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q & a

Sir John A. Macdonald features prominent in a detail from the painting "The Fathers of Confederation," which is on display in the Railway Committee Room on Parliament Hill.Dave Chan

Without Sir John A. Macdonald, there would be no Canada.

The idea is central to Richard Gwyn's second installment of a biography about Canada's first prime minister. While most people have learned Macdonald was a corrupt politician, which Mr. Gwyn agrees with, he says many Canadians don't know anything beyond that cliché. "There's something more to this guy than we've been told," the political columnist for the Toronto Star told The Globe.

Mr. Gwyn's book, Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times; Volume Two: 1867-1891, is one of five finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Mr. Gwyn's first installment, John A: The Man Who Made Us, was a finalist for the prize in 2007.

The $25,000 award for non-fiction is administered by the Writers' Trust of Canada and named after Ms. Cohen, a late outspoken Liberal MP from Windsor, Ont. The prize will be handed out on Wednesday evening at Politics and the Pen, an annual gala popular among Ottawa's politicians and journalists.

Ahead of the prize, The Globe asked Mr. Gwyn about Canada's first prime minister.

What's the most surprising thing about Sir John A.?

The most surprising thing that Canadians don't know is because they haven't been told and it's astonishing. He was the first prime minister in the world, not in Canada or North America, in the world to try to extend the vote to women. He did that in 1885, brought in legislation to the House of Commons, and he got nowhere. What's fascinating about what he said in the house, he talked about women's equality that went far beyond the vote. The vote then was very symbolically important.

What was a defining moment of his career?

There are two. The defining issue to him was quite clear and he never deviated from it, he was bound and determined that Canada would not become American, that Canada would not join the United States. He was convinced that the Canadian way was the British way then and was superior to the American way. His last election was a fight to make sure that Canada didn't enter into a free trade agreement with the United States. The defining moment, of course, he was defeated over the Pacific Scandal. To everyone's amazement he comes back again and wins an election, wins back power with a bigger majority than when he was thrown out.

What makes a great prime minister and has it changed since Macdonald's days?

I don't think the essential characteristics for a Canadian prime minister have changed at all since John A.'s day. It was an art he possessed in the ultimate form: He understood how to herd cats. If you're going to run Canada, which is a very decentralized, diversified country with immense distances and hard weather, all those kind of blockages to communications and an enormity of different interest groups, you have to know how to herd cats. You've got to be able to convince people to go along with what you want, what you think is right for the country as a whole, and that takes a lot of skill, a lot of art, a lot of deviousness, and resilience.

What would he say about politics today?

He would be delighted and very happy that Canadians are no longer scared of Americans. The big fear that either the Americans would come here, or we would go there and sell out, has gone and he would be so pleased about that. He would be amused at the endless fights between the provinces and the federal government, which started in his day and will go on for the next 10,000 years. However, he'd find politics a bit of a puzzle. He'd be struck by how unimportant Parliament and the vote is. It was the centre of the nation and its debates were so important even though people knew politics was corrupt. Obviously all the iPads and iPhones would baffle him, he hated technology. Only right near the end did he allow his secretary to use a typewriter. He hated the phone as well, as far as I know he never used the phone.

This interview has been edited and condensed