Ottawa Lost: A PM’s Refuge

Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s first Liberal prime minister, lived near Parliament Hill in a beautiful Gothic Revival home.  He was an honest, thrifty fellow who helped transform the country yet could not stand parliamentary life. “Politics is very low,” he wrote. Today the house is gone and forgotten, just like Mackenzie.

Born in Scotland, he arrived in Kingston, Ont. in 1842 as a near-penniless stonecutter. He became a successful contractor in Sarnia known for quality work. Mackenzie-built structures can still be found including the former Essex County Courthouse, now called Mackenzie Hall.

He was sharp-eyed, tight-mouthed and weather-beaten. Mackenzie did not dress well and hated to spend money. As prime minister he was pained at paying $128 for a political banquet and resolved never to entertain at home due to the cost.

Mackenzie landed in politics as a reformer, elected Liberal leader in 1873 and Prime Minister less than a year later. “Some people have a theory that a successful politician must necessarily depend on intrigue and doing crooked things,” Mackenzie said. “I determined to rule in broad daylight or not at all.”

He refused to campaign on public works spending for fear Canadians would think he was trying to buy votes. When federal contractors sent gifts for the Prime Minister’s wedding anniversary in 1878 Mackenzie had them returned. “I never felt so mortified in my life,” he said.

He grew so weary of reporters and patronage hounds Mackenzie built a secret staircase from his West Block office so he might evade questions. Cronyism and cynicism were enough to “sicken me of public life,” he wrote.

Mackenzie determined to clean up the place. He introduced Canada’s first secret ballot in 1874. Elections had been open ballot affairs with widespread bribe-taking. He established the Supreme Court and the Office of the Auditor General, the bane of grafters.

His home and refuge from the meanness of politics was at 22 Vittoria Street, a short walk west of Parliament Hill. From his veranda Mackenzie had a marvelous view of the Ottawa River. The Gothic home had a distinctive rounded bay window and the tooth-like corner stone patterning that Victorians enjoyed.

On losing the premiership in the recession of 1878, Mackenzie remained an MP but sold the Vittoria Street home in 1880. The house survived til 1928 when contractors demolished it to make way for MPs’ offices in the new Confederation Building.

And Mackenzie?  He refused a title from the Queen – “We have no landed aristocracy in Canada,” he explained – and like all honest politicians of his era, died poor. When Mackenzie passed away in 1892 his estate was so modest MPs voted a $10,000 trust fund to support his widow.

By Andrew Elliott

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