In 1891, on this day in Kingston, Ontario seventy-six year old Prime Minister John A. MacDonald caught a fatal chill addressing a crowd in bitterly cold weather. His subsequent death days later deprived the ruling Conservative Party of decisive leadership four weeks before the most significant election in Canadian history.
Conservative Party loses the "Loyalty Election" of 1891The economy was mired in a dreadful recession a dozen years after the National Policy had put high tarriffs against British and American imports into effect. Canadians had begin to seriously question the wisdom of fighting a never-ending, losing trade war.
Seeking a sixth term as Prime Minister, MacDonald was faced by an opposition with absolutely nothing to lose. Throwing caution to the wind, the Leader of the Liberty Party Wilfred Laurier decided to run his campaign on a platform of absolute free trade with the United States.
The electorate was presented with the starkest of choices and this chasm only widened when MacDonald wrapped himself in the flag (pictured) and declared the Liberals to be a bunch of Yankee-loving annexationists. The problem was that he was already in failing health, and his non-stop campaigning of the "great issue" brought about his demise. His successors were unable to fill the gap, instead they fell into cheap bipartisanship, presenting Laurier as a champion of the French Language and the Catholic Faith. When the votes were counted on the 5th March, Canada faced a deeply uncertain future. A Liberal Government was formed, pledged to a trade policy that they had never expected to implement, nor had the Unites States even agreed to in principle. And the Anglo-French racial division issues that had remained off boundaries whilst MacDonald were alive were threatening to destroy the Confederation. In this climate, Laurier made the historic decision; he would, after all, seek political union with Canada's southern neighbour.