The Lost Prime Ministers

By Michael Hill

The Lost Prime Ministers
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After John A. Macdonald’s death, four Tory prime ministers — each remarkable but all little known — rose to power and fell in just five years.

From 1891 to 1896, between John A. Macdonald’s and Wilfrid Laurier’s tenures, four lesser-known men took on the mantle of ... Read more


After John A. Macdonald’s death, four Tory prime ministers — each remarkable but all little known — rose to power and fell in just five years.

From 1891 to 1896, between John A. Macdonald’s and Wilfrid Laurier’s tenures, four lesser-known men took on the mantle of leadership. Tory prime ministers John Abbott, John Thompson, Mackenzie Bowell, and Charles Tupper headed the government of Canada in rapid succession. Each came to the job with qualifications and limitations, and each left after unexpectedly short terms. Yet these reluctant prime ministers are an important part of our political legacy. Their roles were much more than caretakers between the administrations of two great leaders. Personal tragedy, terrible health issues, backstabbing, and political manipulation all led to their eventual downfalls. The Lost Prime Ministers is the dramatic saga of these overlooked Canadian leaders.

Michael Hill

Michael Hill is the author of The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History. A former history teacher, he was also Mariposa’s artistic director and has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, including a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He lives in Orillia, Ontario.


A Deluge of Caretakers

On Friday, May 29, 1891, the Canadian House of Commons was holding an evening session, a routine occurrence for that day and age. Most of the debate had centred on the questionable participation of Canada’s high commissioner to England, Sir Charles Tupper, in the recent federal election. Liberals objected to what they saw as interference by an allegedly non-partisan official in the democratic process. As the debate droned on, a young parliamentary page slipped down the aisle between the seats of the members and stopped at the front row. He handed a neatly folded note to a front-bench MP from Quebec, Sir Hector Langevin, and then quickly retreated from the chamber. Langevin stared at the piece of paper and visibly paled when he read the message. He passed it to several nearby colleagues and then rose and walked silently across the aisle to speak with the leader of the Opposition, Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier. As the two held a whispered conversation, the rest of the MPs attending the evening’s debate fell silent, knowing that something serious had happened. Langevin returned to his seat on the Conservative side of the aisle and then, obviously shaken, rose to speak.

“I have the painful duty to announce to the House that the news from Earnscliffe just received is that the First Minister has had a relapse, and that he is in a most critical condition. We have reports from the medical men in attendance on the right honourable gentleman, and they do not seem to believe that he can live many hours longer. ”

Earnscliffe was the home of the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Langevin was relaying the news that the grand old man had suffered a life-threatening stroke that afternoon and was completely paralyzed down his right side. He’d also lost the ability to speak. The attending physician, Dr. James Grant, had written the note to Langevin. In it, he stated, “I have just seen Sir John in consultation. Entire loss of speech. Haemorrhage on the brain. Condition hopeless. ”

Within a minute of Langevin notifying the members of Parliament of Macdonald’s condition, Justice Minister Sir John Thompson rose to make a motion for the House to adjourn. Langevin, who’d been a member of Macdonald’s initial Cabinet in 1867, sat at his desk stunned. He openly wept. Other parliamentarians crowded around him to see the note and try to console the man who was Macdonald’s Quebec lieutenant. Liberals and Conservatives alike stood in small groups around the chamber discussing the tragic news.

“For thirty-three years, I have been his follower,” Langevin repeated over and over again, both to other politicians and seemingly to himself.

Eventually, the minister of public works pulled himself together. Joined by Quebec colleague Joseph Chapleau, who was the secretary of state, and John Thompson, the Halifax-based minister of justice and attorney general, the men shared a horse-drawn cab to travel to the prime minister’s residence. The men discovered that, while gravely ill and unlikely to recover, Macdonald was still alive, but he was breathing rapidly and his heartbeat was irregular.

The governor general was informed of what had happened; he in turn cabled Queen Victoria in London. By ten o’clock that night, telegraph messages had carried the news across the country, from Halifax to Victoria. The front pages of the newspapers the next day blared out headlines about Macdonald’s condition. The stories left little doubt in the minds of millions of Canadians that Macdonald, their recently re-elected prime minister, was dying.

The man who’d been a parliamentarian since 1844 and prime minister of Canada since 1867 — with a short span out of office between 1873 to 1878 — was on his deathbed. He lingered for nearly a week, communicating with his wife and son by using his left hand to squeeze out yes or no answers. On June 6, Macdonald took a turn for the worse. His strength, such an asset throughout his political life, failed him. At 10:15 a. m., Macdonald passed away.

Canada had lost its most dynamic individual: a man whose drive, ambition, and energy had led to nation-building on a scale that was barely imaginable; a man who knew how to handle the reins of power as if he were born to the task; a man who controlled the levers of political office the way an engineer handles a train engine; a man who knew when to stand firm and when to compromise; a man who had become, perhaps, legendary beyond reality and fact. Old Tomorrow. The Old Chieftain. Now he was gone. The chasm that had opened in the political landscape of the nation was more than just gaping. It was stupendous.

The country had barely known another leader. Liberal Alexander Mackenzie, a dour Scot, a man without Macdonald’s empathy or common touch, had led the country for five years in the 1870s, after Macdonald had been implicated in what was known as the Pacific Railway Scandal. Mackenzie, however, had never captured the imagination of the country; had never found his way into the nation’s hearts. Edward Blake, the Liberal leader who followed Mackenzie, could not match Macdonald’s charismatic personality. Nor were there any provincial premiers — even Ontario’s popular Oliver Mowat — who captured the public’s attention the way the prime minister had.

Not that Sir John was without his critics. The taint of corruption never really disappeared following the railway scandal. In the years prior to his death, he’d all but lost what had once been widespread support in Quebec, thanks to his mishandling of both the Red River Rebellion and the North-West Rebellion; and, more particularly, his decision following the latter to allow the execution of the rebellion’s leader, Louis Riel.

Despite all that, the old man had just won re-election — his fifth victory since 1867. The voters were familiar with the Conservative leader; his leadership offered a sense of security, something to trust in. It was not the party brand that mattered. Macdonald was so much bigger than his party.

Suddenly, he was gone.

The next few years would be chaotic for the young nation. As the Conservative Party scrambled to replace someone who seemed irreplaceable, the politics of the nation were transformed. The bookish and underestimated Liberal leader, Wilfrid Laurier, sat across the floor of the House of Commons biding his time, but that time had not yet arrived. Instead, turmoil and uncertainty plagued the governing party as it scrambled to find someone to fill Macdonald’s sizeable shoes.

One of Sir John’s great failures was that he never anointed a clear successor. There was confusion as to who would follow in his footsteps. King Louis XV of France was said to have uttered the nihilistic “après moi, le deluge” to indicate that he had complete indifference to what came after him. To many, it must have seemed that Macdonald led with the same heedlessness for the future of his party: “after me, the deluge. ”

As it turned out, in the space of the next five years there would be four men who would lead the country. One was reluctant. One was unpopular with his colleagues, his party, and the public. Some critics have even called him dimwitted. One was capable but was restrained because of his religious beliefs. One, a former star on the political scene, found that, having finally achieved the highest political office in the country, he no longer seemed to have the magic touch.

This is the story of those four leaders who followed Sir John A. in the prime minister’s office: John Abbott, John Thompson, Mackenzie Bowell, and Charles Tupper.

The years between June of 1891 and June of 1896 were an interregnum that linked the Macdonald era to the Laurier years. But it was an inglorious one. Historian Michael Bliss wrote a 328-page book about the prime ministers of Canada called Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney. In it, prime ministers Abbott, Thompson, Bowell, and Tupper combined, rate less than half a page. Abbott gets his name mentioned in one sentence. Bowell at least gets an adjective beside his name: incompetent. John Thompson is labelled with the pejorative “Sir John the Lesser. ”

In their 1999 book Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders, Jack Granatstein and Norman Hillmer concluded that of the twenty prime ministers who had served in office up to that time, Thompson ranked tenth, Abbott seventeenth; Tupper came in at number sixteen, and Bowell was a lowly nineteenth. (Only Kim Campbell ranked lower than Bowell, and she held office for a mere 132 days before the Progressive Conservatives lost all but two seats in the 1993 election. ) Those four men share a scant eight-page chapter in the book. Even short-term prime ministers Meighen, Clark, Turner, and Campbell warranted their own chapters.

But is any of this a fair assessment of Macdonald’s four successors? In their own ways, each man was remarkable. Each man was successful in other endeavours, often spectacularly so. Each man had great personal energy. Each man achieved great success in life. They all would warrant admiration even if they’d not reached that pinnacle of Canadian political heights. Somehow, though, these men have never received the respect that perhaps they deserved.

Why is that? How was it that the Conservatives had not groomed a suitable replacement for John A. Macdonald? There was an obvious successor: John Thompson. So then why was Thompson, the obvious heir to power, not selected first and given a chance to build the party fortunes? How was it that both Abbott, who was uninterested in the position, and Bowell, who was unsuited for the job, were selected by the party brass to take the reins anyway? Why did the party, as it approached an election nearly thirty years into Confederation, reach back into history and come up with Tupper, a capable man but one who was well past his best-before date? Were there political issues of the day that tied their hands or somehow conspired to deny these men the recognition that they may — or may not — have deserved? Were there forces at play that somehow doomed the Conservative chances in the 1896 election? How was it that four very different men in character and temperament led the country in the short span of years between 1891 and 1896? It is a story that has gone untold for too long.

The early 1890s were years of incredible change. The young country was growing. Immigration and expansion of the nation into the West were a welcome evolution of the young nation — this view was not shared, of course, by the First Nations Peoples who were displaced — but it also placed a strain on the existing infrastructure and resources. Not only was Canada seeing immigration into the country, but there was also a great movement of people within the nation. Already, the migration from the farms to the urban areas had begun, changing the nature of both the rural and urban landscapes. By 1890 nearly one third of Canadians lived in towns or cities. Industrialization was quickly transforming the economy of the country and the lives of its citizens. Factories seemed to be popping up everywhere, and even the smallest towns and villages often were home to at least one type of industry.

And trade unions were gaining a foothold to look after the rights of the workers in those factories. Laws were being enacted yearly to limit the exploitation of children and, indeed, adult labourers. Living conditions in the cities, even for the labourers who were working and earning money, tended to be appalling. Movements were afoot to bring temperance to a country that was plagued by alcohol abuse. There were stirrings for women to be enfranchised, to earn more rights not only at the ballot box but in their homes where most were still under the thumbs of their husbands.

Through all those years, economic uncertainty loomed ever on the horizon. The connection to England and the British Empire overshadowed the politics of Canada in the late nineteenth century. Coupled with that was the tenuous bond with the United States. There was also a measure of fear of the growing behemoth to the south.

Yet, despite all the changes, some things remained the same. The age-old conflict between Catholic and Protestant as well as the one between French and English divisions across the land reared its head all too often.

This was the Canada that Sir John A. had helped to build and manage. By force of personality, he’d led a stretched-out amalgam of farms and scattered villages to believe that it was a united country when in fact it was little more than a loosely knit, fragile patchwork along the northern border of the United States. There was no homogeneity to this new nation. The loggers of British Columbia had little in common with the fishermen of Nova Scotia. The farmers of Manitoba differed from the farmers of Ontario and Quebec. The French-speaking shopkeepers along the St. Lawrence River had little to share with the factory owners or labourers in the cities of Toronto or Hamilton. And of course, the Indigenous Peoples, robbed of their land and, in most places, forced onto reserves, were excluded from society. This was the country that Macdonald passed on to his successors.

Through manipulation, compromise, tenacity and determination, Macdonald not only built but held this loose confederation together in the face of multiple threats and crises. One of his great accomplishments — the building of a transcontinental railway across a vast and unsettled region — was the tangible glue that held this flimsy chain together. And the links in that chain, as diverse as they were, owed their prosperity and independence at least in part to the man who headed the Conservative Party. Now, he’d left things to a Conservative Party that was divided, lacking focus and in dire need of serious leadership. Great industrial and commercial change was in the air. The world was changing rapidly as steamships and trans-oceanic cables brought continents together.

Who could step forward and maintain the regime and legacy left by Macdonald?

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