The beginning of Canada: Through the eyes of Lady Susan Macdonald

By Ayla Maud

“Behind every great man, is a great woman.” Or at least that is how the old saying goes. But how often do we get the opportunity to really know these great women? We see them standing next to their successful partners, but do we ever know what they contribute behind the scenes? This summer Library and Archives Canada created an opportunity to get into the mind of one great woman in particular—Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald (née Susan Agnes Bernard).

Susan Bernard married Sir John Alexander Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada (or the Dominion of Canada, as it was known at the time), in 1867. Five days after Sir Macdonald’s inauguration, his wife began documenting their new life. The very diary Susan Macdonald used was digitized this summer, in commemoration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, and made available online for the public to transcribe. In addition to providing a behind-the-scenes look at what it was like to take on an elite title, Lady Macdonald shares some of her insights into how the Dominion of Canada was formed. She gives a first-hand account of key historical moments that many of us have since learned about in school.

A journal entry written in cursive with ink.

A hand-written page showing the first entry in Lady Susan Macdonald’s diary, dated Friday, July 5, 1867 (MIKAN 122166)

One of the first things we notice as Lady Macdonald begins to share her thoughts and experiences is the love she had for her husband. Multiple entries gush about Sir John’s patience, love and ability to always put his best foot forward. Susan Macdonald was a strong supporter of her husband, in terms of both his career and character. Her love led her to join him on many confederate-related work missions, socials, voyages and more.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman who is looking slightly off to the left. Her hair is parted down the center, tied back away from her face, and she is wearing an off-the-shoulder evening dress.

Macdonald of Earnscliffe, Agnes Macdonald, Baroness. Photographed by William Topley, September 1873 (MIKAN 3194713)

Due to her strong interest in her husband’s political life, Susan Macdonald was able to witness multiple events that are taught as pivotal points in many history classes today. One example is a series of entries that follows the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Father of Confederation, and the subsequent trial. Lady Susan’s writing gives insight into the details of McGee’s death (for instance, that he was killed while unlocking his front door after coming home one night), the thinking among the populace at the time, and the process of collecting evidence against suspected killer Patrick Whelan.

Susan Agnes Macdonald’s diary gives readers the opportunity to time-travel back to the late 1860s and bear witness (although from one person’s perspective) to a segment of early Canadian society. It was not just by sharing public opinion regarding specific events that Lady Macdonald painted an image of her life for future generations to discover; it was also in the way she described Ottawa at each time of the year, enabling us to compare it to the city we know today. She shares details of meals eaten and customs followed, some of which may be very different from current practices. The theme of religious faith recurs often throughout Susan Macdonald’s pages. Whether she was writing about going to a church service or documenting prayers she hoped would be answered, every few entries highlight moments in her and her husband’s spiritual lives.

A watercolour painting depicts an orange sailboat in the water near a beach. There are slight waves along the shore. Behind the sailboat is a cliff that descends into a valley. The painting uses a palette of orange, brown, green and blue.

A watercolour painted by Lady Susan Macdonald, undated (MIKAN 161120)

It is possible to relate to some of Lady Macdonald’s diary entries describing the stresses of her new responsibilities as the Prime Minister’s wife. Just as you or I might experience the pressures of a new chapter in our lives, she describes being nervous or fearful that she does not know what she is doing. At one point, she describes herself as “a novice” in her new life.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman wearing a long, dark-coloured dress. Her hair is white and is pulled back into a bun.

Macdonald of Earnscliffe, Agnes Macdonald, Baroness, photograph taken by William Topley, undated (MIKAN 3192012)

The transcription of Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald’s diaries is now complete, but the digitized diary is still available online. It gives insight into not only the type of woman Mrs. Macdonald was, but also the type of world Canada was as it first began.


Ayla Maud is a student archival assistant with Regional Services and the ATIP Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

2 thoughts on “The beginning of Canada: Through the eyes of Lady Susan Macdonald

  1. I am glad to learn that the transcription of Lady Macdonald’s diary is complete and that the original will still be available online. Unfortunately the finished transcription does not yet seem to be available, or at least I could not find a link to it, though there is a link in this posting to the working documents for the transcription. Has a final version been edited and put online, complete with index and notes? It is unfortunate that this article was not edited before it was posted. To begin the title is incorrect – “Lady Susan Macdonald” indicates that the subject of the article was the daughter of a peer. From the time that her husband was created a Knight Command of the Bath (1 July 1867) Susan Agnes Bernard Macdonald would be referred to as Lady Macdonald. After her husband’s death she was created a baroness and would still be known as Lady Macdonald. Also, she was not known as Susan Macdonald. She used her middle name, Agnes (see the first page of the Diary), rather than Susan. And Sir John A. was never referred to as “Sir Macdonald.”

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