Presentation March 2014
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

Sir John A. MacDonald and the Manotick Connection  

Presenter: Alison Cheng

Article and Pictures by Lucy Martin

This was the second time a monthly RTHS meeting took place at Orchard View on the Rideau's spacious meeting rooms. The meeting was especially well-attended, with 47 members and guests, 9 of whom were Orchard View residents.

The speaker, Alison Cheng, is a 3rd year co-op student at the University of Ottawa. She is currently pursuing an honours bachelor of arts degree, majoring in history with a minor in social sciences of health. In the summer of 2014, Cheng spent a work term conducting research for RTHS's Dickinson House committee. The purpose was to examine connections (real or presumed) between Sir John A. Macdonald, Manotick and the family of Moss Kent Dickinson.

Alison Cheng presenting

Alison Cheng presenting  

Cheng scoured primary and secondary sources seeking evidence that bolstered or debunked an oft-repeated claim that Dickinson House had been an unofficial headquarters for Macdonald campaigns.

Cheng's conclusion? Very likely that was not the case.

But first, a little chronology. Conservative politician Sir John Alexander Macdonald (1815-1891) was Canada's first Prime Minister. He held that position twice, across different decades: 1867-73 and again from 1878 – 1891. (He died in office.)

Dickinson House was built in 1867 by Moss Kent Dickinson. He moved there as a widower with 5 children in 1870. Dickinson had been the mayor of Ottawa (1864-66) and was elected as a Conservative MP from Russell from 1882-87.

Cheng took us through the complexities of the separate elections for both men, including the personalities and politics of their opponents.

At that time it wasn't unusual to run for parliament from more than one riding in the same election – a detail many found surprising. Indeed, Macdonald ran in both Lennox (Kingston region) and Carleton in 1872. Cheng indicated Lennox was considered a Liberal riding, but that Macdonald had enough family history there to have a fighting chance. Also, Macdonald's main opponent, Lennox incumbent MP Richard Cartwright, had switched parties (from Conservative to Liberal). Cheng said Macdonald wanted to punish that betrayal by winning the riding back.

(Note: At the risk of making a mistaken assumption, I am lumping Lennox together with Kingston. The two areas are adjacent and electoral districts do change. I beg your indulgence for not untangling all that for this article. According to Wikipedia's list of Canadian Prime Ministers by constituency, Macdonald sat as the MP from Kingston for the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th terms of his 6 terms. He sat from Carleton for the 4th term. And for Victoria, BC for the 3rd term. Macdonald's term representing Victoria has been described as a “parachute” maneuver to win election anywhere he could, while in disgrace back east over the Pacific Scandal.)

By examining newspapers and other records Cheng sought to establish where Macdonald would have been over the course of the 1882 and 1887 campaign seasons. Taken as a whole, he virtually ignored our entire area in 1882, as confessed in this Macdonald quote from June of that year:  

“...I have visited most of the counties in Ontario except Carleton, and in not visiting Carleton, I paid you the greatest compliment, for I knew that you were faithful to the Conservative principles. I knew I was safe in Carleton, so I went into the enemy's country.”

Bear in mind that as a sitting prime minister, it would be normal and appropriate to campaign on a larger scale than one's home riding. Despite barely setting foot in Carleton, Macdonald won there and in Lennox (Kingston).

In the election of February 1887, Macdonald once again ran - and won - in two ridings, Kingston and Carleton. In that instance he chose to be the MP for Kingston.

But back to the specifics of Macdonald and Manotick. Cheng finds it most unlikely Dickinson House was any sort of Macdonald campaign headquarters. Macdonald was kept very busy. Although he traveled extensively, Macdonald can't be placed in Manotick with any frequency. Manotick was not easily reached in winter. While Macdonald had certainly known and worked with fellow conservative MP Moss Dickinson, Cheng didn't find indications the two were deeply connected by that period in their lives.  

Macdonald did give a well-received campaign speech in Manotick on Feb 10, 1887, in a large hall over a Dickinson lumber mill, after which he had dinner at Dickinson House before returning to Ottawa later that evening.  

Painting of mell area by Ed Anderson

The meeting was held in the lumber mill (red) across the river from the stone flour mill. (painting by Ed Anderson)

Based on Cheng's research - and the logical conclusions of what she found – she feels Dickinson House did not function as an unofficial Macdonald campaign headquarters. Dickinson House certainly could have served as a source of efforts to support Macdonald's candidacy, but the two are not the same thing.

The post-talk Q&A was varied. Cheng was asked for her sense of the man. Based on her research, Cheng felt Macdonald was clever and witty with a good grasp of human nature and people's need for praise. Another listener wondered how it was possible to stand for parliament in multiple ridings at once. Cheng said that sort of hedging one's bets was common for the period.

Asked what percentage of the eligible population turned out for those elections Cheng put the figure in the 60 percentile range. It was asked if Macdonald considered himself a “liberal conservative” was there an opposite type, the conservative liberal? (Cheng thought not.)  

A listener observed that, for many years, if an MP was named to serve as a cabinet minister that person would have to run again in a by-election. Was that the case in this period of time? Cheng said it was not.

Another listener wanted to know more about what happened to Earnscliffe (Macdonald's home at his death in 1891) but that subject was outside the scope of Cheng's research. According to this entry from Canada's Register of Historic Places: “Earnscliffe was subsequently occupied by a succession of private owners until it was acquired by the United Kingdom in 1930. Since that date, it has served as the residence of the High Commissioner in Canada.”  

Lastly, the mechanisms of traveling to and from Manotick for dinner on a winter's evening in February were imagined. Presumably that involved a train to Manotick Station followed by local pick ups (Carriage? Sleigh? Walking?)

Chatting with guests after the presentation, this correspondent had the pleasure of meeting Cheng's mother. Ivy Cheng is originally from Hong Kong and she first came to Canada as a student at the age of 18. Being an adult immigrant myself, we share the experience of watching our children grow up as Canadians, in the country established by leaders like Sir John A. Macdonald. While neither of us foresaw that outcome in our own youth, it's a development we observe now with pleasure and pride!  


Alison, in the course of her presentation, showed a cartoon in reference to the enormous decisions MacDonald had to face in his career;  in this case what to do about Louis Riel.