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Sir John Alexander Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister, holding office for more than 18 years from 1 July 1867 to 5 November 1873 and from 17 October 1878 to 6 June 1891. He won six majority governments, still a Canadian record, and could rightly be called the father of Canada.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland on 11 January 1815, Macdonald was the third of five children to Hugh and Helen Macdonald. He was five years of age when the family moved to Kingston, Upper Canada after his merchant father’s business failures at home. His family struggled to afford to send him to the Midland Grammar School in Kingston where he was noted as a voracious reader who would immerse himself in a book for hours and not be distracted. After briefly attending another school, he left at age 15.

At the beckoning of his parents, Macdonald pursued a career in law. He passed the Law Society of Upper Canada examination and was apprenticed to a young lawyer called George Mackenzie. In 1835, at just 19, he was running his own practice. He moved into criminal law in 1837 and his name started to spread beyond the small Kingston business community. During the Rebellions of 1837, he defended and gained acquittals for eight political prisoners who had been charged with treason. There were bigger risks to come. Macdonald defended a group of American raiders who were part of an unsuccessful attempt to free Canada from British colonial oppression. But he could only give advice, as civilian lawyers couldn’t address the judge or question witnesses.

Macdonald became Alderman of Kingston in 1843 and was elected as a Conservative to the parliament of the Province of Canada the following year to represent Kingston. He became Receiver General in 1847 but the government lost the next election and he resigned from his party. He then helped form the Liberal-Conservative Party who won office in 1854. Macdonald became Attorney-General and was regarded as the most powerful minister in cabinet. After the next election in 1856, he became joint premier of the Province of Canada. Despite the government’s defeat in the 1858 election, the governor-general asked previous joint premier George-Etienne Cartier to be the senior premier only a week later and Macdonald returned to the cabinet with him. This was allowed so long as it was done within a month of resigning from previous cabinet positions. The government was defeated in 1862 and Macdonald became opposition leader before his party won again in 1864.

Leading the Conservatives in a tripartite arrangement known as the Great Coalition, his main aim from 1864 to 1867 was to organize legislation to confederate the Province of Canada and the various other colonies into the country of Canada. He presented his views at the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864 and again at the Quebec Conference in the following month. The final confederation conference was held in London where agreement of the colonies was reached. The Dominion of Canada was created under the British North America Act of 1867, effective from 1 July. Queen Victoria knighted Macdonald for his role in confederation on the same day.

His Conservative Party won the August 1867 election and he became prime minister. His vision was to make Canada even larger and to unify it. His government bought Rupert’s Land and North-Western Territory, two large areas to the west of the country for 300,000 pounds from the Hudson’s Bay Company. British Columbia was added to Canada in 1871 after Macdonald promised to connect it to the transcontinental railway. But he was accused of bribery relating to rail construction contracts, which became known as the Pacific Scandal, and he was forced to resign on 5 November 1873.

He regained power and the prime ministership in 1878 with his National Policy of promoting local industry and protecting it from the industry of other countries. He met his promise of finishing the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, but sent Canada deep into debt in the process. He and the project regained favor during the North-West Rebellion led by Louis Riel who had returned from exile. Troops were quickly sent to the Saskatchewan District by train and quelled the independence bid. Macdonald again won the 1891 election but by this time he was 76 and feeling the effects of overwork, drinking, and illness. He suffered a stroke on 29 May 1891 and never recovered, dying eight days later aged 76.

In contrast to his public life, his personal life was less successful, and was marred by sickness, drunkenness, debt and unhappiness. He suffered an undiagnosed illness in 1840 to 1842, leaving him weak and listless. In 1842, he sailed to Britain with a large sum of money he had won playing cards and met his cousin Isabella Clark. Six years older than Macdonald, she returned with him to Canada and they married on 1 September 1843. She fell sick in 1845 with headaches and numbness, and took opium and sherry to relieve the severe pain. They traveled to Savannah, Georgia for a while, in the hope that the warmer climate would aid her health but she remained ill. Their son, John Alexander, was born in 1847 but he died in his cot at 13 months. A second son, Hugh John, was born in 1850. Isabella never recovered from her sickness and died in 1857, and the son went to live with Macdonald’s sister Margaret.

The time away from work caring for his sick wife, together with the cost, pushed him into debt. Politicians at the time received only token pay. These pressures drove him to drink and he was often seen at various bars and lounges binge drinking. He once vomited on the speaker’s podium and jokingly told the crowd that hearing his opponents speak caused him to be sick. He was also known for his temper, tearing across the House of Commons floor to attack opponent Donald Smith before being restrained. One of his nicknames was Old Tomorrow as he tended to put things off until circumstances were politically favorable to him. Macdonald married again in 1867 to Susan Agnes Bernard. Their daughter, Margaret Mary Macdonald, had hydrocephalus at birth and suffered physical and mental disabilities but lived to 64 years.

John A. Macdonald is Canada’s second longest serving prime minister. He appears on the 10 dollar bill. Macdonald-Cartier is the name of an international airport, a highway, and a bridge. In Kingston, there is Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard and Macdonald Park, as well as a statue on the corner of West and King streets. Various buildings carry his name too. In 2004, he was voted among the top 10 “Greatest Canadians” by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation viewers.

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