The Centennial of the Death of the Rt. Hon. Sir John Alexander Macdonald KCB, GCB, QC, MP(1815-91) by Dr. Wallace G. Breck, Professor Emeritus Queen’s University, Kingston,Canada

The annual ceremony commemorating the death of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A Macdonald, is conducted on June 6th each year by the Kingston Historical Society. Details of the family of Sir John A. (as he is affectionately termed in Kingston) and of his honours and burial site have been given in the Clan Donald Magazine No. 12, p. 188, but since 1991 was the centennial of his death, some special arrangements and events were planned and effected.

For example, it was fitting that the serving Prime Minister (in 1991), Brian Mulroney, attended as the guest speaker. Clerical contributions were by Archbishop Francis Spence (prayer), The Rev. William Hendry (scripture), and the Rev. Lincoln Bryant (benediction). Choral music was provided by a young choir from Truedell Public School. And the winning pibroch, entitled “A Salute to Sir John A. Macdonald”, selected from a competition initiated by P/M Robert MacDonald of Clan Donald, Toronto Branch (see Clan Donald Magazine no. 12, p.17), was composed and played by P/M Colin MacLellan of Glengarry (Canada).

Commemorative wreaths were laid by the following, escorted by members of the Fort Henry Guard:


Government of CanadaThe Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney MP
Parliament of CanadaPeter Milliken MP
Government of OntarioJoan Murray for Gary Wilson MPP
City of KingstonMayor Helen Cooper
Township of KingstonReeve Isabel Turner
Township of PittsburghFire Chief Gary Bullock
Queen’s UniversityPrincipal David Smith
Clan Donald Council of CanadaLt. Col. G.D. Leggett
Manufacturers Life Insurance Co.Charles Cuffari
The Ancient St John’s Lodge No. 3Gilbert Phelan
Marshall Loyal Orange Lodge No.6 supported by Dufferin Loyal Orange Lodge No. 709John Dodds
Kingston and the Islands New DemocratsMargaret Phipps-Walker
Progressive-Conservative Association of Kingston and the IslandsFlora MacDonald
Kingston and District Folk Art CouncilJacqueline Neilson
The Frontenac Law AssociationJoseph Dewhurst
St. Lawrence Parks Commission – Foil HenryGeorge Speal
Clan Donald Lands TrustIan Macdonald

Regular readers of this Magazine may recognize Lt. Col. Gordon D. Leggett as the author of several papers, particularly that of No.7, p.92. He and his wife were instrumental in establishing and publishing the heraldic arms of Sir John A. Gordon Leggett was fora long time the Chairman of the Clan Donald Council of Canada and always a loyal supporter of the Sir John A. memorial service. It is a moving reflection to realize that his attendance at this Centennial would be his last. He was quite frail and was ably assisted by P/M Robert MacDonald in negotiating the limestone steps while laying the Clan Donald wreath. In 1992 he was admitted to hospital on June 4th and died September 22nd, 1992. A distinguished and loyal soldier and gentleman who is a credit to Clan Donald, recognized in 1990 by the Kingston Historical Society with the presentation to him of an inscribed quaich.

The laying of wreaths proceeded in silence, apart from the announcements, with the exception of the cases of Flora MacDonald and Ian H. Macdonald, who evoked generous applause.

The attendance of the Prime Minister on this auspicious occasion was much appreciated, particularly as guest speaker. And although at this stage in his career his popularity was at a low ebb as judged by polls, nevertheless his talk was well written, well presented, and well received, with genuine applause.

Rather than presenting his speech or even paraphrasing it, in order to achieve brevity and to let his own words ring, some key quotations are given below:

On the death or Sir John A.

“One hundred years ago today, a light went out in this country. Sir John A. Macdonald, bom in Glasgow, Scotland inl815, died in Ottawa in 1891. An adoptive son of colonial Canada, he became the father of our country.”

“…they took him on his final journey, home to Kingston on the railway he had built to unite the nation from Atlantic to Pacific… the City Hall was decked in crepe. When he came to his final resting place, here at Cataraqui, it seemed that all of Kingston had walked out to the cemetery.”

On Canadian Unity

“There is one quotation in which the Old Chieftain (Macdonald) speaks to us all across a century, ‘Let us be English or let us be French, but let us always be loyal, and above all, let us be Canadians’, he said”

“It matters not who wins the next election; the only thing that matters is the unity of Canada.”

On federalism

“In choosing federalism, we put and end to the notion that the path to Canadian unity lay through submerging our diversity in a unitary state. Rather, we chose a system in which provinces are sovereign in their respective areas, but Canadians are associated on matters that we have in common. This has never been an easy country to govern; it isn’t today; and I doubt it ever will be.”

“Our challenge is to recognize that a strong economic and political union are fundamental to our collective prosperity.”

“Let us guard, however, against the expectation of perfection as perfection doesn’t exist in constitutional arrangements any more than it does in our daily lives.”

On closing

“In gathering here today at the grave of Sir John A. Macdonald we should bear in mind that we are all heirs to the fathers of Confederation… It is our turn now to build a better country for our children and theirs.”

Credit for the planning and conduct of the memorial service must go to Chairman George Henderson, President Isobel Trumpour, and committee members Wallace Breck, Jack Grenville, John Grenville, and Fred McConnell.

After the memorial service refreshments were served at a marquee in the cemetery, offering a chance to socialize and meet the Prime Minister, other dignitaries and participants. Further to this, Parks Canada hosted a special reception at Bellevue House, one of Sir John A.’s Kingston residences, nicknamed Pekoe Pagoda, as its first owner was a tea merchant. I personally had the privilege of escorting Ian H. Macdonald, and thoroughly enjoyed his company, owing to his congeniality and the fact that as veterans we were always at ease with experiences to share. We appreciated his presence as an excellent representative from Scotland.

In the evening a banquet was held in the Ambassador Convention Centre, including a sumptuous feast, entertainment by the Rob Roy Pipe Band and Dancers, a talk by Ian H. Macdonald on the Clan Donald Lands Trust, and an inspiring talk by Judge John Matheson of Perth (Ontario) on Sir John A.

One of the projects of the Kingston Historical Society in this year was to produce a book containing papers and speeches on various facets of Sir John A.’s life and career from the perspective of his own folk in his home political riding of Kingston and the Islands, in other words and inside view.

Ian H. Macdonald OBE was given a personal copy of the above book and a copy to be taken to the Clan Donald Centre, as well as a can of Canadian salmon, symbolic of that royal fish on the MacDonald arms. He spoke of the fund raising, formation and function of the Clan Donald Lands Trust and the Clan Donald Centre on the Isle of Skye at Armadale. He invited all interested in the heritage of the Clan and their own family history to visit the Centre for unique accommodation, meals, gardens, views, and woodland walks and a chance to trace family roots in the museum library in the stabilized castle of Lord MacDonald.

In his address, the Hon. Mr. Justice John R. Matheson [1] quoted Lord Tweedsmuir:

“Give me men to match my mountains, Give me men to match my plains Men with empire for a vision, Men with eons in their brains.”

as being an apt description of Sir John A., and further,

“I am old enough to remember that civilized people too may lose their self-confidence and sense of direction. People as cultivated and sophisticated as the Italians and Germans foundered in the turbulent and terrible sea of fascism.”

“The fortitude and trusting spirit of Sir John A. Macdonald is very much needed now.”

“This day we heard a truly significant address at the graveside from Prime Minister Mulroney.” (This from a Whig about a Tory.)

“Both his paternal grandparents were Macdonalds and though his family were dirt poor, he knew that Macdonald was Lord of the Isles, that wherever Macdonald sat was head of the table. I see Flora vigorously nodding her head in agreement.”

“Here in Kingston we remember John A. as an important influence in the beginnings of Queen’s University … his influence was particularly important in establishing a School of Medicine.”

“I am moved by reading the diary of his second wife, Agnes, who speaks of John A. as being one of the most tender, dearest and kindest people and of his compassionate treatment of their little girl, Mary, who through hydrocephalic difficulties never matured… this great man read her nursery rhymes.”

“Macdonald has been described as adroit, amiable, bawdy, boisterous, conciliatory, disreputable, droll, fun-loving, gentle, homemaking, jolly, kind, lonely, loyal, melancholy, perceptive, pragmatic, profound, quaint, resourceful, sensitive, studious, thoughtful, tough, urbane, vigorous, warm, wary, witty, and wretched (in alphabetical order). All those descriptions have some truth.”

“John A. was a mix between Disraeli and the great president Lincoln.”

“…Canada’s need of Quebec’s spirituality. It is to the Scottish mentality, with cultured memories reaching back to Culloden, and indeed further back to Balliol who dared to fashion the historic ‘ancient alliance’…”

“His legacy was a constitution that has survived as the envy of the world for nearly a century and a quarter. Consider how few countries have been so fortunate!”

The banquet evening was organized by a committee of the Kingston Historical Society under President Isobel Trumpour. The 1991 commemorative book, “Sir John A. Macdonald, 1815-1891, A Remembrance to Mark the Centennial of his Death”, was edited by George Henderson and Peggy Cohoe. It is available from:

The Kingston Historical Society
P.O. Box 54
Kingston, Canada K7L 4V6

Also available from the same source are the full texts of the speeches of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Judge John Matheson in the annual publication, “Historic Kingston”, Vol. 40 1992.

Clan members may be interested to know that a new branch “Clan Donald, Kingston and the Isles”, as part of Clan Donald Canada, was founded in 1993 and represented at the 1994 Sir John A. ceremony by John Donaldson, who laid a wreath. The elected officers are Commissioner Richard Donaldson, Deputy Commissioner David Macdonald, and Secretary/Treasurer Stuart MacDonald, 571 Earl Street, Kingston, Canada, K7L 2K5.


[1] John Matheson served with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in World War II and was severely wounded. Following the war he practised law and sat in the House of Commons 1962-68 after which he was appointed to the bench, becoming a justice in 1990. Queen’s University presented him with its Distinguished Service Award in 1984.