Mackenzie, Alexander (1822-1892) (DNB00)

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MACKENZIE, ALEXANDER (1822–1892), first liberal premier of the Canadian Dominion, born on 28 Jan. 1822 at Logierait, near Dunkeld in Perthshire, was third son of Alexander Mackenzie (d. 1836), a builder and contractor, by a daughter of Donald Fleming. After attending schools at Perth, Moulin, and Dunkeld he was set at fourteen to learn the trade of a stonemason. In 1842 he emigrated to Canada, and settled at Kingston, Ontario, where he worked for a time as a journeyman builder. In the following year his brother, Hope F. Mackenzie, and about 1848 the rest of the family, joined him. At the latter date Alexander removed to Sarnia, and set up there as a builder and contractor. Mackenzie from an early period interested himself in politics, inheriting strong whig traditions. In 1852 he became editor of the newly founded 'Lambton Shield' at Sarnia, and sought, with the aid of his brother Hope, to educate the Canadians in liberalism. The brother for some time sat in the provincial parliament, but his health failed, and in 1861 Alexander took his place as member for Lambton. For this constituency he sat till the formation of the Dominion. He at once came to the front in the assembly ; his knowledge of history and statistics was wide, his memory almost infallible, and his habit of speech terse and sarcastic. In 1865, on the resignation of George Brown, the liberal premier, he was offered but declined a place in the coalition cabinet of the Canadas, which was committed to carry out the policy of Canadian federation. As a private member he paid special attention to the acts relating to the assessment of property (1863 and 1866), framed the greater portion of the Municipal Corporation Act of 1866 for Upper Canada, and promoted the act for providing means of egress from public buildings. To the first Dominion House of Commons Mackenzie was elected for Lambton (August 1867). His friend George Brown lost his seat, whereupon Mackenzie was chosen by the liberal members from Ontario to fill his place, and soon became the leader of the whole opposition. In this capacity he confined himself to his parliamentary duties, and took no pror minent part in outside agitation or party organisation. In 1871 he was elected member for West Middlesex in the Ontario provincial assembly, and for a few months sat both in the provincial and the federal houses. On 20 Dec. 1871 Mr. Edward Blake formed a liberal ministry in the province, and Mackenzie joined him as secretary and registrar, afterwards becoming treasurer as well. But on the passage of the act preventing any person from sitting at once in the federal and in any provincial house, both Mackenzie and his chief resigned (25 Oct. 1872). About the same date he had again been elected to represent Lambton in the second parliament of the Dominion.

The Pacific railway scandal gave Mackenzie his opportunity. The government met parliament in 1873 with apparently undiminished strength. On 27 Oct. Mackenzie moved an amendment to the speech from the throne to the effect that the conduct of Sir John Macdonald's ministry towards the Pacific railway charter had deprived it of the confidence of the country [see Macdonald, Sir John]. The debate was continued for seven days, and before a vote was taken the ministry resigned. Mackenzie formed a new ministry (7 Nov.), becoming himself minister of public works. A general election at the end of January gave Mackenzie's government a majority of nearly three to one. On 26 March 1874 the new parliament met. The acts relating to elections were among its chief measures. Acts were also passed providing for the construction of the Pacific railway and the completion of the intercolonial railway to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, under the superintendence of the minister of public works. Mackenzie had while in opposition spoken against the bill for the former railway, and though he now loyally accepted that policy, British Columbia viewed his control of the enterprise with a suspicion which caused his government a good deal of uneasiness. This was, however, allayed by the governor-general, Lord Dufferin, who visited the province in 1878. In 1875 Mackenzie's ministry advised an amnesty to those concerned in the troubles in the north-western territories in 1869-70 (which led to the Red River expedition); took important steps towards consolidating those territories, and established a supreme court of the Dominion. Later in the year Mackenzie revisited Scotland; he was presented with the freedom of Irvine, Dundee, and Perth, and was entertained by the queen at Windsor, but he declined the honour of knighthood. During the sessions of 1876 and 1877 several measures of a liberal character and permanent utility became law, and public works, including sections of the Pacific railway, were vigorously prosecuted. The premier was also successful in obtaining from the home government permission for Canada to nominate a delegate to the International Fishery Commission, which met at Halifax on 15 June 1877. Depression of trade, however, bred difficulties. During the session of 1878 the government successfully repelled the vigorous attacks of Sir John Macdonald, who pressed for 'a judicious readjustment of the tariff' on behalf of 'the agricultural, the mining, the manufacturing, and other interests,' But at the general election, on 17 Sept. 1878, the conservative party were generally victorious, and Mackenzie resigned. His five years' ministry, which was practically contemporaneous with Lord Dufferin's tenure of government at Ottawa, is said to have been 'the purest administration which Canada has experienced.'

During 1879 Mackenzie led the opposition, and challenged unequivocally the protective policy of his opponents, which he regarded as jeopardising tne connection with England. In April he had a slight attack of paralysis, and later in the year removed his residence to Toronto. In 1880 he resigned the leadership of his party, but remained in parliament as a private member. In 1881 he made a second journey to Scotland, and was presented with the freedom of Inverness. In July 1882 he was elected for East York, which he represented till his death. Despite failing health, he took an active part in the stirring debates on the Jesuit estates in 1889. He died on 17 April 1892 at St. Albans Street, Toronto. The funeral service was conducted in the Jarvis Street Baptist Church, Toronto, and he was buried in Lake View cemetery, near Sarnia, his old home. The Dominion House of Commons and the Manitoba legislature adjourned over the date of the funeral. Mackenzie in appearance was a typical hard-headed, middle-class Scotsman. He adhered through life to his political principles with unflinching integrity, and earnestly upheld the connection between Canada and the old country (see Canadian Parliamentary Companion, 1891). Although director of the North American Assurance Company, and of other companies, he died poor. He belonged to the baptist connexion. In earlier days he was an enthusiastic volunteer, and a major in the 27th (Lambton) battalion of volunteer infantry till October 1874.

He published in 1882 a well-written biography of his friend and leader, George Brown.

He married twice: first, Helen, daughter of William Neil of Irvine, Scotland, who died in January 1862; secondly, on 17 June 1853, Jane, eldest daughter of Robert Sym of Perth. By his first wife he had an only daughter, who married John Thomson, presbyterian minister at Sarnia.

[Montreal Herald and other Canadian papers of 18 and 19 April 1892; Cyclop, of Canadian Biography, 1892; Withrow's Hist, of Canada, chap. xlix.; Dominion Annual Beg. 1878-86, s.v. 'Mackenzie;' Stewart's Canada under the Administration of Lord Dufferin.]

C. A. H.