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

Alexander Mackenzie.


1822 - 1892

"I have always held those political opinions which point to the universal brotherhood of man, no matter in what rank of life he may have taken his origin."  --  Alexander Mackenzie, 1875

Canada's second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie, was a nation builder of a literal sort. When he became Canada's first Liberal prime minister in 1873, he brought with him both his stonemason's skill and his democratic principles. Born in Perthshire, Scotland, he emigrated to Canada in 1842 to follow his sweetheart, Helen Neil. Trained as a stonemason, he soon found work in the rapidly growing provinces of Canada East and West. One of his first jobs was to build a bomb-proof stone arch at Fort Henry in Kingston. His next task was working on the Beauharnois Canal near Montreal. Many of the monuments raised by Mackenzie still stand in Ontario: the Welland Canal, the martello towers in Kingston, the Episcopal Church and bank in Sarnia, courthouses and jails in Chatham and Sandwich.

While cutting stone on Wolfe Island one winter, he crossed the ice every Saturday night to visit Helen, who was living with her parents in Kingston. One night, Mackenzie arrived 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. He continued his visits, but carried a pole to help him out of the lake!

In order to support his family, Mackenzie had been forced to cut short his formal education at the age of thirteen. But throughout his life he sought to make up for the schooling he lacked by a program of self-education which included the study of literature, history, science, philosophy and politics. In Scotland, Mackenzie had been drawn to the Chartist movement, a political group advocating democratic reform. He was naturally drawn to the Reform party (forerunner of the Liberal party) in Canada. By 1852, Mackenzie was the editor of the Reform newspaper, the Lambton Shield, and through it, became friends with the party leader, George Brown. Mackenzie was first elected as a Reform member to the Provincial Assembly in 1861. He was elected to federal Parliament in 1867 and sat in the Ontario Assembly from 1871 to 1872, when dual representation was abolished.

Mackenzie became leader of the Liberal (formerly Reform) party in 1873. That same year, the Liberals uncovered and released to the press evidence of bribery involving the Conservative party and the contractors engaged in building the government's Pacific Railway. In the ensuing scandal, the Conservatives under Sir John A. Macdonald were forced to resign, and Alexander Mackenzie and the Liberals took over. A general election in January 1874 gave Mackenzie the mandate to govern.

It was unusual for a man of Mackenzie's humble origins to attain such a position in an age which generally offered such opportunity only to the privileged. Lord Dufferin, the current Governor General, expressed early misgivings about a stonemason taking over government. But on meeting Mackenzie, Dufferin revised his opinions: "However narrow and inexperienced Mackenzie may be, I imagine he is a thoroughly upright, well-principled, and well-meaning man."

Mackenzie also served as 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 patronage-seekers waiting for him in his ante-chamber. Proving Dufferin's reflections on his character to be true, Mackenzie disliked intensely the patronage inherent in politics. Nevertheless, he found it a necessary evil in order to maintain party unity and ensure the loyalty of his fellow Liberals.

In keeping with his democratic ideals, Mackenzie refused the offer of a knighthood three times. His pride in his working-class origins never left him. Once, while touring Fort Henry as prime minister, he asked the soldier accompanying him if he knew the thickness of the wall beside them. The embarrassed escort confessed that he didn't and Mackenzie replied, "I do. It is five feet, ten inches. I know, because I built it myself!"

Under Mackenzie, the Liberal government established the Supreme Court of Canada, reformed the electoral system and introduced the secret ballot, as well as completing the Intercolonial Railway and starting the Pacific line. Unfortunately, the country suffered an economic recession in the mid-1870s, for which Mackenzie's government was blamed and they lost the election in 1878. Mackenzie gave up the leadership of the Liberals in 1880, but remained in Parliament until his death in 1892.

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

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