Lady Agnes Macdonald, Mother of Confederation

Can you imagine sitting unstrapped on an old candle box nailed to the cowcatcher of a 60 ton train travelling at roller coaster speeds down 2800 feet of a Rocky Mountain slope toward the Kicking Horse River below? I can’t.

But the spirited Lady Agnes Macdonald would not be dissuaded and accomplished this feat in 1886. She described the experience as “There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere, and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher, just because it is all so delightful!”

Lady Agnes Macdonald was the second wife of Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, also known as one of the Fathers of Confederation. She was her husband’s confidante and frequently sat in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons where she enthusiastically transmitted messages to Sir John A. using sign language for the deaf and rallied against his political opponents. Following a particularly heated debate in 1878, the then Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie reported, “Lady Macdonald in the gallery, like the Queen of the day, stamped her foot and exclaimed, ‘Did ever any person see such tactics!!’”

In her second year of marriage, 1869, Lady Agnes gave birth to little Mary Theodora, or Baboo as Sir John A. affectionately called her. Mary was born with hydrocephalus or water on the brain, leaving her physically and mentally challenged, unable to walk, care for herself or speak clearly. Her parents openly loved her and accepted her; she could be seen sitting next to her mother in House of Commons listening to her father’s debates in Parliament. Sir John A. gave her a typewriter, opening up a means of communication with his daughter. Inevitably much of the supervision of Mary’s daily needs still fell on Agnes, a load Lady Macdonald carried for the next fifty-one years.

As befitting the times and her devout commitment to public service and charity, Lady Agnes worked tirelessly in organizations alongside women of different religious affiliations. She used her influence to spearhead a massive bazaar that raised $5,000. This allowed the rector who opposed such money-making schemes to pay off the debts of the St. Alban’s Anglican Church. She steadfastly visited orphans and destitute women when they were ill. She’d read to them and provide for them. She lent her leadership skills and social position to the Ladies Protestant Benevolent Association of Ottawa’s ten year effort to fundraise and build a new orphanage. In 1884 Lady Agnes began her long tenure as the first directress of the Ottawa Protestant Orphan’s Home. In addition to these duties, she spent time instructing and reading to the children.

Lady Agnes had a talent for scribbling and kept a diary covering about seven political years in which she offers insight into her domestic world, her love for her husband and her opinions about significant political events. She used her diary to keep track of her extensive reading of biography, history, travel accounts, religious texts and magazines. She published three sketches about her travels, the most notable being “By Car and by Cowcatcher”. And she published three political sketches, the most notable being “A Builder of the Empire”, an 1897 sketch that pays tribute to her husband.

Lady Macdonald is considered one of the Mothers of Confederation for her commitment to building a nation that turned 150 years old on July 1st of this year.  I believe she was a remarkable woman: confident, adventurous, intellectually curious, passionate and strong-minded. Yet under the formidable and dour exterior beat the heart of a kind and caring woman.


Primary Resources:

The Canadian Encyclopedia

Father of Confederation and a Loving Parent 

‘By Car and by Cowcatcher’ published in Murray’s Magazine, 1887. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Nov. 2015

‘Agnes, The Biography of Lady Macdonald’ by Louise Reynolds

Transcript of Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald’s diary  July 5 – July 14 1867

Photo Source: Library and Archives Canada


9 thoughts on “Lady Agnes Macdonald, Mother of Confederation

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  1. What a woman! Love the image of her delighting in her wild ride on the cow catcher. I’m also impressed with how she and her husband raised their daughter and interacted in the political arena. Great story! These are the ones that lead me to believe that the field of historical fiction based on historic women is so wide open.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that historians often overlook and misrepresent the role and influence of women when writing historical accounts of events. I use to be a fan of biographies, but I now prefer historical fiction instead. In my opinion, historical fiction allows the writer to entertain readers and to interpret motives and events without falsifying historical records. The work you are doing with Mary and Sarah and the events at Rock Creek is amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe that’s why I felt biographies hid more than they revealed about women. I come away with this sense that one woman is like “all the others,” and I know that’s not true. and yet, even in women’s journals and pioneer diaries there’s an emphasis on recording information but not emotion or thoughts. You’re right — historical fiction allows greater exploration and interpretation of the experiences of women.

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        1. I’ve learned that biographies, even auto biographies, are a writer’s interpretation of events – they choose what events are included and exclude and decide which aspects of the personality they want to emphasize or de-emphasize. Historical fiction lets me express my opinion without conflict with the writer, or interpretation of history. You are a natural historical fiction writer and I am looking forward to reading your WIPs when they are done. There is no rush … An exceptional book is like exceptional wine … it gets better with time. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Remarkable woman indeed! These are the kind of people we should all read and learn more about. Unfortunately in history many times these wonderful women and their stories are left unwritten. Thanks for highlighting her here.

    Liked by 2 people

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