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Visiting the birthplace of Canada's first prime minister

Sir John A. Macdonald has been described as a pragmatic statesman, earning the title of Old Chieftain, and a procrastinating drunk with the nickname of Old Tomorrow. But there's no denying the legacy of Canada's first prime minister. He united the country with his national vision and the construction of the world's longest railway. Macdonald would overcome personal hurdles, albeit with the help of the bottle, to lay the foundation for modern Canada.

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The man who would become Canada's first prime minister was born on the top floor of a three-storey brick building on Jan. 11, 1815. John Alexander Macdonald was only five when his family left Glasgow, Scotland for Kingston, Ont. Macdonald's father decided to relocate to Canada after a few failed business ventures, as explained by Macdonald's great-grandson in this TV excerpt. But unlike his father, Macdonald would find success in both business and politics.

Witty, tireless with a gift for organizing, Macdonald quickly rose to prominence. He was only 15 when he began articling for a local law firm. In March 1843, the popular lawyer and businessman was easily elected to the Kingston town council as an alderman. But his prosperous public life was marred by personal tragedies, which led him to seek solace in alcohol.

In 1843, Macdonald married Isabella Clark, a cousin he had met on a trip to Scotland. But she became bedridden within two years of their marriage. They had two sons, John and Hugh. But the eldest, John, would die when he was just 13 months. Isabella also died in 1857, after suffering an undiagnosed illness that left her addicted to opium mixed with wine.

In 1867, Macdonald remarried Agnes Bernard, the sister of his colleague Hewitt Bernard. In February 1869, Agnes gave birth to their only child, Margaret Mary Theodora, who was born mentally handicapped with an enlarged, deformed head. Despite her disability, Macdonald remained devoted to his daughter who would die in 1933 at age 63. 
• In this clip, Hugh Macdonald Gainsford is seen in the pub now occupying in his great-grandfather's childhood home, raising a glass to Sir John A. Macdonald. Gainsford's mother was Isabella (Daisy) Macdonald Gainsford and her father was Hugh John Macdonald, the surviving son of Sir John A. Macdonald. Gainsford was on a personal project as part of Canada's centennial celebrations in 1967.

• Dr. James McSherry of University of Western Ontario wrote that Sir John A. Macdonald's first wife, Isabella, married him out of desperation. She was 34, five years his senior, when they married. In those days if a woman was not betrothed or married by 20, the family would contemplate putting her away in a sanatorium or an asylum.

• Macdonald was devastated by the death of his son and his first wife. In particular, he never got over John's death and kept a box of his child's toys up until his own death.

• Sir John A. Macdonald was born on the same day as another Canadian prime minister; Jean Chrétien, who was in office from 1993-2003. 
Medium: Television
Program: Century West
Broadcast Date: Aug. 10, 1967
Guest(s): Hugh Macdonald Gainsford
Reporter: Craig Oliver
Duration: 4:49

Last updated: September 19, 2014

Page consulted on September 19, 2014

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