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.

Highlights from the Sir Sandford Fleming Diaries

By Andrew Elliott

As I have noted in a previous post, Sir Sandford Fleming—inventor of International Standard time, creator of Canada’s first postage stamp, surveyor and mapmaker—was a productive individual in 19th-century Canada. He seemed to have time for many things, including recording his activities in various diaries. And Fleming was a voracious writer. While he didn’t write novels, he did record everything he saw and experienced in his world. He combined his written observations with the occasional pencil sketch from landscapes, to people, to every day implements, to engineering works.

Remarkably, these diaries were kept for most of his long life, dating from 1843 when he was 15, until his death in 1914. Being a man who also thought of how he would be perceived in posterity, in later life Fleming transcribed the most important parts of his diaries into three condensed diaries. Additionally, Fleming kept various journals that recorded many special trips across Canada, England and the United States. All these are here within the Sir Sandford Fleming fonds at Library and Archives Canada. See specifically the diaries, journals of trips and miscellaneous journals and notebooks.

There are many things of interest to read in these diaries. A couple of diaries from Fleming’s early life are of particular interest. One dating from 1843 records his thoughts and observations about school life in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Here there are numerous sketches from drawings of ships, a church, and a diagram of early roller skates.

Another two diaries from 1845 record Fleming’s voyage—mostly by ship—from Kirkcaldy, Scotland to the town of Peterborough, Upper Canada. The first diary has handwritten entries for late April to early June 1845, while the second diary documents the remaining portion of the journey from June to August 1845. The second diary contains his visual documentation of the trip, a graphic record of a journey before photography. There are views of Scotland from on board the ship, sketches of ships passing by, sketches of his cabin and other people on board, views of the first sighting of landfall in North America, a view of Québec City, a sketch of the locks at Bytown (now Ottawa), a view of Niagara Falls, and several sketches of Peterborough buildings.

A pencil sketch showing a person reading on the deck of a ship, with another ship in the background.

Sketch of part of a ship, 1845. (MIKAN 4938907)

Fleming arrived in Canada with valuable skills—drawing, drafting, surveying, engraving—and he used these to make a living. For Fleming, the diary was a way to record his movements, key events, and family events especially; he often made no entries if his day had been a routine one. The diaries contain irregular and brief entries noting board meetings, social engagements, arrivals and departures of prominent persons, health and fortune of family and friends, and travel in Canada and abroad. This last point about travel is particularly striking. While he was based first in Toronto, his work meant that he had to travel extensively. In the 1840s and 1850s, for example, despite having to travel by stagecoach, sleigh, and steamer, he would cover an area almost as extensive as the Greater Toronto Area. Later, while based in Halifax and Ottawa, numerous rail trips would see him frequenting remote parts of Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and Western Canada.

Two pages from a journal. The first page shows a sketch of a campsite in a river valley with woods and mountains in the background with some handwritten text underneath. On the second page is a sketch of a tent with someone sitting in front of it, tending a fire.

Excerpt from the journal about his Intercolonial Railway survey, dated 1864. (MIKAN 107736)

In the early 1870s, Fleming travelled with others on a surveying expedition. A digitized record of this expedition can be found in Master-Works of Canadian Authors: Ocean to Ocean.

An 1885 diary has a pocket containing a six-page handwritten account of a train trip across Canada in November. Included in this account are his impressions of the November 7 ceremony at Craigellachie, British Columbia of the driving of the “last spike” to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He also kept a list of all the trips he made by ship across the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s a sampling for the period from the 1840s to the 1880s, such as a May 17, 1863 voyage to England on the S.S. United Kingdom.

A handwritten list of dates, destinations and names of ships, which has been attached to some ruled paper.

A list of Fleming’s trips made between 1845 and 1883, which includes the destinations and names of ships. (MIKAN 107736)

Fleming also wrote about his personal and family life. Here are a few examples of diary entries from the 1850s and 1860s (spelling is his own):

  • December 31, 185 9: “Another year on the eve of closing and here I am sitting in Mr. Halls family, Peterboro, with my good wife close by, two dear little boys, and little girl sound asleep in bed…”
  • June 6, 1861: He writes that his wife “gave me my second little daughter about 12 o’clock (noon) today at Davenport. She did not feel very well at breakfast and thought I had better go for the nurse and doctor.”
  • September 9, 1863: “Messrs Tilly and Tupper informed me that they had decided, subject to approval of their government) to appoint me to act on behalf of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick…to proceed at once with survey.” Here’s a scanned image of an entry he made about the Intercolonial Railway survey:
Handwritten entries in pencil for two days.

Excerpt of two diary entries dated December 14 and 15, 1863, describing activities during the Intercolonial Railway survey. (MIKAN 107736)

  • January 1, 1864: “Morning train to Collingwood, Stage to Craigleith—Father and Mother had all their children around them…they thought I was in New Brunswick and were astonished and glad to see me…very cold and stormy.”
  • February 28, 1866: Fleming writes about the death of his 3-month old son, “This morning about 4 o’clock after rallying a little…our dear child at last passed quietly away…This is the first death that has really come home to me—part of us is now really in another world.”
  • June 29, 1867: “Preparing for Celebration of Confederation of the Provinces next Monday.”
  • July 1, 1867 (Dominion Day): “Up at 5 o’clock, very cloudy and rainy…putting up flags etc. Clouds cleared away. Halifax very gay, a perfect sea of flags. Beautiful day. The demonstration went off splendidly.”

Although Fleming was at the centre of the modernization of Canada, the hundreds of mundane details Fleming recorded also reveal something of the world he inhabited. There is a wealth of information here, if one is willing to take the time to read them and decipher his handwriting.


Andrew Elliott is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Queen Victoria’s Journals now available at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa

At the age of 13, Queen Victoria became an avid journal writer when her mother gave her a diary to document an upcoming trip to Wales. Her last entry was written more than six decades later, on January 13, 1901, only nine days before her death.

This year, in honour of Queen Victoria’s birth (May 24, 1819) and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, all 141 journal volumes (comprised of 43,765 pages) have been digitized and are now available through a courtesy subscription obtained by Library and Archives  Canada (LAC), through The Royal Household, and with the assistance of ProQuest.

The project’s website says that “ As well as detailing household and family matters, the journals reflect affairs of state, describe meetings with statesmen and other eminent figures, and comment on the literature of the day. They represent a valuable primary source for scholars of nineteenth century British political and social history and for those working on gender and autobiographical writing.”

Not only have the diaries been digitized, they have been (and will continue to be) transcribed to allow for a keyword search. In fact, The Queen, as Head of State for Canada, did not leave us unmentioned. A keyword search for “canad*” (without the quotation marks) currently retrieves more than 150 results up to 1839!

As the project continues and more years are transcribed and become searchable, this resource will become more valuable.

To access the journals, use any of the public workstations located at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa or our Wi-Fi connection and visit the website Queen Victoria’s Journals [http://www.queenvictoriasjournals.org/]. You may browse the journals by date or search for keywords.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!