Peter MacKay is former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and a former federal cabinet minister. He is the author of the foreword to John A. Macdonald: The Indispensable Politician by Alastair Gillespie, the latest entry of MLI's Confederation series.
In Kingston, where he lies at rest, there is no elaborate memorial – none is needed, for all of Canada is his monument. As long as there is a Canada, Canadians will remember Sir John A. Macdonald. As we mark an important national anniversary, it is fitting to pay tribute not just to his central role in Confederation, but also to his lasting imprint on Canada's national character.
A hero not just to Conservatives but to many Canadians of all political stripes, Macdonald has always been understood as one of the chief architects of Confederation. He was a statesman and his own first minister of justice, described by one participant at the final negotiations in London as a "sharp fox ... the man of the conference."
Beyond the undeniable achievement of Confederation, Canada's first prime minister left an indelible mark on Canadian culture – setting in motion a government and a way of life that is not a copy of other countries, but has become an example to other nations.
Canada's success has always depended on generations of Canadians adopting Macdonald's viewpoint – reaching past trivial old-world differences to become citizens of a common country. In the debate on Canadian values, Macdonald had the first and last word. "I never asked the question, and never will ask, what a man's religion, race or ancestry may be," Macdonald said. "If he is a capable man, the 'right man for the right place,' that is all I ever enquire into."
Lest anyone state otherwise, Macdonald was a man ahead of his time on subjects of diversity, equality and justice. Allied with George-Étienne Cartier, he resisted complaints about "French domination," calling for French-Canadians to be treated as a nation. Later in life, he tried to extend the vote to widowed women.
Macdonald's instinct for unity – his unionism – was the core of his contribution to Confederation. With the character of our federation still open, he was emphatic that Canadians must be one united people, summing up his approach to politics as a "Government holding an even balance between all parties, and all sections of the Province."
Macdonald's unique political strategy for Confederation should be remembered. Long resisting George Brown's calls for constitutional change, Macdonald insisted that the constitution was not a party question – likening it to the abolition of the slave trade as an issue that went beyond partisan lines. Indeed, one of his greatest acts was to take his greatest rival – Brown – into the coalition government of 1864.
Rightly called the "indispensable politician," Macdonald alone formed an effective political alliance to deliver a new constitution – bringing together Brown and Cartier, rival leaders of Upper and Lower Canada, along with idealists like Thomas D'Arcy McGee and the federalist Alexander Galt. With Charles Tupper and Samuel Leonard Tilley as allies in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – they delivered Confederation together.
By instinct a coalition-builder, Macdonald's success was no accident. A descendant of Highland Scots of humble beginnings, he pursued Canada's greatness with a determination that not only defined him, but also the nation he founded with others. In a country of diverse peoples and vast geographies, coalition-building was not only a political imperative, but a moral choice that continues to shape who we are.
It was in this spirit, my friend and colleague, former prime minister Stephen Harper and I, sought to build the modern Conservative Party, delivering for Canadians the second longest Tory administration since Macdonald's. At its core was the same successful approach of building bridges, physical and metaphorical, with citizens of all walks of life, in an inclusive, pragmatic, pan-Canadian political movement.
And just as Sir John A. pursued a band of steel called the Canadian Pacific Railway to solidify the nation, today's leaders must pursue modern infrastructure such as high-speed rail and pipelines to propel us into the next century.
Canadians have become a people united by free institutions and shared values, chief among these is that a Canadian's national origin shouldn't matter. Not all at once, and with mistakes along the way. But Macdonald's vision and farsightedness set us on the path to greatness – and for that he certainly deserves the thanks and remembrance of a grateful country.