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Stop #5 - 63 St. George Street

Macdonald, Oliver Mowat and Ontario

Map for location 5.
Mowat House
Mowat House

Macdonald’s burning desire to build the transcontinental railway in the early 1870s nearly ruined him. In negotiating the contracts, Macdonald’s contacts with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) company became very close and he grew dependent on them for campaign funding. In 1872, when the government’s popularity was declining, the Conservative party’s financing was dependent on railway money.

Scandal broke out a year later when it was revealed that the CPR was getting government favours in return for the $162,000 it contributed to the 1872 campaign. Things tumbled out of Macdonald’s control and many of his Members of Parliament (MPs) could no longer support him. Macdonald gave a great speech in his own defence in early November, but his government was forced to resign.

An election was called in the winter of 1874 and the Liberals under Alexander Mackenzie were elected. Macdonald even lost his seat in Kingston. His life had taken a very different turn: he was broke, sick and discouraged. Maybe Toronto could fix that.

Macdonald decided to finally take a break and rebuild his relationship with his son Hugh (who was starting his career as a lawyer in Toronto). Things were not going well between father and son in those years. Hugh, who was barely 21, fell in love with a young widow and became engaged. Macdonald did not approve; he was absolutely against any idea of marriage. Hugh left for a while to work in Kingston.

For much of 1874 and early 1875, Macdonald travelled back and forth between Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto; he still sat as an MP because he won a by-election in Kingston. He and Agnes rented a house on Sherbourne Street until they bought a house on St. George Street in the spring of 1876.

Macdonald lived here (63 St. George Street) for two years, until 1878, when he and Agnes and little Mary Margaret moved back to Ottawa after his party was re-elected to government on a protectionist platform he called The National Policy. His son Hugh moved in and lived here for three years and then rented it out.

Macdonald lived here (63 St. George Street) for two years, until 1878, when he and Agnes and little Mary Margaret moved back to Ottawa after his party was re-elected to government on a protectionist platform he called The National Policy. His son Hugh moved in and lived here for three years and then rented it out.

Ten years later Macdonald sold the house and it was eventually purchased by Oliver Mowat, the prime minister of Ontario. There is a very interesting story in the relationship between the two illustrious owners of this house.

Macdonald and Mowat knew each other very well, yet had diagonally opposite views about how Canada should be governed. Born in Kingston in 1820, Mowat actually studied law under John A. Macdonald, but he never followed his politics. After moving to Toronto in 1840, he was elected as a Liberal Member of the Legislature of the Province of Canada in 1857 and served as Provincial Secretary in 1858 and Postmaster General from 1863 to 1864. He also took part in the Quebec Conference of 1864 that led to Confederation in 1867. 1872, Mowat became Ontario's third Prime Minister in 1872 and retained that post for almost 24 years - the longest in the province’s history.

Oliver Mowat
Oliver Mowat Credit: Library and Archives Canada
Sir John A. Macdonald
Sir John A. Macdonald Credit: William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada

The relationship between Macdonald and Mowat coloured the relations between Ontario and Ottawa. Macdonald wanted Canada to be as centralized as possible, with a Canadian government directed by a powerful executive. The British North America Act reflected this. The federal powers were more numerous and contained the blanket phrase “peace, order and good government” that would justify Ottawa’s actions in so many areas. The federal powers were also concerned with those areas of jurisdiction where Macdonald believed real power lay: national defence, finance, trade and commerce, currency, and banking. As well, the federal government was given the power to disallow provincial legislation. The federal cabinet appointed its own provincial watchdogs, the lieutenant governors, as well as the members of the Senate - the body designed by Macdonald to represent the various regions.

Mowat saw things entirely differently. He was an ardent opponent of centralized powers in Ottawa and fought tooth and nail to defend provincial rights. He contested all sorts of federal decisions in the courts and usually won. Over time, his successful challenges in favour of provincial rights really contributed to ensuring that provinces in this country remained strong.

When Macdonald was living here, Mowat argued before the highest courts in favour of provincial rights. Ottawa had challenged Ontario’s law that brewers be required to take out a license to make beer in the province. Ottawa argued that it interfered with its ability to regulate trade and commerce. Oliver Mowat countered this argument with the following - “I claim for the Provinces the largest power which they can be given: it is the spirit of the BNA act, and it is the spirit under which Confederation was agreed to. If there was one point which all parties agreed upon, it was that all local powers should be left to the Provinces and that all powers previously possessed by the Local Legislature should be continued until expressly repealed by the BNA Act.”

A few years later, when Ontario and the federal government could not decide where the boundary between Manitoba and Ontario should sit, Mowat made his views all the more clear by saying, “Confederation was well worth maintaining if the Constitution was faithfully administered, and if the Dominion Government would deal fairly and justly with the provinces. But if their power of passing laws within their own legitimate sphere was to be subject to the whim of a Minster or Ministers at Ottawa, and if they could not demand the large amount of property to which they were entitled without foregoing the advantages of Confederation, then it was not worth maintaining. Was Ontario only of use as the great taxpaying province of the Dominion? Only of use as a lever to place a particular party in power at Ottawa? Only of use to render possible the floating of large loans And of use only to enable contracts to be made by which millions of money were thrown into the sea?”

Mowat always favoured Confederation, and favoured it now, believing that the Constitution was a good one, if faithfully administered, though a bad one if not.

Two people who were so similar in so many ways could not be more different when it comes to how Canada should be governed. Apparently, the only thing they could agree on was the house that still stands on St. George Street.

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