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Political cartoon from the CANADIAN ILLUSTRATED NEWS depicting Alexander Mackenzie and Sir John A. Macdonald and commenting on corruption in Canadian politics, by G. Gascard, February 7, 1874

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Political cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News depicting Alexander Mackenzie and Sir John A. Macdonald and commenting on corruption in Canadian politics, by G. Gascard, February 7, 1874

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

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The Opponents

A bribe-taking, hard-drinking lawyer whose persuasive tongue and political shrewdness brought a string of colonies into nationhood was bound to make a few enemies along the way.

As his fellow British loyalists would say, Sir John A. Macdonald was a "hail fellow, well met." In fact, his magnetic personality has often been described as his greatest attribute, political or otherwise. As congenial and charming as he was, however, Macdonald's nation-building policies, his politics (shady at times, downright crooked at others) and his lifestyle proved troublesome to Canada's new order of political reformers and western secessionists.

Photograph of Oliver Mowat, Premier of Ontario, ca. 1873
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Oliver Mowat, Premier of Ontario, ca. 1873

One of Macdonald's most famous, or at least most persistent, opponents started out as a friend and a colleague. Oliver Mowat began working for Macdonald's Kingston law practice in 1836. He was 16 and Macdonald was 21. The two young and ambitious lawyers eventually found their way into the turbulent political landscape of pre-Confederation; Canada-Mowat in Toronto and Macdonald in Kingston, then the capital of the Province of Canada.

Mowat, who became one of Ontario's busiest lawyers, joined the Reform Party, a somewhat militant brand of politicians who had come to distrust the politics of co-premiers Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, who were then governing the Province of Canada. Mowat felt that Macdonald and his Liberal-Conservatives were too soft on issues of principle and would do whatever was necessary to stay popular. "Our friend Macdonald does not pretend to patriotism," he wrote to his friend and another former colleague of Macdonald, Alexander Campbell. "In private, he laughs at it."

Photograph of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, June 1871
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Sir George-Étienne Cartier, June 1871

Macdonald and Mowat butted heads often, even running against each other for a legislature seat in Kingston in 1861. Macdonald won handily, but the two remained allies at that time. Mowat also became a key delegate for the Province of Canada at the Québec Conference of 1864, which laid the groundwork for the passage of the British North America Act. After Confederation, Mowat bounced between federal and provincial politics. In 1872, he became premier of Ontario and returned to haunt Prime Minister Macdonald. Mowat believed Macdonald was catering too much to other provinces to entice them to join Confederation and that Ontario deserved concessions of its own. Mowat wanted to expand provincial jurisdiction at the expense of Macdonald's federation. After several court battles, Mowat eventually succeeded in winning provincial jurisdiction over liquor, timber and mineral rights.

Joseph Howe was another provincial leader who proved troublesome for Macdonald. Although he was not the premier of Nova Scotia, Howe led the province's Anti-Confederate Party in Canada's first election of 1867 and delivered all but one of the province's seats.

Photograph of Alexander Mackenzie, Premier of Canada, March 1878
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Alexander Mackenzie, Premier of Canada, March 1878

When Macdonald was not fighting premiers and provincial activists who thought the British North America Act gave them a raw deal, he had to contend with the early rumblings of what would become the Liberal Party of Canada. In the first years after Confederation, the Clear Grits and Reformers were rallying around a few key figures to form a party that would dethrone Macdonald. One of these figures was Edward Blake, a former Ontario premier who advocated greater independence from Britain and a central player in Alexander Mackenzie's Liberal Party in the 1870s. Jonathan Swainger, a University of Northern British Columbia historian, said that Blake showed great promise in the party and was an opponent whom Macdonald feared would be his undoing.

Photograph of Edward Blake, ca. 1886
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Hon. Edward Blake, ca. 1886

During the slow unravelling of the Pacific Scandal of 1873, Macdonald believed that if the Liberals blew open the scandal, Blake would step up to run for the prime ministership. "He was considered to be the uncrowned leader throughout the Mackenzie era," Swainger said. However, Mackenzie remained Liberal leader and, after defeating the Conservatives in 1873, became prime minister while Blake stayed in the background.

As prime minister, Mackenzie created the Supreme Court of Canada, something Macdonald viewed as a threat to Canada's ties with Britain. According to Mackenzie historian Ben Forster, Mackenzie had a fundamental disdain for Macdonald's personal failings. "Mackenzie was highly moralistic," Forster said. "He was a teetotaller for the most part. He found it really appalling to see people drunk in the House of Commons and Macdonald was drunk more than once in the House of Commons."

According to Forster, Mackenzie also thought Macdonald was too much of an old British-style Tory who used wealth, patronage and the spoils of government to advance his political agenda.

Macdonald was also a free spender, Mackenzie contended. Macdonald's railway project, which landed him in a controversy that cost him an election, was a prime example of that. But Forster said when Mackenzie gained power and was tasked with building the railroad, he found he could not make progress using conventional methods. Though Macdonald eventually triumphed over both Blake and Mackenzie, Forster said they should be remembered for their contributions toward establishing the Liberal Party of Canada as a legitimate national party.

Photograph of Louis Riel, ca. 1875
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Louis Riel, ca. 1875

With plans for a railway in place and the acquisition of Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870, Macdonald cast his ambitious eye west and set to work creating a transcontinental union. But many resisted this expansion, and none more persuasively and actively than Louis Riel.

The Riel-led rebellions of 1869 and 1885 exposed linguistic and cultural divides in Canada. Riel, the leader of a Métis provisional government in what would become Manitoba, fought against Canada's expansion in an effort to preserve the Francophone and Aboriginal culture of his people. Macdonald was angered by Riel's efforts, sending in the Canadian military to put down the resistance. Riel's men were defeated and Riel himself was tried and hanged for treason. His execution still resonates among Canada's French-speaking and Métis communities, where Riel is regarded as a crusader for language and cultural rights. As builders of Canada in their own right, Macdonald's opponents shaped and continue to shape the political, legal and social landscape of Canada.