Although I never knew him, every day when I walk through the main hallway of Province House in Nova Scotia, I can greet my great-great-grandfather James McDonald. He served as the federal Minister of Justice and features prominently in a composite photograph commemorating the 1878 installation of the Marquis of Lome as Governor General of Canada. In another room, he's featured with another of my great-great-grandfathers, Samuel Leonard Shannon.
James McDonald was born in Bridgeville, Pictou County, Nova Scotia in 1828 to a poor Scottish farming family. In beginning his legal career, James articled under the very conservative Martin Isaac Wilkins. He must have held his mentor in high regard; not only did he change his political stripes, but he also married Wilkins' stepdaughter. Moreover, he disregarded highland Scot tradition and named his first-born son after his father-in-law instead of his father. James successfully stood for election in 1863 as a Liberal Conservative and was appointed the Railway Commissioner in Charles Tupper's government. James fought for the government to build a railway from Truro to Pictou; he did win that fight, but only after he became the financial secretary in 1864 and appropriated the necessary funds.
The relationship between James and his father-in-law likely strained over time due to political leanings. My great-grandfather was a confederate while Wilkins was a vehement anti-confederate. Imagine the conversations at family get togethers! James sought but lost the federal seat for Pictou in 1867. Following a brief return to provincial politics as the Liberal Conservative representative for Pictou in 1871, he resigned his seat to contest the 1872 federal election, which he won.
Now a prominent Halifax lawyer, John A. Macdonald asked him to defend the government in the...