Quick now: When you think of our first prime minister, what Canadian city comes to mind?
If you’re like most people, you’ll say Kingston, because that was where Sir John A. Macdonald settled after he moved from his birthplace in Scotland, and the riding he would come to represent for most of his political career.
Others of you might say Charlottetown because, after all, that’s where Macdonald and the other Fathers of Confederation began their negotiations in 1864 — negotiations that culminated in the creation of Canada three years later.
And others still might say Ottawa, where Macdonald led his Conservative Party to six majority governments, en route to becoming one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Canadian history (second only to William Lyon Mackenzie King).
But Ontario’s capital city can also lay a minor claim to our first PM — and now, for the first time in more than a century, members of the public can easily see where Macdonald lived during the lean years of his political career. Thanks to a superb refurbishment of the home financed largely by the university, and with the help of a group of volunteer history buffs known as the Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald (full disclosure: I’m a member), much of the home now recalls the splendor of the prime minister’s time there.
How did Macdonald end up in Toronto? Well, after becoming embroiled in the Pacific Scandal, Macdonald and his party were booted out of government as the Liberals under Alexander Mackenzie won the 1874 election. In some respects, it was like being sent into exile. Now the opposition leader, Macdonald moved his family to Toronto, where he practiced law with his son Hugh John, himself a future cabinet minister and premier of Manitoba.
Macdonald moved into a home on what is now the downtown (St. George) campus of the University of Toronto, about a five-minute walk south from the massive John P. Robarts Library. It was there that he lay low and considered how to get himself back on to the governing side of the House of Commons.
The house, at 63 St. George Street, is now open to the public, but serves mostly as a drop-in spot for U of T graduate students, many of whom defend their theses and dissertations there.
The highlight for me during a recent tour for our “Friends” group was to see the boardroom elegantly restored. “I like to imagine that Macdonald plotted his political return in this very boardroom,” says Patrice Dutil, political science professor at Ryerson University, and one of the leading champions of the home’s renovation.
Sure enough, whatever plotting Macdonald did in that house worked. In 1878, the Macdonald-led Conservatives returned to power; the Tory leader shepherded his party to three more majority governments until he passed away in 1891. (The 126th anniversary of Macdonald’s death is on June 6.)
In a real twist of political fate, the home was also once the residence of one of Macdonald’s most vehement opponents, Oliver Mowat, who was both a high-ranking federal Liberal cabinet minister, and at 24 years, the longest-serving premier of Ontario. Today, the residence is known as the “Macdonald-Mowat House,” although both men would probably be rolling in their graves if they knew they were sharing that billing. (Although Macdonald would surely enjoy having his name listed first on the sign.)
Regardless of what it’s called, the home is now no longer the run-down shack it once was. Renovators have done a splendid job restoring it, and the only shame would be if the public didn’t realize what a wonderful piece of history we now have in our midst.
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