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If we measure prime ministers by the number of majority governments they win, then Sir John A. Macdonald was far and away Canada's most successful, with a record six majority government victories. Only two other Canadian prime ministers came close to that number: Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chrétien led three majority governments each.
Macdonald's decades in office certainly provided him with sufficient opportunity to leave his mark on the country as its prime minister. Gordon Donaldson, author of the series Prime Ministers of Canada, wrote: "Every succeeding prime minister has to be matched against John A. and only a few stand the comparison . . . Several of them have been better humans than Macdonald, none has been greater." Donaldson's assessment of Macdonald is typical of what historians have been saying and writing about him for generations: Macdonald, as a man, was far from perfect, but as a prime minister, his accomplishments are unparalleled.
Although Macdonald's role as a nation builder is largely associated with the official date of Confederation, July 1, 1867, in fact, Confederation was a moving target that continued to consume practically all of Macdonald's years as prime minister. He fought separatists tooth and nail for years after Confederation. He purchased vast swaths of vacant land from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870 to give Canadians space to expand the union. He used military might to defeat western rebels who resisted that expansion. He undertook the largest engineering project in Canadian history to link provinces by rail and stimulate trade. He built economic barriers to avoid American influence. And he did it all to keep his federation afloat.
Although Canada was much smaller in population during the 19th century, remarkably, Prime Minister Macdonald faced many of the same challenges to national unity that contemporary prime ministers have faced. Whereas modern-day prime ministers have contended with the issue of separatism in the House of Commons since 1991, Macdonald was confronted by a party of Nova Scotia secessionists in Parliament, led by Joseph Howe, who constantly angled for "better terms" from Ottawa to pacify their separatist intentions. In the West, just as an upstart political party known as Reform challenged established parties in the early 1990s, Macdonald, too, found regional resistance to his centralized vision for Canada. Historian Donald Creighton noted that Macdonald, in his weak moments, feared the worst for his blossoming nation: "Often enough, Sir John feared that the great project of a federation extending from sea to sea might be coming apart in our hands."
Macdonald remains the only Canadian prime minister forced to resign over a scandal. During the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Macdonald and others were found to be accepting bribes from the company awarded the railway contract by his government. The opposition Liberals seized the opportunity to hound Macdonald from office in 1873, but the Pacific Scandal did produce what most historians count as Macdonald's most memorable public address. In a five-hour speech in the House, attended by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Macdonald vehemently denied the charges brought against him. He suggested, in Machiavellian fashion, that whatever illicit actions he took were all in the name of Canada. Sir Joseph Pope, the author of Macdonald's memoirs, said the speech was one of the "greatest efforts of his life."
"I have fought the battle of Confederation, the battle of union, the battle of dominion," Macdonald said. "I throw myself upon this House; I throw myself upon this country; I throw myself upon posterity; and I believe, and I know, that, notwithstanding the many failings in my life, I shall have the voice of this country, and this House, rallying around me." And, indeed, the country would soon rally around him again. In the 1878 election, Macdonald won his third majority government on the strength of a promise to complete the railway and institute his National Policy to encourage east-west trade and discourage cross-border commerce with the Americans.
In the campaigns of 1882 and 1887, Macdonald saw his support in Quebec and the West slip, due in no small part to the rebellions in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Louis Riel's campaign against what he saw as Macdonald's hijacking of Aboriginal and Métis culture had a two-pronged effect; it lowered Macdonald's standing in the Western provinces and signalled a perceived intolerance toward the Francophone culture.
At 76 and with his health failing, Macdonald fought the 1891 campaign mostly on his National Policy while the Liberals promised reciprocity (free trade) with the United States. He won another reduced majority and his government performed poorly after the election. Several of his ministers were caught advancing their interests with public money. Macdonald died of a stroke only three months later, on June 6, 1891. He and Sir John Thompson are the only two Canadian prime ministers to die while in office.
According to Senator Hugh Segal, an avid Macdonald admirer and fellow Conservative, Macdonald's greatest legacy to the office of the prime minister is not a speech, a policy or a bill. "He could always build a coalition on an issue that mattered," said Segal. "That was his most compelling success. There's a point in any partisan debate where you've got to stand back and realize there is something more important than party affiliation and party loyalty. And that's the loyalty to your country."