Sir Hugh John Macdonald, PC (13 March 1850 – 29 March 1929) was the only surviving son of the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, and was a politician in his own right, serving as a member of the Canadian House of Commons, a federal cabinet minister, and briefly as Premier of Manitoba.
Hugh enrolled in the QOR, 9 Company, on 13 October 1868 as a Riflemen. He rose to the rank of Corporal then Sergeant before being commissioned as an Ensign on 22 April 1870. He retired from the QOR on 26 April 1882.
He saw active service on three occasions. He spent the summer of 1866 with the 14th Battalion Volunteer Militia Rifles near Cornwall in anticipation of a Fenian invasion. In 1870 he joined the expedition of Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley and made the trek to the Red River settlement (Manitoba) as an Ensign. During the North-West rebellion in 1885 he would serve as Lieutenant in the 90th (Winnipeg) Battalion of Rifles, a unit he helped to organize. He saw action at Fish Creek (Saskatchewan).
Macdonald was elected to the House of Commons in the 1891 federal election, representing Winnipeg City for the Conservative Party. He was sworn into parliament at the side of his father, to the applause of members from both sides. After the older Macdonald died later in the year, however, Hugh John showed little enthusiasm for life in Ottawa. Despite efforts by John Abbott and John S.D. Thompson to keep him in federal politics, he resigned his seat in 1893 and returned to Winnipeg.
In 1896, Prime Minister Charles Tupper convinced him to return to Ottawa and serve as Minister of the Interior and Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs. This occurred at a time when the Conservative Party was suffering from internal divisions, and was due to face the public in a general election. Tupper probably hoped that the Macdonald name would win back some wayward voters.
The 1896 election was won by Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals, and while Macdonald was again elected for Winnipeg City, his election was declared void in early 1897. He once again returned to Winnipeg, and did not contest the subsequent by-election.
In March 1897, Macdonald was approached to take the leadership of Manitoba’s Conservative Party. The party had suffered severe losses to Thomas Greenway’s Liberals in the elections of 1888, 1892 and 1896, and had lacked direction since the death of former Premier John Norquay in 1889. By 1897, however, there was a recognition that the provincial situation was susceptible to change. Greenway’s second and third majorities were based almost entirely on popular support for his education reforms; with the education issue resolved in 1896, the Conservatives had a viable chance to form government. Macdonald accepted the leadership position, and (though without seat in the legislature) spent the next two years touring the province in anticipation of the next election.
The Conservative Party of Manitoba became a legally recognized entity in 1899, and drew up its first election platform shortly thereafter. This was a progressive document by the standards of its age, calling for an independent board of education, new agricultural and technical colleges, a Workmen’s Compensation Act, prohibition, and the nationalization of railways. On a less progressive note, the party also tapped into popular resentment toward new Eastern European immigrants. Both of these factors contributed to an upset victory in the 1899 provincial election, with Conservatives taking 22 seats out of 40. Macdonald narrowly defeated incumbent Liberal John D. Cameron in Winnipeg South, and was sworn in as Premier on January 10, 1900. He also took the position of Municipal Commissioner.
His term in office was brief. Macdonald succeeded in passing a prohibition bill (known as the “Macdonald Act”), but was again prevailed upon to run for the federal Conservatives in the 1900 federal election. It is possible that he intended to replace Charles Tupper as national party leader.
Macdonald resigned as Premier on October 29, 1900, and challenged Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton in the riding of Brandon. Sifton was the most powerful cabinet minister in western Canada, but the Conservatives believed that Hugh John’s personal popularity would be enough to defeat him. They were mistaken. Despite a spirited challenge, Sifton won the election with 5,011 votes to Macdonald’s 4,342.
Macdonald abandoned electoral politics after this loss, and returned to his law practice. He continued to be involved in the Conservative Party organization within Manitoba, serving as President of the Manitoba Conservative Association from 1905 to 1908. He was appointed Police Magistrate for Winnipeg in 1911, and was made a Knight Bachelor in June 1913. There were rumours that he would return to lead the Conservative Party in 1915, but this did not come to pass.
Macdonald’s last home in downtown Winnipeg, called Dalnavert, is now a museum and houses the offices of the Manitoba Historical Society. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990.