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When Canada achieved Confederation on July 1, 1867, almost all of the few outsiders who knew anything about the place judged that it was a non-event. As they saw it, the curious new entity would, and sooner rather than later, become fully independent from Britain and then join the far wealthier, and more advanced, United States.

The Times of London pronounced, "we look in vain for the vital organs, the circulation and the muscular force" needed to keep together so huge and so empty an expanse. The New York Tribune forecast that Canada "must" fail but its reward would be "peaceful absorption … in the great North American Republic." Leading contemporary American and British historians George Bancroft and Goldwin Smith assumed it inevitable that both nations would fulfill their joint Manifest Destiny.

Most Canadians did still want to be Canadian (or really to be British) or not become American. Yet, they were divided deeply between English, French and Aboriginal peoples, contradicting the very reason for creating a new nation. Equally strange, Canadians were huddled in a narrow line close to the same overshadowing country they were so anxious to keep away from.

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Cometh the right time, cometh the right person. He was John A. Macdonald, devious, astute, manipulative, resilient, clever, daring, able to win six of seven elections, but also ready to risk bankrupting the country he was trying to build by stitching it together with a transcontinental railway.

Macdonald wasn't alone. Three out-of-the-ordinary politicians came forward. There was also George Brown, the Liberal leader, a high-minded, outstanding businessman and founder of the country's best newspaper, The Globe. Brown brought Ontario to the table. However, his bigotry toward Catholics (his paper described the Pope as "The whore of Rome") pushed Québec away. And there was George-Étienne Cartier, strong and domineering, and so able to bring Québec back to the table. As a francophone, though, he could not be the founder of a predominantly anglophone country.

The difference between them was that Brown and Cartier were good, second-rank politicians, while Macdonald was first-rank: His skills and accomplishments, even if exercised on a far smaller and more threadbare stage, were comparable to those of the century's democratic greats, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Disraeli.

At the beginning of the Confederation project, Macdonald was skeptical. As soon as he joined the parade, he went to its front. To great surprise, the first Confederation conference, in Charlottetown in 1864, won the Maritimes' approval. A key reason was that Macdonald forged close alliances with the premiers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Immediately after Confederation, he had to deal with Nova Scotians' rejection of the pact they'd just signed by voting almost unanimously for anti-confederates as their federal and provincial representatives. With charm and cash, Macdonald got anti-confederate leader Joseph Howe into his cabinet.

Three years later, Macdonald took part in the historic Washington conference where Britain and the United States settled their U.S. Civil War grievances. He was brought along in case Britain needed to gift Canada to the United States to get a deal. Instead, Macdonald ensured that Canadian affairs took up half the negotiations. He then won the right, unprecedented for a mere colony, for Canada's Parliament to grant or withhold approval of the British-U.S. pact. As well, he extracted from London the pledge of a large loan for his railway.

That railway is Macdonald's greatest achievement. Also considerable was his creation of the North-West Mounted Police that made the Canadian West decisively different, if only for a time, from the geographically and demographically identical area below the border. Here, the law ruled; there, the gun decided everything.

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Such imagination confirms that there was a good deal more of a statesman to Macdonald's makeup than is generally recognized. He was the first democratic leader in the world to argue publicly for the women's vote. His decision to allow the execution of Louis Riel has radically diminished his reputation, yet his understanding of aboriginal peoples was, at the time, remarkably advanced. He described aboriginal peoples as "the original owners of the land … [and] the great sufferers by the discovery of America." Finding their true place – in contemporary parlance, of integration rather than of either separation or assimilation – had to be "a slow process," one that would not happen until his own "great-grandchildren" at last understood what needed to be done.

Macdonald wasn't just the founder of a nation that otherwise, almost certainly, would not have survived. He shaped a nation that has thrived to a degree matched by few on this planet. If Macdonald were told this today, his likeliest response would be to shrug and then go back to planning his next election campaign.

Richard J. Gwyn is the author of an award-winning, two-volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald and a consultant on a new Historica Canada Heritage Minute about Sir John A., which launches Jan. 11. A longer version of this essay is available at www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca.

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