Last month, Canadians observed the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John Alexander Macdonald, our first prime minister. I did three things the weekend of that anniversary to mark the occasion.
First, in Kingston, I had the pleasure of moderating a debate between former Ontario Premier Bob Rae and the current Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander. The question: was Macdonald the greatest Canadian prime minister ever?
Second, I delighted in reading everything I could about Macdonald: new books, op-ed pieces in the newspapers, and magazine articles. I just wanted to immerse myself in the history of his time.
And finally, as part of a group called the Toronto Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald, I had the honour of emceeing a 200th birthday bash at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. Four hundred Canadians, interested in engaging in their history, showed up for the event, including Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
What were we celebrating? Many things, of course. At one level, we wanted to pay our respects to, as his biographer Richard Gwyn calls him, “The Man Who Made Us.” Others wanted to celebrate the fact that Canada has become, through the efforts of people such as Macdonald, one of the most successful countries in the history of the world.
But I wonder whether others still wanted a chance to celebrate a kind of leadership that seems increasingly hard to find these days.
Imagine the stakes a century and a half ago. In the 1860s, the United States was engorged in an appalling civil war in which half a million of its citizens would be killed. The president himself was assassinated; in what looked like a coup d’etat that failed (the secretary of state and vice-president were also targeted for death the same night Abraham Lincoln was).
What was happening on the northern half of North America at the same time? A much smaller band of hardy souls was trying to retain its English and French character, in the face of constant threats from their southern neighbours, starting most significantly with the War of 1812, but continuing unabated for decades thereafter.
Fortunately for us, there was John A. Macdonald. He brought his unparalleled leadership skills to bear. He managed to bring the four independent provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia into a new Confederation that would have the effect of keeping those provinces either British, or French, but most assuredly, not American.
To be sure, Macdonald didn’t do it alone. He had his Quebec ally, George-Etienne Cartier, alongside helping him with this new enterprise. And he managed to convince his chief political foe, George Brown, to put aside their personal enmity for a time, and join this noble cause.
Imagine the leadership skills required to negotiate his way around the many competing and disparate interests. So many people opposed Confederation. America’s interests had to be watched. Queen Victoria’s and her government’s needed to be taken into account. Each of the future Canadian provinces had parochial interests that required massaging.
Fortunately for us, we had a genius in leadership abilities in the right place at the right time. After three years of tense negotiations which frequently looked as if they’d break down, Sir John got it done. He managed to wield his brilliant political and leadership skills into creating a new country. He was, as the title of Richard Gwyn’s second Macdonald book suggests, a “Nation Maker.”
Of course, Macdonald’s leadership instincts sometimes failed him. His inability to find a way to avoid hanging Louis Riel is a permanent stain on his record. The imposition of the “head tax” on Chinese immigrants needed to build the railway surely looks racist when seen through a 21st century lens (although the Liberal government which succeeded him raised the tax tenfold).
And new research suggests Macdonald may have tried to starve the Aboriginal-Canadians of the day off the plains, although some Macdonald historians vigorously dispute this. And let’s not forget residential schools, which started well before Macdonald’s time, but certainly continued through it. The impact of that misguided attempt to “educate the Indian out of the child” is still with us today.
No leader is perfect and Macdonald surely wasn’t. We haven’t even talked about his drinking yet. But he was the indispensable element in the creation of Canada. And for that, on his 200th birthday, we can give thanks.