Could there have been a Canada without Sir John A.? A larger-than-life figure of great vision, leadership, and eccentricity, Canada’s first leader and “founding father” did more than any other to forge the country we know today.
A Scottish immigrant from a poor family, Macdonald allied with colonial Canada’s elite British establishment as a young lawyer, sharing their conservatism. Charismatic and witty, he served as a successful legislator and attorney general in the government of the United Province of Canada before helping negotiate the 1867 Confederation deal that produced the constitution for the modern nation-state of Canada, which he was then picked to lead as first prime minister.
MacDonald’s guiding vision was the pursuit of a large Canada that encompassed all of northern North America and could act as a counter-balance to the ever-expanding United States below. Through a series of deals, bribes, and negotiations, his administration secured Canada’s absorption of huge chunks of new land, including the provinces of Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), and Prince Edward Island (1873), as well as the massive Arctic territory of Rupert’s Land (1870). Economically, he sought to promote trade among the provinces and Britain rather than with the United States through a protectionist program of high tariffs known as the National Policy.
To unite such an enormous swath of geography in an era that didn’t even have telephones, Macdonald championed the idea of a massive trans-Canada railroad, and it’s this achievement that the man is probably best remembered for today. Completed in 1885, it marked one of the most expensive government projects in world history, and was financed through a corrupt deal that saw railroad tycoons given construction contracts in exchange for massive donations to Macdonald’s Conservative Party. Revelations of this scandal forced his resignation in 1873, and the brief term of Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie (1822-1892), but Macdonald was re-elected back to power in 1878, where he served four more terms until his death in 1891.