A Canadian icon: celebrating Sir John A. Macdonald’s bicentennial

It has been 200 years since the birth of Canada’s first prime minister and the interest in his political and personal life has not diminished. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an extensive and varied collection of records related to Sir John Alexander Macdonald, including a virtual exhibition that includes personal papers, photos, artwork, and publications. Within LAC’s Sir John A. Macdonald collection, there are over 100,000 letters to and from family and close friends, which gives researchers a rare glimpse into his personal life.

Black and white photograph showing Sir John A. Macdonald sitting on a chair, both his legs and his arms are crossed.

Sir John A. Macdonald, 1872, by William Topley (MIKAN 3333452)

As well as revealing a little bit about Sir John A.’s family life, LAC’s collection also contains artwork and objects that use the former prime minister’s image as a political symbol and, at times, a comic caricature. From political cartoons disapproving of the National Policy and Canadian-American relations, to a derisive phrenological chart of Macdonald’s head, the image of Sir John A. has become a part of Canadian iconography.

Lithograph showing Sir John A. Macdonald dressed as a marching British soldier in front of a locked gate. Behind his back, Uncle Sam is reaching for bags of money from some business men straddling the fence.

Electoral campaign sign reading, “We can’t undo the lock, Sir John is on guard. Hand it over the fence?” (MIKAN 2847973)

Beyond the more politically charged cartoons, Sir John A. Macdonald’s image has also been used commercially in beer advertisements, an endorsement for tomato chutney, and he has even been made into an action figure.

Print of a Molson’s ale ad featuring Sir John A. Macdonald seated and looking off to the side. Behind him is a map of the Dominion of Canada and underneath the image the text reads, “Fifty-six years ago when Sir John A. Macdonald was first Premier of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, Molson’s ale was then 81 years old! The ale your great-grandfather drank.”

Molson’s Ale, Sir John A. Macdonald. (MIKAN 3000462)

However, lest our mental image of Sir John A. Macdonald become a caricature, this bicentennial marks an opportunity to reflect on the personal history and life behind the icon. LAC’s Sir John A. Macdonald collection is a monument to the man and the myth, but his legacy extends beyond these images, back to his Scottish origins. In 1968, outside the tiny village of Rogart in the Scottish Highlands, a memorial cairn was dedicated to Sir John A. Macdonald and unveiled by the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker. This memorial is built on the site of the home of Sir John’s grandparents and is made of stones from the original family home. Accompanying the cairn is a plaque that states that the monument is but “a footnote to his greatness.” This type of disclaimer is a good one to keep in mind when examining Sir John A. Macdonald’s accomplished and storied life through such a diverse range of records.

To learn more about Sir John A. Macdonald and his legacy:

Library and Archives Canada releases seventeenth podcast episode, “Let us be Canadians: Sir John A. Macdonald

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, Let us be Canadians: Sir John A. Macdonald.

January 11, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. To celebrate this anniversary, award-winning journalist-historian Arthur Milnes and LAC art archivist and curator Madeleine Trudeau join us to discuss the life and career of this important political figure as well as the related resources available at LAC.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS or iTunes, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at podcasts@bac-lac.gc.ca.

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: