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MACDONALD, EDWARD MORTIMER, lawyer, politician, and memoirist; b. 16 Aug. 1865 in Pictou, N.S., son of John Duncan McDonald and Mary Isabel (Isabella) MacLaren; m. there 10 July 1889 Edith Lillian Ives (d. 23 May 1941), and they had two sons and a daughter; d. there 25 May 1940.

Edward Mortimer Macdonald, born in the midst of the intense political struggle to keep Nova Scotia out of the British North American union, was named for his uncle Edward Mortimer McDonald*, a Pictou journalist and mp who was one of the principal anti-confederate leaders. Macdonald was heir to a tradition of reform going back to Edward Mortimer*, the merchant prince turned politician with whom his paternal grandfather, George, had been closely associated, and his liberalism was bred in the bone. Educated at Pictou Academy and at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where for two years he held one of the scholarships endowed by George Munro*, Macdonald graduated llb from Dalhousie law school in 1887 and was called to the bar of Nova Scotia that December. He would be made a kc in 1904.

Macdonald began electioneering in the Liberal interest even before he established his law practice in Pictou, and continued doing so until he entered municipal politics in 1892 as a county councillor, a post he would hold until 1897 and one that gave him good training in debate. He stood unsuccessfully for the provincial legislature in 1894 and for parliament two years later, before finally winning, in 1897, a seat in the House of Assembly, where he furthered his political education. He resigned in order to contest the federal election of 1900, lost again, but was returned immediately to the legislature in a by-election and retained his seat in 1901. In 1904 he ran federally for the third time and was victorious. The eight-year-old government of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier* was at its zenith, and the Liberals captured all 18 Nova Scotia seats; Macdonald was the first Liberal returned from Pictou since 1874.

When parliament reconvened in 1905, Laurier conferred on Macdonald the signal honour of moving the address in reply to the speech from the throne. Though never appointed to Laurier’s cabinet – Nova Scotia was already represented by Sir Frederick William Borden* and William Stevens Fielding* – Macdonald, in his memoirs, is unfailingly warm in his praise of the prime minister, and he may have regarded himself as a protégé and confidant of his leader. In his correspondence Laurier addressed him as “My dear Ned,” and early on he was marked out as a rising star. Macdonald had initially encountered Laurier at a political meeting in New Glasgow in 1882; the latter was then accompanying Liberal leader Edward Blake* on an election tour of Nova Scotia. They met formally in 1896, at the time of Macdonald’s first federal run, and saw more of each other from 1897, when Laurier was prime minister and Macdonald, as Liberal mla for Pictou County, was assisting party stalwart James William Carmichael* with dispensing federal patronage there.

On Macdonald’s part, the relationship was marked by pure hero worship: “I … fell under the spell of his charm,” he would write in his memoirs. Indeed, it was Laurier who was responsible for sustaining Macdonald’s enthusiasm for federal politics, insisting that he stand in the general election of 1900. In later years Laurier not only used Macdonald as one of his confidential emissaries but also invited him to join his tour of the west in the summer of 1910, which Macdonald described as “the most interesting experience of my life” because of “my daily and constant association with Sir Wilfrid.” According to Macdonald’s memoirs, Borden told him that Laurier intended to appoint him Borden’s successor as minister of militia and defence. The Liberal defeat in September 1911 made this promotion impossible. Subsequently, Macdonald was invited to join Laurier’s “council” or shadow cabinet, where he spoke to military matters.

Inevitably, Macdonald was caught up in the conscription crisis of May–July 1917 and the resulting formation of the Union government in October, which split his party when some Liberals joined the Conservative administration of Sir Robert Laird Borden. Early that year Macdonald and George Perry Graham*, a fellow Liberal, had visited the west, conferring with party leaders in Manitoba through to British Columbia and reporting to Laurier on their return “our views upon the situation that was disclosed to us in that portion of the country.” Although Macdonald voted with his leader against conscription in July, he seems to have had no strong views on the matter, which caused some confusion. He may have hoped to retain the support of Liberals in both camps. Instead, he was castigated by Conservatives and Unionist Liberals alike as “Lose-the-War Macdonald.” Initially, the Liberals believed that they would win in Nova Scotia in the wartime election of December. When Macdonald declined to stand, the Unionists suggested that he run under their banner. His refusal to represent either group handed Pictou to the Unionists, who won by several hundred votes thanks to the service poll. Many of the province’s Liberals believed that the party’s fracture could have been avoided if Laurier had taken a more conciliatory approach to Borden’s invitation, and Macdonald’s decision not to stand for the Liberals was especially galling.

Macdonald’s decision not to reoffer in 1917 was not just an assertion of judicious neutrality in the great national issue of the day but also, and more importantly, a central tactic in his strategy to succeed Laurier. The scheme miscarried when Laurier died unexpectedly in February 1919. This setback goes some distance towards explaining why Macdonald played no role in the ensuing party convention, which saw William Lyon Mackenzie King* emerge as leader over Fielding. Macdonald’s well-laid plan had depended on Laurier’s surviving long enough to anoint him as heir, for his not-so-secret aspirations had alienated many while Laurier was still alive. Had he succeeded in his ambition, he would have been the first and only federal Liberal leader from Atlantic Canada.

In the election of December 1921 Macdonald reclaimed his old constituency with the largest majority he ever received – over 3,500 votes – and the Liberals swept Nova Scotia. As the chief Laurierite in the province, Macdonald had every right and reason to expect that King would offer him a cabinet post. The principle of keeping one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer triumphed, however, and Macdonald was overlooked in favour of the two Nova Scotia mps – Fielding and Daniel Duncan McKenzie – who had sought the party leadership. Early in 1923 King made a conciliatory gesture by making Macdonald chair of the special committee on representation in the House of Commons.

McKenzie’s departure from the King government in April 1923 in return for an appointment on the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia finally paved the way for Macdonald’s entry into cabinet. “Necessity more or less compels it,” King wrote in his diary. “The Maritime provinces want Ned today.” He became minister without portfolio in April, acting minister of national defence later that month when Graham was transferred to the Department of Railways and Canals, and minister in August; he would hold the post for the next three years. National Defence was a new entity, born in 1922 of the merger of Militia and Defence, the Naval Service, and the Air Board. Fielding’s precipitate decline and forced retirement from his duties as of late 1923 also obliged Macdonald to take charge of the 16-strong Nova Scotia Liberal caucus.

The removal of Fielding and McKenzie from the scene rendered Macdonald’s position virtually impregnable. The federal minister for Nova Scotia held the keys to the patronage kingdom and Macdonald did not hesitate to reward his political friends and punish his political enemies. Among the former was Alexander Kenneth Maclean*, Macdonald’s first articled law clerk. Minister without portfolio in the Union government, Maclean had been out of office since February 1920 but was still in parliament as one of the Liberal mps for Halifax. In November 1923 he was appointed president of the Exchequer Court. It is impossible that Maclean – the only Nova Scotia Liberal to enter the Union government – would even have been considered for such a desirable post had it not been for Macdonald; Prime Minister King was no friend of ex-Unionist Liberals, rehabilitated or otherwise. The subsequent loss of Maclean’s hitherto-safe seat to the Conservative candidate, William Anderson Black, in the second Halifax by-election in as many years, incensed the prime minister and severely embarrassed Macdonald, who blamed the outcome on the new Liberal premier, Ernest Howard Armstrong*. When Armstrong’s government went down to ignominious defeat in the provincial election of June 1925, Macdonald made sure that neither of the vacancies on Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court went to Armstrong, who badly wanted and felt he deserved such an appointment.

In 1924 Macdonald acted as associate Canadian delegate to the League of Nations. He enjoyed Geneva, but his relations with the senior representative, Senator Raoul Dandurand*, were not good and he did not reprise this role. In the general election of October 1925 he caused a sensation both within and without his party by abandoning his riding for the neighbouring constituency of Antigonish–Guysborough. Correctly anticipating a Conservative landslide in Nova Scotia and his own inability to retain his Pictou seat against the Tory candidate, Thomas Cantley*, Macdonald accepted an offer from the long-time Liberal incumbent, Colin Francis McIsaac, to stand down in his favour. Though he was easily victorious – one of only three Liberals returned in Nova Scotia – his health was failing and he had already made up his mind that 1925 would be his last campaign. Macdonald seconded government house leader Ernest Lapointe*’s motion to sustain the defeated King administration in office once parliament met in January 1926, but he was largely inactive during the constitutional crisis that ensued when Governor General Lord Byng denied King a dissolution and then granted one to his successor, Arthur Meighen*.

In addition to serving as minister of national defence, Macdonald’s role in the new Liberal government was to be King’s eastern Canada lieutenant. Although there was no love lost between them, the prime minister regarded him as one of the trustworthy old guard and was disappointed when Macdonald said he would not reoffer in the next election, which to everyone’s surprise took place in September 1926. Macdonald nominated James Layton Ralston*, A. K. Maclean’s law partner, to replace him as minister of national defence and de facto leader of the federal Liberal Party in Nova Scotia, but, desiring to give the prime minister a free hand, forbore soliciting him for the lone Nova Scotia Senate vacancy, which he knew was his for the asking. Such was Macdonald’s influence with the prime minister that King appointed Ralston minister of national defence despite his having been defeated in Halifax, and then found a safe seat for him in Shelburne–Yarmouth by raising the incumbent, Paul Lacombe Hatfield, to the Senate.

Thereafter Macdonald concentrated on practising law and helping to dispense federal Liberal patronage in Nova Scotia. He also served as éminence grise to the new provincial Liberal leader, Angus Lewis Macdonald*, who became premier in 1933. In 1938 Macdonald published his memoirs, a 584-page tome (without an index) which many, including the prime minister, had urged him to undertake. The work, for which George P. Graham wrote a foreword (a contribution that was rewarded with a complimentary biographical sketch) is less self-serving than intimate, gossipy, partisan, selective, and revelatory – though revelatory only up to a point. For example, Macdonald knows, but does not identify, Laurier’s choice of successor when he was considering retirement in 1909.

In Graham’s admiring words, Macdonald was “a great Canadian who is a big man among big men.” Probably no federal Liberal politician from Atlantic Canada, excepting only Allan Joseph MacEachen*, the party’s legendary strategist for most of the later 20th century, has exerted the degree of influence that he did. Although alert to the interests of his region – he was, for instance, an inveterate champion of the Intercolonial Railway – he was not a “Little Maritimer” for whom the key to solving the problem of local economic disparity lay in the shibboleth of Maritime rights, but a Canadian nationalist who took the long view on any issue. By comparison with his Conservative contemporaries and opponents, and perhaps even some Liberal colleagues, he was a giant – one of the few Liberal statesmen ever to emerge from Atlantic Canada.

Despite his uncertain health Macdonald continued to be politically active until his death, holding court at his home in Pictou, receiving the great and the good, and making and unmaking local Liberal candidates. Small wonder he was nicknamed “the Boss.” His Pictou constituency returned to the Liberal fold in 1935 and stayed there for the next 22 years. He lived to see the King government re-elected with a majority in March 1940, and the Liberals take ten of Nova Scotia’s twelve seats. Both of Macdonald’s sons became lawyers. The younger, Edward Mortimer Jr, practised in Montreal before returning to Nova Scotia in the 1930s; the elder, John Welsford, served briefly as an mla and became judge of the county court for the district of Pictou and Cumberland the year before his father’s death – a gift to Macdonald from his old colleague Lapointe, minister of justice.

Macdonald’s apotheosis came on 13 April 1938, when Premier Angus L. Macdonald invited him to attend the House of Assembly as a guest of the legislature and the house briefly recessed to hear him speak – an honour unique in Nova Scotia’s history. Members of all stripes recognized that the likes of Ned Macdonald would not be seen again. For him politics was a vocation and learned profession no less than the law or any other, and he believed that it required both training and experience. “I am amazed at the assurance some people display after being in the House but a short time,” he had observed in 1926. “The theory that a man can blow into Parliament, and particularly the Cabinet, without careful preparation for his duties, is thoroughly unsound.”

Barry Cahill

Edward Mortimer Macdonald is the author of Recollections: political and personal (Toronto, [1938]). This work reproduces in extenso many important letters, including several from Laurier not then published. Macdonald’s few known papers, mostly comprising letters from political figures, are privately held; a microfilm copy is available at NSA (Hon. E. M. Macdonald political corr., no.10619). Records of the minister’s office when Macdonald was minister of national defence either do not exist or are buried in central registry files at LAC.

LAC, R112-0-2; R4692-0-3; R6113-0-X; R10383-0-6; R10811-0-X. NSA, MG 1, vols.1406–9 (W. S. Fielding fonds); MG 2, vols.1–62A (E. H. Armstrong fonds); vols.63–223 (F. W. Borden fonds); vols.423, 425–84, 488, 493–502, 504–41, 784–90 (W. S. Fielding fonds); vols.1297, 1478–1537 (Angus L. Macdonald fonds); MG 3, vols.350–51 (E. H. Armstrong fonds). Pictou County Court of Probate (Pictou, N.S.), Estate papers, no.7576. Colonial Standard (Pictou). Eastern Chronicle (New Glasgow, N.S.). Enterprise (New Glasgow). Evening News (New Glasgow). Pictou Advocate. Pictou News. J. M. Beck, Politics of Nova Scotia (2v., Tantallon, N.S., 1985–88), 2. L.‑R. Betcherman, Ernest Lapointe: Mackenzie King’s great Quebec lieutenant (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 2002). J. M. Cameron, Political Pictonians: the men of the Legislative Council, Senate, House of Commons, House of Assembly, 1767–1967 (Ottawa, [1967]). Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1904–17, 1921–26; Journals, 1904–17, 1921–26; Special committee on representation in the House of Commons, Minutes of proceedings and evidence [of the] special committee to whom was referred bill no.2, an Act to Readjust the Representation in the House of Commons (Ottawa, 1924); Parl., Sessional papers, 1905–17, 1921–25. Canadian annual rev., 1904–26. E. R. Forbes, The Maritime rights movement, 1919–1927: a study in Canadian regionalism (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1979). T. S. Henderson, Angus L. Macdonald: a provincial Liberal (Toronto and Buffalo, 2007). J. H. Tuck, “Nova Scotia and the conscription election of 1917” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1968). Richard Veatch, Canada and the League of Nations (Toronto and Buffalo, 1975).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barry Cahill, “MACDONALD, EDWARD MORTIMER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_edward_mortimer_16E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_edward_mortimer_16E.html
Author of Article:   Barry Cahill
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2018
Year of revision:   2018
Access Date:   June 17, 2024