George Washington was America’s first president but who was the second? Can’t recall? It’s a rare Canadian that couldn’t name Sir John A. Macdonald as their first prime minister but how many know their second? We seldom remember the second of anything. Because the purpose of History is to recall our past without prejudice in order to better understand our present with clarity our natural predilection to focus only on the first is a shame.
Canada’s second prime minister, like America’s second president, was a man whose character was sound, ambitions restrained, and accomplishments significant. Are those not qualities that we value in leaders and celebrate in those who helped shaped our story? It is with this perspective that we should recall and understand Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie.
Those who work with stone must be patient. To rush is to risk crumbling what to an untrained eye seems indestructible but to the skilled mason can be carefully shaped to stand and serve forever. Imagine a stone carver bringing that sensibility to the leadership of a nation.
Mackenzie learned to work with stone while a boy in his native Scotland. He was born in 1822 to a large and poor family. By the age of 16 he had mastered his craft and was helping with expenses. The Mackenzie family was one of thousands who fled poverty for the hope of a better life in Canada. Mackenzie’s skills acquitted him well and he soon secured contracts to build houses, churches, canals and public buildings. He eventually settled in Sarnia, Canada West.
A dour man, Mackenzie was slow to smile, joked only to jibe, drank very little for those hard-drinking days, and believed sports a waste of energy. He was none the less a popular figure in Sarnia and became active in public affairs including serving on the fire brigade and school board. He was attracted to the Reform Party (a precursor to the current Liberals) which reflected his belief in free markets and rewards based on merit and effort. He won a seat in the legislature in 1861, just as the American Civil War was seeing the butchering of brothers and the increasingly belligerent neighbour was leading Canadian political leaders to sense the urgent need to protect the country by growing the country.
At first Mackenzie opposed his party’s joining with the hated Conservatives to bring about Confederation. He was not convinced that the scheme was a good idea and he had little respect for John A. Macdonald who he considered politically duplicitous and personally unsavory. The Great Coalition government nonetheless created the skeleton that would become Canada.
The Confederation negotiations led to Reform leader George Brown’s resignation in 1865 and a party crisis. Too many men of too little talent vied to succeed him. Mackenzie watched the leadership competition with disdain while continuing to work hard at his craft and in both the provincial and federal legislatures. His talents and diligence were rewarded when in March, 1873 he won the party’s leadership. He had little time to celebrate, however, for within a month the Pacific Scandal rocked the Macdonald government. In November it fell.
Mackenzie was asked to form a government and shortly afterwards he called for an election. Few outside of south western Ontario knew him. Although disgraced, Macdonald remained a giant. To Canadians he was a rogue but he was their rogue and they had grown used to forgiving his mistakes and foibles. The scandal, however, had been too much. Canadians turned on him and handed Mackenzie a handsome 60-seat majority.
Mackenzie faced a number of problems going forward and the first was the knives in his back. The Reformers/Liberals were at war with each other and the worst of the lot was the conniving and ambitious Edward Blake. He believed he should be party leader and even had the temerity to ask Mackenzie to step aside so that he could become prime minister. Of greater importance to Canadians was that the country had slid into a deep recession. Contracts were cancelled, trade declined, and unemployment climbed. Absent today’s social programs, the suffering was devastating. Another leader may have panicked or taken rash action but the stone carver weighed options and moved slowly.
Plummeting tax revenue met demands for more funds to continue the massive railway project that Macdonald had begun. Mackenzie was forced to slow construction and even ask the people of British Columbia who had been promised the line to entice them to join Canada to wait a little longer. Railway construction continued but at a much slower, more affordable pace.
Canada was less than a decade old. While Mackenzie needed to address current issues he also recognized his responsibility to build the infant country. In 1875, he created the Supreme Court of Canada. It was designed to wrest power from Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which at that point was Canada’s court of last resort. It would not be until 1949 that Canada’s Supreme Court would be truly supreme but Mackenzie’s action was an important step in Canada’s march toward judicial independence.
Mackenzie had been a militia major and respected the military’s role in securing Canada’s defence and establishing its sovereignty. He undertook a complete overhaul of the Department of Militia and Defence. He also established Canada’s first military training college in Kingston.
He completely revamped Canadian democracy. Mackenzie introduced the secret ballot. He passed laws that led to elections being held in all ridings on the same day. He removed property as a qualification for candidates for public office. To protect the people from unscrupulous politicians he created the office of the Auditor General and had it report not to the prime minister but to parliament.
The sprawling country was linked with three bold new laws. The Post Office Act created door-to-door delivery to cities across Canada. The Weights and Measures Act said that everyone had to begin using the same systems. The Collection of Criminal Statistics Act modernized police services across the country through the gathering, filing and sharing of information.
Mackenzie’s government had accomplished a great deal but the people cared more about the government’s addressing immediate needs and those needs had become desperate. There were even food riots in Montreal. While all of this was going on Sir John was reinventing campaigning by creating the political BBQ. He travelled the country attending outdoor picnics where he worked his inimitable charm and slowly earned forgiveness. In the election of September, 1878 Canadians returned the old chieftain to power.
Alexander Mackenzie’s service as Canada’s second prime minister was one of significant accomplishment. He acted with the stone carver’s patience and precision. He slowly did what could be done, left what should be left alone, and carefully moved the project along – the Canada project – the sculpture that to this day remains, as it should, under construction.
(And by the way, the second American president was John Adams.)
A version of this column appeared originally on the excellent site Leaders and Legacies. Find it at http://leadersandlegacies.com/2014/06/26/building-a-nation-brick-by-brick-canadas-forgotten-prime-minister/