Prime minister John A. Macdonald.
14 March 2011
Surviving Scandals Nothing New to Tory Leaders
Ottawa Ontario - What makes a Canadian political scandal? Before Adscam, Shawinigate, and the
Munsinger Affair, you have to go back, way back, almost to the days of Confederation itself. The granddaddy of domestic imbroglios is the Pacific Scandal, a
tale of big bad businessmen, suspect campaign contributions, and accusations of foreign interference in Canadian affairs. The scandal drove prime minister John
A. Macdonald to despair and his government from office, all over the building of the transcontinental railroad.
The second Canadian federal election took place in 1872. Facing possible defeat, Sir John A. Macdonald and his Quebec lieutenant Georges-Etienne Cartier feared
their railroad project would flounder under the Liberals, and with it their vision for a Canada that spanned a continent. They cast about for a Canadian-led
team to manage the railroad project, but no single company was capable of assuming so huge an undertaking.
Enter Sir Hugh Allan, who represented the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Allan lobbied to preside over the railroad consortium, and in the heat of
negotiations with Cartier, offered "financial assistance" to help fund the Tory election campaign. But like many political donations of the day, or,
we have learned, days since, the cash came with strings attached that the unsavoury Allan schemed to pull in his favour over the course of contract
After the sum of $25,000 was deposited into a bank account for Macdonald's use in the 1872 election campaign, the prime minister desperately sought more to
secure victory. He pressed Allan's solicitor, John Abbott (a future prime minister himself): "I must have another $10,000. Will be the last time of
calling. Do not fail me. Answer today."
The Conservatives won the vote, but just barely. The 99 Tories would need to rely on a few of the six independents to maintain power in the 200-seat
legislature. And despite Allan's timely infusion of funds, Macdonald's ally Cartier was defeated.
Not long after the election results were confirmed, rumours began to swirl that huge cash contributions from the railway companies had found their way into
Conservative party coffers. On 2 Apr 1873, Lucius Seth Huntington, the Liberal member from Shefford, Quebec, rose in Parliament to demand an inquiry into the
granting of the charter to the Canadian Pacific Railway Company and financial contributions to the Conservative party from Sir Hugh Allan sourced in Canada,
and the United States. The Conservative forces defeated the Liberal motion, but proposed in its place a five-member committee of Parliament to look into the
The press leaped on the story, dubbing it the "Pacific Scandal." On 18 Jul 1873, the Toronto Globe and the Montreal Herald reported the contents of
Macdonald's desperate telegram to Abbott. The publication caused a huge outcry, and political peril for the embattled prime minister.
Macdonald was dumbfounded: How did these telegrams find their way into the hands of the press? "It is one of those overwhelming misfortunes that
they say every man must meet once in his life. At first it fairly staggered me," he said.
In fact, the telegrams had been stolen from Abbott's office, a la Wiki-leaks, and sold to Montreal Liberals.
A depressed and despairing Macdonald turned to a familiar but unfortunate source of comfort: The bottle. When he disappeared for a few days to collect
himself, rumours again swirled, this time that he had committed suicide. Macdonald reassured his friends in telegram messages that the rumours were greatly
exaggerated. "It is an infamous falsehood," he wrote. "I never was better in my life."
Throughout the scandal, Macdonald steadfastly maintained his innocence. The Canadian Pacific Railway had been promised nothing in the way of government
contracts, he was certain. Macdonald believed he could avoid scandal because the money was used for political ends and not for personal gain. He told his
friends not to worry too much about Allan getting rich because, "Where he is going his gold coins would melt."
To Macdonald's horror, it turned out that American financiers had indeed been the supporters of Allan's scheme. The opposition did not accept the government's
attempt to diminish the scandal and refused to attend the Parliamentary committee.
Fearing the loss of a confidence vote, Macdonald secured a temporary prorogation of the House of Commons from governor-general Lord Dufferin. Months later,
just as Parliament was about to reconvene, Lord Dufferin wrote to Macdonald, in tone and language the prime minister had not expected: "In acting as
you have, I am all convinced that you have only followed a traditional practice... but as minister of justice and the official guardian and protector of the
laws, your responsibilities are exceptional and your personal connection with what has passed cannot but fatally affect your position as minister."
The next day, Macdonald met his Cabinet to discuss the controversy and consider the question of resignation. Although some of his members were wavering,
Macdonald remained confident and thought he could defend the government in Parliament. At 2:30 a.m., at the conclusion of a five-hour speech in the House of
Commons, Macdonald made an impassioned plea for his government based on its past accomplishments:
"I have fought the Battle of Confederation, the battle of Union, the battle of the Dominion of Canada. I throw myself upon the House. I throw myself upon
this country, I throw myself upon posterity, and I believe that, notwithstanding the many failings of my life, I shall have the voice of this country in this
House rallying around me... I know... that there does not exist in this country a man who has given more of his time, more of his heart, more of his wealth, or
more of his intellect and power, such as they may be, for the good of this Dominion of Canada."
It was a rousing speech, but the defections were enough to undo Macdonald's working majority. After meeting with the governor-general, Macdonald resigned on
5 Nov 1873.
Alexander Mackenzie, the leader of the opposition Liberals, formed a government and seized the opportunity to capitalize on the Tory demise by going to the
people on 22 Jan 1874 in the first Canadian election to use a secret ballot. With the Pacific Scandal fresh in voters' minds, 129 Liberals were elected,
compared with 65 Conservatives and 12 independents.
In the aftermath, Macdonald resigned as party leader, saying, "My fighting days are over... I will never be a member of any administration again."
His offer was refused by the Tory caucus.
But Macdonald knew that politics comes with its ups and downs. "When fortune empties her chamber pot on your head, smile and say, we are going to have a
summer shower." Despite the setback, Macdonald returned as prime minister in 1878, an office he held until his death in 1891. Apparently there can be life
after scandal, even one as great as this.