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Alexander Mackenzie, 2nd Prime Minister of Canada


Alexander Mackenzie was the second Prime Minister of Canada, serving between the 1st term of John A. Macdonald, and the second term of John A. Macdonald (1873-1878).

Mackenzie was born in Logierait, Perthshire, Scotland, the third son (1 of 10 sons, of which seven  survived their infancies) of Alexander Mackenzie Sr. and Mary Stewart (Fleming) Mackenzie. 

He was born in the house that his father built and, amazingly, this house was on the real estate market for about $500,000+ CAD in 2015, but renovated with indoor washrooms and likely not heated with peat.  

Mackenzie's birthplace, Logierait, Scotland, c.2015

Mackenzie's father had to roam about Britain looking for work as a carpenter and ship's joiner at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a time of economic depression. He and Mary wed in 1817, two years after the Wars ended. Alexander Jr. was born during this economic slump (January 1822), but just on the cusp of a return to some general prosperity in Scotland for the ruling classes and gentry. When young Alexander was 13, his father died and Alexander and his older brothers had to go to work to support their mother and the 4 younger brothers. Alexander apprenticed as a stone mason, starting at age 16.

From is important to note that although stonemasons are associated with freemasonry, by the 19th century those connections were entirely historical and the two groups were no longer intricately linked. Although stonemasonry is an ancient craft, most records date from the 19th century. The work of a stonemason might be recorded in the parish surveyor’s accounts as his skills were often called upon to oversee the repair of the highways. Check census returns and directories to track the career of a stonemason. Use newspapers and directories to look for stonemasons’ advertisements.

At age 19, Alexander was a journeyman stone mason and was drawn to follow his sweetheart, Helen Neil and her family, to British North America where there was a need for stonemasons in building canals and public construction. He, and then shortly other members of his family-- his mother and six brothers--immigrated in 1842, when he was 20, to Kitchener, known as Canada West. He courted Helen for two years and married her, a time of personal satisfaction and career success as a stonemason. He converted from his family's Presbyterian faith to Helen's Baptist faith. They had three children, of which only one, their daughter Mary, survived beyond infancy. 

Helen passed away in 1852 when Mary was only four years old. The following year, Alexander married Jane Sym. Mary remained an only child of the Prime Minister, and then ongoing Liberal Member of Parliament.

While Alexander Mackenzie had a more humble beginning than most 'august politicians,' and he had very little formal education, he appears to have had  we might today label  'EQ' (Executive Intelligence). Conscientiously advocating for  reform to the classist system that operated to keep governance power in the providence of the rich and powerful, Mackenzie encouraged a reform journalist, George Brown, to run for a seat in the House of Commons in the new Parliament of Canada.  Mackenzie bought and wrote for a reformist newspaper similar to Brown's, and rather vocally called out a corrupt Conservative politician. After the scandals that collapsed John A. Macdonald's first government, Mackenzie attempted to get his brother, Hope, to run for leadership of the Liberal Opposition party, and when his brother would not, he did. Subsequently, he was in the running as Prime Minister against John A. Macdonald, and seems to have been the 'change' from the first government that the majority were looking for since he was elected.

His journeyman's training in stone masonry served him well in helping to get the Welland Canal built, for the construction of jails and courthouses, and, most interesting of all, it seems that he was involved in the plans and implementation that resulted in the Parliament buildings themselves.

He was appreciated for his serious nature with attention to detail.  These were likely the qualities that gave him the ability to govern as the second Prime Minister for the hard 5 years he spent in the office (1873-1878). John A. Macdonald and he appear to have been quite a contrast in their characters, with Mackenzie coming off as rather plodding, and in today's recognition, an introvert to John A's extrovert. 

 While he did not veer far from the "nation-building" agenda outlined by his predecessor, John A. Macdonald, he seems to have had disdain for some forms of political dishonesty and lost his incumbency race because of calling out one of the popular Conservative MPs. He also did not surge forward with Trans-Canadian railroad building, which had lit up the populist imagination during Macdonald's first term in office, and was revised again during his renewed campaign. 

One noteworthy achievement of Alexander Mackenzie as Prime Minister was the introduction of the Secret Ballot to legislation in 1874. You can read HERE a little of the history of Canadian elections and the change in process that came about when people could vote confidentially. 

During Mackenzie's time in office as Prime Minister, the Supreme Court was established, as well as the Royal Military College. He also oversaw the formation of the creation of the District of Keewatin to better administer to the needs of Western Canada. When Mackenzie lost the 1878 election, he settled back into relative obscurity as an MP for the rest of his life. He died from a stroke in 1892 aged 70.


Jane Sym married Alexander Mackenzie in 1853, about a year after his first wife, Helen, his youth's sweetheart and mother of his daughter Mary, died of an overdose of a mercury salt used as a purgative. . It appears that both Jane and Alexander were rather protective of her security? Various sources have Jane Sym-- eldest child born to Robert Sym (farmer) and Agnes Wylie Sym -- born in March 22, 1825 in Perthshire Scotland (her father was born there), Elphin, Upper Canada (not yet named, but possibly the location of her birth) or Bathurst, Lanark, Ontario (likely where her birth was registered). 

Jane Sym Mackenzie 1828-1893

 Jane was Mary Mackenzie's stepmother and Mary would have been about five when she came to live with them.  Alexander died in 1892, and his widow followed closely behind in 1893. 

 Mary grew up and married a clergyman, Reverend Dr. John Thompson, and they had three children, two sons and a daughter, Helen Mackenzie who also married a clergy, Reverend Dr. Daniel Strachan. Helen had a son, Ian M. Strachan, who was a lawyer and an MPP for a term in office. Helen, herself, was active as a promoter of the Women's Missionary Society and as the Leader of the Liberal Women's Organization. During the 1934 election, she won St. George Riding but deferred to her son, Ian, who took it and won the 1937 election. He was the party Whip until 1942 when he lost the election. 

Ian also served in World War I in the Tank Battalion and attended both the University of Toronto where he studied Political Science and Osgoode Hall Law School. He came to the Bar in 1934, and was made a Queen's Counsel in 1936. He was married twice but had no children. As Alexander Mackenzie's only great-grandson, he was also the last of his direct lineage when he passed with a heart attack at his Toronto home in 1964. To see a sort of firebrand artist's depiction, go HERE


  1. Very well written. A good comprehensive insight in to our Canadian early Prime Ministerial history


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