Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Book Review: Nation Maker by Richard Gwyn

Full Title: Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald, His life, Our Times Volume II: 1867-1891 by Richard Gwyn

Reading about Sir John A. in 2015 seemed oddly fortuitous. The country is on the eve of its sesquicentennial and this election year may be hugely defining for the future of Canada. At such a time it is valuable to take a moment to reflect on how we came to get where we are and no prime minister has had a greater influence on this country's destiny than Macdonald.

Richard Gwyn presents a simple thesis, Canada was hardly inevitable and at a time of great fragility one of the ablest statesmen in the world laid a foundation for a nation-state. As a student of Canadian history I can say much of this is hardly a shocking premise, however, little scholarship has been dedicated to our first prime minister, which Gwyn seeks to correct. Certainly Macdonald wasn't alone in this mission, he was joined in the nation-building project by a cadre of incredibly able men, such as George-Etienne Cartier, Charles Tupper and Hector Louis Langevin. Gwyn does not deny the important role of Macdonald's cabinet and other politicians, instead he stipulates that Macdonald was possessed with the great skill to manage the diverse and fractured interests of the country and hold it together.

On a personal level Macdonald is a deeply sympathetic man. Reflecting on the entire character of the monograph I am reminded of the lovable rogue. Macdonald was hardly a perfect man, in fact he had deep character flaws and by any modern standard was corrupt, but he was charming, humourous and brilliant. I never previously delved into the personal life of Macdonald, but Gwyn presents a man who suffered many personal tragedies, but managed them with great dignity. The story opens with Macdonald remarrying; Agnes Bernard, many years his junior, would be by his side for much of his life and a doting and caring wife. Macdonald's son Hugh and he would have a tense relationship but found some resolution in his later years. Macdonald also had a daughter named Mary who sadly suffered from hydrocephalus, which is now easily remedied, but left her physically and mentally impaired her whole life. Mary's life in the final chapters and epilogue were particularly touching.

It might sound strange but Macdonald comes across as a man ahead of his time. He oversaw governments of men of different faiths and ethnicities, he spoke in favour of women's suffrage and despite the record of his government he accepted the Canadian state's responsibility towards First Nations people and took steps to protect them from abuses from liquor traders. Gwyn goes so far to challenge the established depiction of Macdonald as a racist.

As much as this book is a biography of Sir John A. it is also a history of early Canada. The rich tapestry of characters and personalities are vividly laid out. The conflicts of Canada's early years are fleshed out by the real people who lived and fought in those times. The central conflict of early Canada, the struggle between Protestant English and French Catholic, is the constant thread as well as the central nation-building project, the national railway. Louis Riel plays a prominent role in the narrative. What's amazing is that so many things that held the country together, like the railway, were in no ways certain. Macdonald only got them done through tenacious insistence, or by hook and by crook.

There is no doubt that Richard Gwyn does an exceptional job in humanizing and bringing life to our first prime minister. He was flawed and struggled and set many precedents of future prime ministers, some of them bad. He was no stranger to trying to wait out a decision, duck controversies, playing both sides, and living in the mushy middle. But he was also a man of profound vision. A British country from sea to sea to sea. Macdonald saw Canada reach its current boundaries, he played imperial politics to his adopted homeland's advantage, he forged a ribbon of steel that held the country together and introduced protectionist policy that created an industrial heartland out of the hinterland. A strange thing happens when a leader is in place for as long as John Macdonald was, over 18 years. Institutions and the political culture become rooted in their nature. While each subsequent PM has made his and her mark on the institution it in many ways is as Sir John started it. Macdonald seems an oddly appropriate founding father for our country, flaws and all.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about Canada, interested in biographies or politics. I think the text is fairly accessible for most readers.

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