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GOWER, Sir ERASMUS – Volume V (1801-1820)

b. 3 Dec. 1742 near Cilgerran, Wales


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

MACPHERSON, Sir DAVID LEWIS, businessman and politician; b. 12 Sept. 1818 at Castle Leathers in Inverness parish, Scotland, youngest son of David Macpherson and Naomi Grant; m. 18 June 1844 Elizabeth Sarah Badgley Molson (d. 1894) in Montreal, and they had two sons and five daughters; d. 16 Aug. 1896 at sea en route to Canada and was buried in Toronto.

Although David Lewis Macpherson’s mother was concerned that her son’s withdrawal from the Royal Academy in Inverness had prematurely ended his formal education, she need not have worried about him. Few immigrants to the Canadas had the kind of advantages enjoyed by the 16-year-old when he arrived in the early summer of 1835. His elder brother and sisters were already important members in Canadian society. Frances Pasia had married the Montreal merchant and founder of Queenston, John Hamilton*, and another sister, Helen, had become the wife of Kingston merchant and tory politician John Macaulay*. But although Frances, Helen, and the unmarried Christina all took an interest in David’s welfare, John Macpherson was in the best position to provide for his brother.

John had been engaged since 1822 in forwarding passengers and freight between Montreal and ports along the upper St Lawrence, and by the time of his brother’s arrival he had formed a partnership with another experienced forwarder, Samuel Crane*. In retrospect, 1835 was an opportune time for David to have joined Macpherson and Crane as a clerk and assistant in its Montreal office. The following year the firm formed a partnership with the Ottawa and Rideau Forwarding Company, whose private lock at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue gave the partners control over access to the newly completed route to the lakes via the Rideau Canal and thus an important advantage over their competitors. By 1839 Macpherson and Crane owned 10 steamboats, 26 large barges, and 24 batteaux, and had 4 extensive ranges of warehouses in Montreal, Kingston, Prescott, and Bytown (Ottawa). The company was valued at £50,000. David Macpherson had become associated with, and in 1842 became a senior partner in, the largest forwarding firm in the Canadas.

Macpherson made the most of the social and economic advantages which his family connections afforded him. He reinforced his social standing in 1844 by marrying a daughter of prominent Montreal businessman William Molson*. During the 1840s he established himself as an important business figure in the community, serving as vice-president of the board of trade and joining with many of his colleagues in signing the Annexation Manifesto in 1849 [see John Torrance*]. Having become experienced in the administration of Macpherson and Crane’s extensive river and road transportation network, Macpherson naturally shared the interest of the Montreal business community in the new technology of the age, the railway. He was a director and investor in the Montreal and Lachine by 1846, and in the St Lawrence and Ottawa Grand Junction, chartered in 1850. In the early 1850s he joined former forwarding agent Luther Hamilton Holton*, Sherbrooke merchant Alexander Tilloch Galt, and engineer Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski in a number of lucrative railway transactions.

In 1850 Galt and Holton were appointed by the city of Montreal to a committee to plan the Montreal and Kingston Railway, and Gzowski was hired to make a preliminary survey in the winter of 1850–51. Although the railway received a charter in 1851, a clause postponed its effective date until it was proclaimed, pending negotiations between Francis Hincks* of Canada, Edward Barron Chandler* of New Brunswick, Joseph Howe* of Nova Scotia, and the British government for an imperially guaranteed line from Halifax to Hamilton. When it became apparent that this scheme was doomed, Hincks negotiated an agreement with the British contracting firm of Peto, Brassey, Jackson, and Betts for the construction of a trunk line between Montreal and Hamilton, which would include the Montreal and Kingston Railway. Once an agreement was reached, the charter was proclaimed in the summer of 1852, with the intention that the British firm would subscribe a controlling share of the Montreal and Kingston’s stock.

It was at this stage that Macpherson became involved. He, Galt, and Holton forestalled any purchase by Peto, Brassey by acquiring £596,500 of the authorized £600,000 in shares, and persuading seven associates, including Macpherson’s father-in-law, Galt’s brother Thomas, and John Torrance, to purchase the remainder. Although condemned by a legislative committee, Galt and Holton defended their action by claiming that they were sincere in their intention to construct the railway, and at a lower cost than could the British firm. For all their talk, however, these key shareholders in the Montreal and Kingston seemed more than willing to accommodate Peto, Brassey by abandoning their project, at a reasonable price. When Hincks tried to override the Montreal and Kingston charter in 1853, Galt cleverly strengthened political support from Montreal’s business community by proposing the amalgamation of the railway with the St Lawrence and Atlantic Rail-road, a popular project in Montreal. Hincks reluctantly agreed to compensate the shareholders of the Montreal and Kingston in 1853, and to have the Grand Trunk acquire the St Lawrence and Atlantic the following year. Macpherson, who since 1851 had managed to acquire a small amount of stock in the St Lawrence and Atlantic, profited from both of these transactions.

During the negotiations Galt took advantage of the hostility between the directors of the Grand Trunk and those of the Great Western to persuade the former group to acquire a competitive road west of Toronto, the Toronto and Guelph Railway, in which he, Macpherson, Holton, and Gzowski had an interest. In 1852 the four men had formed a contracting firm to undertake its construction. As it became apparent in 1853 that they would be able to interest the Grand Trunk in the line, C. S. Gzowski and Company extended the proposed route to Sarnia and renegotiated their original contract. The Grand Trunk inherited this new contract, agreeing to pay the firm £8,000 per mile in sterling to construct the line from Toronto to Sarnia, instead of the original £7,350 per mile in cash and bonds. Part of the increased price was put towards the construction of a higher quality railway to compensate the partners for accepting a number of other responsibilities. Nevertheless, in 1857 engineer Walter Shanly estimated that, once granted further compensation, for a series of construction delays resulting from the Grand Trunk’s financial problems, Gzowski and Company would earn net profits of about 12 per cent on the project.

Construction contracts and stock manipulation were not the only source of income for the four promoters. Under the terms of their contract with the Grand Trunk, Gzowski and Company was empowered to purchase all the land required for the railway’s right of way and station facilities between Toronto and Sarnia. Land obtained but not required by the railway remained in the hands of the contractors. According to James Webster, who was responsible for purchasing the land between Toronto and Stratford, he occasionally acquired whole farms along the right of way and usually purchased more land for station sites than was needed. Land speculation lay at the heart of the decision of Gzowski and Company to have the Toronto and Guelph extended to Sarnia early in 1853. In that year the firm purchased 2,000 acres of private land in the Sarnia area for £5,050 and acquired 644 acres of crown land for only £322 because the Ordnance department believed the Grand Trunk needed the land. In 1859 all 2,644 acres were sold to Baring Brothers and Glyn, Mills and Company for £30,000. Although Galt and Holton had withdrawn from Gzowski and Company in 1857, an agreement made at that time enabled each of the four original partners to gross more than £6,000 from this transaction alone. In the acquisition of the crown land Macpherson thought there had been “what a Yankee would call a considerable mixing of ourselves and the GTR Co,” but he did not see anything wrong with the speculation for “if we had not got the land, it would be valueless as in 1853 for we would not have placed the terminus where it was.”

As he became more deeply involved in railway entrepreneurship, Macpherson withdrew from his other transportation interests. On 22 July 1853 he had retired as a partner in Macpherson, Crane and Company, thus providing himself with liquid capital to invest in the more promising field of railway promotion. In the same year his new interest led to his moving from Montreal to Toronto. He acquired Chestnut Park, a country estate north of Bloor Street, and after 1855 he worked in the office of his railway partners at the corner of King and Bay streets in Toronto’s financial district. Macpherson’s business interests became more diverse during the next two decades: Gzowski and Company continued to undertake construction contracts, building the Port Huron and Lake Michigan Railway (essentially an American extension of the Toronto and Guelph line), providing some of the work on Toronto’s harbour-front esplanade, and in 1870 undertaking the challenging construction of the international bridge across the Niagara River at Fort Erie. Gzowski and Macpherson used some of the profits from their early contracts to invest in manufacturing enterprises. They teamed up with a pair of businessmen from Pittsfield, Mass., Theodore and Robert Pomeroy, to organize the Toronto Rolling Mills Company about 1859. The success of this firm until the mid 1870s rested on a valuable ten-year contract with the Grand Trunk to reroll worn and defective rails. As well, Macpherson and Gzowski had an interest in a sawmill on the White Fish River in the northern part of Upper Canada in 1859; another manufacturing venture, in 1861, the Toronto Cotton Mills Company, appears never to have commenced operation. Macpherson’s abilities as a financial administrator had also resulted in his involvement as a director in new enterprises such as the British American Investment Company and in established institutions such as the Bank of Upper Canada.

Given his growing commercial stature in Upper Canada, Macpherson became an increasingly attractive political candidate. At the same time, his interest in acquiring construction contracts on the Intercolonial Railway was slowly drawing him towards politics and the issue of confederation. Encouraged and guided by John A. Macdonald and political organizers in both Toronto and the Saugeen region, a hesitant Macpherson spent the early summer of 1864 scouting his chances of unseating Reformer John McMurrich* as legislative councillor for Saugeen division. Running as a supporter of the coalition government of Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché*, Macpherson enjoyed the election campaign, although, he wrote to the political veteran Macdonald, “how I survived the heat and the whiskey is a wonder to myself. Whiskey in large quantities must be wholesome or I would have given a job to a coroner before now.” His first venture was a success, for he defeated George Snider, who had replaced McMurrich during the contest, by more than 1,200 votes.

Macpherson’s appointment in 1867 to the Senate of Canada, where he would sit until his death, meant that he would never again run as a political candidate. However, as an able administrator and a man of financial means and connections, he became a valuable political organizer in Ontario for the Conservative party. It was an appropriate role for Macpherson, who liked the “excitement and wire pulling” of elections but whose “magnificent” manner made him a weak and unattractive platform speaker before most audiences. Aside from his central role during elections, he performed an important service to Macdonald and the Conservatives by leading the effort during the winter of 1871–72 to collect money for a testimonial fund for the prime minister, raising more than $67,000, in part to finance losses incurred by Macdonald.

Macpherson served as an important link between the dominion and Ontario wings of the Conservative party; he was instrumental in having John Sandfield Macdonald* appointed first premier of the province. His skills as a financial administrator and his political responsibility in the Senate for Ontario made him an ideal candidate for the arbitration board established under section 142 of the British North America Act to divide the “Debts, Credits, Liabilities, Properties, and Assets of Upper Canada and Lower Canada” on their separation at confederation. Appointed by Ontario in 1868, Macpherson represented the province well, for he persuaded the dominion government’s representative, John Hamilton Gray*, to adopt a position favourable to Ontario. Gray and Macpherson rejected the claims made by Quebec’s arbitrator, Charles Dewey Day*, and refused to consider the relative indebtedness of the two provinces at the time of their union in 1841 and an equal division of debts and assets. In spite of the subsequent resignation of Day and the protests of Quebec, Gray and Macpherson forged ahead with the arbitration. Although Gray did not agree to divide the debts and assets according to population (the position forwarded by Ontario), the award which he and Macpherson adopted still operated in the province’s favour. Their failure to accommodate the concerns of Quebec entangled their decision in legal challenges. It was 1878 before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council affirmed the award, and Ontario and Quebec continued to haggle over its terms well into the 1890s. It was neither the first nor the last time that Macpherson’s brusque, undiplomatic approach to sensitive questions would create problems.

Although his loyalty to Ontario, to the Conservative party, and to Macdonald was strong, Macpherson’s position as a senator provided him with a degree of independence from partisan politics. Throughout his early career as a politician, he was strongly guided by his economic principles. A staunch supporter of free trade, he opposed the Conservative government’s effort in 1870 to place a tariff on rice, coal, breadstuffs, and other natural products that had been free of duty. An amendment introduced by Macpherson in the Senate, and proposed in spite of an appeal from Macdonald, came within four votes of defeating the government’s bill.

Macpherson was even more energetic and effective in his opposition to the banking policy proposed by Finance Minister John Rose* in 1869. The failure of the Commercial Bank of Canada in 1867 had created an atmosphere of crisis which forced the government to examine banking arrangements in the new dominion. Macpherson, who had large investments in a number of banks, had consulted with several members of the board of the Commercial Bank in an unsuccessful effort to save it. Believing that some reform in banking regulations was required and that the Senate could provide more appropriate expertise than could the House of Commons, where Rose proposed to conduct an inquiry, Macpherson decided to lead a separate Senate investigation into the bank’s failure and the resulting monetary crisis in Ontario. The product was a cautious report which simply provided a transcript of the evidence collected, but the conclusions which Macpherson provided in presenting the report in 1868 indicated that he was opposed to any radical change in the banking system. He carefully noted the opposition of bankers to the replacement of the bank-issued notes with government-controlled dominion notes, precisely the proposal which he must have known Rose was urging the government to adopt. Having firmly established his expertise in banking matters, Macpherson led the opposition to Rose when his plan was formally announced in 1869 and the senator warned Macdonald that few government members in the Senate would support the bill. His resistance worked and the system of bank-issued notes survived until 1945. A number of Macpherson’s proposals for regulation, which involved a limited degree of government interference while providing some protection to shareholders, were eventually incorporated in the Bank Act of 1871.

Differences over trade and banking policy merely strained Macpherson’s relations with his political associates. It was a clash over railway policy that led to the complete, albeit temporary, alienation of Macpherson from his colleagues in the Conservative party. As a leading friend of the government and as a railway promoter, financier, and contractor, Macpherson was an attractive person for Sir Hugh Allan* to involve in his project for a transcontinental railway. After meeting with Allan in early 1872 and discussing the matter with Charles John Brydges* of the Grand Trunk, Macpherson became uncomfortable about Allan’s connections with American railway promoters. Fearing that Canadian capital would be invested in a project which would then be controlled by the natural rivals of any Canadian railway, Macpherson organized and received a charter for his own transcontinental line, the Interoceanic Railway, in June 1872. Support for Macpherson’s all-Canadian company, with its headquarters in Ontario, came from the leading businessmen of Toronto and southern Ontario.

Macdonald supported his friend’s project, and seems to have been intent on reducing the American and Montreal domination of Allan’s Canada Pacific Railway by arranging an amalgamation of the competing corporations. However, the prime minister did not allow for the stubbornness of the rival presidents and for the depth of Macpherson’s conviction that Allan was involved in a Yankee conspiracy. Macpherson appears to have been less than enthusiastic with the amalgamation talks, which were arranged in July. When John Joseph Caldwell Abbott, representing the Canada Pacific, insisted that any merger agreement would have to name Allan as president and protect the interests of the province of Quebec, all chance of success ended. Macpherson persisted in seeing Allan as an agent of Jay Cooke’s Northern Pacific Railroad in the United States and feared that Allan’s presidency would ensure American control. He succeeded in having the Interoceanic board reject the merger and informed Macdonald in September that if Allan were given control of the transcontinental railway, the prime minister would become “the victim of an audacious, insolent, unpatriotic and gigantic swindle – the greatest one attempted in the Dominion.”

Macpherson’s stubborn refusal to listen to the advice of his political colleagues concerning the railway, and his reluctance to provide further financial assistance to Macdonald at a crucial point in the summer election of 1872, led to his temporary estrangement from Macdonald and the Conservative party. It took almost three years for relations to improve. In a letter to Macdonald in April 1875, Thomas Charles Patteson, editor of the Toronto Mail, revealed that Macpherson “wanted absolution badly” and was beginning to do favours again for the Conservatives. Macdonald and Macpherson were soon reconciled and found a way to capitalize on their separation. Posing as a non-partisan spokesman who had initially welcomed the election of the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie in 1874, Macpherson spearheaded a vigorous attack in the Senate, beginning in 1876, on the record of that government. In the election year of 1878 he arranged to lead a Senate investigation into the government’s decision to build what, by then, appeared to be a useless set of locks at Fort Frances, Ont. At the same time his detailed and often quite technical attacks in the Senate on the increasing deficit of the government were published as pamphlets, to be used in the election. Although it is difficult to believe that these pamphlets appealed to a wide audience, they did manage to leave a general impression that the government was squandering public money. Macpherson’s reputation as an able financial administrator lent credibility to these attacks.

During the election of 1878 Macpherson’s views on the National Policy were also published as a pamphlet. Because he was a well-known and outspoken advocate of free trade, the Conservative party willingly broadcast his conversion to the National Policy throughout Ontario. Macpherson did not support the new policy for partisan reasons only. Like other business and political leaders of the period, he did not abandon free trade so much as free trade abandoned him. Higher American tariffs convinced him that such an arrangement with the United States was no longer possible. He asked, “Shall we insanely persist in starving ourselves to death because our neighbours refuse to eat with us?” Macpherson did not forsake free trade entirely, for, as an alternative to reciprocity with the United States, he supported a policy of open trade within the British empire.

Macpherson’s considered views on the National Policy and detailed financial criticisms of the Mackenzie government reflected his own concern with economic matters. However, at least one political organizer considered another, different kind of pamphlet from Macpherson to be the most successful of the 1878 election. During the campaign, Liberal Richard John Cartwright* remarked that Highland Scots such as Macdonald and Macpherson had inherited “predatory instincts” which compelled them to be robbers and outcasts. The giant Highlander Macpherson, who had been an active member and three-time president of the St Andrew’s Society in Toronto, immediately denounced Cartwright. Ontario political organizers published this denunciation, along with the remarks of the Highland Scots of Glengarry County thanking Macpherson for championing their race.

The election returned the Conservatives to power. At a crucial stage in the history of the party, Macpherson had been a tower of strength in the Senate and had used his literary and financial skills to go “gunning for the Grits,” as Conservative mp George Airey Kirkpatrick later described his role. Macdonald considered rewarding him with a more prominent position in the government. In 1880 he placed Macpherson in the cabinet and appointed him speaker of the Senate. It seems clear Macdonald intended that his friend should do more than simply represent the government’s interests in the Senate and Ontario’s interests in the cabinet. In the summer of 1881, an ailing Macdonald, then in England, had Macpherson look after his own Department of the Interior. After he returned in September, Macpherson continued to administer dominion lands policy, while Macdonald retained Indian affairs and the North-West Mounted Police. This, division of responsibilities was formalized when Macpherson was officially appointed minister of the interior on 17 Oct. 1883.

With Macdonald, Macpherson implemented a series of land policies between 1881 and 1883 that were intended to complement the government’s overall aim of developing a transcontinental Canadian economy. Attempts were made to encourage settlement by liberalizing various regulations for homesteading and by making the attractive land near the proposed route of the Canadian Pacific Railway available for settlement. Macpherson hoped to delegate part of the responsibility for the promotion of settlement to private enterprise. The formation of private colonization companies was supported by the government’s offer to them of tracts of land at $2 per acre, with a promise of a rebate of $160 for every bona fide settler placed. The companies were expected to pay one-fifth of the total cost as a down payment, and to place two settlers in each section on their tracts within five years. Finally, with the apparent success of the CPR in mind, the Department of the Interior used land policy to encourage the development of branch railways linking up to the CPR system. Beginning in 1883 the department offered to sell to these colonization railways 6,400 acres of land at $1 per acre for each mile they completed. Throughout, the frugal Macpherson sought to minimize expenditures and to use the government’s most abundant resource, land, to encourage the rapid development of the northwest.

The policies were undermined by the continued attraction of settlers to the American west, and by the land boom and bust in the Canadian northwest during the 1880s. Subsequent efforts to adapt the regulations to rapidly changing economic circumstances were complicated by the government’s use of western lands to support development and to generate revenue. For example, in the face of the speculative land boom of 1881–82, Macpherson, as acting minister, had exercised his right to close to homesteading the lands along and south of the projected line of the CPR. These were then to be sold at auctions, without any conditions for cultivation, in an effort to maximize revenue which would offset the government’s expenditures on the CPR. Speculators such as C. J. Brydges (then land commissioner of the Hudson’s Bay Company), members of the government, and officials within the department who knew the changing condition of the land market better than Macpherson rightly predicted that the auctions would only depress already slumping prices. When the auctions failed to provide significant revenue, Macpherson succumbed to pressure from speculators concerned with the effect of these sales on the land they had acquired and from settlers who wanted to locate near the railway. In April 1884 the lands near the CPR were again made available for homesteading.

The collapse in the land market affected Macpherson’s other policies for development. By 1884 his private colonization scheme was failing and many companies were asking to be relieved of their contractual obligations. Only 27 of the 106 companies that had applied made their first payment, and even they had been unable to attract the desired number of settlers. It was left to Macpherson’s successor as minister, Thomas White*, to terminate the obligations, on conditions favourable to the companies and their shareholders. Nevertheless, Macpherson defended his program and claimed its real benefit was that it “allowed our friends during the land mania to get the right to acquire as much land as their ambition demanded without being required to impoverish themselves by money payments and under conditions which enabled them to withdraw from their speculation as soon as their sober second thought came.” Such a defence did not mask the real failure of the policy. It has been estimated that between 1881 and 1891, when the final contract was terminated, the colonization companies contributed only six to eight per cent of the settlers who came to the northwest, at a cost to the government of $305 per homestead entry.

The fall of land values also thwarted Macpherson’s policy on colonization railways. Warning Macdonald of the political and economic repercussions of the stalled construction of the branch railways, Macpherson suggested that the government should freely grant the 6,400 acres per mile, and then purchase one-half of the grant from the company at $1 per acre. The railways would get an immediate cash subsidy, and the government could earn back the cash grant later by selling the lands it had purchased. The government adopted half of Macpherson’s proposal, providing colonization railways with the free grant of the land. When even this measure did not seem to have the intended effect, Macpherson unsuccessfully urged the public construction of a system of cheap, narrow-gauge branch railways.

By 1885 Macpherson’s plans for the development of the northwest were in shambles. In part, he simply had the misfortune of being minister during a slump in world grain prices and at a time when advances in farming methods had made land in the western United States far more attractive. He also had the misfortune to hold a major portfolio at a time when his health was deteriorating. Aware of his limitations, he had asked in 1883 to be allowed to retire from the cabinet. Instead, Macdonald had made him minister, an instance of the prime minister’s unfortunate insistence on surrounding himself with ageing friends. Even after his formal appointment, Macpherson continued to spend several months each summer and fall at spas in Germany recovering from the effects of diabetes. His health problems produced delays and confusion in the administration of land policy, and in the late summer of 1884 prevented him from making what would have been his first visit to the northwest.

Illness was not Macpherson’s only handicap. There was a great deal of truth in Sir Charles Tupper*’s jocular remark in October 1883 that “nothing could be better than Macpherson’s appointment [as Minister] if he can only be made to realize that the North-West is not a portion of Chestnut Park.” Unlike many of his colleagues, such as C. J. Brydges, Sir Hector-Louis Langevin*, and Galt, as well as a number of advisers within his department, Macpherson was not acquainted with the Canadian west and it is not clear that his views ever extended beyond his 8¾-acre estate in northern Toronto. On the one occasion when Macpherson planned a western trip, in 1884, Macdonald received a recommendation that he go with a local mp, as he “has not the faculty of dealing with men, especially the sort of men there are in the North-West.” The prime minister’s secretary, Joseph Pope*, remembered Macpherson as “a judicious, capable and conscientious administrator,” but also as a man “rather pompous in manner and overdeliberate in his methods.” Macpherson was most concerned with restraining government deficits and developing what appeared, from his vantage point in Ontario, to be sensible and efficient regulations. In pursuit of his objectives he was, perhaps, too willing to ignore the advice of his subordinates, over-sensitive to criticism, and unaware of the impact of his decisions in the northwest.

Macpherson’s limitations as minister were revealed in the crisis which finally enabled him to withdraw from public life, although not in the way he would have hoped. Whether or not the North-West rebellion of 1885 [see Louis Riel*] was a justifiable response to the deteriorating economic conditions and the problems in the administration of land policy facing settlers in the northwest, the government, and Macpherson as minister of the interior, clearly bear some responsibility for it. The most serious problem facing the settlers was uncertainty over land policy. The frequent changes in regulations between 1879 and 1883 created a great deal of confusion. Moreover, at times the department was ill equipped to administer its policies at the local level. There were concerns that changes in regulations would be retroactive and would affect existing settlers, confusion as to whether colonization companies would prevent independent settlers from homesteading on significant tracts of land, complaints of delays in the issuing of land patents, and conflicts over the proper surveying methods to be adopted where settlement already existed. Fearing that “those who have grievances will become Grits,” Macpherson decided that the deputy minister, Lindsay Alexander Russell, should go to the northwest in 1882 to settle the developing land problems. The trip, undertaken by William Pearce*, inspector of dominion lands agencies, after Russell broke his leg, was relatively successful and resolved the most pressing problems facing the aggrieved English-speaking residents of Prince Albert (Sask.).

However, Pearce spoke neither French nor Cree, and had been unable to resolve the problems facing the Métis. Their problems were particularly acute in the district around Saint-Laurent (Saint-Laurent-Grandin, Sask.) since the standard survey undertaken there conflicted with their existing river lots. For some reason, the department’s policy of making special river-lot surveys upon the request of local settlers had not been followed. Departmental officials were reluctant to provide a new survey. Responsibility for dealing with these and other Métis complaints was delegated to local agent George Duck, who undertook an inquiry in May 1884. His recommendations, however, were not approved by Pearce and forwarded to Ottawa until the fall. As a result of Macpherson’s illness and other problems in the Ottawa office, it was not until 26 Feb. 1885 that the complainants began to learn of the government’s decision to settle their claims.

The Métis also experienced delays with another key issue, the provision of land grants to the mixed-bloods in the northwest, as had been done in Manitoba. Macpherson stated that the government did not wish to repeat its experience in Manitoba, where the Métis had quickly sold to speculators the scrip they had received for land. In its decision the government had the support of the Council of the North-West Territories, which recommended non-transferable land grants, with strict conditions of cultivation to encourage the Métis to become permanent farmers. The Métis, on the other hand, wanted to have a choice between scrip and land. In the face of these conflicting views, the government simply postponed a decision. Ignoring a series of Métis petitions on the issue between 1879 and 1884, it only took action after Riel had returned to the northwest. In January 1885 Macpherson recommended that the government adopt the plan most acceptable to the Métis, giving the occupants of land the option of taking scrip rather than patents. But instead of making a firm decision, the government chose to appoint a committee to investigate mixed-blood claims. On 21 February Macpherson ordered Edgar Dewdney*, lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories, to inform the Métis of the commission, confidently predicting that such an announcement would have a quieting effect on them. When rumours of violence reached Ottawa, Macpherson characteristically defended himself and did not see how his department could have done more. Unfortunately for him, the delays in settling the problems of the Métis had provided the conditions for an armed insurrection against the government that spring.

Even before the rebellion, Macpherson had informed Macdonald that he intended to resign at the end of the parliamentary session, which would come in July. His health and spirit were broken by the outbreak of the insurrection. By May he was anxious to travel to his spa in Hamburg (Federal Republic of Germany), his diabetic problem having been aggravated by congestion in the lungs. On 28 May he made his last appearance in the Senate as a member of the Macdonald government, offering a brief statement that any investigation of his department would reveal that the mixed-bloods had no grievances in relation to land or other matters. Macpherson held to this view for the rest of his life. As he told Goldwin Smith*, “The rebellion was a political one, and [was] not the result of unredressed grievances; . . . Riel made the halfbreeds believe that they owned the North West, and that they would extort liberal concessions for the sake of peace.” In early June Macpherson sailed away from the storm surrounding the government to Europe, leaving his resignation with Macdonald to be used at the prime minister’s convenience. The resignation was formally accepted on 5 August.

Much of the rest of Macpherson’s life was spent in “enforced idleness,” viewing Canadian affairs from a villa he acquired at San Remo on the Italian Riviera. Although his departure from public life had been unpleasant, he could at least be satisfied that in 1884, prior to the crisis in the northwest, his service to Canada had been rewarded with a knighthood. When in Canada, Macpherson continued to use his political organizational skills to provide some assistance to Macdonald. His attendance to his duties as a senator, however, was sporadic.

Before Macpherson could relax comfortably, he needed to attend to one piece of unfinished family business. His daughters had married into society, one of them being the wife of George Airey Kirkpatrick, later a lieutenant governor of Ontario, and his eldest son, William Molson, enjoyed a successful business career, but his other son, David Hamilton, had been a constant source of trouble. Fortunately, by the late 1880s he seemed to have recovered from his alcoholism and he held a position in the North-West Mounted Police. However, his minor rank was not acceptable socially for a member of the Macpherson family, and the senator persistently pressured Macdonald to have his son made an officer. Not surprisingly, Macpherson succeeded in overcoming the contrary decision of a senior officer and his son’s failure on a qualifying examination, and helped obtain an officer’s rank for him in 1888. With his family well secured socially and economically, Macpherson settled down to a life of ease and even considered writing his memoirs.

From his villa on the Riviera, Macpherson watched the collapse of the Conservative party. In February 1896 he wrote to one of his Canadian correspondents, T. C. Patteson, that he feared a general election would send the party out of power. He saw his prediction come true that June but did not hear the throne speech of the first Liberal administration [see Sir Wilfrid Laurier*] since the one he had worked so hard to defeat in 1878. On his way to Canada aboard the Labrador he died peacefully on 16 Aug. 1896.

The election of 1896 and Macpherson’s death marked the passing of an era in Canadian history. He had never himself been a central leader but he had been a representative figure among the last members of Macdonald’s generation, a group of men whose vision of Canada was shaped by the prosperity of the railway boom of the 1850s. As a railway promoter, financier, and politician, Macpherson preferred to set aside theoretical principles and questions of religion and nationality in a quest to develop the credit, capital, and resources of the developing nation. He never doubted that what was best for Canada was the kind of prosperity that had enabled the men of his generation to make their fortunes.

Ken Cruikshank

Sir David Lewis Macpherson is the author of numerous political pamphlets, including Speeches on the public expenditure of the dominion delivered in the Senate, Ottawa, during the session of 1877 . . . (Toronto, 1877), Speeches on the public expenditure and National Policy, delivered in June, 1878, during his visit to the county of Bruce (part of the former Saugeen Division) (Toronto, 1878), and MrCartwrigt’s insult to the Highlanders ([Toronto, 1878]; photocopy in AO, Pamphlet Coll.); additional publications are listed in CIHM Reg. and Canadiana, 1867–1900.

AO, MS 22; MS 78; MU 1095. NA, MG 24, B40; D16, 47; MG 26, A; F; MG 27, I, D8; D12; E17, general corr., D. L. Macpherson (mfm.); RG 15, DII, 1, vols.277, 309, 325, 329, 353; RG 30, 2882. York County Surrogate Court (Toronto), no.11740 (mfm. at AO). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1886, nos.45a–b; Senate, Debates, 1867–96; Journals, 1867–96; Select committee upon the causes of the recent financial crisis in the province of Ontario, Report (Ottawa, 1868; copy at AO). Can., Prov. of, Commission appointed to inquire into the affairs of the Grand Trunk Railway, Report (Quebec, 1861), app.XX; Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1852–53, app.XX; 1857, app.6. Debate in the Senate on the public expenditure of the dominion, March, 1878: speeches of the Hon. Messrs. Macpherson, McLelan and Campbell (Ottawa, 1878). HBRS, 33 (Bowsfield). Joseph Pope, Public servant: the memoirs of Sir Joseph Pope, ed. Maurice Pope (Toronto, 1960). Gazette (Montreal), 6 April 1841; 27 July, 11 Oct. 1853; 30 Oct. 1883. Globe, 24 March 1894. Mail (Toronto), 23 Oct. 1879. Montreal Courier, 27 Oct. 1849. Montreal Transcript, 10 Oct. 1839. Weekly Globe (Toronto), 4 Aug. 1876. Dent, Canadian portrait gallery. Types of Canadian women (Morgan). Pierre Berton, The national dream: the great railway, 1871–1881 (Toronto and Montreal, 1970). Creighton, Macdonald, old chieftain. T. E. Flanagan, Riel and the rebellion: 1885 reconsidered (Saskatoon, 1983). H. C. Klassen, “L. H. Holton: Montreal business man and politician, 1817–1867” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1970). Ludwik Kos-Rabcewicz-Zubkowski and W. E. Greening, Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski: a biography (Toronto, 1959). C. B. Martin, “Dominion lands” policy, ed. and intro. L. H. Thomas (2nd ed., Toronto, 1973). The pre-confederation premiers: Ontario government leaders, 1841–1867, ed. J. M. S. Careless (Toronto, 1980). Skelton, Life and times of Galt (MacLean; 1966). Stanley, Birth of western Canada. Tulchinsky, River barons. P. A. Baskerville, “The pet bank, the local state and the imperial centre, 1850–1864,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 20 (1985–86), no.3: 22–46. A.-N. Lalonde, “Colonization companies in the 1880’s,” Saskatchewan Hist. (Saskatoon), 24 (1971): 101–14.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ken Cruikshank, “MACPHERSON, Sir DAVID LEWIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macpherson_david_lewis_12E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macpherson_david_lewis_12E.html
Author of Article:   Ken Cruikshank
Title of Article:   MACPHERSON, Sir DAVID LEWIS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   December 3, 2023