“His loss overwhelms us. For my part, I say, with all truth, his loss overwhelms me, and that it also overwhelms this Parliament, as if indeed one of the institutions of the land had given way. Sir John A. Macdonald now belongs to the ages, and it can be said with certainty that the career which has just been closed is one of the most remarkable careers of this century.” – Hon. Wilfrid Laurier, tribute to Sir John A. Macdonald in the House of Commons, 1891
Over the decades, Canadians have gathered on Jan. 11 at the foot of Sir John A. Macdonald’s commanding statue in Kingston to commemorate our first prime minister.
Visiting there in 1941, Arthur Meighen summed up why Canadians honour Macdonald as we do.
“We turn aside for a mere moment,” he said, “to pay tribute where tribute is due and to gain inspiration if we can, courage if we can, wisdom if we can, at the fountain of history.”
We still find all of these in the study of Macdonald’s life and legacy.
The 200th anniversary of our first prime minister’s birth is now only a year away. This special celebration is led by the non-profit, non-partisan Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission, which we serve jointly as honorary commissioners. It provides all Canadians – particularly young people – with an important opportunity to share Canada’s national story with each other.
And what an inspirational story it is.
It tells of a man who arrived on our shores as an immigrant boy with his family, just as so many thousands do today, who went on to found a transcontinental nation. With the able assistance of partners such as George Brown, George-Étienne Cartier, D’Arcy McGee and others, Macdonald overcame so many imported differences and so much geography to bind us as one.
Not a person of great eloquence like his worthy opponent Wilfrid Laurier, Macdonald chose blunt words instead when presenting his challenge to the citizens of his day.
“If we do not take advantage of the time, if we should ourselves be unequal to the occasion, it may never return,” he said. “And we shall hereafter bitterly and unavailingly regret having failed to embrace the happy opportunity now offered of founding a great nation.”
Canadians answered the call, and the nation the Father of Confederation envisioned is now nearing the dawn of its 150th year.
But the task of renewing and building Canada, as Macdonald’s life of public service demonstrates, is never complete. Nation-building in this new century will require new leaders, new visions of Canada and new participants in the democratic process he bequeathed us.
This is why we encourage students and teachers from coast to coast to coast to get involved in the Macdonald bicentennial. By learning more about what first united Canadians in 1867, we can continue to strengthen those ties as Canada moves forward.
In the Confederation debates are found the compromises, partnerships and historical realities that have continued to shape and refine Canada.
There are also great omissions to be studied. Aboriginal peoples were, in effect, left out. Understanding such mistakes will help lead us to the reconciliation and healing so urgently required.
Tomorrow’s leaders are now hard at work in classrooms across the land. As they prepare to assume the mantle of leadership, we are confident that studying Canada’s history will provide a steady guide in Macdonald’s story.
“We are a great country, and shall become one of the greatest in the universe if we preserve it,” he said. “We shall sink into insignificance and adversity if we suffer it to be broken.”
Just as Macdonald was in his time, Canada’s youth are up to the task ahead.