Canada’s Mackenzie Era

In Canada’s early years of nationhood, conservative dominance was temporarily interrupted with the election of the liberal Mackenzie as prime minister. The liberals enacted the secret ballot, provided for same-day elections, passed consumer protection laws, created a supreme court, created the nation’s first military academy and founded the North-West Mounted Police, and completed surveys for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Summary of Event

The year 1873 witnessed a dramatic shift of power in Canadian national politics with the fall of Prime Minister John Alexander Macdonald’s conservative government. Canada had become a self-governing dominion of the British crown in 1867, largely as a result of a cooperative effort by bitter political rivals such as Macdonald (a conservative) and George Brown (a reformer), who forged a temporary alliance to gain this end. Mackenzie, Alexander
Canada;Mackenzie era
Macdonald, Sir John Alexander
[kw]Canada’s Mackenzie Era (Nov. 5, 1873-Oct. 9, 1878)
[kw]Mackenzie Era, Canada’s (Nov. 5, 1873-Oct. 9, 1878)
[kw]Era, Canada’s Mackenzie (Nov. 5, 1873-Oct. 9, 1878)
Mackenzie, Alexander
Canada;Mackenzie era
Macdonald, Sir John Alexander
[g]Canada;Nov. 5, 1873-Oct. 9, 1878: Canada’s Mackenzie Era[4720]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 5, 1873-Oct. 9, 1878: Canada’s Mackenzie Era[4720]
Brown, George
Cartier, Sir George Étienne
Allen, Hugh
Dufferin, Lord
Blake, Edward

After Canada;unification of Quebec, Quebec;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] Ontario Ontario;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] , and the Maritime Provinces Maritime Provinces;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] joined in a federal structure and national parliament, this political unity ultimately gave way to partisan party politics. On one side stood the reformers and “Clear Grits” who established the Liberal Party Canada;Liberal Party
Liberal Party (Canada) . Their opponents, the conservatives, or Tories, were headed by Macdonald, a pragmatic Ontario attorney. As party leader, Macdonald attempted to bridge Canadian ethnic, language, and religious divisions through compromise, concessions, and liberal use of patronage to cement political loyalty. The politically astute and charismatic Macdonald put together a diverse combination of Anglo-Protestants, big business, and conservative Roman Catholic French Canadian nationalists in a truly national party.

In contrast, the liberals were still largely a regional party, with their strongest base, in rural Ontario, consisting of a loose association of provincial rights advocates linked by distrust of powerful central government.

These advantages allowed Macdonald’s party to dominate the early years of Canadian political history. The conservatives advocated strong central government that could defend national interests in competition with the more powerful United States and secure control of the vast but sparsely populated western region. Macdonald governed by promoting ambitious, expensive megaprojects and pork-barrel legislation to keep his coalition of interests unified, appeal to business supporters, and build an economically sound nation. The prime minister’s most grandiose and visionary scheme was the construction of a transcontinental railroad to create the dominion stretching from sea to sea. This project would unite the sparsely settled and remote West to the rest of Canada, lay the foundation for future immigration and settlement, and promote exploitation of western natural resources.

Macdonald’s strenuous efforts on behalf of this dream brought his downfall. To induce the lightly populated Pacific coast colony of British Columbia British Columbia into confederation in 1871, the prime minister made extravagant, expensive, and impossible commitments to begin building the transcontinental railroad in two years and to complete the project by 1881. Growing public dissatisfaction was reflected in the 1872 elections, which saw the liberals nearly destroy the government’s majority. After the election, the liberals came into possession of damning evidence against their foes. Hugh Allen Allen, Hugh , the head of one of two business syndicates competing for the lucrative government contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway Canadian Pacific Railway;construction of line, had given the governing party a bribe of $300,000 to aid in the tough election battle and ensure his being granted the contract. Sir George Étienne Cartier Cartier, Sir George Étienne , leader of the party organization in Quebec, and Macdonald himself were directly involved in this affair, known as the Pacific Scandal. Pacific Scandal

As new evidence and public furor mounted, and Macdonald suffered defection from party ranks, Canada’s governor-general, Lord Dufferin Dufferin, Lord , finally called upon opposition leader Alexander Mackenzie to form a new government on November 5, 1873. When national parliamentary elections were held, the conservatives were soundly routed as the liberals received a commanding parliamentary majority of 138 to 67.

Alexander Mackenzie.

Canada’s new prime minister was a stubborn, self-made, highly principled, and moralistic Scottish immigrant. Arriving in Upper Canada in 1842, the former stonemason had established himself as a building contractor. Mackenzie became a supporter of George Brown’s Brown, George Reform Party, a liberal journalist, and eventually a member of the legislative assembly of Canada. In 1867, he won a seat in the first Dominion House of Commons and also assumed leadership of the liberals when Brown gave up this role.

Mackenzie presented a sharp contrast to the convivial and talented, but hard-drinking and morally flawed, Macdonald. Macdonald’s successor was a devout Baptist who exuded Victorian piety, an austere, utilitarian outlook, and great earnestness. His nineteenth century liberalism included egalitarian sentiments and a distrust of entrenched class privilege, monopoly, and unchecked institutional power. He also was an advocate of free trade, individual enterprise, thrifty government, and democratic political reforms.

Although Mackenzie applied himself to the task of governing the nation with great diligence and earnestness, he suffered from a combination of bad luck and some personal shortcomings as a leader. One major difficulty was the task of putting together a strong, cooperative cabinet and turning the Liberal Party Canada;Liberal Party
Liberal Party (Canada) into a truly national and cohesive organization. It was hard to find experienced and highly qualified liberals to fill ministerial positions. Quebec was not strongly represented, and the party remained weak in that province.

Because only a few cabinet members, such as Edward Blake Blake, Edward and Finance Minister Richard Cartwright Cartwright, Richard , were of outstanding quality, much of the burden of debate in Parliament fell upon the prime minister’s shoulders. Mackenzie also experienced problems with prominent colleagues such as Blake, the most capable liberal politician, who thought he was more qualified to head the party and occasionally undermined Mackenzie’s authority.

Power had fallen into Mackenzie’s lap at an inopportune moment. After the Panic of 1873, Canada, like the United States, had entered a period of economic slump and depression that would persist intermittently for two decades. This situation, although not of his making, made it difficult for Mackenzie to fulfill Macdonald’s overly generous contract with British Columbia British Columbia regarding the railroad connection. The country now had to settle for piecemeal construction of the line as financial considerations permitted.

Another setback for Mackenzie was his failure to obtain a reciprocity agreement with the United States on the lowering of tariffs Tariffs;Canadian and customs duties. When this attempt to benefit some groups with lower prices and expanded markets for Canadian products went for naught, as a result of lack of interest in Washington, D.C., the government was left with no economic policy to offer voters in these hard times other than retrenchment.


In spite of these difficulties, the Mackenzie era produced several sound legislative accomplishments. In an effort to reduce electoral fraud and manipulation, which were common occurrences, the government enacted the secret ballot and provided for elections to be held on the same day. Consumer protection laws were passed. The creation of a supreme court and the nation’s first military academy enhanced Canadian self-rule and lessened dependence on Great Britain. The North-West Mounted Police, created by Macdonald in 1873, became firmly established in the West under the new government. In spite of financial constraints, necessary surveying for the transcontinental railroad was completed. Mackenzie also pursued government construction of important and difficult sections of the line when private interests were not forthcoming.

The government’s electoral mandate came to an end in 1878, and Mackenzie called a national election for September 17. The prime minister hoped the country would reward his hard efforts and record of relatively honest government. However, the unfavorable economic situation and Macdonald’s affable and easy manner with audiences enabled him to rebound from the disgrace of the Pacific Scandal Pacific Scandal . In contrast to the government’s tightfisted economic policy, he championed a vision of prosperity, security, and economic strength through his national policy of protective tariffs, railroad building, and settlement and development of the West.

Mackenzie was stunned as the results of 1873 were reversed, resulting in a conservative parliamentary landslide. The voting public apparently preferred the personable and eloquent, if scandal-tainted, Macdonald to the scrupulously honest but lackluster and plodding Mackenzie. A bitter and disappointed prime minister resigned office on October 9, bringing the short-lived Mackenzie era to a close. Macdonald’s conservatives resumed their dominance until shortly after the old leader’s death during the 1890’s.

Further Reading

  • Brown, R. Craig, ed. The Illustrated History of Canada. Toronto: Key Porter, 2002. A good survey of Canadian history that places Mackenzie in the context of his times. Contains black-and-white and color illustrations and bibliographical essays.
  • Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. “Mackenzie, Alexander.” .asp?BioId=40374. Accessed January 24, 2006. A good Web source for more information on Mackenzie and his accomplishments.
  • See, Scott W. The History of Canada. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A short survey of Canadian history, supplemented with appendices and a bibliographic essay, which criticizes Mackenzie’s leadership as ineffective.
  • Stanley, G. F. G. “The 1870’s.” In The Canadians, 1867-1967, edited by J. M. S. Careless and R. C. Brown. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1967. Overview of the political issues, events, and personalities of this era by a noted Canadian academic.
  • Thompson, Dale C. Alexander Mackenzie, Clear Grit. Toronto: Macmillian of Canada, 1960. A detailed narrative account that does a good job of depicting Mackenzie’s problems with matters such as his cabinet, the ethnic issue, and political reform.
  • Waite, Peter B. Canada, 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971. Chapters 2 through 5 provide a readable and colorful account of Canadian national politics during the 1870’s, by a prominent Canadian historian.

First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government

British North America Act

Canada Forms the North-West Mounted Police

Supreme Court of Canada Is Established

Canada’s Indian Act

Macdonald Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister

Laurier Becomes the First French Canadian Prime Minister

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