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Banner: First Among Equals: The Prime Minister in Canadian Life and Politics
Alexander Mackenzie

Anecdote

Romeo gets his feet wet

It was love, not politics, that brought Alexander Mackenzie to Canada where he would become our second prime minister. Born in Perthshire, Scotland, he emigrated to Canada in 1842 to follow his sweetheart, Helen Neil. A stonemason by trade, Mackenzie worked at Fort Henry in Kingston, the Beauharnois Canal near Montreal, and the Welland Canal.

He spent one winter on Wolfe Island in Kingston harbour cutting stone. Every Saturday night he crossed the ice to visit Helen, who was living with her parents in Kingston. One night, Mackenzie knocked on the Neil family's door, half-frozen and soaking wet, having fallen through the ice in the darkness. But this narrow brush with drowning did not deter the ardent Alexander. The next time he fell through the ice, he had a long pole with him to help himself out of the lake!

Mackenzie's working class roots aligned him with the Reform party, who opposed the support of privilege and the status quo of the Conservatives. When he became Canada's first Liberal prime minister in 1873, Mackenzie brought with him both his stonemason's skills and his democratic ideals. He refused the offer of a knighthood three times!

Mackenzie was also Minister of Public Works and oversaw the completion of the Parliament Buildings. While drawing up the plans, he included a circular staircase leading directly from his office to the outside of the building. This clever addition allowed him to escape the press and the patronage-seekers waiting for him in his ante-chamber!

Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.

Mackenzie: main page

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