Look at Sir John A. in the context of his time
(Author: 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. (Source: Globe & Mail)