The Old Man's Son: Sir Hugh John Macdonald
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 20 February 1973
No greater misfortune can fall to any man than to be the son of a famous father. No man struggled harder under the weight of his father's reputation than Hugh John Macdonald. Sir John Macdonald, architect of Canada and master of the Conservative party, cast a giant and lasting shadow over his son. Though Hugh took to his father's professions of law and politics, by contrast with his father's record his accomplishments were few and seldom lasting. He bore the burden of heredity throughout his life, and never could escape being "the old man's son." Yet, in a generation of political boomers, boodlers, and brawlers, one gentleman stood out, and Manitobans affectionately referred to him as "our own Hugh John."
In 1850 the future looked bleak to John Alexander Macdonald, then a rising young star on the political horizon of Canada West. as public career was threatened by the Tories' failure to resolve their identity crisis following the advent of responsible government. At the same time, his Kingston law practice was well into debt and his only partner had decided to leave. His troubles were compounded by a crisis in his family life - his wife Isabella was pregnant. Isabella had borne him a son in 1847, but young John Alexander had died accidentally in his second year. Macdonald might have been overjoyed at the prospect of an heir, were Isabella young, strong, and healthy. But unfortunately she was not. Isabella Macdonald was 41, a chronic invalid, and frequently bedridden. Macdonald let his political and financial affairs sort themselves out, and spent his time at his wife's bedside.
The child was due in January, and the household was prepared well in advance. Isabella spent the month in agony but without issue. February came and went. March arrived like a lion, and thirteen days later so did a son. Isabella wished to name him John Alexander, but she was over- ruled by her sisters and Macdonald's mother. After a month of anonymity, a family conclave named the boy after his grandfather and father, and he was christened Hugh John Macdonald.
From the beginning it appeared that young Hugh had inherited his father's physical characteristics. He was slight of build, with the reddish-brown hair, clear blue eyes, and prominent nose peculiar to the Macdonald clan. As he grew older he seemed to possess his father's charm and easy way with people. He became quite a favourite with the neighbours who looked after him when Isabella's illness became severe. Hugh's good health and high spirits provided precious relief for Macdonald in his otherwise dreary household.
In 1856 the family followed the provincial government to Toronto. Isabella was ailing, and soon Macdonald suspected that Hugh had inherited his mother's constitution. In mid-winter the boy lay desperately ill with what might have been rheumatic fever. He recovered slowly, but was house-bound for several months. As Hugh grew better, Isabella grew weaker. In December 1857 Macdonald was summoned from his election campaign to his wife's bedside. Three days after Christmas Isabella died. Hugh had no mother. For as long as he could remember she had been an invalid physically unable to give him the love, sympathy, and care that all children need. He had seldom seen his father; Macdonald's life was politics, and with his successes his visits with his son became less frequent. Hugh John Macdonald was virtually an orphan.
In 1858 Hugh returned to Kingston to live with his grandmother and his Aunt Louisa. Two years later the three moved in with Hugh's Aunt Margaret and her husband, James Williamson. Williamson had been a successful Presbyterian minister, but he had left the church in 1842 and joined the faculty of Queen's College in Kingston. Ten years later, after a lightning romance, he married Margaret Macdonald. Williamson was a recognized scholar, but he was bookish, humourless, and thoroughly inept in politics. He and Margaret had no children, but soon after the boy's appearance in their home Hugh and the Williamsons adopted each other.
Macdonald's political career kept him far away from his son. To compensate for his absence he kept gifts flowing to Kingston. One package, contained a highland kilt, and Macdonald had no doubt that Hugh would "bare his bottom with due Celtic dignity." As the years went on, however, Hugh looked more and more on the Williamsons as his parents. Williamson's strict Presbyterian outlook, untempered by the demands of Canadian politics, made a lasting impression on the boy and instilled a streak of intolerance which was missing in his father.
When Hugh reached the appropriate age he was enrolled in the Queen's College Prep. School, from which he graduated with honours in 1865. He went on to the University of Toronto, but temporarily abandoned his studies in the spring of 1866. The rumours of a Fenian invasion roused a patriotic impulse in young Hugh, and he rushed to enlist in the 14th battalion, Princess of Wales Own Rifles, at Kingston. He spent that slimmer patrolling the St. Lawrence around Cornwall, but saw no action, and returned to Toronto in the fall. The thrill of soldiering remained with him, as he joined the University company of the Queen's Own Rifles and attained the rank of sergeant. In 1869 he graduated, Bachelor of Arts, and submitted to his father's persuasion that he take up the legal profession.
The mundane study of law failed to hold Hugh's interest and he longed for a chance to escape. In the spring of 1870 he found it. The Canadian government was organizing a force of volunteers to accompany the Wolseley expedition to quell the insurrection at Fort Garry. Hugh begged his father to let him join the regiment, but Macdonald adamantly refused. Hugh, however, knew his father's weak spot and enlisted the aid of Macdonald's closest colleague, George Cartier. He asked Cartier to speak to his father, and argued that if he did not receive a commission, aspersions would be cast on his courage. Cartier's intervention did the trick, and in late spring Ensign Macdonald of the 16th company, 1st Ontario Rifles, began the long trek west.
After months of voyageur life the expedition reached the forks of the Red and Assiniboine. On 24 August 1870 Hugh John Macdonald marched through pouring rain and knee-deep mud along what became Winnipeg's Main Street. But the force was too late; Louis Riel and his fellows had evacuated Fort Garry only hours before. In later years, Hugh recalled his arrival in the settlement with some delight. To his glee, he found a fine feather mattress inside the fort and exercised the right of discovery. After three months of bedding down on the Canadian Shield, he had his first decent sleep. His comfort was short-lived. The mattress had been commandeered by a rebel, and it was soon retrieved by its rightful owner.
Macdonald was determined that his son would be a lawyer, and in September he summoned Hugh back to Ottawa. Hugh was disappointed that the Red River force was not to be the nucleus of a Canadian army in which he could pursue a career, and so reluctantly followed his father's wishes. He returned to find an articling position waiting for him in the law office of Lewis and Pinhey. There Hugh became acquainted with J. Stewart Tupper, eldest son of Macdonald's Maritimes lieutenant, Dr. Charles Tupper. Hugh remained in Ottawa until late 1871, when he moved to Toronto to article under Robert A. Harrison, a Conservative M.P. and future Chief Justice of Ontario. In the spring of 1872 he was admitted to the Ontario Bar, and he became a junior partner in Macdonald and Patton, his father's Toronto law firm.
At 22, Hugh John Macdonald was a charming and friendly young man-about-town. Because his father remained in Ottawa, he rented his own lodgings and carried on the life of a city-wise and eligible bachelor. He was fiercely proud of his ability to look after himself, and as he grew older he grew bolder. In 1874 he asked his father to cut him out of his will, as he was perfectly able to make his own living. In the following year his independent spirit became defiant.
In 1875 Hugh decided it was time to get married. For his bride he chose Jean King, a lady whom Macdonald regarded as entirely unsuitable. Not only was she Roman Catholic, widowed, and older than Hugh, but she would interfere with his making a name for himself in the legal profession. Father and son quarreled bitterly, but Hugh was determined and married without Macdonald's blessing. The atmosphere in the law office became coolly formal and their personal relations strained. Finally Hugh proposed a professional separation and opened an office of his own in Kingston.
The ill-feeling did not last long' Margaret Williamson's death brought the family together, and Hugh and his father were reconciled. When James Patton objected to Macdonald's lengthy absences, the partnership of Macdonald and Patton was dissolved and replaced by Macdonald and Macdonald. Macdonald gradually accepted Jean as one of the family and was delighted in 1877 when his first grandchild was born. Hugh's daughter, Isabella Mary, was always known as "Daisy" and she rapidly became and remained a favourite with her grandparents.
The slowly constructed family circle, was suddenly broken on 22 April 1881, when Jean died. Hugh was shocked. He tried to bury himself in his work to keep his thoughts occupied, and sent Daisy to her grandfather for the summer. Yet the familiar surroundings constantly reminded him of his loss, and he decided to break with the past. After a summer of investigation he joined the exodus to the west and moved to Manitoba.
In 1881 the eyes of Canada were focused on Winnipeg. The young city reveled in the effects of a real estate boom, and the eastern papers published stories of fortunes won every day. Throngs of speculators flocked to the west, and Winnipeg cheerfully displayed the excesses of new-found wealth. For many reasons, not least being the Red River flood, in the spring of 1882 the bubble burst. The flood washed out the rail link with St. Paul, and Winnipeg became despondent in its isolation. Hugh John Macdonald was one of the hundreds of fortune hunters stranded in St. Paul. Luckily, he secured passage on one of the first steamboats to sail north. He landed in Winnipeg on 5 May, and within a few days began to organize a law practice. In August he was followed by Stewart Tupper, and in the following year the two entered a legal partnership with J.B. McArthur and Henry J. Dexter.
Hugh arrived just in time to witness the birth of party politics in Manitoba. The provincial election of 1883 was the first contested by Liberals and Conservatives. Hugh likely would have campaigned for John Norquay, but he had more important business elsewhere. He dashed back to Toronto early in January to be married again. This time Macdonald heartily approved Hugh's choice, as Agnes Gertrude Vankoughnet was the daughter of one of his oldest friends. Hugh brought his new bride out to Winnipeg, where in 1884 they had a son and named him John Alexander after his grandfather.
Soon after his return, Hugh joined the local Conservative association. He acted as an agent for his father, and kept Macdonald aware of the political situation in Manitoba. In 1884 he was disturbed by the agitation of the Farmers' Union, and feared that it would have far-reaching effects. The farmers' unrest led to the growth of "provincialism," which was manifested by the discontent with the CPR monopoly clause-the clause in the government contract which prohibited construction of rail lines running southeast to the American border. In the disallowance controversy Hugh showed his true colours. He stood by the federal Conservatives, and was appalled by the Manitoba party's cry for "better terms."
With the outbreak of the Riel rebellion, Hugh John Macdonald saw military service for the third time. In 1883 he had been one of the organizers of the 90th battalion, Winnipeg Rifles, and in 1885 wore the uniform of a lieutenant. The 90th battalion was one of the first to enter the field in the west. Conditions on the march were far from ideal, and on one occasion Hugh performed a skirmishing drill in mud and slush up to his knees. The first few weeks passed without incident, except for the midnight capture of General Middleton who had forgotten the password. Hugh's letters home described the hard life of a volunteer. His spirits were very low, and he asked his wife and a Winnipeg doctor to forward some "ammunition." When it failed to arrive, he suspected that the Mounted Police had confiscated it and used it for their own medicinal purposes.
The 90th battalion saw its first action at Fish Creek, where the rebels were lodged in a deep ravine. Hugh led a series of rushes and volunteered to lead a bayonet charge to flush the rebels out. Fortunately his commanding officer vetoed the plan. Gabriel Dumont had chosen to make a stand at Fish Creek because it was an old buffalo blind. His intention was to draw the troops into the ravine, and then ambush them from the woods on either side. Had Hugh led his bayonet charge, he would have fallen right into the trap.
In May, when Middleton's army converged on the Métis stronghold of Batoche, Hugh did not accompany his battalion. He had been stricken with a severe attack of erysipelas, and was ordered to recoup on the steamer Northcote. He was very bitter, and amused himself by taking pot shots at rebels on the riverbank. When he had recovered he rejoined the 90th at Fort Pitt, where it had gone in pursuit of Big Bear. Again Hugh saw no action, and he became impatient with Middleton's cautious strategy. The monotony was broken when his "ammunition" finally arrived, and the troops had a "grand glorification." Unfortunately for Hugh, he was on duty and thus had to be very abstemious.
In the summer of 1885 the 90th battalion returned to Winnipeg, and Hugh went back to his law practice. McArthur and Dexter had left the firm early in the year and were replaced by Frank Phippen and William J. Tupper, Stewart's youngest brother. When his business was consolidated Hugh again became active in Conservative circles. Over the years his outlook became more provincial. In the late 1880's Manitoba was up in arms over the railway question. Hugh kept his father informed of the feeling against the CPR, and warned about Joe Martin's intention to force a confrontation by laying tracks across the CPR mainline. Although he disagreed with Martin's tactics, he favoured abrogation of the monopoly clause because it would allow for more railway construction and provide the competition the west desperately needed.
When the dominion government drew up its list of Queen's Counsels in 1889, Macdonald included his son. Hugh objected to receiving an honour so undeserved, and argued that the gesture was blatant nepotism. He preferred to win one on his own and advised his father to honour someone else. Macdonald went ahead, however, and in 1890 his son became Hugh John Macdonald, Q.C.
As the 1880's ended, Hugh looked forward to the quiet life of a city lawyer. For the son of the Old Chieftain such an existence could only be an idyllic dream. In the course of the next decade, events drew him from behind the scenes and thrust him into the national spotlight. He contested four elections and won three of them, but resigned twice and was unseated once.
The 1890's had just begun when Hugh John Macdonald entered public life. Sir John Macdonald surprised the country on 2 February 1891, by calling a general election. Hugh was one of the few who had advised his father to appeal to the people at that time, because an immediate election would prevent discussion of the public works department scandal, and would get the farmers' votes before they ran into the new American tariff wall.
When parliament dissolved, the Winnipeg Conservatives were caught without a candidate. The incumbent, W.B. Scarth, could not run again. As manager of the Canada North-west Land Company, a subsidiary of the CPR, Scarth depended on the railway company for his living. Manitoba's Liberal premier, Thomas Greenway, wanted Scarth out of politics, and he informed the directors of the railway that his government would tax the land company if the CPR did not dissuade Scarth from running again. Accordingly, the railway told Scarth to choose either parliament or his job. Scarth had a family, and thus no real choice.
The Conservative association had no candidate ready to step into the breach. W.F. Luxton, editor of the Manitoba Free Press, began a private campaign to nominate Sir Donald Smith. There was a problem, however, as Smith had been nominated in the prestigious constituency of Montreal West, and was not going to be opposed. On 10 February the Conservatives met to select a candidate. After Scarth declined, the meeting heard a motion to adjourn. Hugh John Macdonald rose to second the motion, and, to everyone's surprise, made a capital speech on the Conservative election platform. The next morning he was the talk of the town. It is clear that Hugh had no intention to secure the nomination for himself, and that in speaking he was simply endorsing his father's manifesto. He had a strong distaste for public life and was not willing to accept the annoyance and worry which went with a political career. For several months, however, W.B. Scarth had been urging Macdonald to induce his son to run. But Macdonald was aware of Hugh's reluctance and did not want to force the issue.
While the Conservatives searched for a candidate, the Liberal association found one in Isaac Campbell, a Liberal M.L.A. Campbell's nomination put pressures on the Conservatives, who kept a steady stream of telegrams flowing to Smith in Montreal. Smith equivocated. Hugh became apprehensive and desperately hoped Smith would run. The practice of contesting two constituencies was not new, as party leaders had done so repeatedly. On 19 February Smith definitely declined. A frantic Hugh wired his father for advice on what to do if nominated. Macdonald replied, "Accept."
When Smith's decision was received, the Conservative association unanimously nominated Hugh John Macdonald. In his acceptance speech Hugh reviewed his father's platform, and trusted he could show "he was a chip of the old block." The next day, the Winnipeg newspapers carried ads which referred to the Conservative candidate as "Hugh John," and that became the name by which he was known everafter.
The campaign in Winnipeg was fought on two issues: unrestricted reciprocity and the Hudson Bay Railway. On the first, Hugh followed the Conservative party line and raised the loyalty cry whenever possible. On the second, he voiced his long held personal conviction. He had urged his father's government to aid the Hudson Bay Railway since 1884, and he now realized that he could capitalize on the popular sentiment in its favour.
The campaign itself was noisy and suffered no lack of excitement. It was marked by perhaps the wildest public meeting ever held in Winnipeg. On 3 March an overflow crowd jammed Trinity Hall, unaware that the spectacle would last nine hours. After Stewart Tupper described unrestricted reciprocity as "unveiled annexation," and Isaac Campbell assailed the national policy as responsible for all of Manitoba's ills, other speeches were drowned out by catcalls and hooting. As the meeting degenerated, the police were summoned to quell the disturbance. The Tribune reported that Joseph Wolf "was almost scratched hardheaded" when he attempted to eject one of the investigators. The meeting slowly quietened down, but pandemonium broke out when Hugh Sutherland tried to speak. Sutherland owned the Hudson Bay Railway charter, and he had previously castigated Isaac Campbell for deserting the cause. For four hours Sutherland was yelled down. Finally, at 5:00 a.m. the hecklers were exhausted, and Sutherland produced a copy of an order-in-council which authorized a provincial guarantee for his stock-an order which Campbell had denied existed. Again uproar resulted, and the meeting dissolved before Campbell could reply.
When the votes were polled on 5 March, Hugh John Macdonald received a 500 vote majority. He expressed surprise and to his father confessed that be would have been much happier had he been defeated. But his wife Gertie was pleased and thought the result would boost her husband's ego.
Hugh John got his first taste of parliament when the House of Commons convened on 29 April 1891. Arm in arm, his father and he strode the length of the House of Commons to cheers from both sides. As Sir John Bourinot administered the oath to Macdonald and his son, the galleries rustled with comments about their marked physical resemblances.
The family reunion was very brief, as Macdonald died five weeks later. After a short period of mourning Hugh John took his seat in the House and soon showed his political mettle. His first speech was an eloquent defense of an old friend, Sam Bedson, who had been charged with mismanaging Stony Mountain Penitentiary.  Through the rest of his term he consistently defended western interests. He was especially concerned with railway expansion and immigration, and he attacked eastern members of parliament who neglected the needs of the west. He retained his western perspective on issues of national import, and described preferential trade with Great Britain as a boon to the west because that section produced raw material for export.
As an M.P. Hugh John was not happy. He had entered politics reluctantly and longed to get out. In August 1891 he wished to retire, but the government persuaded him to sit for another session. During the Christmas recess Prime Minister Abbott personally asked him to remain in Ottawa. When Abbott resigned, Sir John Thompson pleaded with Hugh John to withhold his resignation until the winter of 1892. Hugh did so, but at the end of that session he informed the sergeant-at-arms that fie would not be back. When the next session opened, however, Hugh again found himself in parliament. After two more months he had had enough. On 4 March 1893 he wrote out his resignation and gave it to Thomas Mayne Daly, minister of the interior, to forward to the Speaker at an appropriate moment.
When Thompson learned that Hugh John Macdonald was leaving, he offered him the lieutenant-governorship of Manitoba. Hugh declined because he could not afford the position, and asked Thompson to keep the offer secret, as his wife would be "awfully disappointed" if she found out. In the summer of 1894 Thompson asked him to lead Manitoba's Conservative party and offered to build the Hudson Bay Railway if he accepted. Again Hugh replied that he would not accept for financial reasons, and he continued to practise law in Winnipeg.
Hugh John's exit from parliament did not preclude his comment on or concern with the Manitoba school question. The influence of Professor Williamson is most evident in his attitude to education. From the beginning he supported the move to do away with the Catholic schools, even though his daughter had attended St. Mary's Academy and a convent school in Montreal. The newspapers frequently questioned Hugh for his opinion, and he made it clear that he favoured "national" schools.
After Sir John Thompson's untimely death in December 1894, Mackenzie Bowell begged Hugh John Macdonald to re-enter political life. Hugh John refused for personal reasons and because the government was bound to redress the grievance of Manitoba's Catholics. In January 1896 Bowell's cabinet bolted because of the Prime Minister's vacillation on the school question. Sir Charles Tupper assumed de facto leadership of the Conservative party, and he began delicate negotiations to get Hugh John Macdonald back to Ottawa. At first Hugh rejected the idea and argued that his wife opposed any risk to his health. Tupper then sweetened the pot by offering a K.C.M.G. This proposition did not move Hugh John, but it effectively countered his wife's objections, and it is not unlikely that Mrs. Macdonald influenced her husband. After four months of persuasion, Tupper convinced Hugh John that he need not sacrifice his principles to support the government's remedial bill, which would relieve the plight of Manitoba's Catholic schools. On 15 April, Hugh telegraphed his agreement, and on 1 May was sworn in as minister of the interior.
The seventh parliament expired on 23 April 1896, and Tupper scheduled the general election for two months thence. In Winnipeg, Hugh John Macdonald accepted the Conservative nomination against the redoubtable Joseph Martin, author of the Manitoba Schools Act. In the campaign which followed, Martin claimed the single issue to be the school question. The Conservative strategy was to submerge that question in economic issues and to promise public works. For the first time Hugh's opponents drew attention to his physical similarity to his father. D'Alton McCarthy, the independent candidate in Brandon, dismissed Hugh John as just "a weak young man with a nose," the inference being that the Conservatives hoped to win by the nose inherited from John A.
Sir Charles Tupper opened the election campaign in Winnipeg and arranged his reception so that Canada could see that Manitoba was Conservative. Indeed it was. While Joe Martin fulminated against coercion, Hugh John promised the Hudson Bay Railway, locks at the St. Andrew's rapids, an alien labour law, and general prosperity. While the rest of Canada wrestled with the school question, Manitobans believed that it had been settled by two provincial elections, and thus turned to other issues. On 23 June the Liberals gained seats in the rest of Canada, but lost in Manitoba. The failure of the school question as an issue was best reflected by Hugh John Macdonald's 126 vote victory over Joe Martin. Martin was never one to accept defeat gracefully, and he planned his revenge.
The defeat of the Conservative government led to an evaluation of Tupper's leadership. Like wildfire, a rumour spread that Hugh John Macdonald would succeed Sir Charles. Hugh John emphatically denied it and worked hard to unite the party's disparate elements behind Tupper.
When the eighth parliament met, Hugh John occupied a seat on the opposition front benches. In debate he picked up where he had left off in 1893, and again became the voice of western Canada. He was particularly concerned by the absence of a minister of the interior and by the lack of cabinet representation from west of Lake Superior. In this session Hugh John began to feel more comfortable in political life. In the House he parried Laurier's jabs and needled the Prime Minister himself on several occasions. Social relations between the two were very good, and they carried on an affectionate, but respectful, correspondence until Laurier's death in 1919.
While Hugh John enjoyed himself in Ottawa, Joe Martin worked hard to unseat him. A protest to the election was filed in July, and, after the preliminary objections to it were dismissed, the trial was set for early January 1897. It was not unusual for protests to be filed, as dozens of constituencies were protested after every election. The parties usually paired them off and attained some kind of balance. But Hugh John Macdonald was too important to let off the hook. The Liberals had beaten the Conservatives; now they wanted to humiliate them. On 7 January 1897, Martin's agents filed a list of 106 specific charges of corruption in the Winnipeg clection. Many of the charges were of doubtful validity, as the Liberal's informer was found guilty of forgery two days after the election trial.
On 15 January 1897 Winnipeg's assize courtroom was filled with spectators who expected a lively trial. They realized that an arrangement had been reached when opposing counsel entered empty-handed., Hugh John's lawyer, Stewart Tupper, admitted that an agent had hired teams to convey voters to the polls, in contravention of the Elections Act, and that therefore the election was invalid. Counsel for the petitioner said he had no evidence for the other 105 charges. Mr. Justice Killam declared the election void, but a stay of proceedings was entered into until the Supreme Court rendered its decision on the appeal against dismissal of the preliminary objections to the protest.
In the interval the Conservative hierarchy, local and federal, sought a face-saving refuge for Hugh John Macdonald. They found one in the leadership of the provincial Conservative party. On 24 March 1897, the day the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, Hugh John Macdonald declared his intention to enter provincial politics, and after the Manitoba legislature prorogued on 30 March, the Conservative caucus tendered him the party leadership.
The school question had splintered Manitoba's Conservative party, and Hugh John spent two years putting the pieces back together. In 1899 he hit the campaign trail in earnest, and spoke in every provincial constituency. He pointed to the $250,000 provincial debt and accused Greenway of financial mismanagement. In February be aimed his political cudgel at the immigration of "Galicians" and Doukhobors, arguing that the easy purchase of their votes made them a menace to responsible government. In that same month a bizarre event rebounded to the Conservatives' advantage. On 21 February 1899 R.W. Jameson, Winnipeg's M.P., shot himself. Within days the Liberal association divided over who to run as his successor. The Conservatives gleefully watched the schism widen and built up their war chest.
Later in 1899 there was strong agitation for expansion of Manitoba's rail facilities. In an election year Greenway was reluctant to commit his government to any heavy expenditures, and Hugh John Macdonald pounced on this hesitation as evidence of Liberal incompetence. The government's problems were compounded in June when a temperance delegation demanded an end to the traffic in liquor. Greenway stalled, but Hugh John's party took the pledge. After the Conservative party drew up its platform, Hugh John toured Manitoba to present his cures for all the Liberals' ills. He called for economy in administration, for government control of railways, for amendment of the franchise act, for strict prohibition legislation, and pledged his party to end the massive immigration of the "mongrel races."
The provincial election was foreshadowed in October when Clifford Sifton embarked on a speaking tour of Manitoba. He was followed by Joe Martin, who urged the independent Liberals not to accept Sifton's corrupted Liberalism. In the first week of November, Sir Charles Tupper appeared, armed with a battle plan and leading federal troops. Hugh John accompanied Tupper who gave his usual long-winded orations in centres of population. The golden tongue of Nicholas Flood Davin wagged among the Irish settlers, and Clarke Wallace preached his Tory gospel in the heartland of Orangism.
When the legislature dissolved on 16 November, the lines were drawn and strategies enacted. Greenway campaigned on his record; Hugh John argued that it was time for a change. When the votes were counted on 7 December, Hugh John won his own constituency, South Winnipeg, by a small majority, and the Conservative party held 23 of the legislature's 40 seats. Though the victory was not a sweeping one, his party had risen dramatically from the feeble five-man opposition of the previous three years, and Hugh John Macdonald entered 1900 as the premier- designate of Manitoba.
Historians usually dismiss Hugh John Macdonald's ten months and three weeks as premier of Manitoba, as a period of legislative inaction. Yet the first session of the tenth legislature was one of the longest to that time. In 52 sittings, the legislature considered 82 separate pieces of legislation. Moreover, Hugh John personally carried out many of his election promises. He implemented his policy of economy by reducing the cabinet to three members and by cutting $100 from the sessional indemnity. When it became apparent that provincial revenues would not cover expenditures, his government resorted to direct taxation of corporations rather than bonded indebtedness because the premier doubted the wisdom of asking posterity to pay the debts of his generation. His legislation to reform the franchise called for seven years residence before non-English speaking Manitobans could vote, and thus effectively disenfranchised the recent immigrants from central Europe. Hugh John also began the negotiations to secure control of Manitoba's crown land, and his government memorialized the dominion to refrain from subsidizing new railways in the province which refused to surrender control of their rates.
The outstanding piece of legislation, Hugh John Macdonald's political legacy, was the Liquor Act. In the face of opposition from within his own party, Hugh John introduced a bill which outlawed the sale of beverage alcohol in Manitoba. He was not a prohibitionist in principle, much less in practice, but he saw his government's duty to effect the will of the people. Two plebiscites had shown overwhelming support for such a measure, and the Conservative party bad included a temperance plank in its election platform. If it broke that pledge, his government stood guilty of robbing the people of their votes, and in presenting the bill, the premier declared, "Nothing can more lower a public man and a party than to have it supposed by the people that specific definite pledges are like pie crust, made to be broken." Although his personal disinclination led Hugh John to commission J.A.M. Aikins to draught the bin, it was always known as the Macdonald Act. The bill itself was of doubtful legality, and the liquor interests immediately challenged it in the courts. The Imperial Privy Council eventually ruled it intra vires of the legislature, but by that time Hugh John was out of politics and his successor was not as democratically disposed.
Hugh John Macdonald was never meant to be more than a stop-gap leader of Manitoba's Conservatives. The dominion hierarchy planned to follow the Liberal route and regain power through control of the provincial legislatures. Hugh John began the strategy in Manitoba, but Sir Charles Tupper believed that his proper place was in the federal arena.
In the fall of 1900 Canada was rife with rumours of a general election. In Manitoba the Conservatives' main target was the minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton. The result of the last provincial contest suggested that Sifton was not the political kingpin he presumed to be. Tupper was sure that Sifton was vulnerable and that a popular local man could trounce him soundly. Tupper believed that no Manitoba Conservative was more popular than the new Premier, and at the urging of his national leader and local cohorts Hugh John abandoned the office to tackle Sifton in Brandon.
The battle caught the eye of Canada, as the son of the Old Chieftain fought Sir Wilfrid Laurier's western lieutenant. Sifton savoured the spectre of defeat and hastened to ward it off. He rushed back to Brandon, patched up his organization, and lubricated the Liberal election machine from his ample barrel. While Sifton campaigned on his record of service to the west, Hugh John put on the armour of temperance and called for elimination of the tariff on agricultural implements. Yet, the Conservatives misjudged the feeling in the constituency, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper bungled his foray into Brandon, and the party's strategy exploded in its face. Sifton finessed at every move and capitalized on his opponent's mistakes. Moreover, Hugh John's record in office hurt him badly. The liquor dealers, railway companies, corporations, and French Canadians rallied behind the incumbent minister, while the temperance forces divided. When the election occurred on 7 November, the Brandon electors reaffirmed their faith in Clifford Sifton, and Hugh John Macdonald made his third and last withdrawal from political life.
Finally out of politics, Hugh John returned to the practice of his first profession. His former colleagues, Tupper, Phippen, and Tupper, had been retained by Manitoba's liquor dealers to appeal the Macdonald Liquor Act before the Imperial Privy Council, and so he entered partnership with Alex Haggart and H.W. Whitla. Macdonald, Haggart and Whitla specialized in corporate and real estate law, and numbered among their clients the Union Trust Company of Toronto and the Canadian Northern Railway. Soon after his retirement from government, Hugh John also was appointed to the boards of directors of several companies which sought to make use of his political muscle.
Although he refused to become a candidate, the son of Sir John Macdonald could not get away from politics. In 1904 he was elected president of the Winnipeg Conservative Association, and the following year he began the first of four consecutive terms as president of the Manitoba Conservative Association. As such he supervised the party's organization throughout the province and often appeared publicly in the party's interest. In November 1904 Thomas Greenway was elected to represent Lisgar in the House of Commons and in the next April the provincial government called a by-election in his old constituency, Mountain. In the third week of that month Hugh John began a tour of the constituency on behalf of the Conservative candidate, Robert Rogers.
Tragedy seemed to dog Hugh John Macdonald throughout his life, and while he was away in Mountain it struck again. The only child of his second marriage suffered from diabetes, and on 26 April 1905 John Macdonald suddenly died. Although "Jack" had been a patient sufferer for most of his twenty years, his death shocked the family and broke his father's heart. Hugh John's grief was terrible. At first he went to pieces and only found solace in a bottle. But as the year went on he seemed to recover and accepted his loss.
At the age of 61, when men now contemplate retirement, Hugh John Macdonald embarked on a new career. On 13 December 1911 the provincial cabinet appointed him to succeed Judge D. M. Walker as Winnipeg's police magistrate. In applauding the appointment the Winnipeg Telegram remarked:
At the opening of Hugh John's first day on the bench, 16 December 1911, Isaac Campbell, his old opponent back in 1891, expressed approval of the appointment on behalf of the Law Society of Manitoba.
From the beginning Magistrate Macdonald vowed to temper justice with mercy and to the end the practice which bad been, as he saw it, "'to give it to the prisoners in the neck' . . . whenever they were found guilty without the slightest reference to surrounding circumstances." He set the tone of his court for the next eighteen years on the day he assumed office. The first case to appear before him was a "disorderly" who pleaded guilty. After a severe reprimand, Hugh John suspended sentence. The second case concerned five vagrants. Four received suspend- ed sentences. The fifth went to jail, but only because he was in and the Magistrate feared that he would freeze to death if returned to the streets. The last case concerned a young lady from the red light district, who told the court that she had been married earlier in the day. On being discharged, the Free Press noted that "she gave the new magistrate one of the sweetest smiles ever seen in a courtroom. There are many stories of Hugh John's leniency and charity, but at the same time be was firm and determined to preserve the dignity of his office. Though he sometimes had to cut his way through legal wilderness, his judgments were much the same as other courts. As Merril Denison noted, however, Hugh John Macdonald's trademark was courtesy, and he rendered his decisions with a detachment and self-respect that did not provoke bitterness or vengefulness.
The appointment to the police court did not prevent Hugh John from taking an interest in political questions. He was a fervent imperialist, and his letters to Prime Minister Borden always contained exhortations for the government "to strengthen the bonds that bind Canada and the Mother Country together." He also urged Borden to recognize Canada's responsibilities within the Empire by contributing to the maintenance of the Royal Navy, and extended his congratulations when Borden included a $35,000,000 grant to aid the Royal Navy in the naval bill of 1912.
When the King's list of birthday honours was published on 3 June 1913, Hugh John Macdonald was one of three Canadians made Knights Bachelor. In 1896, as one of his last acts as prime minister, Sir Charles Tupper had recommended Hugh John for a knighthood, but without result. In 1901 Tupper wrote directly to the British Colonial Secretary to secure a reward for his Manitoba lieutenant, but again without success. In the spring of 1912 Hugh John requested the recognition himself, and it seems that his wife put him up to it. To Prime Minister Borden he wrote that his desire was to gratify his wife's ambition, and not to enhance his reputation. Gertrude Macdonald had had a paralytic stroke in 1910 and Hugh John was afraid her days on earth were numbered. In December 1912 Sir Charles Tupper added his weight to the request, and Borden made the suggestion to the Governor-General. This time the honour was conferred, and Lady Macdonald recovered. The following year Sir Hugh was offered a seat on the Appeal Court bench, but he replied that he could not make ends meet on the salary and so chose not to accept.
In the decade after 1910, Sir Hugh John Macdonald was never far from the centre of affairs in Manitoba. From his home on Carlton Street he watched the new legislative and law courts buildings slowly rise on Broadway. He also followed the tangled web of events which unfolded during their construction.
In 1912 the Manitoba government granted the contract for construction of the legislative building to Thomas Kelly and Sons, a Winnipeg firm, for its bid of $2,859,750.  In September 1913 the Minister of Public Works announced that the estimated costs of construction had risen to $4,500,000 because of some necessary changes in the architect's plans. The Liberal opposition suspected that the public purse was leaking into private pockets, and in the spring of 1915 demanded appointment of a royal commission to inquire into the matter. Lieutenant-Governor Sir Douglas Cameron forced Premier Roblin to recommend appointment of such a commission, and then they quarrelled about its Composition. Roblin proposed a one-man commission and recommended a local judge with a strong Conservative background; Cameron suggested a commission of three judges of the King's Bench, two of whom had been prominent Liberals. The two then sought a compromise alternative. In a private conversation, the Lieutenant-Governor asked Manitoba's chief justice, Thomas Graham Mathers, for his opinion of Winnipeg's Police Magistrate. Mathers replied that he had "a very high opinion of Sir Hugh's sense of justice and his sense of his own responsibility and honour," and added that he believed Sir Hugh "would find the facts according to the evidence..." Cameron then offered to accept the Magistrate as a member of the three-man commission, and Roblin's cabinet consented to his appointment.
Sir Hugh John Macdonald's Conservative past did not interfere with his pursuit of justice, as the commission unanimously found Roblin and several of his colleagues guilty of conspiring to defraud the province of nearly a million dollars. In late August 1915 the provincial government, then under T. C. Norris, issued warrants for the arrest of Roblin and three of his ex-ministers. The preliminary hearing was held in the police court in September, but Sir Hugh John refused to preside, as he had been intimately acquainted with the four accused and had been a member of the commission which had presented the findings on which the charges were based. There followed a series of trials which were characterized by postponements, procedural arguments, jurisdictional disputes, absentee witnesses, and hung juries. One of the accused died before his case came to trial, and in June 1917 the others were discharged because of Roblin's ill-health.
In the fall of 1917 Sir Hugh John Macdonald was delighted by the formation of the Union cabinet. In December, on the day following the election of the Union government, he wrote Borden to congratulate him for his "glorious victory over the forces of racialism and treason." He hoped that the result had taught French Canadians that "it does not pay to play with sedition," and that "English-speaking Canadians ... are not inclined to allow the minority to rule the Dominion ..." He also trusted that the government would have no trouble enforcing the Military Service Act in Quebec, and was confident that the law would be obeyed.
During the last years of the world war, Sir Hugh became apprehensive at the signs of labour unrest in Winnipeg. As police magistrate and member of the Board of Police Commissioners, he was especially concerned by the attempts to unionize Winnipeg's police force. In May 1917 he moved that the Board of Police Commissioners refuse to allow a police union to be allied with the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, and in the following year he voted to instruct the Chief Constable to "interrogate" all members of the force. In July 1918 Chief Constable Macpherson reported that 90% of the police force had joined the Police Association, which was affiliated with the Trades and Labour Council, and thus was controlled by a "labour and socialistic organization which would be against discipline and good government." Sir Hugh then moved that the board refuse to recognize the police union as it had formed contrary to the orders of the police commissioners. On the deciding vote of the chairman, the motion was defeated.
When the Winnipeg general strike began in 1919, Sir Hugh John Macdonald stood in the front fine of reaction. From the beginning he was one of many who saw the strike as a revolutionary movement bent on replacing Winnipeg's municipal government with "one built on soviet lines." He believed that "foreigners of Ruthenian, Russian or Polish extraction" were responsible for the disorder, as they were not accustomed to free government. Sir Hugh's alarm rose when a committee representing the police union informed the police commissioners that, the force as a whole had voted in favour of the strike, but bad remained on duty at the request of the strike committee. In the last weeks of May 1919 the police commission heard several prominent businessmen charge that the police force had been neglecting its duty, and demanded that it be augmented with special constables to protect private property. Sir Hugh John, on 6 June, moved that the police commission hire 3,000 special policemen and purchase 3,000 batons to equip them. Three days later he voted to dismiss all regular constables who had not signed a pledge to abstain from sympathetic strikes.
Magistrate Macdonald was caught up in the hysteria of the moment as the strike continued. To Arthur Meighen he described the dangerous "Bolsheviki" element among the southern Europeans and German Jews, and he urged the minister to deport great masses of undesirables. "Fear," he wrote, "is the only agency that can be successfully employed to keep them within the law and I have no doubt that if the Dominion Government persists in the course that it is now adopting the foreign element here will soon be as gentle and easily controlled as a lot of sheep."
In the aftermath Sir Hugh regained his composure. He turned down Meighen's offer of appointment to a commission to try the strike leaders, as his time was taken up with police court work, and even if it were not, he had to decline because he was so prejudiced against them that he could not give them a fair hearing. In his words, "the very fact that I should dearly love to try them is proof positive that I ought not to do so." He had not softened his feelings against the "alien races," however, and he pressed Meighen to begin wholesale deportations of those nationalities.
In the years after 1920, Sir Hugh John Macdonald tended the routine business of the magistrate's court. On 26 March 1920 a delegation from the Winnipeg ministerial association met with the police commission to discuss "houses of ill fame." The clergymen demanded an explanation for the lack of convictions of keepers of disorderly houses. The Magistrate replied that to obtain convictions it was necessary to send persons, delicately labeled "spotters," to secure evidence. Sir Hugh John then stated that he would not tolerate that procedure as it contravened the law, and in his courtroom he would not accept evidence obtained illegally. He saw the only solutions to be either to change the law or to appeal his decisions to higher courts.
On 13 March 1925 Sir Hugh John Macdonald celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, and the occasion was marked by several Winnipeg associations. In the morning the police commissioners held a special meeting to present the Magistrate with a sculptured marble lamp inscribed with their congratulations. The chairman, A.H. Pulford, reminisced about Sir John Macdonald and opined that Sir Hugh John had followed in his father's footsteps. Later, in the police courtroom, Edward Anderson and R.B. Graham voiced their congratulations on behalf of the Manitoba Bar Association. Chief Constable Chris Newton spoke for the police force and presented the Magistrate with a thirteen volume History of Egypt and a biography of King Edward VII. Sir Hugh expressed his gratitude to all persons present and declared that he had no wish to retire.
For the next two years Sir Hugh John continued to preside in his courtroom. In April 1927 he was stricken with erysipelas in one leg, and when he failed to recover, the leg was amputated. The operation was a crushing blow to the man who had been a cricketer, footballer, oarsman, boxer, crack shot, and regular feature of Winnipeg's Decoration Day parade. But his spirit could not be broken, and at 77 he learned to walk with an artificial leg. During his long convalescence he found solace in his library. His lasting interest was illustrated by the books he read, military history and biographies of famous soldiers. Throughout the months of his recovery Sir Hugh continued to draw his salary. Although the police commissioners had difficulty paying the acting magistrates, the board refused to consider asking Sir Hugh John to relinquish his position.
When the national Liberal-Conservative leadership convention was held in Winnipeg in October 1927, Sir Hugh John Macdonald made his last appearance on behalf of his party. On 11 October the Free Press reported that the cheering was maintained for several minutes when Sir Hugh John entered and was assisted to a place of honour on the platform. He waved and bowed but did not speak. And a then little known delegate from Saskatchewan marveled at how the veteran police magistrate resembled the Old Chieftain.
Sir Hugh John resumed his courtroom duties on May day 1928. Within the year, he discovered that his other leg was infected, but would not consent to a second operation. He served his last day as magistrate on 2 March 1929. That morning he telephoned his doctor, but asked him not to call until the afternoon, because he had some cases to hear in the police court. The next day he entered the General Hospital, and on Good Friday, 29 March 1929, he died.
When the death of Sir Hugh John Macdonald was announced, flags all over Winnipeg were lowered to half mast, and the city police force put on black armbands. Tributes poured into Winnipeg from politicians, judges, and editors, across Canada. The Manitoba Free Press, which had first extolled him and then belittled him, in the end eulogized him. "Sir Hugh had the gift of inspiring affection and admiration in all who knew him.... He was in that old phrase 'a fine old gentleman,' with all the implications of character which go with the term.
Manitoba gave Sir Hugh John Macdonald a state funeral. A family service was held on Easter night, and the next morning he lay in state before the throne in the legislative chamber. The day was cold and damp but hundreds lined the sidewalks of Broadway and Memorial Boulevard to pay their last respects as the funeral cortege wended its way from the legislative building to All Saints Church. After the service, eight police constables and an honour guard from the 90th battalion led a mile-long procession down Portage Avenue and Main Street to St. John's cemetery. There Sir Hugh John Macdonald was buried beside his son.
Sir Hugh John Macdonald lived a long and eventful life. He was not a great man, but he was closely associated with many of the political giants of his time. The one great irony is that he never really knew the most famous of them all, his father. Sir John Macdonald was preoccupied with politics, and he let his son be raised by his brother-in-law, Rev. James Williamson. That in part explains the divergence in their political views. Hugh John grew up in a strict Protestant home, and his correspondence with his uncle reinforced his anti-French and anti-Catholic feelings. When the Conservative party called on the Old Chieftain's heir, they found not another John A. but a second James Williamson.
In the 1880s Hugh John Macdonald typified the immigrant from Ontario who had gone to seek his fortune as the west opened up. He was part of the influx which shifted the balance to a heavier Anglo-Saxon population, which in turn changed the character of Manitoba. Hugh John also exemplified the Ontario Protestant mentality which was manifested by the legislation ending public aid to separate schools and official use of the French language.
In 1891, Hugh John Macdonald's sense of loyalty to his father forced him to enter the political arena. In spite of his aversion to public life, he contested Winnipeg for the Conservative party to prevent it from going Liberal by default. In 1891 Sir John Macdonald's colleagues began the manipulation of his son which continued through the decade. That first election showed the strength of the Macdonald name, and it was a lesson which the Conservative party remembered. The Liberals also appreciated the strength which Hugh John gave their opponents, and in 1896 determined to discredit him to eliminate the Conservative's nostalgic appeal.
In 1900 Hugh John Macdonald began the task of governing Manitoba with an enthusiasm which rose more from his sense of honour than from political astuteness. He seemed unaware that a government could not antagonize the railways, the corporations, the financial institutions, the hotel and saloon keepers, the French Canadians, and the recent immigrants, if it wished to remain in power. His integrity and adherence to election pledges spelled his end. Yet, his heart never was in government and he left with few regrets. Moreover, in his last years he advised his grandson to steer clear of politics as it was not a game which gentlemen played.
This summary of Hugh John Macdonald's political career might imply that he lacked a will of his own and was almost a puppet in the hands of the Conservative party leaders. But there were a few persistent elements in his political thought. He had an unshakable faith in Anglo-Saxon superiority and a marked antipathy toward Roman Catholics and French Canadians. He agreed with D'Alton McCarthy that the single most important question facing Canada was whether the country was to be English or French. The Manitoba school question created a tension between his personal convictions and his loyalty to the Conservative party. In the spring of 1896 be put his party loyalty first, but after the election he again voiced strong support for national schools.
A second enduring strand of Hugh John Macdonald's outlook was his firm conviction that Canada's future lay within the British Empire. He was an ardent imperialist who sought closer union of Canada with Great Britain through improved communications, tariff preferences, and military cooperation. In the face of an aggressive neighbour, to the south Hugh John believed that only full participation in the British imperial system would guarantee Canada's survival as a nation.
In private life, Hugh John Macdonald was indeed "a fine old gentleman." Over his 79 years he was a devoted son and nephew, a faithful friend, and a doting husband, father, and grandfather. He had an overpowering sense of honour, tempered by a personal charm and an, unfailing kindheartedness. His manner was sometimes a little romantic, often meticulous, and always a model of courtesy. Those traits, coupled with his sympathy and fairness, served him well as police magistrate. In his courtroom be carried out his judicial duties with impartiality and sound judgment, and he seemed truly concerned with the plight of those he convicted. As magistrate he came into his own and was at last not bound by the memory of his father.
Sir Hugh John Macdonald was intimately connected with the history of Winnipeg, and he maintained an active interest in the city's progress and development. For their part, the people of Winnipeg grew to have a great affection for him. When he died, they turned out, not just to honour the Old Chieftain's son, but to pay tribute to the man himself, their own "Hugh John."
For a more detailed biography see H. J. Guest, "Reluctant Politician: A Biography of Sir Hugh John Macdonald." Unpublished thesis: University of Manitoba, 1973.
4. Ibid., J A M to Helen Macdonald, 27 Jan. 1857. See also J. K. Johnson, Affectionately Yours: the Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and His Family. Toronto: Macmillan, 1969, p. 78. Johnson suggests that the illness was rheumatic fever.
16. Gainsford Collection, H J M to “Gertie” Macdonald, 30 Mar. 1885. The Gainsford Collection consists of letters from Hugh to his wife while he was on duty in the northwest. The letters are possessed by Mr. Hugh Gainsford, grandson of Sir Hugh John Macdonald, and a selection of them was published in George P. McLeod, Sir Hugh John Macdonald Papers read before the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, series III, 14, 1959, pp. 33-53.
26. Ibid., vol. 263, Thomas Skinner to W. B. Scarth, 5 Dec. 1890; Ibid., W. B. Scarth to J A M, 21 Dec. 1890, 23 Jan. 1891; and Public Archives of Ontario, W. B. Scarth Papers, J A M to W. B. Scarth, 16 Feb. 1891.
46. Thompson despatched Nat Boyd, the western whip, to interview Hugh John in Winnipeg. Hugh John described the interview in a letter to his uncle. See Q U A, Williamson Papers, H J M to Williamson, 16 Aug. 1894.
56. M F P, 18 Jan. 1897, p. 6. Most of the charges were based on evidence presented by Jack F. Jackson, who allegedly had volunteered the information after a dispute with the Conservative party members. On 11 January Jackson was arrested and charged with obtaining money under false pretences. When his case was to be heard in court no prosecutor or representative of the attorney-general's department appeared, and the trial was postponed for one week. Two days after the election trial Jackson was found guilty and sentenced to one month in the provincial gaol.
64. A feud in the Liberal association had been smouldering since the fall of 1896 when Laurier had chosen Sifton instead of Martin to be minister of the interior. Martin's followers were indignant when Sifton personally intervened to deny their candidate the Liberal nomination in the Winnipeg by-election in the spring of 1897. Martin had gone to British Columbia soon after the by-election, but the Winnipeg Liberal association remained divided into factions loyal to Sifton and to Martin. The Martin faction was led by Joseph's brother Edward, who was every bit as much a maverick as his more famous brother. Ed Martin sought the Liberal nomination to fill the vacancy created by Jameson's suicide, and the Liberal association divided over whether to give it to him. Joe Martin's visit to Winnipeg to boom his brother had the effect of salt on an open wound, and the Sifton Liberals ended up supporting Arthur Puttee, the labour candidate. See McCormack, "Arthur Puttee and the Liberal Party."
70. John W. Dafoe, Clifford Sifton in Relation to His Times. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1931, pp. 202-207. The most dramatic moment of the campaign was a confrontation between Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper and Clifford Sifton. Despite Dafoe's argument that Sifton emerged victorious, the most reasonable interpretation is that the two men battled to a draw.
74. Roy St. George Stubbs, Lawyers and Laymen of Western Canada. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1939, pp. 58-70; and MacLeod, Sir Hugh John Macdonald, p. 51.
84. In his diary Mathers wrote that Roblin and several others were "guilty of fraudulent conspiracy whereby nearly a million dollars was filched from the province." See Mather's Diary, p. 145, 23 Aug. 1915.
Page revised: 29 November 2014