Memorable Manitobans: Hugh John Macdonald (1850-1929)

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Hugh John Macdonald
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Lawyer, MP (1878-1882), MP (1891-1896), MP (1896-1897), Premier of Manitoba (1900), MLA (1900-1903), judge.

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Hugh John Macdonald
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Born at Kingston, Ontario on 13 March 1850, the only surviving son of Sir John A. Macdonald and Isabella Clark, he was educated Queen’s College (Kingston) and the University of Toronto (BA 1869). He took part as a private in the Wolseley Expedition, against his father’s wishes, after which he studied law in his father’s office until 1872 when he was called to the Ontario Bar. He came to Winnipeg in 1882 and formed a law partnership with J. Stewart Tupper. He served as a Lieutenant and Captain in the 90th Battalion, Winnipeg Rifles during the 1885 North West Rebellion.

He was Conservative MP from Winnipeg from 1891 to 1893 and from 1896 to 1897, serving briefly as minister of the interior in the Tupper Cabinet of 1896. During this period he was closely connected with Lord and Lady Aberdeen. He was chosen to lead the Manitoba Conservatives in the 1899 provincial election, became MLA for Winnipeg South and Premier (also Attorney-General) at a January 1900 by-election. He served only briefly (8 January to 29 October), then contested the federal seat of Brandon against Clifford Sifton. When he lost, he retired to private life.

He was created a Knight Baronet in 1913. From 1911 to 1929 he sat as police magistrate for the City of Winnipeg, coming down hard on aliens and the strikers of 1919. Like many sons of distinguished fathers, he was often elevated to positions beyond his capabilities. Macdonald served as President of the Manitoba Club from 1896 to 1899 and the St. Andrew’s Society of Winnipeg from 1897 to 1898. He was a founding member, in 1905, of the St. Charles Country Club. He served on the first Advisory Board for the Winnipeg Foundation in 1921, and was a Bencher for the Law Society of Manitoba.

He died on 29 March 1929 and was buried in the St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery. He is commemorated by Hugh John Macdonald School and Macdonald Youth Services in Winnipeg. His former home at 61 Carlton Street is operated as Dalnavert Museum and Visitors’ Centre. There are papers at the Archives of Manitoba.

Macdonald chronology:




A son, Hugh John, is born to John A. Macdonald and his wife, Isabella Clark, in Kingston, Upper Canada, on 13 March 1850.


Isabella Macdonald, frequently in poor health, dies and young Hugh is sent to live with his aunt, Margaret Williamson, and her husband.


Hugh John enlists the Prince of Wales Own Rifles of Kingston at the time of the Fenian Raids but personally sees no military action. In the autumn, he enrolls at the University of Toronto


He graduates with a Bachelor of Arts degree and begins his law training with Chief Justice Harrison in Toronto, and later in Ottawa with the firm of Lewis and Pinhey


The Wolseley Expedition leaves to put down the Red River Rebellion. Young Macdonald enlists with the First Ontario Rifles and when they arrive, it is discovered that Riel has already evacuated Upper Fort Garry, and the fort is retaken without firing a single shot. Hugh John returns to Toronto to continue his law studies


He is called to the Ontario Bar and becomes a partner in his father’s firm, Macdonald, Patton and Macdonald.


Hugh John marries Jean Murray King (1846-1881) of Toronto. His father disapproves of this marriage because she is both older and a Roman Catholic. However, he eventually gives his blessing.


Jean King Macdonald gives birth to a daughter named Isabella Mary. This child is nicknamed ‘Daisy’.


In fragile health since the birth of Daisy, Jean King Macdonald dies.


Hugh John, much grieved by the death of his wife, decides to break with his past and move west to Winnipeg. He sets up a law practice with his friend, J. Stewart Tupper. Their firm is called Macdonald, Tupper, Tupper and Dexter.


Hugh John remarries. His new wife is Agnes Gertrude Vankoughnet of Toronto, the daughter of one of his father’s best friends.


A son, John Alexander, is born to Hugh and Gertrude Macdonald. He is nicknamed “Jack”. Soon afterward, Hugh John as a captain in the 90th Battalion of the Winnipeg Rifles, is sent off to Saskatchewan to suppress the second Riel Rebellion. He sees action at Fish Creek and Batoche.


Hugh John is appointed a Queen’s Counsel in the annual Royal Honours List.


Running as a Conservative in the federal riding of Winnipeg, he wins his first election. Hugh John is sworn in at the side of his father, the current Prime Minister, to cheers of all House members. After the death of his father and three sessions in Ottawa, he resigns his seat in 1893 and returns to Winnipeg.


Hugh John builds Dalnavert at 61 Carlton Street, Winnipeg.


He is pressured to run in another federal election to help his father’s old party. Charles Tupper, the current Prime Minister, made him Minister of the Interior in April 1896.


The provincial Conservative Party appealed to him to take over its leadership.


Hugh John led the party to victory over Thomas Greenway’s Liberal government, making him the new Premier of Manitoba.


As Premier, Macdonald attempted to implement his election promises. One of these was the introduction of prohibition called "The Macdonald Act" which he succeeded in passing. At the suggestion of local friends and another call from the federal party, Hugh John resigned the premiership to contest the 1900 federal election in the constituency of Brandon against Clifford Sifton. It was a battle royal between Sifton (the present Minister of the Interior and a powerful political force in the Liberal party) and Macdonald (son of the former prime minister, the former Minister of the Interior, and the freshly elected premier of Manitoba), but in the end one man had to lose. It was Macdonald and this resulted in his retirement as an elected politician. He returned to his law practice.


His only son, John Alexander, an aspiring law student, dies of sugar diabetes at the age of nineteen. The Macdonalds leave on a lengthy tour of Europe.


Hugh John is appointed Police Magistrate for Winnipeg.


In the King’s Birthday Honours List, Hugh John is made a Knight Bachelor. He is given the right to be called Sir Hugh John Macdonald and his wife becomes Lady Agnes Gertrude Macdonald.


His only surviving child, Isabella Mary (Daisy) is married to George K. Gainsford, a local civil engineer. (She has two sons: Hugh and Lionel. In 1959, Daisy dies, predeceased by her husband. Lionel, who never marries, dies in 1963. The remaining son, Hugh Gainsford, lived in Winnipeg and was, until 2002, a Dalnavert volunteer.)


He is obliged to temporarily retire from the bench because of illness, the result of which is the amputation of his right leg.


He returns to the bench as Police Magistrate.


On 29 March, just a few days after his seventy-ninth birthday, Hugh John Macdonald dies at Dalnavert. He is given a state funeral and is laid to rest in St. John’s Cemetery. (His wife died in 1940.)

See also:

Sir Hugh John Macdonald
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 14, 1957-58 Season

Sir John A. Macdonald’s Granddaughter
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 4, Number 2, January 1959

John A. Macdonald, Confederation, and the Canadian West
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 23, 1966-67 Season

Sir John A. Macdonald
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 25, 1968-69 Season

Macdonald House - Exercise in Restoration
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 18, Number 1, Autumn 1972

Chartered Libertine? A Case Against Sir John Macdonald and Some Answers
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 32, 1975-76 Season

Dalnavert - Macdonald House Museum
Manitoba History, Number 2, 1981

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Macdonald House / Dalnavert Museum (61 Carlton Street, Winnipeg)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Hugh John Macdonald School (567 Bannatyne Avenue, Winnipeg)

Manitoba Organization: Sir Hugh John Macdonald Memorial Hostel / Macdonald Youth Services / The Link

Memorable Manitobans: The Macdonald family

“Reluctant politician: a biography of Sir John Hugh MacDonald” by H. Guest, MA thesis, University of Manitoba, 1973.

“Hugh John Macdonald, 1900 ” by Rory Henry in Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh, Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2010.


Who’s Who in Western Canada: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Men and Women of Western Canada, Volume 1, edited by C. W. Parker, Vancouver: Canadian Press Association, 1911.

A History of Manitoba: Its Resources and People by Prof. George Bryce, Toronto: The Canadian History Company, 1906.

The Leading Financial, Business & Professional Men of Winnipeg, published by Edwin McCormick, Photographs by T. J. Leatherdale, Compiled and printed by Stone Limited, c1913. [copy available at the Archives of Manitoba]

Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Company, 1925.

Obituary [Lionel Harold Gainsford], Winnipeg Free Press, 26 August 1963, page 22.

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 5 November 2023

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