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The Debate

On Sunday, Jan. 11, Canada will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald, its first prime minister and father of Confederation. And never before have Canadians been so divided over his legacy and merits. For many, he is a political visionary who turned the disparate colonies of Canada into a federal, centralized country and put it on the path to earning a degree of independence from Britain. For others, he is a zealous colonizer who trampled the interests of indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities and dissidents, often with deadly effects. Here, we have brought together four disparate perspectives on the first prime minister, by a range of Canadians with expertise in this complex man.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Hayden KingDirector for the Centre of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Sir John A. celebration should provoke a new look at Canada
Debate contributor
John BoykoWriter of five books, including 'How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation.' - View Bio
Seven ways to see Sir John A.
Debate contributor
Arthur MilnesPublic historian and political speechwriter and the City of Kingston’s Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Ambassador
Sir John A. set the mould for future prime ministers
Debate contributor
Roy MacSkimmingAuthor of the historical novels Macdonald and Laurier in Love, and the work-in-progress The Secret History of John A. - View Bio
Look at Sir John A. in the context of his time.

The Discussion

Debate contributor

John Boyko : January 11 is Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. There will be cakes, songs, and speeches. Some, however, will not celebrate but castigate. The conflicted commemoration of our first prime minister is as it should be, for there are at least seven ways to see Sir John.

Creator: In the 1860s, Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and threatening an invasion over their northern border. The bitty colonial Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them, needed to save themselves by creating themselves. Canada's birth had many midwives, but the conferences and debates that brought it into the world would have failed without Sir John's charm and political acumen. The Constitution creating the state to house the nation, and which is still fundamentally in force, was written largely in his hand.

Saviour: The United States demanded astronomical reparations from Britain for its role in prolonging the Civil War. The Americans offered to trade the cash for Canada. As part of the British delegation in Washington to negotiate what was called the Alabama claims, Macdonald deftly controlled the agenda. He refused to be bribed by the Brits or bullied by the Americans. He left with generous concessions and the swap swept from the table.

Visionary: Macdonald knew Canada must grow or be gone and the only way was west on rails. The idea was ludicrous. It would be the world's longest railway through the world's most inhospitable land. The rocks and impenetrable forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rockies would be impossible. Macdonald told British Columbians they'd have the steel line in 10 years and the money flowed and hammers rang. His will and conniving saw the impossible done and Canada linked from sea to sea.

Centralist: Macdonald put power in parliament. He saw the prime minister as the servant of the House and provinces like municipalities. Parliament could overturn provincial laws deemed to contradict the national interest and he disallowed many. He interpreted parliament's purchase of what is now most of the west as its ownership of the land and resources. When premiers met to complain, he refused to attend.

Charlatan: He was not above political chicanery to get or keep power. Globe editor and Reform Party leader George Brown learned the hard way when Macdonald tricked him into office and then two days later tricked him right back out again. He used patronage jobs to openly and unapologetically reward friends and punish enemies. He was once scandalized out of power when caught linking political donations to railway contracts.

Rogue: No one knew more stories and jokes than Sir John. No one remembered more names or slapped more backs. He never met a voter with whom he disagreed or an opponent he did not try to woo. He once entered his occupation in a hotel ledger as “cabinet maker”. A hard drinker, he once threw up during a campaign speech but then won the election. He told another audience that Canadians preferred him drunk to George Brown sober – he was right. He was a scoundrel but he was their scoundrel.

Racist: He imported Chinese workers for the worst and most dangerous railway construction jobs. With the task done, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. He did not want Canadians to become what he called a “mongrel race”. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by exploiting the death of the buffalo to empty bellies while filling residential schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide.

It is fitting and proper that we commemorate Sir John. Without him there would be no Canada. Perhaps we honour him best by acknowledging that he was as complex a man as the country he left in our care.

Debate contributor

Hayden King : Amid the current celebration and accompanying debate of John A. Macdonald's 200th birthday, a realization emerged about the very nature of Canada: this place doesn’t really exist. Certainly the idea of the country pervades the imaginations of millions of Canadians and there are internationally recognized borders, currency, and so on. But it is increasingly difficult to accept that Canada possesses a cohesive and honest narrative of itself. Can a nation persist in the present without a shared understanding of its past?

The debates about John A. Macdonald’s role in Canadian history are polarizing. The boosters proclaim the first Prime Minister as father of confederation, framer of Canada’s original constitution, founder of the RCMP, and visionary of a country from sea-to-sea. The detractors see him as a villain, starving Nêhiyawak and Dakota in order to take their land, hanging Louis Riel for asserting Métis Nationhood (charged under the British Treason Act), launching residential schools as the solution to the stubborn Indian Problem, promoting a mostly Whites-only Canada.

Yet even this so-called revisionist reading is rationalized. Macdonald was merely a “product of his time” they say. Alternatively the polite Canadian refrain “nobody is perfect” attempts to retrieve him, as if recognizing his faults somehow sanitizes the nationalist urge to toast a ridiculous, arbitrary birthday of a malevolent, racist thief. Strong language, I know. But in his desire to build Canada the man attempted to “clear the plains” (to use historian James Daschuk’s phrase). So what do you expect?

Still the debate goes on and Macdonald is ever the durable figure. I think part of the apparently necessary festivity pivots on the inseparable relationship between the representation of the first prime Minster and the narrative Canadians tell themselves about their origins generally. The accepted story begins with the ancient colonization of Canada, followed by some very bad things, disease and death, etc. But now we enjoy this beautiful, prosperous, and diverse nation, so it was all worth it.

Lumbee legal scholar Robert A. Williams might describe this as a “discourse of conquest” – a tale designed and promulgated to support the rightness of colonization and in the service of human progress. We see it applied to Christopher Columbus, French Jesuits and explorers, American pilgrims, even somewhat playfully with cowboys and Indians. Acutely we see it anew with Macdonald. Implicitly the discourse is about victory of the civilized over the savage and transplanting the legal norms and values of one society over others because it is simply natural.

All of this sanctions the preservation and celebration of the so-called Founding Father despite his horrific deeds. Genuinely questioning Macdonald’s actions might threaten other deeply committed to truths about Canada, like the nature of “discovery”, exploration, treaty-making, land tenure, multiculturalism and justice. Sincerely challenging Macdonald’s legacy might open the door to fundamentally re-examining any shared notion of Canadian progress, Canadian values, and Canadian institutions.

While many are unwilling to cross that uncomfortable threshold, Indigenous writers and activists are forcing the issue, defending their humanity and challenging Macdonald's. Indeed an irony in the resistance to this discourse of conquest is that some of the descendants of the very people the father of Confederation tried to starve out of the way are now unravelling foundational Canadian narratives, and with it, unravelling any collective sense of belonging.

Or more accurately, they are exposing the truth about Canada: it is a myth.

Debate contributor

Roy MacSkimming : It’s become intellectually fashionable to denounce Sir John A. Macdonald. This is a peculiarly Canadian irony: John A.’s rebranding in some quarters as racist and colonialist, not to mention alcoholic, coincides with the 200th anniversary of his birth on Jan. 11.

Any other nationality would be celebrating the bicentennial of its founding genius, whatever his personal or political flaws. When Abraham Lincoln turned 200 in 2009, the Americans built a spectacular Lincoln museum in his birthplace of Springfield, Ill., a virtual shrine complete with stations of the cross in the form of giant dioramas. Not so Canada. No great leaders for us, please.

True, Sir John’s drinking could be excessive. He admitted as much himself. But it interfered with the conduct of his duties only occasionally, and almost never during his later years. The fact that Macdonald died at 76, still in office after 19 robust years as prime minister, belies the notion that he was a chronic, broken-down drunk. The record reveals him as a binge drinker who largely cleaned up his act after marriage to his second wife, Agnes Bernard, in 1867.

It’s also true that Macdonald’s policy toward Aboriginal people on the prairies, documented by James Daschuk in his recent book Clearing the Plains, was callous and inhumane. Sadly, it reflected a general Canadian prejudice at the time, which failed to comprehend or respect Aboriginal societies and was indifferent to the point of cruelty.

Macdonald refused to pardon Louis Riel after a jury in Regina found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to hang. A recent article in Canada’s History magazine claims Macdonald's refusal “created national disunity” by defying opinion in French Canada. Yet Riel was already a cause of national disunity: English

Canadians considered him a traitor who had rebelled against the state with lethal force. If Macdonald had pardoned Riel, he would have alienated an even greater body of public opinion.

But before we dismiss Sir John A. as nothing but a racist (an article in the current Walrus absurdly links him to Nazism), we must set these issues within a political career lasting half a century. Macdonald staked that career on persuading the largest groups in 19th-century Canada – French and English, Catholic and Protestant – to accept each other and live together as equals within a single state. Given their bitter mutual antagonism, this required statesmanship of the highest order.

Macdonald’s Canada wasn’t culturally diverse in the sense we understand today. But in the context of his times, he was laying the foundations for a society based on tolerance.

The most ludicrous charge being levelled at Macdonald is that he was a colonialist: that instead of establishing Canada as an independent republic like the United States, he and the other Fathers of Confederation created a vassal state of Great Britain. This criticism entirely overlooks the reality that the great majority of Canadians, including George Étienne Cartier and his Quebec followers, wanted to keep the British connection. They knew that remaining within the

most powerful empire in the world was Canada’s strongest guarantee against absorption by an aggressively expansionist United States.

In these circumstances, Macdonald negotiated the maximum independence possible. It was a literally exceptional achievement, making Canada the world’s first exemplar of moving from colony to nation by non-violent, evolutionary means. It established Canada as a peace-loving constitutional democracy.

John Ralston Saul's writings have shown how Sir John A.’s predecessors, Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, pioneered this paradigm by negotiating democratic self-government without a fratricidal revolution. Macdonald’s vision of a self-governing country within the Empire was consistent with that paradigm and would eventually lead to full independence. Equally important, it was what Canadians wanted at the time.

Which brings us to the ultimate measure of Macdonald's greatness as a leader: with his exceptional gifts of communication and empathy for the people, he understood the Canadians of his day, and they understood him. This mutual appreciation explains why he and his governments were elected and re-elected time and again, a record that today's political leaders can only dream about.

Debate contributor

Arthur Milnes : In Sir John A. Macdonald Canadians were fortunate in our early days to have a leader of his skill and ability at the helm. His greatest opponent, Wilfrid Laurier, put it best.

The Liberal leader spoke to a hushed House of Commons in aftermath of Macdonald's death in June of 1891. “I think it can be asserted that for the supreme art of governing men, Sir John Macdonald was gifted as few men in any land or in any age were gifted: gifted with the most high of all qualities, qualities which would have made him famous wherever exercised and which would have shone all the more conspicuously the larger the theatre,” Laurier said. “The fact that he could congregate together elements the most heterogeneous and blend them into one compact party, and to the end of his life keep them steadily under his hand, is perhaps altogether unprecedented.”

Another contemporary of Macdonald's, Benjamin Disraeli of the United Kingdom, had this to say in a letter after dining privately with Macdonald in England in 1879."He is gentlemanlike, agreeable and very intelligent: a considerable man." But as we mark Macdonald's bicentennial it is also appropriate that we pause and also pay tribute to the other 21 prime ministers who have held Canada’s top job, as Sir John A. did. And in doing so Canadians will realize just how well served we have been.

Laurier is a case in point. Within five years of Macdonald's death Laurier, a proud French Canadian, was in office. He dazzled the world and was the toast of London and Paris when he attended Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. He ruled until 1911, cementing Macdonald’s vision – and expanding on it – of a distinct nation, separate from the United States, on the northern half of our continent.

Even when conscription and other issues related to the bloodbath that was the First World War tested Canadian unity, Laurier never lost faith in Canada. Near the end of his life he gave this advice to young Canadians. “I shall remind you that already many problems rise before you: Problems of race division, problems of creed differences, problems of economic conflict, problems of national duty and national aspiration,” Laurier said. “Let me tell you that for the solution of these problems you have a safe guide, an unfailing light if you remember that faith is better than doubt and love is better than hate. Let your aim and purpose, in good report or ill, in victory or defeat, be so to live, so to strive, so to serve as to do your part to raise even higher the standard of life and living.”

Though none of our prime ministers have been perfect, far from it in fact – and the seven living Canadians who have held the job would be the first to tell you that – so many of their stories are remarkable all the same.

The much maligned R. B. Bennett – who lacks even a Parliament Hill statue for reasons I have never been able to fathom – is a case in point. One of the most successful lawyers and businessman of his generation, he chose to serve in the hurly-burly world of politics instead. Rejected by Canadians in the 1935 election, he retired to Britain and continued to make great contributions to Canada and Commonwealth – contributions mostly ignored by his fellow Canadians then and now – from the House of Lords.

In our own lifetimes we have been fortunate that Canadians such as Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Joe Clark and Paul Martin were willing to give up their best earning years to public service. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they failed, but as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, they did so while daring greatly in the arena of politics and leadership.

Mr. Mulroney, for example, put it all on the line and gave us free trade with America. He defied the odds and wide swaths of public opinion and transformed our land. Even some of his harshest opponents from 1988 now say he was right to do so.

While Kim Campbell did not serve long as prime minister, she remains a living symbol to young women across our land that in Sir John A. Macdonald's Canada, anything is possible. And in political retirement she continues to proudly serve.

Jean Chretien; when Canada needed it most, he was there, speaking for our country in church basements across his native Quebec in 1980’s referendum and forever afterward. Macdonald's bicentennial weekend is no time for partisanship (full disclosure, I worked proudly as a speechwriter for Prime Minister Stephen Harper), but we should say this: In the Prime Minister and the opposition leaders that oppose him, we again have Canadians who have answered the call to public service.

Like Sir John A. Macdonald's legacy, that too is worth celebrating today.

We can all agree on that.