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Caricature of Sir John A. Macdonald by John Bengough

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Caricature of Sir John A. Macdonald by John Bengough

ARCHIVED - Sir John A. Macdonald
Canada's Patriot Statesman

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The Politician

Right from his entry into political affairs in the young Canada, John A. Macdonald stood out among his contemporaries. The year was 1844 and Macdonald, already an alderman in the bustling and prospective capital city of Kingston, was chosen by the local Conservatives to be their man in the upcoming provincial election.

Photograph of David Thompson, Member of Parliament for Haldimand, Ontario, March 1879
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David Thompson, Member of Parliament for Haldimand, Ontario, March 1879

The young lawyer had already gained a reputation as a maverick, taking on cases that other lawyers would not touch. One case that came to define his early career was his defence of Nils Von Schoultz, an accused rebel and leader of a Republican uprising that attempted to capture the town of Prescott in 1838. Von Schoultz would be executed for his crimes, but Macdonald earned recognition as a conservative who would stand up for liberal ideals. That episode served notice that, in his political career, Macdonald would be bold enough to make tough decisions and sensible enough to submerge his own ego to support a cause.

Leading up to the 1844 election, Macdonald wrote to the Kingston Herald, laying out the usual package of promises to his constituents on the condition that they elect him. But a portion of his statement offered a candid glimpse into what was already percolating in the young lawyer's mind: "In a young country like Canada, I am of the opinion that it is of more consequence to endeavour to develop its resources and improve its physical advantages, than to waste the time of the legislature and the money of the people in fruitless discussions on abstract and theoretical questions of government."

Photograph of George Brown, 1880
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George Brown, 1880

That October, Kingstonians unwittingly elected the man who would later become Canada's first prime minister. But before Macdonald could build a country, he needed to build a party worthy of such a challenge-a party that abandoned rigid and irrelevant ideologies; a party that recognized the value of compromise; and a party that could give equal voice to English and French. Such a party did not exist when Macdonald first stepped onto the Canadian political scene. The Conservative Party to which he belonged and which he represented after being elected, was weak. It won the election and formed a thin majority government, but the deep divides within the party and the complete absence of French-speaking members appeared as shortcomings to Macdonald as soon as he assumed his seat that November.

What he saw was an illegitimate governing party, devoid of cohesion and lacking support from a sizeable portion of the country's population. A number of groups struggled to control the loosely organized "Conservative" coalition including Liberal-Conservatives (a moderate brand of conservatism to which Macdonald ascribed), old British Tories and remnants of the Family Compact elites that ran Upper Canada in the early 19th century. Macdonald knew that if Canada was ever to progress beyond the parliamentary gridlock, there would need to be a party that could make peace with its factions and also bring in others.

Photograph of Wilfrid Laurier, ca. 1882
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Wilfrid Laurier, ca. 1882

Macdonald is still seen as the father of what would eventually become the Progressive Conservative Party in the early 20th century, and today's Conservative Party. Calling his own political brand the Liberal-Conservative Party, Macdonald was able to sway several old Tories from the Conservative benches, even managing to snag a few Reformers, and reached out to the Francophone population in Canada East. His ability to win supporters gave rise to the Great Coalition of 1864, wherein the leaders of three clearly defined parties, George Brown of the Clear Grits, George-Étienne Cartier of the Parti Bleu and Macdonald of the Liberal-Conservatives, agreed to break free of their entrenched political battles to run the Province of Canada together.

It was Cartier who would later persuade Macdonald to maintain provincial governments within the federal Dominion of Canada. Macdonald opposed the idea, as he preferred a single, strong, central government, but he relented on the advice of Cartier, his Quebec lieutenant. An entirely centralized government, Macdonald wrote, "would not meet the assent of people in Lower Canada, because they felt that in their position, being in a minority, with a different language, nationality and religion from the majority, their institutions and their laws might be assailed."

Photograph of Joseph Howe, July 1869
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Joseph Howe, July 1869

Macdonald's coalition would go on to form the government that moved swiftly on Confederation. That so many of Macdonald's opponents, like Brown, Joseph Howe and Oliver Mowat, ultimately worked to support Confederation is a testament to Macdonald's knack for consensus-building. Many historians credit Macdonald with imposing the party system on Canada-not only did he have a role in building the Progressive Conservative Party, but he also inadvertently helped to launch the Liberal Party, which was formed out of several of Macdonald's opposing factions who were determined to dethrone him as prime minister.

1983 Progressive Conservative leadership convention button and ribbon with the image of Sir John A. Macdonald
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1983 Progressive Conservative leadership convention button and ribbon with the image of Sir John A. Macdonald

Macdonald the politician had an intensely personal touch when it came to his dealings with fellow politicians. One story told by former prime minister John Turner at an event commemorating Macdonald in Orillia, Ontario, illustrates Macdonald's ability to court and inspire loyalty among lawmakers of other stripes.

David Thompson, a Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) representing Haldimand and a Macdonald contemporary, had just returned to Parliament after an extended absence due to illness. According to Turner's story, Thompson reported that: "The first man I met was [Liberal leader Edward] Blake; he passed me with a simple nod as if he had forgotten I was away. Then I met [Liberal MP Richard] Cartwright, who was just as cold. Then I met Sir John, who rushed across the Chamber, slapped me on the shoulder, grasped my hand, and said, 'Davy, I am glad you are back again; I hope you will live many a day to vote against me.' It was pretty hard not to follow a man like that," Turner quoted Thompson as saying.