The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Sir John A. Macdonald’s Complex Legacy

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald at 55, (1870).

January 11, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John Alexander Macdonald. As the first Prime Minister of Canada and one of the Fathers of Confederation, there is fanfare going on to commemorate his bicentennial birthday. The Royal Mint of Canada will be placing his image on the tonnie. Kingston, Ontario, his adopted hometown (parents immigrated here when he was 5 from Glasgow, Scotland), is going all out with a jam-packed Macdonald Week to celebrate. Meanwhile historians and Canadian history fans are hashing it out over his divisive legacy.

Its the latter that captures my attention the most. To celebrate or not to celebrate? In 99% of what I have read, the author tries to convince readers of their view. With public memory, there is a tendency to cast historical individuals as either a hero or a villain because it is simply easier. Grey figures, aka most people throughout history, don’t fit into the molds we build for them. As a result, facts get glossed over depending on one’s perspective or agenda. However, since I have none to push, I have decided to simply list the aspects that make up his complex legacy and leave it up to you to decide whether to Toast or Roast Sir John A. Macdonald—or both.

By the age of 19, Macdonald running his own legal office and would become a well-known defense lawyer who often fought for hopeless causes. By 29, he became a Conservative MP for Kingston.

Took part in the loyalist attack on the rebels at Montgomery’s Tavern.

Alcohol, not blood, ran through his veins for the majority of his life.

Known to have said, “[The public] would rather have a drunken John A. Macdonald than a sober George Brown.” Also, after throwing up during a debate his opponent sneered, “Is this the man you want running your country, a drunker?” Macdonald collected himself and replied, “I get sick sometimes not because of drink or any other cause, except that I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent.”

His first wife, Isabella Clark, died young after a decade-long illness. His first son died at 13 months and his daughter with second wife Susan Agnes Bernard, was born with Hydrocephalus (a swelling of the brain), which left her intellectually disabled and unable to walk. Some historians attribute Macdonald’s alcoholism to his personal life.

Macdonald at age 43. (1858).

Helped form the Liberal-Conservative Party; considered to be early forerunners of today’s Conservative party.

Set aside his rivalry with George Brown, leader of the Clear Grits (aka the Liberals) and took up Brown’s offer to form the Great Coalition and work towards Confederation. He believed uniting would better accommodate the racial, religious, and regional differences of British North America and was less concerned with independence and American expansionism fears.

Boozefest 1864. (Most were hungover at the time the photo was taken. Macdonald is sitting down in the middle).

Desired a highly centralized, unitary form of government. Instead got a federalist government, (power is divided between a federal legislature and provincial legislatures), where the provinces still maintained a strong, individual identities.

Considered the chief architect of Confederation. He brought Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the fold and they, along with Upper and Lower Canada, united in 1867 to form the Dominion of Canada. Appointed the first Prime Minister and knighted as a result. Later, he brought in Prince Edward Island, Rupert’s Land, British Columbia, and the North-Western Territory.

Fun Fact: To obtain Rupert’s Land, Britain had the Hudson’s Bay Company sell it to Canada for $1.5 million. The US had offered $10 million, but clearly someone was still salty over a certain revolution.

Young Canada giving Uncle Sam the boot.

Shutdown the Red River Rebellion and the North-West Rebellion, which led to the creation of Manitoba and the North West Mounted Police (later became the RCMP), as well as the subjugation of the Métis and the Plains peoples and the execution of Louis Riel.

By creating the North West Mounted Police, Macdonald established the permanent enforcement of Canadian law in the west. In doing so he prevented our own version of “the Indian wars” that accompanied westward expansion in the US.

Macdonald was responsible for Aboriginal policy. His Indian Act of 1876 led to the development of the residential school system.

Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School, (Saskatchewan, 1885). Parents of First Nations children had to camp outside the gates of the residential schools in order to visit their children.

His government passed starvation policies to help clear First Nations from the Prairies in order to build the Trans-Canadian railroad, which led to thousands of deaths. (Food was withheld until Aboriginal people moved to reserves. Once they did, the food was rotten and those living there fell into a cycle of malnutrition, illness, and death. This lasted for decades).

Gave Aboriginals the right to vote……if they gave up their treaty rights and Indian status through a process in the Indian Act known as ‘enfranchisement.’

Instrumental in the creation of the Trans-Canadian railroad. Extended the Intercolonial Railway between Québec City and Halifax to the Pacific. However, to get the contract to build to British Columbia, he and his colleagues made large financial contributions to Sir Hugh Allan, who headed the railway syndicate. Claimed his hands were clean because he had not personally profited, but his government was defeated in 1874 as a result of the Pacific Scandal.

A drunk Macdonald trampling over Canada with “Send me another $10,000” written on his palm. (1873).

Did not let getting voted out as Kingston’s MP stop him from becoming Prime Minister again in 1878. When he was defeated, the polls were still open in British Columbia. Despite never having set foot in Victoria, stated he was running there, and won. He was reelected 3 more times, remaining Prime Minister until his death in 1891.

Hoping to build a strong manufacturing base in Canada, his National Policy levied high tariffs on foreign imported goods to limit American competition. This lasted until WW2.

Macdonald riding his National Policy to victory in the 1878 election. Former Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie is being strangled by the elephant.

Had his drinking under control by his 60th birthday; his last incident of public drunkenness occurred in 1878, 13 years before his death.

In 1883, introduced a bill into Parliament that would have allowed unmarried women and widows to vote. The bill was not passed. He reintroduced the bill in 1884, but that was defeated too and it led to women’s suffrage becoming a provincial issue.

Macdonald at age 68, (1883).

Achieved his transcontinental railway dream in 1885. Celebrated by riding on the cowcatcher with his wife as they travelled out to BC.

Macdonald and his wife travelling to British Columbia.

Disdained the very men who helped build his dream. Referred to the Chinese as “a semi-barbaric, inferior race.” Passed the Chinese Immigration Act which restricted immigration from China and put a “head tax” on every Chinese immigrant that came to Canada.

Election poster from 1891.

Not too long after his final reelection, Macdonald suffered a stroke and passed away on June 6, 1891. Macdonald served Canada for 48 years as a politician. He is the second-longest serving prime minister (after William Lyon Mackenzie King) as 19 of those years were as Prime Minister

Macdonald lying in state at the Senate chamber. (June 8, 1891).

Regardless of how you feel about him (I would love to hear your thoughts!), I think we can all agree that Sir. John A. Macdonald did a lot in the 76 years of his life.

Thanks for reading!


Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician. The Old Chieftain. University of Toronto Press, (1998).

James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, University of Regina Press (2013).

Richard Gwyn, Nation Maker: Sir John A Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Random House Canada (2011).

“Sir John A. Macdonald (Sir John Alexander Macdonald),” Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed from:


12 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Sir John A. Macdonald’s Complex Legacy

  1. franbrz says:

    Round these parts, every day is Sir John A. Macdonald day! Literally, I think there’s even pictures of him on some city garbage cans downtown. I definitely agree that it’s problematic to put historical figures into black and white categories, on the one hand we shouldn’t worship them, on the other hand their misdeeds don’t necessarily make them evil people. You rarely hear anything negative about Sir John A. here in Kingston, but it looks like they’re keeping Macdonald Week pretty light-hearted anyway. (We even have a musical, which I haven’t seen, called Sir John, Eh? The obsession is real.)


    • cadeauca says:

      You make a great point about the problem with black and white categories.

      I’ve wondered if Kingstonians are sick of the Macdonald obsession or if they welcome it. I didn’t know that he’s on some city garbage cans though. That’s pretty funny. I’m surprised a picture of that hasn’t popped up in the articles coming from the anti-Macdonald side!

      I love the fact that someone made a musical about Macdonald. I’m all for making Canadian history fun and accessible to different audiences. I looked it up and the original script starts off with ghost!Macdonald singing about whiskey in a cemetery. Hahahaha.


      • franbrz says:

        I think most people welcome it, and if you’ve grown up here it’s just kind of part of life! Yeah, the garbage cans in question are fairly “nice” ones with tourism ads on them (it’s a bit hard to describe) but the concept is still funny!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yvonne says:

    He surely wasn’t a grey man! It was quite a feat to accomplish all he did, given the attitudes of the time (and his hangovers)! I’ll have to ask nicely for one of my nieces to get me one of those ‘toonies’.


    • cadeauca says:

      Definitely not! I never intended for this to be such a long post, but it just kept growing and growing because there was so much material to include. If you get one of those toonie, keep it for when you play heads or tails. Macdonald is replacing the polar bear, so no matter what, you will always land on heads with it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      Thank you for your comment!

      I recently read Tim Cook’s “The Necessary War: Canadians Fighting the Second World War” and it was pretty good. I recommend anything by Pierre Berton, particularly The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813. For an overarching narrative try Story of Canada by Janet Lunn. But there are so many Canadian history-related books out there that everyone should be able to find one that suits their tastes! Here’s a good list to start with:


    • cadeauca says:

      That’s definitely a really good lesson to take away from learning about historical figures! Also you get a fuller sense of the person when you learn about both the bad and the good.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jennifer Griffin says:

    Thank you for this great post! I am doing a Canadian History project based on the good and bad of Sir John A. Macdonald. This was very informative, easy to read and helpful for my overall understanding!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s