Leadership Series: Sir John A Macdonald

Bryan Brulotte - Unity. Prosperity. Compassion. #CanadaUnited

Sir John Alexander Macdonald  was born 11 January 1815.  He was the first prime minister of Canada from the years (1867–1873, 1878–1891).  As the dominant figure of Canadian Confederation.  His political career spanned almost half a century.

Macdonald was born in Scotland, when he was a boy his family immigrated to Kingston in the Province of Upper Canada (today in eastern Ontario). As a lawyer he was involved in several high-profile cases and quickly became prominent in Kingston, which elected him in 1844 to the legislature of the Province of Canada. By 1857, he had become premier under the colony’s unstable political system.

In 1864, when no party proved capable of governing for long, Macdonald agreed to a proposal from his political rival, George Brown, that the parties unite in a Great Coalition to seek federation and political reform. Macdonald was the leading figure in the subsequent discussions and conferences, which resulted in the British North America Act, 1867 and the birth of Canada as a nation on 1 July 1867. Macdonald was the first Prime Minister of the new nation, and served 19 years; only William Lyon Mackenzie King served longer.

In 1873, he resigned from office over a scandal in which his party took bribes from businessmen seeking the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, he was re-elected in 1878, continuing until he died in office in 1891. Macdonald’s greatest achievements were building and guiding a successful new Dominion, forging strong democratic institutions, building the national railway, and promoting the protective tariff of the National Policy.  His most controversial move was to approve the execution of Metis leader Louis Riel for treason in 1885; it alienated many Francophones from his Conservative Party.

Macdonald’s leadership was characterised by his sense of vision, engagement, and a willingness to play the ‘long game’.

When his career is studied, it becomes obvious that there are no quick fixes on the way to power. Rebuilding a party involves much more than deposing and replacing a leader. “Depend on it,” Macdonald said, “the long game is the true one.”  In playing his long game, Macdonald continually embraced new and daring ideas. He fought to widen voting rights, legalized trade unions, crafted the National Policy, secured the entrance of Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia into Confederation, and established the RCMP to help shape what would become Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Macdonald died in 1891, still in office; he remains respected for his key role in the formation of Canada. He has been criticized for his role in the Chinese Head Tax and federal policies towards indigenous peoples. At that time, these policies were fully endorsed by all parties in the legislature and had been initiated by the Liberal party (Sir Wilfred Laurier). 

Historical rankings in surveys of experts in Canadian political history have consistently placed Macdonald as one of the highest rated Prime Ministers in Canadian history. In fact, he is lauded as one the most talented and effective politicians of the late 19th Century.  Macdonald’s biographers note his contribution to establishing Canada as a nation. Swainson suggests that Macdonald’s desire for a free and tolerant Canada became part of its national outlook: “He not only helped to create Canada, but contributed immeasurably to its character”.