussion on 7 September, the Maritime delegates gave the Canadians their answer: they were unanimous in supporting a federation of all the provinces, provided the terms were satisfactory. Because of his great constitutional expertise, Macdonald took a leading role in drafting a federal system in which the central government holds dominance over provincial governments. Four new provinces now formed the Dominion of Canada: Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

In the biography Brown of the Globe, historian J.M.S. Careless writes: “There, in the chief stateroom of the Queen Victoria, amid the wineglasses and cigar smoke, 23 men had warmly agreed to found a new nation. Other states might have a more dramatic start — but few, surely, a more enjoyable one.”

The Charlottetown Conference was convened to discuss a Maritime Union, but its participants unanimously agreed to work towards the grander scheme of Confederation. It was the first in a series of conferences and negotiations that culminated with the terms of Confederation on 1 July, 1867, the day on which the imperial government appointed Macdonald as the first prime minister of Canada.

  • Sir John A. Macdonald - Steve Cumyn
  • Sir George-Étienne Cartier – Jean L’Italien
  • George Brown – Clyde Whitman
  • Thomas D'Arcy McGee – Matt Yantha