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Who was the first Premier of the Province of Ontario?

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The Honourable John Sandfield Macdonald, Q.C. (12 December 1812 – 1 June 1871) was joint premier of the Province of Canada as the attorney general of Canada West (1862 – 1864) and first premier of Ontario (1867 – 1871). However, before we expand any further on his biographical details, it may be helpful to understand a bit of Canadian history during his formative years.

After having accepted the position of governor general of British North America, John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham (12 April 1792 – 28 July 1840) – commonly referred to as Lord Durham – arrived in Lower Canada in May 1838, and was given a specific mandate to investigate and report on the violent rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837. Although Lord Durham resigned only four months after his arrival and set sail for London in November 1838, he nonetheless completed his assignment and submitted his "Report on the Affairs of British North America" in January 1839. His key recommendations to the British government were to reunite the two Canadas in order to accelerate the assimilation of the French Canadians and to reorganize the system of colonial government into a modified form of responsible government. The British Parliament subsequently passed the 'Act of Union 1840' on 23 July 1840, which went into effect on 10 February 1841, establishing a single government and Legislature in a united Province of Canada. Each of the two geographic sections – subsequently known as 'Canada East' (the former Lower Canada, now the province of Québec) and 'Canada West' (the former Upper Canada, now the province of Ontario) – were equally represented in the new Legislature and were governed by 'joint premiers' from 1841 until Confederation in 1867. Although the two sections were united as a single province with a single government, each administration was led by two men, one from each half of the province. Officially, one of them at any given time had the title of 'Premier', while the other had the title of 'Deputy.' On a historical note, Lord Durham died in England of tuberculosis five days after the approval of the Act of Union. As for Durham's other recommendation, the principles of responsible government for its more politically advanced colonies were not recognized by the British government until 1847. One year later, they put into practice in Nova Scotia, which becomes the first colony to adopt responsible government.

John Sandfield Macdonald was born is St. Raphael, Glengarry County, Upper Canada – an area that was settled by families of Scottish descent (United Empire Loyalists) as early as 1784. His father, Alexander, was a Roman Catholic who had immigrated to Upper Canada in 1786 when he was a child. Alexander Macdonald married Nancy Macdonald, the daughter of a distant cousin, and John Sandfield was the first of their five children. He was called by his middle name 'Sandfield' as it served as a subsurname for Macdonald's Highland Scottish family. His mother passed away in 1820 when he was eight. Despite his father's efforts, Sandfield was known to have an "independent and undisciplined character" during his youth and eventually took his first job as a clerk in a general store at the age of sixteen and remained in this capacity for a few years. He became discontented and looking for a better future, he decided to pursue a legal career. After graduating at the head of his class from grammar school in Cornwall in 1835, he articled with a veteran of the War of 1812 and one of Cornwall's prominent Conservatives, Archibald McLean (1791 – 1865), afterwards Chief Justice of Upper Canada. Macdonald was called to the bar in 1840 and opened a practice in Cornwall. The following year, he was elected to represent Glengarry in the legislature of Canada, a seat he held for 16 years. He was unique in that he served in all eight parliaments of the united Province of Canada. Macdonald became one of the leaders of the Reform party and served in several ministries prior to Confederation in 1867. He supported constitutional government and in 1849–1851 served as solicitor general for Canada West. In 1852, Macdonald accepted election as Speaker of the Assembly – a post he filled with great distinction. He was called by Governor-General Lord Monck (1819 – 1894) to form a Reform administration in 1862 and, while serving as the attorney general of Canada West, he acted as joint premier of the Province of Canada for two years, from 1862 to 1864. Always independent in his political thinking, he at first opposed the concept of federalism and the notion of union with the Maritimes. However, after the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867, he co-operated with Sir John A. Macdonald (no relations – 1815 to 1891), chief architect of Confederation, at whose request he formed a coalition ministry in Ontario. John Sandfield Macdonald accepted the post of first premier of Ontario (1867 – 1871) and helped settle the relationship of provincial to federal government. "Sandfield's ministry was of considerable distinction, frugal yet creative, and despite opposition assertions to the contrary he was no puppet of the prime minister." By 1871, he was gravely ill and when his government was defeated in December 1871, Macdonald resigned. He died five months later at Cornwall from a "displaced and impaired" heart from previous illness. He would be the last Roman Catholic premier of Ontario for 132 years; not until Dalton McGuinty (1955 –) a Roman Catholic from Ottawa became premier in 2003.

Shown in the photograph, among other pioneer settlers, is the gravesite of John Sandfield Macdonald and his wife Christine Waggaman (1819 – 1909) in the historic St. Andrews West Parish Old Burial Ground, established in 1784. Written on the front of his monument is the following text: "UPRIGHT AND ZEALOUS IN THE DISCHARGE OF HIS PUBLIC DUTIES, HIS PRIVATE LIFE WAS MARKED BY HIGH PERSONAL INTEGRITY, AND THIS MEMORIAL IN AFFECTIONATE REMEMBRANCE OF THE CONSTANCY AND WARMTH OF HIS PRIVATE FRIENDSHIP, HAS BEEN ERECTED BY FRIENDS FROM ALL PARTS OF THE DOMINION." In 2007, the Ontario Heritage Trust marked his grave with a bronze bilingual commemorative plaque with the provincial coat of arms noting his service as Premier of Ontario from 1867 to 1871. The Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board (renamed Ontario Heritage Trust in 2005) had previously erected a large size provincial plaque near his birthplace in St. Raphael, Ontario. A bronze statue of Macdonald, unveiled on 16 November 1909, stands in front of the east side of the Ontario Legislative Building on the grounds of Queen's Park in Toronto. It was sculpted by Walter Seymour Allward (1876 – 1955) who later created the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.

On this day, 12 December 2021, we commemorate the 209th anniversary of the birth of John Sandfield Macdonald – first premier of Ontario and mark more than 111 years since the unveiling of a statue in his honour erected at Toronto, Ontario.

André M. Levesque

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