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In Canadian history, there have been two very famous Alexander Mackenzies. The first was a man who explored much of what would one day be Canada, and the first to accomplish the first east to west crossing of North America north of Mexico. That is not the Alexander Mackenzie I am talking about. The one I am talking about was born two years after the previous one died but he too would make a name for himself in many ways.

While John A. Macdonald essentially ruled as prime minister from 1867 to 1891, there was one brief gap in between. It was in that five year gap, from 1873 to 1878, another man became prime minister and he was unlike John A. Macdonald in nearly every way. While Macdonald was forced out due to the Pacific Scandal, Mackenzie would come in and put into place many of the things that exist to this very day. Today, we are looking at that very interesting man.

On Jan. 28, 1822, nearly five years to the day that Macdonald was born and 126 kilometres to the north of where Macdonald breathed his first breath, Alexander Mackenzie was born. The site of his birthplace was called The Hollow of the Weeping because it was here that families said their goodbyes as the convicted were led to their deaths on Gallows Hills. One very interesting aspect of the home that Mackenzie was born into is that it exists to his very day.

His father, Alexander Mackenzie Sr., had worked as a carpenter and ship’s joiner and would pass away in 1836 when Mackenzie was only 13. At the time, he was attending school but he was forced to end his formal education and begin supporting the now fatherless family. This would lead him into becoming an apprentice stonemason. He began working with another stonemason and through him, he met Helen Neil, the woman he would eventually marry and without whom he would have never become prime minister of a country yet to be born.

After converting from Presbyterianism to being a Baptist like the Neil family, he then followed them to Canada in 1842, at the age of only 20, seeking a better life. As he would say later in his life, he arrived with, quote:

“scarce 16 shillings in my pocket.”

It was also through his new faith that he became involved in temperance, something that John A Macdonald, obviously, never supported.

Leaving on the Monarch on April 5, 1842, he reached Montreal with the Neil family on May 6, nearly suffering a shipwreck along the way after a close call with an iceberg.  

Settling in Kingston, where Macdonald was making a name for himself, he tried to work as a stonemason but the limestone of the area was too hard for his stonemason tools to work with. He was unable to buy new tools, so he worked as a laborer constructing a building in the community. Eventually, Mackenzie would take on a contract to build an arch at Fort Henry, and was the foreman for the construction of the four Martello Towers in Kingston. He also helped build the Welland Canal, the Episcopal Church, a bank in Sarnia, as well as several courthouses and jails. Several of the places he helped to build, including the Fort Henry Arch, are now National Historic Sites, as are the Kingston Towers. He also served as a foreman during the construction of the Lachine Canal in Montreal, another National Historic Site.

Becoming successful in his work, Mackenzie was joined in Canada by his brother Hope, followed by his mother and seven surviving brothers, with everyone settling in Sarnia. His end goal was to eventually buy a farm and raise a family there.

In Kingston and Sarnia, Mackenzie was highly active in various groups including the temperance society, the Dialectic Society, the school board, as a census taker and as a member of the fire brigade.

During this time, he was deeply in love with Helen. One anecdote about his life was when he was working on Fort Henry in Kingston, he spent a winter on Wolfe Island in Kingston Harbour cutting stone. Each Saturday night he walked across the ice to see Helen at her parent’s home. One night, he arrived half frozen and soaking wet after falling through the ice. Learning from the experience, he always carried a long pole to protect himself if he fell through the ice again.

That was not the only time that Mackenzie would deal with danger and the prospect of death. As a stonemason, a one-ton block fell and crushed his leg while he was working on a canal. Among his stonemason crew one year, 17 employees died when their boat capsized in what is now called Deadman’s Bay.

In 1845, he would marry Helen Neil and the couple would have three children, two of whom did not live to adulthood. Sadly, the marriage was brief. In 1852, Helen succumbed to the effects of excessive doses of a mercury-based calomel used to treat a fever. The following year, he would marry Jane Sym, whom he had met in church.

At the same time he had come into Canada West, Mackenzie became interested in the politics of the colony. Unlike Macdonald who saw George Brown as a rival, Mackenzie was attracted to the egalitarian and anti-establishment Reform movement and he would help to get George Brown elected in 1851. At the same time, he would become the editor of the Lambton Shield, a Reformer magazine during the 1850s. In 1859, Mackenzie, his brother Hope, a contractor named James Stewart and a plumber named Neil McNeil, would submit a bid on the construction of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

In 1861, Mackenzie himself was elected into the Legislative Assembly and during the 1860s he helped push for Confederation. In 1865, following the resignation of Brown, Mackenzie was invited to replace him as president of the council but he declined because he was wary of the motivations of Macdonald. In 1867, he was elected to the House of Commons upon the creation of Canada. Interestingly, he also served in the Ontario Assembly from 1871 to 1872 until dual representation was ended in Canada. Following his resignation from political politics, Mackenzie, along with Brown, would convince Oliver Mowat to become the Liberal leader in Ontario. Soon after, Mowat would become the premier of the province 10 days after Mackenzie resigned, serving for 24 years and openly pushing against the federal authority of John A. Macdonald, helping to give provinces more power, something which exists to this day. Mowat would go on to serve in federal politics under Wilfrid Laurier, and was then the Lt. Governor of Ontario from 1897 to 1903.

While not pursing becoming leader of the Liberal Party, he was well-known enough in political circles and respected enough that he was named as the Leader of the Liberal Opposition in March of 1873. In November of that year, following the Pacific Scandal, Mackenzie was asked by the Governor General to form the first Liberal Administration in Canada and quickly called an election. In January 1874, the Liberal party won a huge majority, with 40 per cent of the vote. Soon after winning the election, Mackenzie and his wife escaped death when their house, and most of the block on Wellington Street, was engulfed in fire in 1874. An inquest was held and evidence was found of arson at the back of Mackenzie’s home.

Mackenzie becoming prime minister was highly unusual for a time when leader roles in the Commonwealth often went to people born into privilege, rather than those who came from a working-class background. There were some who didn’t like the idea of a stonemason leading the country, including Lord Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada. Dufferin though, to his credit, would change his view of the matter after he met Mackenzie, stating quote:

“However narrow and inexperienced Mackenzie may be, I imagine he is thoroughly upright, well-principled and a well-meaning man.”

In response to those who felt that a stonemason should not be leader, Mackenzie would say in 1875, quote:

“I have always held those political opinions which point to the universal brotherhood of man, no matter in what rank of life he may have taken his origin.”

Another person who spoke highly of Mackenzie at this time was his friend and mentor George Brown, who said at a banquet honouring Mackenzie the year he became prime minister, quote:

“In the midst of venality and corruption, Mr. Mackenzie’s hands have never been defiled. It is such counties as Lambton that make such representatives as Alexander Mackenzie. It will be a bright page in the history of Canada that tells that the first Reform Minister of this Great Dominion was the noblest working man in the land and the representative of one of the truest constituencies that ever upheld a great cause.”

With his knowledge of masonry and construction, Mackenzie, while serving as the Second Prime Minister of Canada, also served as the minister of public works. This was shown in 1877 when he put down the cornerstone on the First Baptist Church in Ottawa. He would take a mason’s trowel and spread the mortar himself. While he was diligent in his public works portfolio, including an attempt to build a transcontinental railway on a self-financing basis, many felt that his work on the portfolio took away from his leadership in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, he would oversee the completion of the Parliament Buildings and he would draw up plans for the West Block that would include a staircase leading directly from his office to the outside of the building. He did this to allow himself to escape the patronage seekers waiting for him in the ante-chamber, as he despised the patronage inherent in politics. The tower in the West Block is now named the Mackenzie Tower in honour of Mackenzie and before the Peace Tower was built, it was the tallest building in the Parliamentary District.

Also during his time as leader, he sent the North West Mounted Police, created in 1873, out on their March West to fight the whiskey trade and secure peaceful relations with the Indigenous there.

The working class background was shown in a very unique interaction that Mackenzie had as prime minister while touring Fort Henry. He asked a soldier that was with him the thickness of the wall beside them. The soldier did not know and Mackenzie said, quote:

“I do. It is five feet, the inches. I know, because I built it myself.”

During the period that Mackenzie would serve as prime minister, amounting to only five years, he would implement several important institutions and changes. Both the Supreme Court of Canada and the Auditor General’s office were created. In 1874, he passed the Dominion Elections Act, which created a secret ballot for elections and he removed the requirement for property ownership for candidates seeking to be elected to the House of Commons. Simultaneous voting was also introduced in Canada, rather than a drawn out election that often took days or weeks to complete. He also established the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston in 1874. With his attorney general Edward Blake, he also trimmed at the powers of the Governor General, giving Canada more independence from England. He also expanded the railways of the new country, along with the telegraph lines. While he granted amnesty to Louis Riel for his part in the Red River Resistance, it was under his administration that the highly controversial Indian Act was implemented

Mackenzie was an anomaly among the politicians of the day. He did not dress well given his background and desire to save money, especially at the start of his political career. He also had a strong personal budgetary restraint. In 1876, he was angry he had to spend $128 for a politically necessary banquet and he would avoid entertaining because of the cost. His utilitarian beliefs meant his speeches were rooted in factual material culled from his constant reading of newspapers, biographies, history books and government documents. Throughout his political career, he was seen as a man of direct expression and forceful opinions.

His lack of education, having had to leave school early, didn’t stop him from expanding his knowledge on all topics. He was known to study literature, history, science, philosophy and politics.

During the 1878 election campaign, Mackenzie hit the campaign trail expecting another victory, writing, quote:

“I find the Tories everywhere confident. Why, I cannot understand. My meetings have been everywhere successful, could hardly be more so.”

In 1878, Macdonald came back into power on a majority. A big reason for this was that an economic recession had hit right as Mackenzie had taken power, which hurt his party’s popularity in Canada, resulting in the Conservatives gaining power again and Mackenzie winning his riding but just barely. In order to deal with the economic crisis, Mackenzie had to trim expenses and halt construction on the railroad that was going across the country. This was not a popular decision.

Writing a friend following the election loss, he wrote, quote:

“I shall have more time this coming session to devote to curling with you than I was able to get for the last five years.”

Mackenzie would remain as leader of his party for another 19 months but failing health and issues in his party resulted in him stepping down and Edward Blake taking over. Most of his strength had been taken by the illness he was suffering, and he lost most of his voice. His remaining years in Parliament were spent mostly in silence but he would continue to serve in the House of Commons for the rest of his life.

Unlike every Prime Minister between Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Robert Borden, Mackenzie stayed true to his working-class routes and refused three offers to be knighted. He also refused to be appointed to the UK Privy Council and therefore does not have Right Honourable in front of his name. He would also write several books after his time as leader of the Liberal Party was over, including The Life and Speeches of The Honourable George Brown, published in 1882. During his time in politics he also founded a fire insurance business and while serving as leader of the country, he was also the first president of the North American Life Assurance Company.

In 1882, he would visit Portland and think about his youth as old age crept up on him, writing quote:

“I wish I could, as of yore, climb about the cliffs and get on rough places, but instead, I had to walk slowly and carefully with the steps of a decrepit old man, though in spirit I feel young yet. I am hardly a moment free of pain, but if it is depressing, it is not intolerable and I am thankful it is no worse.”

He would pass away on April 17, 1892 after suffering a stroke when he hit his head during a fall. Despite being a former prime minister, he was not given a state funeral. His public services in Toronto and Sarnia were well-attended though and quite large with a great deal of public respect being paid to Mackenzie. His body would be laid to rest at Lakeview Cemetery in Sarnia. In 1999, the Government of Canada declared the burial site, which now holds 50 members of the Mackenzie family around a 19-foot monument, as a National Monument.

Several places have been named for Mackenzie including the Mackenzie Mountain Range in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, Mount Mackenzie in British Columbia, and several buildings, parks and roads. In a study of the top prime ministers from 1867 to 1999, he placed 11th.

His legacy in Canadian history is not only in the institutions he helped create as prime minister, but also in the character he showed during his time as a politician.

William Lyon Mackenzie, who led the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1838 would state, quote:

“He is every whit a self-made, self-educated man. Has large mental capacity and indomitable energy.”

A historian would write in 1903 about Mackenzie saying, quote:

“He was, and ever will remain, the Sir Galahad of Canadian politics.”

Sir George Ross would write about Mackenzie in his biography, quote:

“We saw a figure of medium height, well proportioned, yet tending towards slenderness of build, but wiry and tough of fiber and alert in movement with a fine head well posed, a noble forehead, fair hair, large blue eyes that have a facility for reading character. But that, beaming with kindness, honest men can trust. A nose, the feature which in almost every face is the evidence of power or the lack of it, long and aquiline. A firm but mobile mouth, around whose lines a little sternness is ever struggling with a larger fund of mirth. A strong, vigorous, well-trained and well-disciplined man, who will undertake whatever work, of whatever kind, his hand may find to do and will do with all his might. He possesses, with many gifts, the often rarer gift of the power to use them.”

The greatest praise came from his friend and future prime minister himself, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who said he was, quote:

“one of the truest and strongest characters to be met within Canadian history. He was endowed with a warm heart and a copious and rich fancy, through veiled by a somewhat reticent exterior, and he was of friends the most true and tender.”

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Collections Canada, Biography.com, The Canada Guide, Biographi.ca, Doncummer.com, Ottawa Citizen, Sarnia Historical Society, HistoricPlaces.ca, WindsorScottish.ca, Lambton County’s Hundred Years 1849-1949

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