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.

The 200th Birthday of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, a Prominent Father of Confederation

Today marks the 200th birthday of one of Canada’s most important historical figures, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, a leading Father of Confederation. Cartier was born on September 6, 1814 in Sainte-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Lower Canada. He studied law and started practising in 1835; however, politics soon became his passion. His entrance into the world of politics was anything but uneventful, as he played a role in the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837 and fought in the Battle of Saint-Denis. Cartier subsequently spent a year in exile in Vermont but pled for leniency and returned to Montreal in 1839.

The Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Baronet

The Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Baronet (MIKAN 3476630)

In 1848 Cartier was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and shortly after was appointed to Cabinet. From 1857 to 1862 he served as co-premier of the Province of Canada with Sir John A. Macdonald following his coalition with the Upper Canadian Conservatives. It was in this period that Macdonald and Cartier started working together and began to garner support for Confederation in an attempt to put an end to political instability.

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier (MIKAN 3213760)

Cartier played a pivotal role in gaining French-Canadian support for Confederation. He argued that francophone interests would be best preserved in a federation of provinces. When Confederation finally came about on July 1, 1867, John A. Macdonald became the first Prime Minister and Cartier the first Minister of Militia and Defence.

Shown among their peers are the Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, the Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Lieutenant-Colonel John G. Irvine

Shown among their peers are the Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, the Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Lieutenant-Colonel John G. Irvine (MIKAN 3192010)

Cartier passed away on May 20, 1873. His death deeply affected his close friend, John A. Macdonald, who proposed that a statue be erected in Cartier’s honour. It was sculpted by Louis-Philippe Hébert and unveiled in 1885. This was the first statue to be placed on Parliament Hill and it can still be seen today. Cartier left his mark on generations of Canadians. The centenary of his birthday in 1914 was marked by large celebrations and another monument was erected, this time in Montreal. Cartier’s Montreal home was designated a National Historic Site.

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier (MIKAN 2837680)

While the majority of Cartier’s papers were destroyed, Library and Archives Canada does have several important records, including a family photo album, postcards, and some correspondence that took place during his period as Minister of Militia and Defence. We also have several letters written by Cartier to Macdonald, found in the Sir John A. Macdonald collection (archived).

To find out more about George-Étienne Cartier and his role in Confederation: