“It may indeed happen, Sir, when the Canadian people see the ranks thus gradually reduced and thinned of those upon whom they have been in the habit of relying for guidance, that a feeling of apprehension will creep into the heart lest, perhaps, the institutions of Canada be imperilled. Before the grave of him, above all, was the Father of Confederation, let not grief be barren grief; but let grief be coupled with resolution, the determination, that the work in which Liberals and Conservatives, in which Brown and Macdonald united, shall not perish, but that though United Canada may be deprived of the services of her greatest men, still Canada shall and will live.”
Those words were spoken by Sir Wilfrid Laurier on June 8, 1891, in the House of Commons as a eulogy to Sir John A. Macdonald who had passed away two days earlier. Although Laurier was a member of a different political party, the future prime minister praised the past prime minister, conferring upon Macdonald the respect that he well deserved for the numerous contributions he had made to the nation, the most significant being the union of four self-governing provinces into a new entity called Canada.
But while the Liberal Laurier freely recognized the contributions of the Conservative Macdonald, the passage of time has not been as kind to the memory of Canada’s first prime minister.
In the United States, a man of Macdonald’s stature would be honoured in the same way as George Washington — with a celebration of his birthday as a national holiday. Presidents’ Day, honouring all past presidents of the U.S., is more commonly known to Americans as the birthday of Washington. The national holiday falls on the third Monday of February to coincide with Washington’s birthday of February 22.
And, while most Americans are well-versed about the life and accomplishments of their first president, the same cannot be said of Canadians and their first prime minister who was born on January 11, 1815. Survey after survey shows that a significant percentage of Canadians are unable to name Macdonald as their nation’s first prime minister. The debt we owe this man is thus rarely attributed, let alone acknowledged.
Yet, there are some — although not nearly enough — who do celebrate Macdonald’s birthday. The Manitoba Historical Society honours him through its annual Sir John A. Macdonald dinner to be held this year on January 14 at 6 p.m. at the Hotel Fort Garry (tickets at $110 each — tax receipt for portion — are available by calling 947-0557, or e-mailing to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Macdonald arrived in Canada with his parents when he was five years old. A lawyer by profession, Macdonald is noted for his political prowess, forging the alliances that would unite a nation. To this end, he abandoned partisan politics and joined with his bitter rival George Brown, a Grit, to lay the groundwork for Confederation. Even with the fate of Canada in peril, it is difficult to imagine that Prime Minister Paul Martin and Opposition Leader Steven Harper would now show a similar inclination.
Once Confederation was attained, Macdonald then turned his attention to ensuring the future of the Dominion, which was under the threat of American annexation, by pressing ahead with a trans-continental railway. It was Macdonald’s perseverance in the face of adversity and scandal that ensured the Canadian Pacific Railway was built.
Under his term in office, Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island were added to Canada. He also negotiated the purchase of the vast holdings of the Hudson’s Bay Company, adding significantly to the Canadian landmass.
His aspirations of a nation occupying the entire northern portion of the continent didn’t always go smoothly. Manitobans should be familiar with his misstep of sending in surveyors before the agreement for the HBC land purchase was completed and thus antagonizing the Red River Settlers, especially the Metis. It was this mistake that led to the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70. His failure to learn from this mistake also led to the North-West Rebellion of 1885 and the subsequent execution of Manitoba-born Metis leader Louis Riel.
Macdonald had his personal demons and foibles — he was often laid up for days on end because of his drinking — but he also had an endearing personality that made jest of his enemies and his friends in a disarming way.
While in Washington, Macdonald engaged in a conversation with a Senator’s wife. She asked if he was from Canada, to which he replied in the affirmative, and then the conversation went as follows:
“You’ve got a very smart man over there, the Honorable John A. Macdonald.”
“Yes, ma’am, he is.”
“But they say he’s a regu’ar rascal.”
“Yes, ma’am, he is a perfect rascal.”
“But why do they keep such a man in power?”
“Well, you see, they cannot get along without him.”
“But how is that? They say he’s a real scalawag ....”
It was at this stage that her husband appeared and introduced her to the Honorable John A. Macdonald.
“Now don’t apologize,” Macdonald told the embarrassed woman. “All you’ve said is perfectly true, and it’s well known at home.”
A rascal, a scalawag, a drunk, Macdonald was all of those things, but he was also the most accomplished politician of his day and his enormous drive helped create a nation for which we all should be grateful.