“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. Among the most significant was union of four self-governing provinces into a new entity called Canada, as well as the further unification embodied by providing the leadership to create the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway.
In every sense of the phrase, Macdonald was a “nation building,” as said by Richard Gwyn.
But while 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.
While the vast majority of Americans are well-versed about the life and accomplishments of their first president, the same cannot be said of Canadians. Survey after survey shows that a significant percentage of Canadians are unable to name Macdonald as their nation’s first prime minister. A 2009 Ipsos Reid survey commissioned by the Historica-Dominion Institution, a non-profit group that promotes Canada’s history, showed that only 41 per cent of Canadians could identify Macdonald by his photograph.
“If Sir John A. Macdonald had been some illustrious U.S. statesman, someone would be celebrating his day today (January 11) — the Americans, who know how to honour their country’s greats,” wrote Naomi Lakritz, a columnist for the Calgary Herald.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 10, 1815 (his birth was not registered until a day later, so his official birthday is January 11, and he marked his birthday on this day until his death) 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 today’s party leaders showing the same willingness to build a consensus.
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, scandal and a burgeoning caucus rebellion that ensured the Canadian Pacific Railway was built.
When the CPR faced bankruptcy in 1885, his caucus was content to allow the railway to go bust. Macdonald didn’t dismiss the dissenters in his party as would be the case today, but instead used his uncanny skills of persuasion to bring them back into the fold of the “National Dream.” Along the way, he was helped by the 1885 rebellion in the North-West. The still unfinished CPR was used to rush troops west. Macdonald’s faith in the worth of railway was confirmed and the money needed for its completion was gladly provided by a grateful parliament.
Macdonald built majorities by consensus rather than by punishing those who expressed contrary opinions. Now, a prime minster or party leader is more likely to prevent MPs from expressing any political opinion in public other than the party line.
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 Métis. It was this mistake that led to the Red River Resistance of 1869-70. His failure to learn from this mistake also led to the North-West Rebellion of 1885 and the subsequent execution of 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, and he replied in the affirmative. The conversation then continued: “You’ve got a very smart man over there, the Honourable 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 Honourable 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 unite a nation. Yet, the great debt Canadians owe this man was only marked by a few individuals and groups on January 11. The creation of an official Sir John A. Day should now be the goal of the majority.