Macdonald, John A.
b. 1815-01-11
d. 1891-06-06
Sir John A. Macdonald (11 January 1815 - 6 June 1891) was the first prime minister of Canada (1867-73, 1878-91), lawyer, businessman and politician.1 Born in Glasgow, Scotland, his family immigrated to Kingston, Upper Canada, when he was 5.2
At the age of 15, Macdonald began to study law and apprenticed to George Mackenzie.3 His early career coincided with the rebellion in Upper Canada.4 In 1837, he took part in an attack on rebels at Montgomery’s Tavern, as a militia private.5 In 1838, Macdonald defended accused rebels, attracting public attention.6
On 7 September 1843, Macdonald married his first wife Isabella Clark (1811-56) in Kingston, Canada West.7 Their son Hugh Macdonald was born 13 March 1850.8 After Clark passed away, he married his second wife, Susan Agnes Bernard (1836-1920), on 16 February 1867 in London, England. They had a daughter on 8 February 1869, Mary Macdonald.
On 15 October 1844, Macdonald was elected as Kingston’s representative at the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.9 In 1854, he became the Attorney General in the coalition government of MacNab and Morin.10 Along with Etienne-Paschal Tache, Macdonald seceded MacNab as co-premier.11 In 1858, Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier were involved in the “double shuffle”, which allowed their ministry to stay in power without facing by-elections.12
Macdonald and colleagues formed the Great Coalition on 22 June 1864, and began the process of Confederation in the Province of Canada.13 That same year on September 1, he attended the Charlottetown Conference to convince the Maritime provinces to join confederation.14 The Quebec Conference followed in October 10 that year and the Quebec Resolutions were agreed upon.15
At the London Conference, 4 December 1866, 16 delegates from the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick met with the British Government for a period of three months.16 At this conference, the delegates reviewed the Quebec Resolutions, created a document that would be the basis of the British North America Act, chose the name Canada for the new country, and designated it a Dominion.17
In 1867, the Dominion of Canada came into existence and Macdonald was elected as the first Prime Minister. He was knighted that same year in acknowledgement of the work he did for Confederation.18
The Canadian Pacific Railway is often considered one of Macdonald’s greatest accomplishments. The company was formed 15 October 1872 and given charter February 1873.19 Given the dubious nature of railway tycoon Sir Hugh Allan’s methods to obtain the charter by bribery, and Macdonald’s acceptance of those funds for his election campaign, Macdonald’s government was defeated in the aftermath of what became known as the Pacific Scandal.20 He returned to power in the 1878 election, his platform of National Policy called for high tariffs, the completion of the CPR, and settlement of the west.21 He remained in power until his death, 6 June 1891. During this period, from 1878-1891, the National Policy took effect, Arctic sovereignty was passed to Canada, the Chinese Head Tax put into place, the Northwest Resistance and the Battle of Loon Lake (the last battle fought on Canadian soil) occurred, Big Bear surrendered and was sentenced to three years in prison which led to his death, Louis Riel hung, and Banff hot springs became Canada’s first National Park.22
Macdonald’s policies surrounding Indigenous People's have been damaging. During the 1880s, Macdonald and his government intentionally starved Indigneous people, causing the deaths of thousands. As the bison began to disappear, Indigneous communities turned to Ottawa for help, expecting Macdonald to honour the treaties he had signed.23 Instead, he ordered the Department of Indian Affairs in Prince Albert to withhold food from Indigenous Nations until they moved to the federally designated reserves and out of the way for the CPR.24 Once on reserve, they were trapped, only able to leave with the permission of an Indian Agent.25 Many Indigenous women were raped, the people were unable to hunt or farm, and if they complained their rations were cut. Many times the food that they did receive was subpar and in one case a contaminated shipment led to a mass outbreak of tuberculosis.26
Macdonald is also responsible for the creation of the infamous Indian Residential Schools system.27 This policy was established to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into the mainstream body politic against their will. Many Indigenous children were abused psychologically, physically, and sexually in this system; tens of thousands died as a result of poor conditions and tuberculosis.28
John A. Macdonald’s legacy is complex. While he has largely been memorialized for being the first prime minister, a nation builder, and for the implementation of infrastructure and industrial development, he has also left a legacy of human erasure, physical and cultural displacement, and assimilation.29 Indigenous, Black and Asian communities have been continuously marginalized by “so-called Canadian national progress”.30 As a result of Macdonald’s past policies, practices, and legacy of colonialism, Canadians are now living in an era of apology. Over the past 40 years, the federal government of Canada has apologized approximately 13 times for various events in the country’s colonial history. Two of these apologies include the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923 (22 June 2006), Canada’s Indian Residential School System which hundreds of thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended from approximately 1840-1996 (11 June 2008).31 In recognition of past atrocities sanctioned by Macdonald, his statue was recently removed from in front of the city hall building in Victoria, BC.32 The movement to remove the statue was headed by the local Indigenous communities.33
Mentions of this person in the documents
People in this document

Cartier, George Etienne

Riel, Louis

Places in this document

London

The Colonial Despatches Team. Macdonald, John A.. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. The Colonial Despatches Team. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria. https://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/macdonald_ja.html.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)