Sir John. A. Macdonald is well known to Canadians as our first Prime Minister, but did you know he was also the first president of the Manufacturers Life Insurance Company (Manulife)?

Macdonald was born in Scotland and moved to Kingston, Upper Canada during his childhood. He studied law in Toronto, and after passing his bar exams he pursued a legal career for several years.

In 1843 Macdonald decided to get into politics, and ran for the post of alderman in Kingston’s Fourth Ward. He quickly rose to political prominence, and eventually in 1867 he was elected as the first official Prime Minister of Canada.

Just some of John A Macdonald’s accomplishments were:

  • Playing an integral part of Confederation (resulted in the Dominion of Canada).
  • Pushing forward his vision of a united Canada, that ultimately led to the construction of the trans-continental railway linking eastern and western Canada.
  • The creation of the Northwest Mounted Police.
  • Instituting a “National Policy” that: established a manufacturing base; incorporated tariffs to protect fledgling Canadian industries; reduced the national reliance on agriculture.

It  may be that his most famous moments was a speech he gave pushing for the birth of confederation, purportedly while being somewhat inebriated (some have speculated that the water he was drinking was not water, instead being vodka. This has never been confirmed, however.)

What few people know is that on July 13, 1887, Sir John A. Macdonald was elected as president of “the Manufacturers Life Insurance Company”, also known as Manulife. He held this position until he died.

His role at Manulife was primarily that of a noted, well known figurehead, similar to today’s Chairman of the Board. Lending his name to this new insurance company helped establish Manulife’s credibility, which is important for a new business just getting started.

In fact the “Manufacturers” part of Manulife’s name stems from Macdonald’s “National Policy” whereby he expanded Canada’s manufacturing base, shifting it away from a completely agrarian economy (i.e. a farming economy). Back in Sir John A Macdonald’s time, the term “manufacturers” referred to “progress”.

By the time that Sir John A. Macdonald passed away in 1891, Manulife had seen tremendous growth with Macdonald on board.


It can be argued that Sir John A Macdonald was not only Canada’s first prime minister but also one of the greatest. His accomplishments are numerous, especially when compared to current political leaders. To find out that he was served as Manulife’s president is on one hand surprising, while on the other hand, it isn’t. What else did John A do that I don’t know about?!

If in fact he wasn’t feeling “much pain” during some of his speeches, so be it. Macdonald once replied to a heckler in the audience “Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.”!

Here is to hoping we see some new political leaders that have just a part of Sir John A Macdonald’s vision, wisdom and drive!

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