John A. Forges a Nation

The first Canadian federal election took place between August 7 and September 20, 1867 with a respectable voter turnout of 73.1 percent. Macdonald and his Liberal-Conservative party took 100 of the 180 seats, winning majorities in Ontario and Québec, but taking only 4 of 34 seats in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. New Brunswick went mostly Liberal, while Joseph Howe and his Anti-Confederate party won 18 of 19 seats in Nova Scotia. George Brown, unofficial leader of the Liberal party, lost in his constituency. The speech from the throne in Canada’s first Parliament was read by Governor General Lord Monck on November 7, 1867.

Prime Minister Macdonald took his new responsibilities in stride. Along the road to Confederation he had acquired a new wife. At the London Conference, Macdonald had a chance encounter with Susan Agnes Bernard, the sister of Hewitt Bernard, Macdonald’s deputy when he had been attorney general for Canada West. Agnes had been the object of Macdonald’s affections for some time. First promising Hewitt that he would reform his drinking habits, John A. Macdonald, fifty-two, and Agnes Bernard, thirty-one, were wed at St. George’s Church in London on February 16, 1867, just six months before the election. His wife commented in her diary on how well her husband dealt with the election stress: “He can throw off the weight of business in a wonderfully short time. He has a good heart and amiable temper which are the great secrets of the success.”

Again, in this election, Macdonald used his sense of humour to charm the voters and unsettle his opponents. He stood on a manure spreader to address a group of farmers and quipped, “This is the first time I’ve stood on a Liberal platform.” Accused of being drunk at another public event, Macdonald made no effort to hide his lack of sobriety, and added, “The people would prefer to see John A. drunk than my opponent sober.”

Macdonald’s first major challenge was to win the support of skeptical Nova Scotians for their new country. In the Nova Scotia provincial election, anti-Confederates won 36 out of 38 seats. In the early days of Confederation, the Halifax Legislature passed a series of resolutions calling for Nova Scotia to leave the Union, appointing Joseph Howe its chief negotiator. The maneuver was designed to incite Nova Scotians and give them hope their crusade would be successful. But Macdonald steadfastly refused to discuss dissolution of the Union. “[Dissolution], it seems to me, would be giving up the whole question.... If the Duke of Buckingham says at once to Howe and his confrères that they have nothing to hope for from the British government, I think the matter will end there; but if he should be weak enough to say— ‘you should give the system a fair trial for a year or two’—the consequence will be that the professional agitators will keep up the agitation for a year or two and then will return to the Colonial Office and plead their own factious course and its success as an evidence of the persistent refusal of the people to be incorporated in the Union.”

Macdonald was not overly worried however, and to demonstrate his positive intent, he himself introduced the bill that provided for the construction of the intercolonial railway linking the Maritime provinces with Ontario and Québec.

When Nova Scotia pressed for a Royal Commission of Inquiry on Confederation, the British government, at Macdonald’s request, rejected the idea. Eventually, Nova Scotia’s government decided to pursue “pecuniary concessions,” also known as “better terms.” On this point Macdonald was ready to negotiate.

When Howe released a series of letters to the public outlining the need for “better terms,” Macdonald wrote joyfully to Charles Tupper, “As you truly say, Howe has not only abandoned the ship repeal but has burnt the ship. Now everything depends upon the game being played properly.”

Macdonald’s game was to focus on Howe, rather than on the distant Nova Scotia government. He told Howe the glory was all his for negotiating a better deal for Nova Scotia: “This you will see is a bold game. But ‘out of the nettle danger you will pluck the flower,’ . . . there is a glorious and patriotic game before you; let me urge you to play it.”

Negotiations with Howe began, not in Ottawa or Nova Scotia, but in Portland, Maine. The better terms for Nova Scotia provided that federal subsidies would be calculated on the same rate as New Brunswick’s. Macdonald’s strategy and patience worked brilliantly, punctuated by Howe joining his Cabinet in 1869. Howe relented after realizing that he could make no better deal with Canada and that the British government was indifferent to his pleas. Macdonald good-naturedly recalled that he had met Howe in the streets of London, England before Confederation, and joked, “Someday soon you will be one of us!” “Never! Never!” Howe replied, “You shall hang me first.” Ultimately, Macdonald not only brought Nova Scotia onside, but used Howe to negotiate the entry of Manitoba into Confederation.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a parliamentary colleague and a close friend, was also persuasive in bringing Howe and Nova Scotia to embrace Canada. Though McGee was not included in Macdonald’s Cabinet, there was a genuine fondness between the two, and Macdonald once joked with McGee that “This Government can’t afford two drunkards—and you’ve got to stop.” McGee had attended the Charlottetown and Québec City conferences and is one of the Fathers of Confederation. McGee’s outspokenness against Irish Republicanism and the Fenians caused Macdonald to warn McGee that his personal safety was at risk. After delivering an impassioned speech on national unity in the House of Commons on April 6, 1868, McGee returned to his rooming house on Sparks Street where he was shot and killed. Macdonald, woken with the shocking news in the middle of the night, was devastated and immediately rushed to the scene to be at his friend’s side. McGee was given a state funeral. Patrick James Whelan was convicted and hanged for the murder. He professed his innocence to the end, his final words being, “God save Ireland and God save my soul.”

Macdonald’s all-consuming passion for politics overwhelmed both his law practice and his need for financial security. He relied on his partners to produce income and was often on the brink financially, and professionally. Unexpectedly, in 1869 Macdonald was informed by the president of the Merchants’ Bank that his personal debt amounted to $79,500. A dollar then is the equivalent of about $30 today, which puts Macdonald’s burden at over $2 million. His $5,000 annual salary as prime minister would not even cover the interest on such a debt. In fairness, the debt was partly the consequence of the sudden death of his law partner, A.J. Macdonnell. Bankruptcy could have meant the end of his political career, however, and all manner of methods were used to raise funds, including Agnes placing a mortgage on the family’s house in Kingston. Macdonald’s friends took up a private subscription to ensure his debts were discharged and his family supported.

 Agnes gave birth to a daughter, Mary, on February 8, 1869.The child was hydrocephalic (an abnormal increase of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain resulting in an enlarged head; a lifetime disability). Macdonald was devoted to Mary and had a special second-floor landing built in the family residence so Mary could hear the political discourse that took place in the dining room. In fact, Mary outlasted her parents, living into her sixties, but despair over Mary’s disease was another key factor that stirred Macdonald to drink; sometimes in binges, to a degree that caused embarrassment to himself and the nation. Easily exaggerated by sensational storytellers, such incidents gave rise to Macdonald’s reputation as a “falling down drunk.” Certainly, there were moments of great stress and despair in Macdonald’s life, both political and personal, that led to notable incidents of excess. But these incidents have been persistently and unfairly overplayed in history books to the point where high school students are as likely to remember Macdonald’s drinking prowess as his accomplishments as a politician. Macdonald’s descendants express their frustration and anger over the characterization of Macdonald as a drunk. They state that at family gatherings there was no evidence of unrestrained consumption. Some suggest that Macdonald should not be remembered for his drinking any more than Winston Churchill is.

Having consolidated four colonies of the British Empire within Confederation, Macdonald set his sights West and East. The grand design to include Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island was first articulated in the conferences at Charlottetown and Québec City. To the West, Canada wanted the territory held by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but only if England provided financial and military support.

In April 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company accepted terms for the surrender of western Rupert’s Land. This gave Canada all the land to the west excluding British Columbia. In early June, Newfoundland delegates in Ottawa agreed on terms to enter Confederation. With Nova Scotia pacified and Prince Edward Island poised to join, Macdonald wrote triumphantly to

Sir Hastings Doyle, the first lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, “We have quietly and almost without observation, annexed all the country between here and the Rocky Mountains, as well as Newfoundland.” It was inevitable that Macdonald would seek British Columbia’s entry, to create a country that stretched from ocean to ocean. Most important to Macdonald was that British Columbia be kept out of the hands of the Americans.

William McDougall, a former George Brown colleague and member of Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservative caucus, was the first governor of the newly acquired western territory. But the transfer of Rupert’s Land into Canada, set for December 1, 1869, did not conclude as planned, mainly because of conflicts with the Métis, who had established a semi-military organization along the Red River. Macdonald realized the magnitude of the problems he faced and was sensitive to the dilemma of the Métis: “No explanation has been made of the arrangement by which the country (Rupert’s Land) is handed over to the Queen, and that it is her Majesty who transfers the country to Canada with the same rights to settlers as existed before. All these poor people know is that Canada has bought the country from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us.”

The situation was so precarious that Macdonald refused the territory when it came time to transfer the land into Canadian hands. Macdonald informed the Colonial Office: “Canada cannot accept NorthWest until peaceable possession can be given. We advise Colonial Office to delay issue a proclamation.”

Even if they were not directly involved in the Métis insurgency, Macdonald believed that the Americans relished Canada’s inability to secure western territory and may have been involved in fomenting Métis dissent. Writing to John Rose, Canada’s first minister of finance, Macdonald complained: “I cannot understand the desire of the Colonial Office, or of the Company, to saddle the responsibility of the government on Canada just now. It would so completely throw the game into the hands of the insurgents and the Yankee wirepullers, who are to some extent influencing and directing the movement from St. Paul that we cannot foresee the consequences.” Confederation must have seemed easy to Macdonald compared with the obstacles he faced in 1869. His dream of extending Canada from coast to coast was suddenly very much in doubt. To the east, the pro-Confederate government in Newfoundland had been defeated with no real prospects of change. Looking West, though Canada was assured title to the territory, its forces faced a self-declared provisional government at Red River under Métis leader Louis Riel.

While Macdonald was inclined to seek a peaceful settlement of grievances in the West, a party of Canadians, led by McDougall and his surveyor Colonel Stoughton Dennis, assembled an armed force to overtake the Riel led insurgents. In what Macdonald called a “series of inglorious intrigues,” the Canadian forces were defeated by the much larger Métis forces. Macdonald opposed the use of force and blamed much on McDougall and Dennis: “The two together have done their utmost to destroy our chance of an amicable settlement with these wild people, and now the probability is that our commissioners will fail and that we must be left to the exhibition of force next spring.”

Macdonald’s fears about absorbing the “wild west” had been realized. And there had been no opportunity to use his political skills to achieve a harmonious union. Canada had neither the financial capacity nor the military experience to conquer the inhospitable western territory. Macdonald feared that American interests and the Fenians would fund and support the rebel lion to forestall the British colony from extending its borders. In seeking British military support, Macdonald put down the choices in very blunt terms: “British North America must either belong to the Americans or British system of government. It will be a century before we are strong enough to walk alone.” The prime minister was humble enough to admit that Canada was not yet of age.

Early in 1870, the English and French-speaking parishes of the Red River settlements drew up a list of rights with a view to negotiating with the Canadian government. Negotiating political settlements was Macdonald’s forte. But a party of Canadian forces pre-empted discussions and attacked Riel’s army. Once again, Riel was victorious. Macdonald was furious, not so much at Riel, as with the Canadian military. “The foolish and criminal attempt of Schultz and Captain Boulton to renew the fight had added greatly to Riel’s strength.” In the aftermath, the Métis took Thomas Scott, an Orangeman, prisoner. Scott’s agitation in confinement was extreme and he repeatedly offended the sensibilities of his captors. For his role in attacking the provisional government, and other unspecified offences, Scott was tried on March 2 before a Métis military tribunal and was then executed, all within 24 hours. This profoundly changed the political dynamic for Macdonald. Back East, the Cabinet, and the country, split on linguistic lines: English-speaking citizens demanded military action; the French supported negotiation.

A Fenian raid into Canadian territory was expected a little more than a month after Scott’s execution. Canada sought British military support, but it was slow in coming. Macdonald complained to his friend Lord Carnarvon about the lack of British support and American intervention: “At this moment we are in daily expectation of a formidable Fenian invasion, unrepressed by the United States government ...And we are the same time called upon to send a military force to restore order in Rupert’s Land. Her Majesty’s Government have been kept fully informed of the constant threats from the Fenian body for the last five years, and they have been specially forewarned of the preparations for the present expected attack. And yet this is the time they choose to withdraw every soldier from us, and we’re left to be the unaided victims of Irish discontent and American hostility. . . .”

On April 11, 1870, with Riel’s blessing, representatives from the West (named Assiniboia) arrived in Ottawa to negotiate terms for entry into Canada. Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot and Alfred H. Scott were immediately arrested for aiding and abetting the murder of Thomas Scott the previous month. Both claimed “diplomatic immunity.” A third western representative, Judge Black, arrived in Ottawa a few days later. Macdonald met him unofficially to discuss the list of rights and other terms for political compromise. Macdonald had been reluctant to attend such a meeting for a number of reasons: first, it might provide legitimacy to Riel and his provisional government; second, because of the negative political fallout in English speaking Canada surrounding the trial and execution of Thomas Scott; and third, the possibility that Riel was acting in bad faith and had no intention of negotiating for a political settlement. In fact, Macdonald suspected an American conspiracy: “The unpleasant suspicion remains that he is only wasting time by sending this delegation, until the approach of the summer enable him to get material support from the United States.”

Father Ritchot and Alfred Scott were released from jail, and the three western delegates met with Macdonald and Cartier. Assiniboia, later known as Manitoba, wanted to join Confederation, but under its own terms. The Métis feared the arrival of scores of English-speaking immigrants, mostly Protestant, and wanted assurances they would be able to sustain their language and culture. They also wanted provincial status, including guarantees for language and religion similar to those that existed in the Province of Québec. The Métis also sought land grants in settlement of their ancestral claims. Macdonald readily agreed to these terms but refused one final request: amnesty in all matters arising out of the military conflict. Without the Scott execution, such a request might have been possible. Macdonald was personally inclined towards amnesty but dared not risk the wrath of Ontario voters.

The negotiation concluded with Manitoba joining Confederation. Riel fled to America. While in exile he was elected on three occasions, twice by acclamation, to the House of Commons to represent the Manitoba riding of Provencher. The fugitive never took his seat.

Meanwhile, the strain of office and ongoing struggles in his family life contributed to Macdonald slipping into states of extreme intoxication. Sir Stafford Northcote, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, reported to British Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli that Macdonald had fallen into temporary drunkenness: “His habit is to retire to bed, to exclude everybody, and to drink bottle after bottle of port. All the papers are sent to him, and he reads them, but he is conscious of his inability to do any important business and he does not.”

In the meantime, while progress was being made in the West, relations south of the border were deteriorating, with the issues of trade and fishing rights the most frequent irritants. International relations were not then a colonial purview, and Macdonald was frustrated that Canada was not properly represented in the British-led negotiations with the Americans. On the lack of representation for a dispute over the three-mile limit for the fishery, Macdonald remarked: “We must consider that if Canada allowed the matter to go by default, and left its interest to be adjudicated upon and settled by a commission composed exclusively of Americans having an adverse interest, and Englishman having little or no interest in Canada, the government here would be very much censured if the result were a sacrifice of the rights of the Dominion.”

The Macdonald government was heavily criticized over the treaty that was eventually signed with the United States over the fishery. Great Britain had struggles of its own with the United States and was not about to consume political capital over what it considered a minor trade issue in one of its colonies. Macdonald understood—and reluctantly accepted—Canada’s “inadequacies” when it came to self-representation. But he made certain his British masters understood the galling discomfort and humiliation Canadians felt at not having sovereignty over relations with their neighbours to the south. As he signed the treaty negotiated by England in 1871, Macdonald teased aloud so his British masters could hear, “Well, here go the fisheries ...we give them away ...here goes the signature ...they are gone.”

With Newfoundland and PEI showing little interest in a confederated Canada, Macdonald’s attention again turned westward, this time to British Columbia, whose entry into Canada depended on commencing the construction of a railway across the continent within two years and finishing it within ten. The railway was to be built by the private sector, and paid for with subsidies from the government plus considerable grants of land. A condition imposed by Macdonald on the Pacific Railway was that, “Canadian interests are to be fully protected . . . no American ring will be allowed to get control over it.” As Macdonald well knew, however, the operation could not be entirely Canadian: it required the financial support of loans and guarantees from England. And here Macdonald leveraged to his advantage the concessions England had made to the United States. He demanded compensation from the United States—through England—for the money Canada had spent to suppress the Fenian raids. But what he really wanted was financing for a transcontinental railroad.

Macdonald’s uneasiness about the Americans was both sincere and strategic. He was eager to run for re-election on a theme of Canadian independence from America, to the point that he considered shedding the Conservative label. Writing to T.C. Patteson, editor of the Mail, Macdonald explored a new name for his party: “I think (the term Conservative) should be kept in the background as much as possible, and that our party should be called the ‘Union party,’ going in for union with England against all annexationist and independents and for the union of all the provinces of British North America ...what think you of such a name as ‘the Constitutional Union Party?’”

He then told Patteson his major policy plank: “The paper must go in for a National Policy in tariff matters, and while avoiding the word ‘protection’ must dedicate a readjustment of the tariff in such a manner as incidentally to aid our manufacturing and industrial interests.”

The need for a National Policy fit well with Macdonald’s view of the conspiracies that existed south of the border to undermine Canada. Asserting Canadian interests through trade restrictions may have been economically unwise, but it was politically saleable to a population wary of American influence. Macdonald’s nationalistic fervour and instinctive distrust of the American neighbour would be matched in intensity by only one subsequent Conservative prime minister, John George Diefenbaker.

Meanwhile, the other great National Policy initiative, the transcontinental railroad, was beginning to take shape. The challenge was to assemble a Canadian-led team with the ingenuity, experience, and, most important, the financial capacity to do the job. No single company was capable of assuming so huge an undertaking, so Macdonald encouraged the creation of a public–private partnership on a scale not contemplated before or since.

The second Canadian federal election that took place in 1872, when the Macdonald government was in its fifth year, included British Columbia and Manitoba. Macdonald’s justification for seeking a second term was clear: the work of building the nation, he wrote to his minister of finance, was far from complete. “Confederation is only yet in the gristle, and it will require five years more before it hardens into bone.”

But victory for Macdonald was far from certain. His Québec lieutenant, Georges Étienne Cartier, was unwell and his popularity in his Montréal East riding was substantially diminished, partly due to a powerful consortium of railroad interests opposed to Macdonald’s plans. Macdonald then sought support from the trade unions, a group he thought should be aligned with the Conservative cause. Macdonald believed in legislation to create better working conditions for workers and supported, with some humour, strengthening the role of trade unions: “I have a special interest in (unions) because I’m a working man myself. . . . If you look at the Confederation act, in the framing of which I had some hand, you will admit that I’m a pretty good joiner; and as for Cabinetmaking, I’ve had much experience.”

Macdonald and Cartier were in a fight for their political lives. They feared the railroad project under the Liberals would flounder and with it, their vision for Canada. Sir Hugh Allan, who represented the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, was lobbying heavily to become president of a much larger railway consortium. In the heat of negotiations, Allan offered “financial assistance” to the Conservatives. Cartier initially set the “immediate requirements” as $60,000, to be split between Macdonald, Cartier, and Hector Langevin.

The sum of  $25,000 was deposited into the Merchant Bank for Macdonald’s use. None of it was used for his own election, instead being allocated to other Ontario constituencies.  But it was not enough to meet Macdonald’s campaign needs. In desperation, he pressed Allan’s solicitor, John Abbott, for more. On August 26, Macdonald cabled Abbott: “I must have another $10,000. Will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me. Answer today.” Hugh Allan delivered. In the end, Macdonald accepted $45,000; Cartier and Langevin received $117,000, worth over $3 million in current value. But the donations came with strings attached, unspecified conditions that Allan and his company thought would be addressed over the course of negotiations concerning the railway. It also left Macdonald and his colleagues beholden to an unsavoury character with whom they would have substantial business dealings. It was a disaster in the making. Macdonald, however, arrogantly believed he could avoid scandal. Because the funds helped to advance the cause of Canada, he believed he was justified in accepting them.

Conservatives won the 1872 election, but just barely. The 99 Conservatives would need to rely on a few of the six independents to maintain power in the 200seat legislature. The Tories won with substantial strength in the West, and took 37 of 65 seats in Quebec. They nearly swept Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. But the Liberals, with 95 seats, emerged a much stronger opposition force than in 1867. Ontario was solidly in Liberal hands. Unusual by today’s standards, 52 of the 200 seats were won by acclamation, including 29 Conservative seats. Cartier was defeated, however, despite Allan’s timely infusion of funds. It was no secret that Cartier was unwell, but it was still a shock when he died in 1873. Distraught, Macdonald once again turned to drink for solace. Governor General Lord Dufferin wrote of Macdonald’s heartache over Cartier’s death: “It is really tragical to see so superior a man subject to such a purely physical infirmity, against which he struggles with desperate courage, until fairly prostrated and broken down.”

Not long after the election results were confirmed, rumours began to swirl that huge cash contributions from the railways had found their way into Conservative Party coffers. On April 2, 1873, Lucius Seth Huntington, the Liberal member from Shefford Québec, rose in Parliament to demand an inquiry into the granting of the charter to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The mandate for the inquiry was twofold: explore possible American involvement and review financial contributions to the Conservative party from Sir Hugh Allan sourced in Canada and the United States. The Conservative forces defeated the Liberal motion but proposed in its place a five-member committee of Parliament to look into the matter. With the government holding three positions on the committee, the outcome of a majority report was assured.

The press picked up the story, dubbing it the “Pacific Scandal.” On July 18, the Toronto Globe and the Montréal Herald reported the contents of Macdonald’s telegram to Abbott. Macdonald was dumbfounded: How did these telegrams find their way into the hands of the press? “It is one of those overwhelming misfortunes that they say every man must meet once in his life. At first it fairly staggered me,” he said.

In fact, the telegrams had been stolen from Abbott’s office, and sold to Montréal Liberals. The identity of the thief was not confirmed but was believed to be a law clerk in Abbott’s office named George Norris. As much as Macdonald wanted to draw attention to the skullduggery of the theft, such attention would only have heightened interest and given rise to accusations of a conspiracy. A depressed and despairing Macdonald once again turned to the bottle and when he disappeared for a few days to collect himself, rumours again swirled, this time that he had committed suicide. Macdonald reassured his friends in telegram messages that the rumours were greatly exaggerated. “It is an infamous falsehood,” he wrote. “I never was better in my life.”

Macdonald steadfastly maintained his innocence. Raising funds from companies that conducted business with the government was nothing new. The Canadian Pacific Railway had been promised nothing in the way of government contracts, he was certain, only that Sir Hugh Allan was slotted to become company president. He told his friends not to worry too much about Allan getting rich because, “where he is going his gold coins would melt.” Macdonald did not see the brewing scandal as a matter of concern to the taxpaying public since they would not be paying Allan’s salary. And, ultimately, the government quashed whatever plans it had in the works with Canadian Pacific, including any financial links with the Americans. But to Macdonald’s horror, it turned out that American financiers had been the supporters of Allan’s scheme. The Opposition did not accept the government’s diminishment of the scandal and it refused to attend the Parliamentary committee.

Fearing the loss of a confidence vote, Macdonald secured a temporary suspension of the House of Commons from Governor General Lord Dufferin (a tactic Stephen Harper used in late 2008 to counter a coalition of opposition parties intent on taking over the government). Months later, just as Parliament was about to reconvene, Lord Dufferin wrote to Macdonald, in tone and language the prime minister had not expected: “In acting as you have, I am all convinced that you have only followed a traditional practice and that probably your political opponents have resorted with equal freedom to the same expedients, but as Minister of Justice and the official guardian and protector of the laws, your responsibilities are exceptional and your personal connection with what has passed cannot but fatally affect your position as minister.”

Unclear whether the letter was a dismissal or a warning, Macdonald was stunned by the tone. The word “fatal” leapt off the page. Macdonald met Dufferin the following day, when it was made clear that the governor general was reserving for himself the ability to intervene “. . . to prevent the conscience of Parliament and of the country from being forced by the mere brute strength of party spirit.”

The next day Macdonald met his Cabinet to discuss the controversy and consider the question of resignation. Although some of his members were wavering, Macdonald remained confident and thought he could defend the government in Parliament. At 2:30 a.m., the conclusion of a five-hour speech in the House of Commons, Macdonald made a plea for his government based on its past accomplishments:

I have fought the Battle of Confederation, the battle of Union, the battle of the Dominion of Canada. I throw myself upon the House. I throw myself upon this country, I throw myself upon posterity, and I believe that, notwithstanding the many failings of my life, I shall have the voice of this country in this House rallying around me.... I can see past the decision of this House either for or against me; but whether it be for or against me, I know . . . that there does not exist in this country a man who has given more of his time, more of his heart, more of his wealth, or more of his intellect and power, such as they may be, for the good of this Dominion of Canada.

It was a rousing speech that brought most members on the government side to their feet. But not all, and the defections were enough to undo Macdonald’s working majority. After meeting with the governor general, Macdonald resigned on November 5, 1873.

Alexander Mackenzie, the leader of the opposition Liberals, formed a government and seized the opportunity to capitalize on the Tory demise by going to the people on January 22, 1874. With the Pacific Scandal fresh in voter’s minds, 129 Liberals were elected, compared with 65 Conservatives and 12 independents. In the first Canadian election to use a secret ballot, the Liberal sweep went right across the country.

In the aftermath, Macdonald resigned as party leader, saying, “My fighting days are over . . . I will never be a member of any administration again.” His offer was refused by the Tory caucus. There was a dispute over the election results in his riding, however, and in the by-election held on December 29, 1874, Macdonald squeaked by with a 17vote win. Had nine electors switched their votes, or had his caucus accepted his resignation, Macdonald might never have been a factor in Canadian politics again. But Macdonald knew that a life in politics comes with its ups and downs. “When fortune empties her chamber-pot on your head, smile and say ‘we are going to have a summer shower.’”

Not more than a year into the Liberal administration, Macdonald sensed opportunity. The Blake Liberals and Mackenzie Reformers—the forces that had combined to defeat the Tories in 1874—were coming unglued. Edward Blake began to speak of narrow nationalist sentiments, such as diminishing ties to Great Britain, and opposed accommodations for British Columbia, saying he was “prepared to let them go.” Concerned over finances, Mackenzie opposed proceeding with the transcontinental railroad. Macdonald thought if he was patient and didn’t needlessly provoke unrest it was only a matter of time before the Liberal government would divide itself. “The great reason why I have always been able to beat (the opposition),” offered Macdonald, “is that I have been able to look a little ahead, while (they) could on no occasion forgo the temptation of a temporary triumph.” Politics, he added, “is a game requiring great coolness and an utter abnegation of prejudice and personal feeling.”

Macdonald distinguished his nation-building Conservatives from what he called “little Canadian Liberals.” Macdonald raised the spectre of a growing American empire seeking to fulfill what some called its “manifest destiny.” With British help, Macdonald believed, Canada would build a nation from “ocean to ocean.” The Liberals, by contrast, were weak nation builders because they were not prepared to invest in the infrastructure of a nation. Their focus on the “Pacific scandal” was so small-minded that it arrested progress on the railway itself. Macdonald said he could get the job done: “Until the road is built to British Columbia and the Pacific, this Dominion is a mere geographical expression. . . . until bound by the iron link, as we have bound Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the Intercolonial Railway, we are not a Dominion in fact.”

Asserting British tradition was fundamental to Macdonald’s political mission. “The cardinal point in our policy is connection with Great Britain. I am a British subject, and British-born, and a British subject I hope to die. . ..Those who disliked the colonial connection spoke of it as a chain, but it was a golden chain, and he, for one, was proud to wear its fetters.”

Macdonald saw the British connection with Canada as critical to its political independence from the United States. Independence from the Americans, connection with Great Britain, a nation from sea to sea, a national railway, and protection for Canadian industry were the cornerstones of Macdonald’s national policies, and the guideposts that would sustain the remainder of his political life.

The Liberal leadership was proposing to remove trade barriers. Dissension in Liberal ranks was increasing, and Macdonald sensed it would take but a bit of wooing to cause the dissenters to switch sides. But Macdonald did not want to woo them at any cost. He wanted the rancorous division over trade policy to fester within Liberal ranks. If members of the Liberal caucus did jump ship, he wanted it to be on his terms, not theirs. Following the introduction of Mackenzie’s budget in 1876, an entire delegation of Liberal members indicated they were ready to cross the floor of the House of Commons. In the House, Macdonald said: “I heard the threat—the dire threat—that the members from Montréal would go into opposition. . . . Well, Mr. Speaker, I have caught some queer fish in my time, but I’m afraid that my honorable friend—as during the previous session when he sat over in that corner—is too loose a fish for me ever to catch.”

Loyalty to party—even above constituent needs—was sacred to Macdonald. Once elected, Macdonald believed, a parliamentarian was duty bound to complete the term with the party that he ran with. “A man’s duty when he accepts a seat in Parliament is not to his constituents as a whole, but to the party that elected him . . . unless they ask him to retire, he should remain.”

To Macdonald, the trade issue was neither ideological nor academic. The impact of a one-sided trade arrangement with the Americans, he thought, was causing real hardship to the Canadian economy. A depression had set in and Macdonald contended the Liberals were unwilling or unable to address the matter. “We are informed in the speech from the throne that there is a stagnation in trade.... and if it be true, I say that if there is ever a time when it is lawful, or allowable, or wise, or expedient for a government to interfere, now is the time.” The campaign Macdonald wanted to fight was not for the odd Liberal defector, but for the hearts and minds of the Canadian people. The nation was suffering an economic depression, and Macdonald blamed it on American trade policy and the timidity of the Liberal government.

In the summer of 1876, Macdonald initiated a series of political picnics across the land, each attended by thousands of enthusiastic supporters. On July 27, over 5,000 people came to hear him at a picnic near Belleville, Ontario. Later that summer, Macdonald led a torchlight parade through the streets of Montréal, where 50,000 people gathered at Dominion Square to hear him speak. He labelled Liberal “laissez-faire” trade policy as gross neglect, and said he dreamed of a “Canada for the Canadians.”

The Liberals sensed they were headed for defeat. Even the governor general, in a letter to the Colonial Secretary, remarked on their doomed prospects. “Blake is ill, thoroughly broken down with overwork and excitement and irritability of the brain ...As for Mackenzie he looks like a washed-out rag and limp enough to hang up on a clothesline.”

With renewed purpose and conviction, Macdonald was by all accounts drinking little, if any, alcohol during this critical period. Within the ranks of his party, he implored unity: “Let us not, like the hunters in the fable, quarrel about the skin before we kill the bear. It will take our united efforts to kill a bear.”

On September 17, 1878, the voters punished the Liberals for the depression and for the free trade policies they saw as its cause. The indiscretion of the Pacific Scandal had, apparently, been forgiven. The business establishments in major eastern cities supported trade protection and went solidly for the Tories. The Liberals won only half the seats they had taken in 1872, leaving Conservatives with 134 MPs in the 206-seat legislature. Solid Tory majorities were secured in every province except New Brunswick.

A satisfied Macdonald reflected on his win: “I resolved to reverse the verdict of 1874 and have done so to my heart’s content.” The only blemish on election night was Macdonald’s loss in his home riding of Kingston to Alexander Gunn. While the defeat was attributed to lingering distaste over the Pacific Scandal, the loss was a mere inconvenience, and easily fixed in a by-election.

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