OPINION: Sir John A. Macdonald’s fishy local land deal

George Mathewson

Sunday will mark the 200th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald, one of the most important and controversial figures in Canadian history, and no stranger to Sarnia.

In fact, before Macdonald became our first prime minister he owned 900 acres in what is today Point Edward.

A large tract of land had been retained by the government for a fort to guard Lake Huron. But in the early 1860s it sold 664 acres at $2 an acre on the understanding the land would be used by the Grand Trunk railway.

Macdonald, a lawyer by trade, represented a company called Gzowski and Company, which somehow acquired most of that land.

Macdonald himself then bought 900 nearby acres from Sarnia businessman Malcolm Cameron, himself a known wheeler-dealer. Macdonald paid $9 an acre and added it to the company’s holdings.

In the end, lands bought for 8,000 pounds were sold to the railway for 30,000 pounds.

“Joberry and corruption were the rule, honesty and integrity the exception,” noted an Englishman who dug into the railway land dealings, historian Jean Turnbull Elford noted in Canada West’s Last Frontier – A History of Lambton.

But Sir John A. is perhaps best remembered locally for a pivotal and rowdy political debate he waged in downtown Sarnia in 1872 against Alexander Mackenzie, who was soon to become the nation’s second prime minister.

The election of 1872 was a nasty, mud-slinging battle and Macdonald had gone on the offensive early. In his hometown of Kingston he told a campaign crowd that Mackenzie was involved in an oil swindle in his home district of Lambton County.

In wasn’t true, and the Liberal candidate in Kingston had come to his leader’s defence by calling Macdonald a liar. Macdonald slapped the man across the face and grabbed him by the throat, and only quick intervention prevented things from escalating, according to biographer Dale Thomson in Alexander Mackenzie: Clear Grit.

Against such a bad-tempered backdrop Macdonald arrived in Sarnia aboard the gunboat Prince Edward on the evening of Aug. 20, itching to face his chief political tormentor.

Sarnia’s market square began filling the next morning with people who arrived by foot, wagon and special trains. By noon the square was thronged, the atmosphere festive.

Mackenzie opened the historic debate by accusing the prime minister of failing to control government spending.

Lambton had just a single MP to represent 30,000 people, yet Macdonald had given British Columbia six members for 10,000 people, Mackenzie charged.

He also accused Macdonald of shady dealings on the colonial railroad and of buying votes with public housing.

The prime minister was enraged. “That’s another falsehood,” he shouted.

The insults and accusations flew back and forth all afternoon, and by the time an exhausted Macdonald returned to his waiting ship it was nightfall, the Sarnia Observer reported.

Sir John A. Macdonald won the 1872 election, despite being so drunk so often he couldn’t recall entire periods of it, he later admitted.

But just days after the Sarnia debate, Macdonald was again in contact with railway builder and campaign contributor Sir Hugh Allan, the records show.

The CPR rail scandal over election kickbacks broke the following year, Macdonald’s government was forced to resign, and a Sarnia stonemason became the first Liberal prime minister of Canada.