National Post (Latest Edition)
The end of heroes
Sir John A. Mac donald and the fat e of his succ ess ors
Sir John A. Macdonald played a critically important role in founding Canada and in leading it as prime minister for almost 20 years. Over the past few years, however, he has fallen out of fashion. His legacy has come under sudden and severe revisionism as new interpretations of his role have emerged, and monuments in his honour have been defaced across the country. Has the new wave gone too far? In recognition of his 206th birthday on Jan. 11, the National Post is revisiting the Macdonald record with pieces by notable Canadian thinkers, in a series curated by author/ academic Patrice Dutil, who has written extensively on Macdonald.
He haunts us still. Pierre Elliott Trudeau is reputed to have once said that, if he could be conservative at all, it would be in the manner of Sir John A. Macdonald. Both men certainly shared similar styles: personally commanding, innovative in policy and, above all, inclined to try to centralize power ( both had mixed records). They both also saw the West as perplexing and both had a love/hate relationship with Quebec.
As monuments to Sir John A. Macdonald have been defaced across Canada in 2020, one has to wonder if the man who succeeded him as prime minister 101 years later will soon meet the same reputational fate.
Canadians are right to ask: Who was John Alexander Macdonald and what place should he occupy in Canadian history? For me, it is not an easy question to answer. Macdonald’s career
evolved in a social and cultural environment that is radically different from the one that we now live in and comparisons are extremely difficult. When Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister in 1867 telephones had not been invented and the public use of electricity was still years away. Communications were slow and news from abroad sometimes took months to reach Ottawa. More importantly, only a few men could vote in 1867; universal suffrage was a far-away dream.
Without a doubt, he was politically potent. He was personally elected seven times to the House of Commons. In 1878, he even ran in three ridings simultaneously and won two in the West, but lost in his hometown of
Kingston! He would also win six federal general elections as the head of the Conservative Party (which was known as the Liberal- Conservative Party in the early days of Confederation, so Trudeau had reason to point to Macdonald as an ideological father).
Macdonald is to this day the second- longest serving prime minister in the history of Canada, with almost 20 years in office. He also won seven consecutive elections between 1844 and 1867 in the Province of Canada. By any measure, the man certainly earned — and kept — the trust of his fellow citizens over long periods of time.
Undeniably, Macdonald was a key historical figure of nineteenth century Canada.
He put in place measures and political notions that are still with us today and that define our Canadian identity; the most important of which is the imprint he left on the signing of Confederation in 1867 and the expansion to the West. Much of the balance of power between the central government and the provinces was defined by Macdonald. He felt it should be centralized in Ottawa, but at the same time had to comply with the strong challenges coming from Ontario and Quebec.
Macdonald’s accomplishments included a long- lasting co- operation between Francophones and Anglophones in the governance of the country. He was, and remains, a very Canadian hero. Macdonald was no fire
brand, revolutionary or fiery nationalist. He was not an inspiring military commander, a liberator of his people or a great crusading leader. In fact, as a politician, Macdonald rarely left the confines of his social class, his profession and his electorate.
By the same token, he cannot be described as a dictator, a tyrant or a brutal autocrat. Although some of his decisions had tragic consequences for First Nations, Métis people and immigrant labourers. For many Francophones who scarcely know him, the man appears bland in retrospect, without unique and distinctive features.
For me, Macdonald was not a heroic figure or even a man of a particularly brilliant intellect, but rather a type of individual whose qualities were tailor- made for success in colonial government. He undeniably rose head and shoulders over the very ordinary class of provincial leaders in his day.
Macdonald was, first and foremost, a highly pragmatic and conservative politician who prevented the rise of a more liberal and reformist political culture that might have produced, in certain situations, more fruitful negotiations and better long- term relations with minority communities across the country. There is no doubt that Macdonald wished for more immigration to Canada and was generally welcoming of most peoples and cultures. He courted Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia — mostly on the promise that they could develop agriculture in the West. His views on Chinese immigration, however, ran in the opposite direction.
As a historian, I think Canadians should welcome the debate on Macdonald as a figure of Canadian history. Every generation feels, and rightly so, that it must re- examine the historical record from its own point of reference.
Today Macdonald is perceived by some to have been an obstacle to 21st- century ideals of liberalism, true justice and pluralism, rather than an inspiring political leader, but there is a grave danger in measuring his record against today’s standards. If that practice continues, the fate of his statues in 2020 will be visited upon all his successors, including his one- time admirer Pierre Elliott Trudeau.