Today in Canada's Political History: Alexander Mackenzie, Canada's Second PM, Born 200 Years Ago Today

  • National Newswatch

As you know, nothing takes precedence in “Art's History” over Prime Ministerial birthdays!  Only in Canada would the bicentennial of the birth of one of our early Prime Ministers go largely ignored. We are a funny bunch, we Canadians.So, while official Ottawa might ignore today's anniversary, we will not. As Alexander Mackenzie was our first Liberal PM, I've turned to one of my favourite Grits – the legendary Kevin Bosch – to serve as my guest columnist today. He is a historian's historian, a dear friend, and gives the best tours of Parliament Hill there are.  Over to you, my friend.By Kevin BoschUp until 1919, when Parliament barred Canadians from accepting foreign titles, all of Canada's first eight prime ministers were knighted and had the honorific “Sir” added to their name.All except for one.Alexander Mackenzie, Canada's second prime minster who led the first Liberal administration, was deeply proud of his working class roots as a stonemason and three times turned down Queen Victoria's offer of a knighthood.This aversion to class divisions and lofty titles is completely consistent with the incorruptible character of a man his first biographer called Canada's Stainless Statesman.Forced to leave school when he was 13 to support his impoverished widowed mother and six brothers, Mackenzie eventually emigrated from Scotland to Kingston in 1842 and worked on the construction of major projects including the Welland, Lachine and Beauharnois canals where he suffered an injury that never fully recovered when a one ton block of stone crushed his leg.Mackenzie always seemed more proud of his masonry achievements than his political ones. Once, as prime minister, when he was touring Fort Henry, he asked his guide if he knew how thick a wall was. “It's 5 feet 6 inches,” Mackenzie said, “I know for I built it myself".While eager to be the foreman on a worksite, politically Mackenzie was a more reluctant leader. Drawn to the efforts of George Brown and the Reformers to stamp out political entitlement and corruption, Mackenzie was eventually persuaded to run for public office, serving first provincially - he was Ontario's second treasurer as a province - and then concurrently in the new national Parliament.It took years after Confederation for the Liberal Party to twist his arm into becoming the Leader of the Opposition, as Mackenzie always believed others were more qualified for the job.But fate gave Canada the high-principled and upright prime minister it deeply needed in 1873 to restore public trust in our fledgling democracy after John A. Macdonald's government fell overly bribery charges during the Pacific Scandal.Many of the essential hallmarks of our political system that we still enjoy today hail from Mackenzie's time in office and were specifically designed to counter corruption and to establish oversight over government. These include the Supreme Court, the Auditor General, the secret ballot and ending property ownership requirements for election candidates.Mackenzie's twin passions — anti-corruption and stone masonry — have even left a lasting physical legacy on Parliament Hill. As prime minister, Mackenzie retained the Public Works portfolio for himself and oversaw the completion of West Block. What is now known as the Mackenzie Tower majestically rose over the prime minister's own office, which is presently being used once again by the current PM while Centre Block is being restored.  Mackenzie hated the practice of patronage and dealing with those who would crowd his lobby seeking a political appointment, so he had a spiral staircase built into the stone walls of his office down to the ground level as a secret back door to escape his “friends”.Mackenzie lost power in 1878 — mostly due to a global economic depression and the Conservatives' promise to protect the domestic economy with a policy of high tariffs — and remained an MP until his death in 1892.While I know Mackenzie wasn't a drinker, I say the rest of us should raise a wee dram today to mark what would have been “Honest Sandy's” 200th birthday and salute this man of true knightly qualities and the essential role he played in helping to build the Canada of today.Kevin Bosch is Managing Partner at Sandstone Group, a former longtime Liberal staffer on Parliament Hill and a passionate fan of Canada's political history.[caption id="attachment_543389" align="alignleft" width="308"] Alexander Mackenzie, 2nd prime minister of Canada[/caption]Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist.  He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney's best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen's Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy.  A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.