Alexander Mackenzie was the second Prime Minister and the first Liberal Prime Minister of Canada. (Not to be confused with the Canadian explorer, Sir Alexander Mackenzie 1764-1820.)
He was born in Scotland, the third of ten children. His family was not financially stable, so they moved frequently. In fact, they went through several moves in a ten year period. Mackenzie’s father, a carpenter, died in 1836 at 52 years.
Partly due to his father’s death, and he and his elder brothers wanting to support the family, Alexander began apprenticeship as a stone mason at 16 years old, becoming a journey man at age 20.
He left Scotland in 1842, following his sweetheart and her family to Canada. Over the next three years he courted Helen Neil. He married her in 1845. They had three children together, but only one, Mary, survived infancy. Helen died in 1852.
Approximately a year after Helen died, on June 17, 1853, Mackenzie married Jane Sym. Sym had been the stepmother to Alexander’s daughter, from his prior marriage. Jane became the new Spouse of the Prime Minister of Canada; the official title of the wife of the Prime Minister. Alexander had met Jane through the Point Sarnia Baptist church, which they had both attended.
As his years declined, he made a concerted effort to keep Jane out of the public eye, and instead keep her in his private life, a life he had “reserved to enjoy in her company.” Not much is known—or easily found—concerning Jane Sym. We do know that she and he had visited, among other places, historic Bell Farm, in Indian Head, Saskatchewan.
Jane is buried at Lakeview Cemetery, in Sarnia, as is her husband.
Mackenzie’s political career actually began by campaigning for George Brown of the Reform Party (which eventually became the Liberal party). He spent time in the Ontario Provincial Assembly, and before becoming Prime Minister, served in the Federal government as the Public Works Minister. He served as Prime Minister from November 7, 1873 – October 8, 1878. His was the first Liberal administration of the Dominion of Canada. His government established the Secret Ballot in 1874, founded the Royal Military College, created the Supreme Court of Canada and the Office of the Auditor General. One of his first acts as Prime Minister was to introduce rreform legislation (organizational and regulatory rationalization). Most important was a requirement that all election ridings held elections on the same day. He introduced several other acts as well, including: the insurance acts, the Customs Act, and the Weights and Measures Act. The latter was important in that it established a legal context for free market forces.
Many of Mackenzie’s accomplishments were not so much political as those which spoke to his expertise as a stone mason. He helped plan or erect the Welland Canal, the Martello Towers at Fort Henry, an Episcopal Church and a bank in Sarnia, the courthouses and jails in Chatham and Sandwich. Perhaps his greatest architectural / building accomplishment was when, as Public Works Minister, he oversaw drafting and the completion of the Parliament buildings.
To round out a picture of how prolific Mackenzie’s contributions to Canadian society were, here’s a partial timeline of his accomplishments and political career:
Political Career Timeline:
- 1852: Editor of the Lambton Shield, a Reform newspaper
- 1861: Elected to the Provincial Assembly
- 1866 – 1874 Major, 27th Lambton Volunteer Infantry
- 1867 – 1882 Elected to the Federal Assembly, constituency Lambton, Ontario
- 1871-72: MLA Ontario Assembly
- 1873: Became leader of the Liberal Party (originally called Reform)
- 1873 – 1878 Public Works Minister
- 1874: Became Prime Minister when a scandal forced the previous Conservative government to resign. The elections that followed put Mackenzie in power.
- 1878: Lost election
- 1878-1880 Leader of the Opposition
- 1880: Gave up Liberal Leadership remained in parliament until his death
- 1882 – 1892 Constituency: York East, Ontario
An interesting and unique fact concerning Mackenzie was that he refused Knighthood three times, being the single one of Canada’s first eight PMs not to be knighted. It’s known that he was genuinely saddened at having to leave the Prime Minister’s Office.
Alexander Mackenzie had many chapters, twists, and turns in his public life. We’d like to close this part of our article by talking about a significant speech he made in Dundee, Scotland, on July 13, 1875. In this speech, he spoke about the relationship between Canada and England at the time. Considering the year this speech was made in, two very interesting facts stand out about Mackenzie and his vision. First, he touched upon in a large way of how Canada stood with England and her military forces, in rejecting and repelling the Americans. Second, he specifically addressed the value of business relationships and open trade. This excerpt is just one of the things he had to say about ‘free trade’:
“We we can only make money by trading with other nations and individuals, and I quite appreciate your suggestion, my Lord Provost, that the people of Dundee and Canada should endeavour to trade a little more in the future then they have done in the past.”
Mackenzie remained a Member of Parliament until 1892, when he died after hitting his head in a fall. As was mentioned above, he was buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Sarnia, Ontario. Funeral services, which were held in Sarnia and Toronto, were attended by large crowds of people. (Note: he did not have a State funeral.)