Macdonald Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister

The second administration by Canada’s first prime minister, conservative John Macdonald, aimed to protect Canadian enterprises from foreign competition and encourage western settlement.

Summary of Event

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of John Macdonald in early Canadian history. Along with his two most influential associates, Sir George Étienne Cartier from Quebec and Charles Tupper from Nova Scotia, Ontarian John Macdonald played a central role in persuading the British government to approve the British North America Act, which ended Canada’s colonial status and united the Canadian provinces under a single federal system. Alexander Mackenzie, Tupper, and Cartier created a political system that protected religious freedom, established English and French as the official languages of the new Dominion of Canada, and created a balance between the power of the federal and provincial governments. Macdonald, Sir John Alexander
[p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];second ministry
Canada;Macdonald era
Cartier, Sir George Étienne
Tupper, Sir Charles
Laurier, Sir Wilfrid
[kw]Macdonald Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister (Sept., 1878)
[kw]Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister, Macdonald (Sept., 1878)
[kw]Canada’s Prime Minister, Macdonald Returns as (Sept., 1878)
[kw]Prime Minister, Macdonald Returns as Canada’s (Sept., 1878)
Macdonald, Sir John Alexander
[p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];second ministry
Canada;Macdonald era
Cartier, Sir George Étienne
Tupper, Sir Charles
Laurier, Sir Wilfrid
[g]Canada;Sept., 1878: Macdonald Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister[5020]
[c]Government and politics;Sept., 1878: Macdonald Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister[5020]

On July 1, 1867, the British North America Act of 1867 took effect, and Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister. Macdonald was an English-speaking Protestant from Ontario, and Cartier was a French-speaking Roman Catholic from Quebec. They both understood that the unity of their new country required that representatives from Canada’s major linguistic groups (English and French) and religions (Catholic and Protestant) be included at all levels of government. Although Macdonald was the prime minister, most historians believe that he and Cartier governed Canada together until Cartier’s Cartier, Sir George Étienne
[p]Cartier, Sir George Étienne[Cartier, George Étienne];death of death in 1873. This cooperation contributed to the unity of Canada.

Sir John Alexander Macdonald.

(Library of Congress)

A scandal in 1873 that linked certain members of Macdonald’s cabinet to bribes paid during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway;construction of
Canada;railroads Railway weakened the influence of Macdonald’s Conservative Party. Macdonald resigned as prime minister, and he was succeeded by Liberal Party leader Alexander Mackenzie Mackenzie, Alexander
[p]Mackenzie, Alexander;ministry of in November, 1873.

Unfortunately for the honest and hardworking Mackenzie, Canada endured serious economic problems during the mid-1870’s, and Canadian voters held him responsible for this depression. In the September, 1878, general election, Macdonald promised a new national policy that would protect Canadian business from unfair competition from U.S. and British companies. Macdonald and his major adviser, Charles Tupper, argued that unrestricted free trade Canada;trade with the United States and Great Britain had contributed significantly to the depression of the 1870’s (which manifested itself in the United States as the Panic of 1873). This argument proved persuasive with the voters, who returned Macdonald to the office of prime minister. His Conservative Party kept its majority in Parliament until 1896, five years after Macdonald’s death, when the liberals, under Wilfrid Laurier, defeated Prime Minister Tupper and the conservatives.

After Macdonald was again prime minister, the three major aspects of his national policy were revealed to the public. First, he imposed high tariffs Tariffs;Canadian
Tariffs;protective on certain imported goods in order to protect Canadian companies from foreign competition. This did produce the desired effect of ensuring Canadian control over the Canadian economy, but it had the unavoidable side effect of creating inflation, because Canadian manufacturers felt no pressure to keep their prices low, since there was no real competition from other countries. Throughout the 1880’s, Canadian voters were willing to accept high prices on products because they believed that low tariffs would have endangered Canadian economic independence by allowing U.S. and British companies to dominate the Canadian market.

A second important element of the national policy was the completion of the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway;construction of Railway, in order to link the eastern provinces to British Columbia British Columbia;and railroad[Railroad] . To obtain approval from the House of Commons for the large expenditures required for this massive project, Macdonald and Tupper, his minister of railroads and canals, gave overt preference to Canadian construction companies, even if their bids were higher than those received from U.S. or British companies. Macdonald and Tupper presented the nationalistic argument that Canadian economic independence justified the additional expense, and they questioned the patriotism of Edward Blake, the Liberal Party leader from 1880 to 1887, who had expressed serious doubts about what he considered to be the waste of tax dollars to protect uncompetitive Canadian companies.

After the creation of the Canadian Confederation in 1867, the new Dominion of Canada began expanding westward. Manitoba Manitoba joined the confederation in 1870, and the following year, British Columbia British Columbia;provincial status became a province. Although Alberta Alberta;provincial status and Saskatchewan Saskatchewan;provincial status were still territories and did not become provinces until September 1, 1905, they were an integral part of Canada during the second Macdonald government. Macdonald recognized that it was not sufficient to connect all of Canada physically by completing a transcontinental railroad system. He also had to encourage people to settle in large numbers in the provinces and territories west of Ontario, so that full economic development would be possible in the western part of Canada.

Macdonald actively encouraged immigration, but he gave overt preference to European immigrants over Asian immigrants and did little to discourage discrimination in British Columbia against Chinese and Japanese immigrants, who nevertheless were responsible for much of the construction of the British Columbia portion of the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway;and Asian laborers[Asian laborers] Railway.

Although Macdonald was successful in protecting emerging Canadian companies and in establishing a unified economic system in Canada, he began to pay less attention to the aspirations of the Maritime Provinces Maritime Provinces;and Canadian Federation[Canadian Federation] and Quebec. Quebec Residents in the provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick New Brunswick , Nova Scotia Nova Scotia , and Prince Edward Island Prince Edward Island resented having to pay high prices for products in order to protect manufacturing companies located largely in Ontario Ontario;industries and the western provinces, and they did not believe that eastern Canada had benefited significantly from the vast expenditure of tax dollars required for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway;construction of Railway system.

In 1886, the provincial legislature of Nova Scotia seriously considered seceding from the Canadian Confederation. Large numbers of French speakers in Quebec were enraged when Macdonald approved the execution, in November, 1885, of Louis Riel, a Catholic French Canadian who had revolted against what he perceived to be the terrible mistreatment of French Canadian settlers in Saskatchewan Saskatchewan . The hanging of Riel turned him into a martyr among Catholic and French Canadian voters. In hindsight, it appears that if Macdonald had still had an influential French Canadian adviser such as Cartier, who had helped him immensely during the early years of the Canadian Confederation, he would have pardoned Riel and would not have risked alienating French Canadian voters.

Growing dissatisfaction in Quebec Quebec and the Maritime Provinces Maritime Provinces;and Canadian Federation[Canadian Federation] with the national policy of the Conservative Party under Macdonald would contribute greatly to the victory of the liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier, a Catholic, French-speaking Quebecer, in the general election of 1896.


Macdonald served as the prime minister of Canada for nineteen years. Although he was highly controversial, even his political opponents appreciated the importance of his central role in transforming Canada from a British colony into an independent country. In an eloquent and sincere eulogy given in the House of Commons on June 8, 1891, only two days after Macdonald’s death, the opposition leader, Laurier, described Macdonald as “Canada’s most illustrious son, and in every sense Canada’s foremost citizen and statesman.”

The high opinion in which Canadians have held Macdonald, their first prime minister, has not diminished. He remains an almost legendary figure in Canadian history.

Further Reading

  • Creighton, Donald. Canada’s First Century, 1867-1967. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970. Contains a clear description of the profound changes that occurred in Canada between the creation of Canada in 1867 and Macdonald’s death in 1891.
  • Donaldson, Gordon. Fifteen Men: Canada’s Prime Ministers from Macdonald to Trudeau. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Describes succinctly the nature of John Macdonald’s national policy, which transformed Canada from a collection of provinces into a unified transcontinental nation.
  • “John A. Macdonald.” Maclean’s 114, no. 27 (July, 1, 2001): 37. A profile of Macdonald, describing his career, role in the confederation of Canada, and involvement in Canadian politics.
  • Owram, Douglas, ed. Canadian History: A Reader’s Guide. Confederation to the Present. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Contains an excellent annotated bibliography of historical studies on Macdonald’s importance, both to the creation of Canada as an independent country and for his accomplishments as prime minister.
  • Smith, Cynthia M., and Jack McLeod, eds. Sir John A: An Anecdotal Life of John A. Macdonald. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989. Despite its subtitle, this book does not merely contain anecdotes about the life of Canada’s first prime minister. Includes numerous judicious assessments of Macdonald’s career, by both contemporaries and later historians.
  • Swainson, Donald. John A. Macdonald: The Man and the Politician. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. A sympathetic, well-documented biography of Macdonald. Discusses the many political and social problems caused by the implementation of his national policy.
  • Waite, P. B. The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867: Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America. 3d ed. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2001. Recounts the events leading to the 1867 confederation of the Canadian provinces, examining the role played by politics and newspapers.

Rebellions Rock British Canada

Upper and Lower Canada Unite

First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government

British North America Act

First Riel Rebellion

Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement

Canada Forms the North-West Mounted Police

Canada’s Mackenzie Era

Supreme Court of Canada Is Established

Canada’s Indian Act

Second Riel Rebellion Begins

Laurier Becomes the First French Canadian Prime Minister

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[p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];second ministry
Canada;Macdonald era
Cartier, Sir George Étienne
Tupper, Sir Charles
Laurier, Sir Wilfrid