The Saint Andrew’s Society of Kingston, particularly when considering the key role played in your group’s development by Canada’s Father of Confederation, has a rich history. Your Society has also, over the generations, made profound and positive impacts that have touched all levels of Kingston society.
This has made for me – someone with a love of history and tradition – your invitation all the more humbling.
In preparing my remarks, I went back into the records and looked at past speeches delivered before members of this this honoured Society.
Being a graduate of Queen’s University, I found myself particularly attracted to an address given in early December of 1918. This was a sermon delivered by the Principal of Queen’s University, the Reverend Robert Bruce Taylor.
Principal Taylor was born in Scotland, and this scholar – who as a retirement project wrote a four-volume history of ancient Hebrew literature – was considered one of the great orators of his time.
The good Reverend began his remarks by reminding his audience why it is right and proper that the Scots of Kingston celebrate their heritage.
“Tonight we meet to remember the country from which we have sprung, to recall the things by which it has become great, and, without making any excuse for it, to indulge in a little self-congratulation. Modesty has been the badge of all our tribe, but occasionally we allow truth to peep forth.”
To discuss Kingston without describing the men and woman from Scotland’s shores who enriched this community, is impossible. And that is nowhere more apparent than in examining the very foundations of Canada.
George Brown, Sir John A. Macdonald’s rival, was able to join together in Confederation – when Canada needed it most – with Kingston’s greatest son.
And Macdonald, as this audience needs no reminding, was like Brown, a son of Scotland.
I want to focus on Mackenzie and Macdonald firstly, because they both – and this is not as well known when it comes to Mackenzie – had very close ties to Kingston.
But I also want the St. Andrew’s Society to consider something about these two men of Kingston, Macdonald and Mackenzie, that is still very relevant to the Canada of today.
Both these men, who came to our shores as young immigrants, went on to found and craft a nation and were elected to Canada’s highest political office.
Think of that.
To the south of us lies the Great Republic, our closest friend and neighbour, the United States of America. Like most Canadians, I admire, respect and love the United States.
Their Founding Fathers, at least the true leaders of that group, were Virginians, not Scots.
Thus, they promised their young nation and the world, a new country dedicated to the pursuit of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Up here, and led by Scots such as Mackenzie, Macdonald and Brown, practical and prudent men, Canadians were promised “peace, order and good government.”
And I think things have largely worked out for both countries.
But we should consider one very important aspect of our societies, one that is very different. And this difference, not largely recognized by Canadians for some reason, is embodied in the life stories of Mackenzie and Macdonald.
While America has – and continues – to be a shining city on a hill, where immigrants by the millions seek and find a better life, not every door is open to each person who has American citizenship.
And one very important door is closed to the immigrant, even in 2013.
I speak, of course, about the U.S. Presidency. Only a citizen born an American can hold the Great Republic’s highest office.
Two men of Kingston, the first and second Prime Ministers respectively, Alexander Mackenzie and Sir John A. Macdonald.
In a country, Canada, that has embraced pluralism and serves in a war-torn world as the leading example of how peoples of different races, religions and cultures can live and thrive together, this is a fact of our history we should celebrate more.
Sir John A. Macdonald’s roots in Kingston are, very rightly, well known. Indeed he is still remembered across Canada and in our history books as “Macdonald of Kingston.”
And this is as it should be. This is particularly true as we head towards 2015 and the bicentennial of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth.
As former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told the B’nai Brith dinner in our community this past Thursday, “There are Prime Ministers, and then there is John Macdonald of Kingston. He was the greatest Prime Minister of all.”
But our friend, Alexander Mackenzie, who lived in this community as a young immigrant, newly married and new to a strange land, also deserves our praise and respect.
While Sir John A. came here as a boy, Alexander Mackenzie left Scotland with his future wife and her family when he was 20. After formal schooling of six years at most, this son of Perthshire, Scotland, sought a new life and opportunity in North America.
Deeply religious, even as a young man, his biographer, Dale Thomson, described the Mackenzies the following way.
“Convinced of (God’s) indomitable will, the Mackenzies were God-fearing, sober-minded folk.”
At age 20, and lacking even the funds to return to his home community in Scotland to say good-bye to his mother and siblings, Alexander Mackenzie boarded the ship Monarch for the journey to Canada.
It was 1842.
I found this description of life aboard a vessel bringing immigrants to British North America from Scotland.
“It was necessary to take along huge amounts of ham, biscuits, oatmeal, potatoes and other provisions for a voyage of several weeks. This food had to be prepared and eaten among a crowded mass of seasick humanity, either in the stuffy hold or exposed to the biting northerly winds on deck. Violence and theft were common, and the crew treated the passengers more like animals than human beings.”
Canada’s second Prime Minister was to arrive in Montreal on May 6, 1842. He had only 16 shillings in his pocket.
Mackenzie and his future made a gamble. While there appeared to be plenty of work to be found in Montreal, they had heard of a place called Kingston, which had just been made the first capital city of the United Canadian Provinces.
The hearty immigrants traveled by barge, sleeping outside on the deck, the rest of the way to Kingston.
Only two days after arriving here, Mackenzie had already found work. He was hired to help build a new house on Princess Street.
The other workers on the site took provisions from their employers’ store in lieu of wages. This helped them feed their families.
But not Sandy Mackenzie, as he was known. It was his plan and dream to buy land and cut a farm out of the wilderness as soon as possible. He decided he would take his wages at the end of the construction season, in a lump sum, to help him achieve his goal.
And then disaster struck.
When it came time to be paid, Mackenzie found out the hard way that the man he had contracted to had gone bankrupt, the note he thought he could take to the bank, was completely useless.
He had been had.
Mackenzie was saved by Oliver Mowat’s father. Hearing of this plight, John Mowat allowed Mackenzie and his in-laws to stay for free in a primitive farm structure on land three miles from Sydenham.
Mackenzie’s biographer described the structure where Canada’s second Prime Minister spent his first winter in Canada.
“The log-house squatting in the middle of a two-acre clearing consisted of a single room, eighteen feet long and sixteen wide, and a primitive lean-to about 12 feet square. In a sadly dilapidated condition, it was hardly adequate for seven adults, including two married couples. Still, it was rent-free, and that was a vitally important consideration.”
Despite the harsh reality of the endless winter, Mackenzie and this little band entered the spring of 1843 feeling confident.
Mackenzie won the contract. He never looked back.
By 1845, his reputation was so good he was contracted to build one of the new Martello Towers, this one on Cedar Island across from Fort Henry.
It stands there still. A reminder of Kingston’s and Canada’s past, built by a future Prime Minister.
Yet no plaque exists, to my knowledge, in Kingston to honour the work of this Scottish immigrant who went on to greatness. Royal Military College, however, which was founded in Kingston under Prime Minister Mackenzie’s leadership, does buck the trend and the Mackenzie Clock Tower is named in his honour.
Another milestone in the life of Canada’s second Prime Minister also took place in Kingston. Mackenzie was married at St. George’s Cathedral on March 28, 1845.
Though a Baptist, the law at the time dictated that weddings could only be performed in the Anglican Church. This infuriated Mackenzie, whose reform instincts had developed even before he left Scotland, but he and Helen had no choice.
Still, Sandy Mackenzie wouldn’t go down the aisle without winning one fight against the Family Compact’s official state church.
He outright refused – something I would argue most grooms have no problem with, even to this day – to say “With this body I thee worship.”
A very practical Anglican clergyman agreed to drop this part of the vows.
Eventually, Alexander Mackenzie moved on to Sarnia. It was here his rise in politics began.
By the time the 1870s came around, Mackenzie was the reluctant leader of what became known as the Liberal party. When Sir John A. Macdonald was driven from office due to the Pacific Scandal in 1873, Mackenzie became Prime Minister.
And then his luck ran out. And even his well-established work ethic couldn’t save him politically. A recession hit and Canada’s economy tumbled from one crisis to another.
As his five-years in office continued, the disgraced Sir John A. Macdonald embarked upon one of the greatest – the greatest in fact – political comeback in Canadian history.
Macdonald died, as the sitting Prime Minister, on June 6, 1891. Canadians mourned. Laurier took to his feet in a hushed Commons and delivered the most famous eulogy in our history.
“The life of John Macdonald is the history of Canada,” he said of the fallen chieftain from Kingston.
Alexander Mackenzie lived on about a year after his rival’s death.
Unlike Macdonald, he died respected but not loved. He was buried in Sarnia.
In the late 1990s, his grave was falling to pieces. Sarnia’s MP told Prime Minister Jean Chrétien how the first Liberal Prime Minister’s grave was a disgrace.
I think we in Kingston should also honour Alexander Mackenzie more than we do.
Coming from the leader of the non-profit, non-partisan commission established to mark the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth, this might sound strange.
But I don’t think it is.
My friends, I believe strongly that Canadians in all generations need good people – citizens like Mackenzie and Macdonald and Harper, Trudeau and Muclair, Mulroney and Trudeau, Pearson and Diefenbaker, Kim Campbell and so many more – with the courage to put their names forward in politics and public life.
Regardless of party, Canada has been well served throughout our rich history by our Prime Ministers, starting with Sir John A. and Mackenzie.
I think of some of our recent Prime Ministers, some I have been privileged to get to know, leaders like Stephen Harper, John Turner and Brian Mulroney.
All of these leaders gave their best earning years to public life. They had the courage to enter the arena and attempt to change our society.
To do so requires courage, vision, stamina and sacrifice.
But all those who enter the public arena – be at the school board, municipal, provincial or federal level – will tell you the same thing.
Canada is worth it.
And in Kingston’s case, and Canada’s case, our first two Prime Ministers, both sons of Scotland, took up the challenge of public life and service.
And they both left a young nation better than when they found it.
In conclusion, I want to encourage the members of the St. Andrew’s Society to continue to get involved in the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial. And on January 28, 2022, God willing, I hope I’ll be joining you as you hold a dinner in honour of Alexander Mackenzie’s 200th birthday.
In the meantime, and on behalf of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission, I congratulate you on your own anniversary and salute you as you continue to honour the heritage of Scotland in Canada.
Earlier, I referenced one of your past speakers, Principal Taylor of Queen’s.
I will close with him as well.
“But if war and economic stress are changing the centres of population, nothing has been able to change the temper and character of the Scottish people,” he said to this group’s members. “It has had in it these rare qualities in good measure, reverence for God, appreciation of learning, a spiritual view of existence, a simplicity of life, a sense of responsibility for all material possessions, a cherishing of old convictions, a worship of the home, a readiness in crises to put all things to the touch of country and sacrifice. That is the present possession of the Scot at home and the heritage of the Scot abroad. Nor is there any greater heritage than that.”
Thank you very much.