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BURGESS, ALEXANDER MACKINNON, journalist, publisher, and civil servant; b. 21 Oct. 1850 in the valley of the River Spey, Scotland, son of John Burgess and Ann Davidson; m. 7 July 1873 Margaret Beatrice Anderson, and they had four daughters and three sons; d. 25 Feb. 1898 in Ottawa.

Alexander Mackinnon Burgess was educated at local schools in Advie and Aberdeen and at the University of Aberdeen. He worked for the Great North of Scotland Railway as a clerk in 1867–69 and then became a journalist. In 1871 he emigrated to Canada, and from 1872 to 1874 was the parliamentary reporter for the Toronto Globe. On 1 July 1874 he became editor of the Ottawa Times, where he supported the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie. The following year Burgess obtained the first contract for the official reporting of the House of Commons debates, a contract renewed in 1876 to include the Senate debates. In late December 1875 he purchased the Times, but in the deepening economic depression the paper was soon heavily in debt and by the next summer he was forced to sell.

The Liberal government appointed him private secretary to David Mills*, minister of the interior, on 1 Dec. 1876. In October 1878 he became a secretary of the first class, on 1 Jan. 1882 chief clerk and secretary of the department, and on 1 July 1883 deputy minister. According to a contemporary, George Maclean Rose, Burgess exhibited “painstaking zeal in office, and courtesy, fair dealing, and efficient administration as a public servant,” qualities which no doubt contributed to his rapid promotion. His success also owed much to a careful campaign to cultivate and impress his superiors – particularly Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who was minister of the interior in 1878–83 – through both policy recommendations and a willingness to defend vigorously the record of the Conservative government, which had been elected in 1878. Burgess’s rise to deputy minister in 1883 was made possible when in that year the government decided to reorganize the department and create, in effect, four deputy heads: for the Geological Survey (Alfred Richard Cecil Selwyn*), the North-West Mounted Police (Frederick White), the Dominion Lands Survey (Lindsay Alexander Russell), and the remaining functions (Burgess). Within a few months Macdonald resigned the interior portfolio in favour of David Lewis Macpherson, taking with him – to Indian affairs – control of the NWMP; the lands survey fell under Burgess’s control when Russell was forced to retire because of ill health.

Burgess had become deputy minister just as the economic boom and the spurt of settlement that accompanied the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Manitoba came to a close. Thereafter population growth on the prairies would be slow until the turn of the century. No doubt his administration was quietly efficient – unquestionably it was Burgess who largely controlled the department under a succession of weak ministers – but he appears never to have developed much sensitivity for the western Canadian point of view. The grievances of farmers, miners, and Métis were all dismissed as the work of agitators and good-for-nothings. His report to his superiors on the causes of the North-West rebellion of 1885 [see Louis Riel*] concluded that “there is indeed no instance in history where the standard of revolt has been raised, and blood has been shed, so entirely without justification or provocation.” As an administrator he maintained a close paternal supervision of the employees of his department, even on occasion interfering in their private lives. “It is of course no part of the business of a Deputy to make himself popular,” he wrote in 1885. “On the contrary his business is to keep his eye on what he considers to be the pole-star of duty, and if he is occasionally misunderstood, and even grossly misrepresented, why that is his misfortune.” It is scarcely surprising that in touring the west in 1890 his minister, Edgar Dewdney*, reported, “My Deputy Burgess I find most unpopular.” Yet Burgess’s friendship with Macdonald and his efficient control of the department made his position secure.

In 1892 the Conservative government decided to move the Immigration Branch from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior, thus uniting in one department the responsibility for attracting and establishing settlers and the administration of prairie lands. The combination seemed, to Burgess, a logical extension of the powers of a department already concerned with land and settlement policy. He also regarded it as an opportunity to economize by eliminating many immigration agents, reducing the collection of immigration statistics, and requiring land agents to double as immigration agents. Burgess believed that only the poor and the discontented were likely to emigrate from Europe to Canada, and he contended that it was desirable to discourage the settlement of ethnic groups in blocks. A brief attempt to expand operations in the United States in 1892–93, notably the promotion of emigration and the repatriation of settlers, was drastically curtailed because of government stringency the following year. Despite his influence on immigration policy, Burgess had little real effect on settlement because control of that area came late in his tenure, during a time when severe depression hampered immigration efforts.

The advent in 1896 of a Liberal government under Wilfrid Laurier*, including a new minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton*, brought Burgess’s influence to an abrupt end. Sifton had not forgotten a slight from Burgess during the deputy minister’s tour of the west in 1884; he also wanted a deputy whose ideas were in accord with his own. On 1 April 1897 Burgess was demoted to commissioner of dominion lands and was succeeded as deputy by James Allan Smart. Less than a year later Burgess died of a stroke while at home recuperating from an apparently unrelated accident.

D. J. Hall

In addition to reporting the Debates of the House of Commons, 1875, and of the commons and Senate in 1876, Alexander Mackinnon Burgess assisted in writing the Dominion annual reg. in 1878 and 1879.

NA, MG 9, D7-35, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials; MG 26, A; E; MG 27, I, C4; D8; MG 29, E114; RG 15, A4, 82, Ernest Voorhis, “The Department of the Interior: a brief sketch of its history and development . . .” (photocopy of 1927 typescript); RG 31, C1, 1881; RG 32, C2, 538, file 1850/10/21. Univ. of Alta. Library, Special Coll. Dept. (Edmonton), William Pearce papers, F. F. Dixon to Pearce, 26 Feb. 1898. Can., House of Commons, Journals, 1892–96; Parl., Sessional papers, 1884–98, esp. annual reports of the Dept. of the Interior, 1883–95. Daily Free Press (Ottawa), 26 Feb. 1898. Ottawa Citizen, 26 Feb. 1898. Ottawa Evening Journal, 26 Feb. 1898. Times (Ottawa), 1874–76. Canadian album (Cochrane and Hopkins). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. Ottawa directory, 1889–90. Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: a history (Toronto, 1984). D. J. Hall, Clifford Sifton (2v., Vancouver, 1981–85), 1.

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Cite This Article

D. J. Hall, “BURGESS, ALEXANDER MACKINNON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 13, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burgess_alexander_mackinnon_12E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burgess_alexander_mackinnon_12E.html
Author of Article:   D. J. Hall
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   June 13, 2024