Sir John A. – the Beach connection

Nearly 200 years ago – 198, to be exact – the most important person in the history of Canada was born in Scotland: John Alexander Macdonald, who would become the first Prime Minister of the newly-formed nation of Canada.

Sir John A. Macdonald, above, spoke for hours at a rally at Victoria Park before being re-elected in 1878. PHOTO: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-BH83- 555

He came to what was to be Canada at the age of five with his parents, settling in the city of Kingston. The usual comments I hear from many people are ‘so what, who cares?’, or ‘who and what was he?’. Well, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, educators, politicians and fellow Canadians, I care a hell of a lot, and so should all of you. Without this great man there would be no Canada.

Other countries celebrate their nation-builders. For example, our American neighbours revere and respect their first president, George Washington. Here in Canada we take it for granted that we have a great country. We should not take it for granted, we should give credit to the people who built our great nation – English, French, First Nations and others.

Let us look at and admire this person who spent his life building our Canada, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean.

There are many anecdotes about Sir John A., some humorous and some false (but most of them true). You cannot take away from this great (yes, I use ‘great’) Canadian. Through sweat, toil, craftiness, political acumen and humor he, along with several other politicians, formed the great nation called Canada.

Sir John A. started as a young lawyer around the Kingston area, making his way through different parts of Upper Canada and the surrounding area. His quest in politics hadn’t yet begun; he looked around to check out different ways to make a decent living. In this way he never became a very wealthy man, although there were many detractors who vilified him as one in later years.

A young John came to Toronto many times, as this was to become the largest city in English-speaking Canada. He was involved in the army in 1837, when that other Scotsman started a rebellion (does anyone remember him?). Sir John A. was apparently a soldier, opposing the rebellion here in Toronto.

Macdonald learned a lot during his early soldiering and pre-political days, but there was another side to our first Prime Minister. He was a family man, a part of his life that is lost to many of us. His first wife, Isabella, was plagued with sickness for most of their married life, and this took its toll on Sir John A.’s health and outlook. Their marriage produced a son who died at the age of only 13 months. Isabella passed away, marking the beginning of emotional problems for Sir John A. He remarried, but again there was a long illness, with another child eventually passing away.

Macdonald had family problems, but he persevered and dealt with them to the best of his abilities. He did have one son, Hugh John, who followed in his dad’s footsteps, becoming a good politician and the premier of Manitoba.

It is not easy to write about a person such as Sir John A. Macdonald, who had so many complex family, financial, political and language problems; who wrestled with all these difficulties yet was able to build a country. There are many books written about him, but I don’t think any do justice to this humble Scot.

Macdonald decided to try his hand at politics, and in the early 1840s ran for and was elected to municipal office in Kingston.

If anyone thinks being a politician is easy, they should think again. What must have been going on in this young man’s mind? Is this where his thirst for political union began?

Macdonald decided to move on in 1844, running for the legislature as a Conservative. He won the seat for Kingston, and Sir John A. was on his way up. People began to see the potential of this young man, and he was promoted to senior positions in government. His party was in opposition for quite a number of years, but during this time he was building up an alliance of the French and English. His great oratorical and political skills made him into one of the most powerful people in British North America.

Macdonald realized he couldn’t make a great country without the French. At this time, Sir John A., George-Étienne Cartier and his former political rival George Brown formed an alliance to create one great country.

After the birth of Canada on July 1, 1867, Macdonald became the new nation’s first Prime Minister until 1873, when his government was defeated over political and financial scandals. He spent the next five years leading the opposition – political oblivion to the ordinary Canadian. But this was not the end for Sir John A., who came back with a vengeance. He was to remain in the Prime Minister’s office from re-election in 1878 until his death in 1891.

As for the Beach connection, when Macdonald was in opposition, there was a movement to bring him back in the 1878 election. A great meeting was held in the Beach at Victoria Park. Toronto was the most populous city in English Canada, the centre of influence and money. The powers-that-be and the back-room boys concluded that the major thrust should be in Toronto. And where else, but at Victoria Park – the newest and largest amusement park in the city at that time.

Victoria Park is now the site of the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant, near the end of Queen Street. However, in the 1870s, Queen Street was just a dirt path – the only way to reach Victoria Park was from Kingston Road. There was also steam ship service from Yonge and Church Streets to bring merrymakers to the park.

The foot of Victoria Park Avenue a century ago. PHOTO: Photo: City of Toronto Archives, f1244 it2476
The foot of Victoria Park Avenue a century ago. PHOTO: Photo: City of Toronto Archives, f1244 it2476

At the same time, Kew Gardens was also a great gathering place. In the 1870s, the Beach area was the most lovely place to go to relax – or to hold an election rally. People came to Toronto, the Beach and Victoria Park, by rail, boat, carriage or wagon. The push was on for Macdonald. Thousands came from Hamilton, Brantford, Markham, even Kingston, to this rally at Victoria Park to hear the former and possibly next Prime Minister. Sir John A. didn’t let them down, he rallied the crowd and spoke for nearly four hours, hammering at the governing party’s mistakes. He promised to lead the nation to prosperity if he was elected.

In the end, Macdonald won the election, and held power until his death 13 years later. Was the election win due to the great rally in the Beach at Victoria Park? Only history knows.

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