CANADA HISTORY - Prime Ministers

Alexander Mackenzie


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Born in Highland croft at the Pass Scotland in 1822, Mackenzie became a qualified stonemason and by the age of 20 had left his first home of the Church of Scotland and had become a dedicated Baptist. He was entranced by the promises of a visiting cabinet minister from Upper Canada, concerning the advantages and opportunities which the colonies had to offer those who wished to travel to America and settle for only £3. He also was in love with seventeen year old Helen Neil who was leaving Scotland for Canada with her family. In April, 1842 he made his decision to follow his dreams and his love and sailed with the Neils. He settled in Kingston, married Neil and took up his occupation as a stonemason. Like MacDonald he was to suffer the loss of his first wife from an early death.

Brown moved to Port Sarnia, after 3 years, where he was drawn into politics by his brother Hope but soon become an ardent supporter of George Brown and the reformers. He continued building and studied hard to improve his reading, writing, speech and debating skills. For a period he was even the manager of a local newspaper, the Lambton Shield, which strongly supported George Brown.

When Canadian Confederation was finalized and the first elections held in 1867, Mackenzie ran and was elected to Parliament as a member of the Grits. (present day Liberals) His hero and leader George Brown was defeated in that election and Mackenzie rose swiftly in the Grit ranks under the leadership of Edward Blake, one of the great speakers of the period. Mackenzie had earned a reputation as a solid, honest, hardworking man of integrity and when George Brown decided that he was in fact going to step down as the leader of the Grits, the leaders of Upper Canada, (Ontario) Edward Blake, and Lower Canada, (Quebec), Antoine Aimee Dorion, turned to him to take over the reins of leadership.

The timing of his accession to the leadership of the official opposition was timely in that John A MacDonald and his Conservative Government were soon embroiled in the Pacific Railway scandal which brought about their fall and a general election just seven months later. In 1873 Mackenzie was elected the second Prime Minister of Canada and he immediately faced problems within his own party from Edward Blake who decided that he should have indeed been chosen the leader of the party, not Mackenzie. Blake was eventually convinced to join the Cabinet as the Minister of Justice but the country was sliding into a recession and the cause of the election, the building of the transcontinental railway ground to a halt or at best a snails pace.

Mackenzie was also unable to secure a strong leader from Quebec as a part of his government, which fatally weakened his ability to get things done. His big problem was that as a part of British Columbia entering Confederation, the railroad was to be completed within 10 years and they quickly sent a delegation to Ottawa to threaten to leave Canada if the railway was not completed. Mackenzie threw the threating delegates out and they promptly paid a visit to Lord Dufferin, the Governor General, and appealed to him to take up their case with Mackenzie. Dufferin, who had liked and supported John A MacDonald in his expansionist policies and his railway ambitions promised to take of the cause and bring Mackenzie round. This direct participation in political affairs by the Governor General brought about the first political crisis in Canada' s young history.

Lord Dufferin proposed that the Colonial Secretary in London should act as a mediator to work out a settlement between Ottawa and British Columbia. Mackenzie quickly reminded the Governor General that "we were capable of managing our own affairs ... and that no government would survive who would attempt at the insistence of a Colonial Secretary to trifle with Parliamentary decisions." The confrontation finally came to a head when Mackenzie and Blake offered their resignations and Dufferin was forced to accede to the Canadian Government and even went so far as to make a partial apology.

He had remarried and his second wife Jane was his main escape from the day to day infighting which plagued the divided Grits. The U.S. rejected Canada's overtures for opening up trade between the countries and the depression forced Mackenzie to increase the tariff protection.

Mackenzie followed through on MacDonald's intention of forming a government enforcement agency for the newly acquired North West Territories. They would be called the North West Mounted Police, later to evolve into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The timing of the formation of the force could not have been better because of the incursion into the new territory by American whiskey traders in present day Alberta.

In 1875 Mackenzie and Jane departed for Britain where he was quickly disillusioned by English upper class society. They were stuck up and not really interested in anything in Canada. Of the first eight Canadian Prime Ministers, Mackenzie was the only one refused to accept a title. He was also instrumental in confirming that titles did not become a part of the Canadian fabric. His disappointment in English society was quickly forgotten as he made his triumphal return to Scotland where the locals turned out to cheer the local lad who had made good in the new world. He has become the trumpet of Canadian nationalism which had convinced him to travel Canada 33 years before. Although still a loyal Scot - Canada now came first. Upon returning to Canada the Railway debate was once again heating up and the recession had slipped into a minor depression. He spent endless hours in the House of Commons debating with MacDonald and the other skilled Conservative members.

As 1878 drew closer and the probability that another election would be fought, Mackenzie shored up his team by adding a promising young Liberal named Laurier as his Quebec Lieutenant. Blake had left the government which was not entirely regretted by Mackenzie. He was finally starting to feel that he was in control of his party and the depression was ending. He called and entered the 1878 election feeling confident, that his responsible handling of finances, honesty and integrity in governing and his hard work in running the country would pay off with a second term as Prime Minister. He was gravely disappointed when the Liberals were swept out of power and MacDonald and his cronies were returned as the ruling party.

Although he stayed on for two years he was finally persuaded by Laurier to give of the reins of party leadership to a new leader. Blake finally achieved his ambition of becoming the Liberal party leader, but was never destined to be the choice of the Canadian people on polling day for Prime Minister.

Mackenzie died in 1892, managing to outlive MacDonald by just a few months, and as he breathed his last breath he whispered "Oh. take me home". The west block of the Parliament Buildings are home to the Mackenzie Tower where he had a secret stairway build which was later utilized by Pierre Trudeau to avoid the press when slipping out to call an election.


Cite Article : Reference: www.canadahistory.com/sections/documents/documents.html

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