John A Macdonald: Son of Glasgow, ‘Father of Canada’

john macdonald

John Alexander Macdonald, who was born in Glasgow's Merchant City 200 years ago this week, is little-known in the city of his birth but he is a household name to Canadians and is often referred to as the "Father of Canada".

Modern Canada was created in 1867 with the unification of the four original provinces - Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

And it was the son of a failed textile merchant born in Glasgow's Brunswick Street who was the leading figure in the Confederation pact that created Canada, according to Randy Boswell, a journalism professor at Ottawa's Carleton University.

Ged Martin, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, says the timing of the confederation move was critical.

Image copyright Archives of Ontario
Image caption Brunswick Place as it would have looked in the 19th century

He says: "It came at a moment in the 1860s when Macdonald said 'it is now or never'. 'If we don't do it now, we'll simply fall apart'.

"The fear was that they would gradually be sucked into the orbit of the United States."

Macdonald's family had emigrated to Kingston, Ontario, to revive the family fortunes, when he was just five years old.

He lost much of his Glasgow accent, was schooled well and quickly ascended, opening his own law office at age 19 and entering politics seven years later.

He devoted his life to promoting the Canadian Confederation and held the position of prime minister for 18 years, the second longest term in Canadian history.

Chronic alcoholism

During his time as prime minister, Sir John - who was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1867 - made it his priority to create a modern Canadian nation, developing the Canadian transcontinental railway and founding the Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties.

Sir John died in 1891 at the age of 76.

His achievements in elected office across almost 50 years came despite a tragic personal life and chronic alcoholism.

Prof Martin says: "Simply to caricature him as a drunk who created a country by looking through the bottom of a bottle, all of that I think is nonsense.

"He was an enormously hard-working person. In those days the civil service was very, very primitive so Macdonald did a huge amount of work in his own hand-writing as a minister. He certainly put pressure on himself by doing that."

His success also seems to have come despite reports that he did not appear to have been a great orator and was often hesitant in speech and rarely prepared his speeches.

Image caption There is a plaque dedicated to John A Macdonald at the Ramshorn Kirk in Glasgow

Sir John A is often known to Canadians as John Eh? , as reference to the frequent national intonation of adding 'eh?' at the end of sentences.

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, international experts gathered in Glasgow to reflect on his legacy.

New research presented at the event shed light on the long-standing question of exactly where in the city he was born.

New life

Prof Boswell says it is about filling the story-telling gaps in history.

He says: "Having more very tangible detail about where Macdonald was born I think can actually enhance Canadians' understanding of the story of this immigrant who came from another country and the conditions in which he lived at that time, like what drew his family to emigrate to Canada and start a new life.

"That's a story that's played out millions of times in Canadian history but none perhaps so significant an immigrant story as John A Macdonald's."

Two main trains of thought exist on the birthplace.

Still standing

Some believe it was a long-gone tenement south of the Clyde in Laurieston based on an 1891 biography by E.B. Biggar, citing the recollections of Macdonald's cousin Maria MacPherson after his death.

Others think it was actually north of the river in a late 17th-century building in a lane called Brunswick Place where Post Office Directory records indicate John's father Hugh ran a textile business in 1815.

This location was also identified as his place of birth in a special memorial supplement in The Empire newspaper in 1891 after John A's death.

Randy Boswell, who recently uncovered the document, says the publication would seem to have some authority on the matter because The Empire was founded and controlled by Macdonald himself.

Part of the building in question is still standing and houses the boarded-up old Mitre Pub.

The tenements above were demolished long ago.

This week, an Edinburgh University PhD candidate in History, Malin Sandell unveiled findings lending credence to the Brunswick Place theory.

Image caption The derelict Mitre pub in Brunswick Street stands on the site where Macdonald is believed to have been born

She found Kirk Parish Records placing John Alexander's birth in Glasgow Parish, the boundaries of which fell north of the Clyde, and crucially included the Brunswick address. It doesn't provide certainty but may help settle the debate.

Kevin Febers, one of the last owners of the Mitre Bar, between 1991 to 2002, says: "It had always been rumoured that the Canadian PM had been born at either 14 or 12 Brunswick Street but we never really knew for sure if that was the case.

"The Mitre was number 12. The apartments were long gone, they were removed in the 1950s."

The derelict Mitre Bar is due to be demolished this spring but Prof Boswell says he has been speaking to the new developers Mace and Mercer Real Estate about their plans.

He says: 'I think there is in fact some growing recognition that there should be a greater awareness of Macdonald's roots in Glasgow.

"Mace and Mercer are very excited about the prospect of recognising Macdonald in some way whether it's through a simple plaque or a statue or some other feature of a re-developed downtown area."

There is already a plaque commemorating Macdonald several blocks away at Ramshorn Kirk where John A was baptised.

It was placed there decades ago by the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario.

But that doesn't seem to have done much to raise awareness of his existence.

Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament Tricia Marwick, who attended bi-centenary events in Kingston, Ontario, said: "I think what is important is that we recognise famous Scots, people who've gone abroad and done wonderful things.

"Ultimately it's a matter for Glasgow City Council whether or not they want to honour one of their own who went to Canada."

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