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Stop #4 - King’s College Circle, University of Toronto

Macdonald the builder

King’s College Circle at University of Toronto
King’s College Circle at University of Toronto

If nothing else, Macdonald was a builder. He jokingly referred to his occupation as “cabinet maker” on account of his political cabinet making, but there is no denying his lifelong ambition to build this country. Of course, Macdonald did not build anything himself, but he always managed to place people around him who could build his dreams. Macdonald thought big, and one of his big schemes, the building of a railroad to British Columbia, cost him a great deal politically. At King’s College Circle you will see testimony to two people who helped turn Macdonald's dream into reality.

The building of University College between 1856 and 1859 coincided with the rise to power of John A. Macdonald, and he knew this building well. It was designed by Frederick W. Cumberland, a very famous architect in Toronto, and a politician in his own right, sitting both in Queen’s Park and in the House of Commons as part of Macdonald’s caucus in 1871-72.

The man who made it happen was another Tory, John Langton, a Scottish-born businessman and Member of Parliament for Peterborough who really impressed Macdonald. In fact, Macdonald asked him to leave politics and join the public service as inspector of public accounts and then deputy minister of finance. After Confederation Langton also served as the secretary to the Treasury Board - the key subcommittee of cabinet. As a result, he played a significant role in the building of Canada.

Sir John A. Macdonald
Sir John A. Macdonald Credit: Notman & Son / Library and Archives Canada

Macdonald cared a great deal about the machinery of government. It is worth remembering that Canada’s national capital is in Ottawa because of a compromise he forged between Quebec and Ontario. But it went further than that.

Macdonald had a strong interest in how the government ran things. He drafted The Civil Service Act of 1857 that established the rule that each major government agency would have a permanent, non-political head called a deputy minister. Macdonald insisted that Canada have a strong Department of Finance. He also had a hand in creating the Bureau of Agriculture and Statistics, the Ministry of Militia and a department of Crown Lands. Under his leadership in 1860, Canada also took over Indian Affairs - a responsibility that, until then, was still being managed by the British government.

Macdonald became co-prime minister of the United Province of Canada for the first time at the end of 1861 and held the job for only five months. Remember, these were difficult years, with the civil war raging south of the border.

The golden building with the columns behind Convocation Hall stands to commemorate Sandford Fleming, another key actor in the Macdonald story. Fleming, of course, is known for his involvement as the chief engineer in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Also a Scotsman, he arrived in Canada in 1845 when he was 17 years old.

Fleming was more than a railway man. Remarkably inventive, he designed the first Canadian postage stamp (the Three Penny Beaver), and conceived the idea of worldwide standard time (the trains needed it - without time zones, their schedules were always confused). He was the chief engineer for the Northern Railway of Canada in the late 1850s and played a key role in the laying out of the CPR’s route to Vancouver in the 1870s and 1880s. Without remembering Fleming’s genius, it is hard to think of Macdonald’s successes.

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