Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sir John A. and Our Past

Sunday marked the two hundredth birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada and arguably the architect for the country as it came to be. Journalist and Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn calls Macdonald the indispensible man without whom the country would never exist. Reviewing Macdonald's legacy it is easy to imagine how that might be the case. The formation of a nation out of the disparate parts of British North America into a cohesive country was by no means inevitable.

Sadly we suffer for a bias towards the present and many, when examining history, tend to look for the straight lines that lead to the current point. The outcome was X so it was always going to be X and everything led to it. This was not the case when it came to Canada. The colonies in the northern half of this continent had no clear and common interest aside from being British territories.  

Sir John A. managed to form a coalition and through careful negotiation brought the colonies of British North America into agreement to form a common dominion. Uniting Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick was fairly impressive on its own, but Macdonald was a man of extraordinary vision. The purchase of Rupert's Land and construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was nation-building on a scale this country has not seen since.

Canadian history has moved strongly away from the "great man" model. While Americans revere their presidents we have made our leaders very human. Many know Sir John A. was a drunk, but few know of the personal tragedies he suffered. It is perhaps healthier that we look at Macdonald as a man and not a petty demigod, but perhaps we are a bit harsh. Sir Winston Churchill may have had a drinking problem and held views repugnant to our modern sensibilities but the man was incredibly important to the history of the world. We recognize that and his flaws.

Prime Minister from 1867-1873 and again from 1878-1891 was essential in developing the key elements of early Canada. So many of our national institutions stem from that time, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national policy, the railway, and development of manufacturing in central Canada.

For modern-day Canadians Macdonald's most troubling legacy might be his stance on issues of race. Canada's long and troubled relationship with First Nations and Metis peoples definitely predate 1867, but certainly developments in Canada's West were tantamount to genocide. Interestingly Patrice Dutil offers some defence of Macdonald, stating that the crisis unfolding in the West was beyond his control and he attempted to intervene to alleviate suffering. While Macdonald restricted the vote of Chinese men he saw no reason to restrict black voters, and even advocated for a time to enfranchise single women. In short, it is difficult to cast our first prime minister in black and white tones.

Macdonald represented a form of "Canadianism" that is unfamiliar. Canada existed to be a British vanguard, a project of the Empire and not necessarily something with its own distinct identity. Perhaps this aspect of our legacy makes it all the more difficult to make sense of Macdonald; we are very different now from where we started. However, despite his flaws this country owes a tremendous debt to the man who helped it come to be. As wrong as we may judge his actions to be now there is no doubt he was a man of vision. We cannot disown him any more than we can disown our past for they are one in the same.

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