A toast to Sir John A., Canada’s controversial nation builder

An hourlong discussion of the legacy of John A. Macdonald, whose 200th birthday falls on Jan. 11



To mark Jan. 11, 2015—the 200th anniversary of the birth of John A. Macdonald, our first and perhaps greatest prime minister—Maclean’s convened a gathering of three John A. aficionados: Richard Gwyn, the journalist and author who wrote The Man Who Made Us and Nation Maker, a two-volume biography of Macdonald; Patrice Dutil, a professor at Ryerson University and co-editor of Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies, a collection of essays on Macdonald’s influence; and Jane Hilderman, research manager and acting director at Samara, an advocacy group dedicated to improving citizen engagement and public life, and a member of Toronto’s Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald organization.

Watch their full, hour-long chat below.

Wherry. So we’re here in Sir John’s public house, in Kingston, a little bit ahead of Sir John’s 200th birthday.  Or what would have been his 200th birthday. Obviously this is a big moment for looking back on the significance of the man, what he meant, what should we be celebrating, I guess, we’ll start there. What should we be celebrating this January when we talk about Sir John A.?

Gwyn. I think you could compress it into a sentence: No Macdonald and none of us would be Canadians. There would be no Canada. All common sense at the time and the comments of people from outside Canada who knew something about Canada but—and they all are either British or American—all took it for granted that Canada wouldn’t last. It made no sense as a nation. We were divided between English and French, between Catholic and Protestant, between Aboriginal and European, etc. And Macdonald got us through that period, when we were very, very vulnerable and could have just been lost like that. And that’s a big debt.

Dutil. The thing that strikes me most about Macdonald is his optimism. He had a sense of Canada, he had a sense that something could take shape north of the United States, this behemoth that was being created in the mid-19th century, and he had this idea that something good, something different, could happen here. Yes, an idea of Canada but through the highs and the lows, there’s this optimism to the man that I find continuously attractive. Whether it’s his personal life, whether it’s his public life, he’s always optimistic. He’s the guy who’s always asking “why not?” Why not? And for me, as I look at Canadian history, there have only been a few people who have led our public life, whether they’re elected or not, who’ve dared to say, “why not?” And I think that, on his 200th birthday, that spirit needs to be celebrated.


Hilderman. It’s hard to go after these two guys that know so much about him, but I think as a young person in Canada, looking at our nation where we are now, it feels like we have a lot of big challenges ahead of us in terms of managing an aging population, having a generation like mine that feels very squeezed in terms of student debt, housing, and also thinking about future generations, the environment and the like. So it feels like we’re facing a major challenge and as Patrice was saying, Macdonald approached those problems without intimidation and asked for a big vision for Canada and I think that’s really important to remember. Sometimes you can bring a big idea, and with a lot of great, hard work, you can build something and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.

Wherry. When we talk about him being the first Prime Minister, and the effort and his achievement in holding everything together, how much of that, of what we have now, the country that we are now, is reflected back in what he did and what he was aiming for?

Gwyn. I think quite a lot of it is here still. He created the first distinctive Canadian thing. Before that, until he did this, basically we were guys who lived in North America and didn’t want to be American. That’s pretty weak grain to build anything on. Macdonald in the West sent out a force that he created out of nothing called the Northwest Mounted Police. His original version that he wanted was going to be a mix of whites, English, whites, French, Metis and Native people, we call them Aboriginal—then of course the word was Indian. He couldn’t do that once the Riel affair had happened, but he sent out this force and gave them two instructions: one was no liquor is to come from America up to Canada, and of course liquor’s effect on Native people was appalling, because they’d never experienced it. The second was the rule of law. That would be the law in Canada. And because of him, the West in Canada was distinctive from the West in the United States, although topographically of course they were absolutely identical. And the same kind of people—newcomers, settlers and all that. He created the start of a distinctive way of being North American, and that’s a huge contribution, and we’ve been building on that in different ways ever since then.

Wherry. Do you still see that, when you look at the country, do you still see John A?

Dutil. Oh, very much. Everything from the strong power we have given our prime ministers, this is something that was not in the books. John A. Macdonald grabbed power in 67, was given power in 67, and turned the prime ministership in this country into a very strong centralizing force. I thought you were going to talk about the impact of liquor on John A. Macdonald, but I’m glad we haven’t gone there! I hope we don’t get there. But I would say, in line with what Richard was saying, there’s something else that Macdonald gave us and that was a national park. Banff, 1886, 1887, twenty years before the Americans, John A. says, there’s a place there, it’s not perfect, we can make it better, but there’s a place there that needs to be preserved. Again, he’s thinking ahead, he’s thinking generations ahead, and he says, using the rule of law, as you say, we’re going to set markers and we’re going to place this piece of God’s land away from anything that man can do or waste. It’s the rule of law, it’s the role of the state, and it’s with us today. It could have been different, and John A. did it. Again, showing once again how progressive this man can be.

Wherry. When you think about especially younger voters and younger generations, beyond the fact that he was the first, is there something there for people to look and go “well that’s because of John A”?

Hilderman. That’s a great point and I think for many young people, we don’t have yet a great understanding of our own history, particularly of that 1860s and the formation. It wasn’t until I read Richard’s books that I really got a sense of how uncertain Canada’s existence was going to be. But of course I think the railway immediately comes to mind and we’re still talking about the role of the railway, whether it’s to move resources from one end of the country to the other or when we took the train here today.  You know, there’s a sort of symbol in how we bridge this huge vast geography and we still echo back to that as a symbol of what is the railway of the future? Maybe it’s broadband Internet or whatever, but how do we connect our country and John A. was thinking about that 200 years ago.

Wherry. Because the drinking came up, let’s deal with it. Whenever a historical figure comes up, people question certain things about them. With John A., if people know anything about him, it’s the fact that he enjoyed alcohol, to a certain degree.

Gwyn. A considerable degree.

Wherry. Other concerns get raised about him: Scandal, his attitude towards certain races, various issues get brought up. How should we deal with those things? Should we just understand them in the context of the time? Should they be a major part of the discussion about who he was?

Gwyn. Well it’s part of him that he did drink more than he should have and that’s a fact of life. By the way, Ulysses S. Grant was a complete drunk but it’s not something that the Americans go on and on about. We do about Macdonald. I don’t know whether we’re more puritanical or if we think of ourselves as less puritanical than Americans, but at any rate. I do want to say a couple of things about his drinking: One, he quit, which is damn hard for anybody to do. Today you’ve got all kinds of expertise, but it’s still very hard to quit. The other thing was there was a very good reason for drinking liquor in 19th century Canada and that was that ordinary water was so appalling that if it merely gave you diarrhoea, you’ve done very well. That was a practical thing and a lot of Canadians got drunk out of their minds so they wouldn’t get a whole lot of diseases. I won’t go into detail, because it’ll shock your viewers and so on, but it was awful.

Dutil. But Richard, it’s important to remember that the drinking was so bad in John A.’s society that a whole temperance movement rose out of it. I mean, a social revolt against men drinking beyond what was reasonable. He’s very much a man of his time, and as Richard points out and I think it’s important that he overcame that vice and for me that’s one of the themes of John A. that I think is so attractive. Here’s this guy who’s born with a certain mindset in a privileged class, but what’s interesting about him is that his ideas evolve in his life. His ideas toward women evolve, his ideas towards Catholics evolve, his ideas toward Aboriginal Canadians evolve. There’s an evolution to this man, a march towards rethinking his own prejudice, that I think makes him a modern man and a man worth emulating. He was not without fault, we’re all agreed on that, he’s a human being but he made the effort to sit back and say, am I really thinking the right thing here? Should we be thinking something different? For me, I think he’s an exemplar of that.

Wherry. Because we do… if you talk about John A., the first that most people understand about him is that he liked drinking? 

Dutil. It’s a terrible thing, a terrible cartoon of the man.

Gwyn. Why do we do that?

Hilderman. I think because you keep telling stories.

Gwyn. I must tell you this anecdote. He could rise above anything. There was a rally in Southern Ontario in the open air. His opponent is speaking, Macdonald is seated at the back of the stage and he’s been drinking. He gets to his feet, and I hate to say this, but he vomits, he barfs. That is the worst thing a politician can do, that’s the end of his career. You have insulted your audience unspeakably. Macdonald is now dead, politically. What does he do? He says to the audience, “I’m terribly sorry, I don’t know why it is, but whenever my opponent speaks, I lose my stomach.” He had the whole audience out of his hand. I’m not sure what that proves but it’s a good story.

Wherry. But when you think about John A., do you worry about the warts and all the problems and the questions that can be asked about him, or do you sort of quickly move past that?

Hilderman. I think Sir John A. has other warts that are probably worth more consideration than his drinking. But history is complicated and it’s good not to brush over those facts. And I think we often do an injustice by trying to sweep things under the rug and assume that celebration means that someone is perfect. Seldom is the case. Framing what was a personal struggle for him, what we would call an addiction now, is a reminder of what a challenging role he had and the odds he overcame to be as productive as he was.

Wherry. When you talk about him centralizing the power of the Prime Minister’s office, are there many precedents that he set that have basically followed through with every Prime Minister we’ve had since? In terms of governance, in terms of how we look at Prime Ministers?

Dutil. There’s lots. To give you a practical governance example and maybe a little cultural one, one of the first things John A. did was create Treasury Board. He borrowed that from the British practice who had neglected the Treasury Board for two generations. John A. brings back Treasury Board—he’s an avid student of history and that’s very important to understanding him—and he structures cabinet around that. For him, treasury is vital and we’ve kept that tradition. On the cultural side, it is John A. Macdonald through an order in council in the late 1880s who insists that the English language in the government of Canada—and it was only the English language in the government of Canada at that point—will be spelled out in the manner of the queen. Not in the American manner. That is something that, to this day, you Anglophones must use. The rest of us follow along. But we will spell favour with an o-u-r and this is something that was a decision made, an order in council—it wasn’t debated in Parliament. Why is it that we spell the English language that way? It was John A. If you look at correspondence before that, it was American. It’s striking how American English-Canada had already become. The grip was there and obviously John A. was keenly sensitive to it.

Wherry. Do you see the traces of John A., not even in just the first few prime ministers that followed him, but in the last say, five?

Gwyn. I find myself a little bit amused when people blast away Stephen Harper as a kind of dictator and so on–which he may or may not be, that’s not what I’m arguing, but John A. was just as much and so was Pierre Trudeau. Those were the two before Harper who set that pattern and it’s not unique to Harper. The idea of a very powerful prime minister occurred to us from the beginning. Then we had Alexander MacKenzie, the Liberal, and he, poor man, was heaved out after one term because he wasn’t dominant enough and them Laurier did the same thing as Macdonald, but in a more clever, subtle way. Laurier had wonderful charm. Being Prime Minister is a powerful position and if you’ve got something to do, you do it. You get away with it, but you learn how to pretend you’re not doing it. [laughs]

Wherry. You talked about his vision. Is that something that we don’t have enough of at this point? I guess when you’re starting a country, it’s maybe easier to have a bigger vision, but has the vision thing dissipated over time, I guess?

Hilderman. Sir John A., as much as he was a centralist and a power grab, I think he understood institutions really well and recognized the value in building them. The Northwest Mounted Police, federalism. There were only two federal states in 1867, Britain not being one of them, we were trying to build a new model. He recognized that he needed to ensure provinces has powers and otherwise it wasn’t going to work. So I think he had tremendous respect for some of that: how to build the structures and the rules and it’s hard to find that skill set, that vision, today in terms of how to start something and build it to last beyond you as well. That was certainly what we needed at that time, and maybe it’s in part, as you say, do we need that skill set again? Certainly I wonder about our institutions when so much of increasing focus on the work of what makes a prosperous society in the long term. I’m thinking of work by Daron Acemoglu and James Robertson recently on why nations fail and it comes down to institutions. And Sir John knew that, I think.

Wherry. Do you think there’s a need for that skill set? Let me put it this way: The skill set that he had, is that something that we haven’t replicated since? 

Dutil. In my opinion, we are in a historic moment where a lot of institutions are being torn down. Where the value of institutions has been diminished because they’re not seen as responsive to those wicked problems of modern day western society. Because we are all individually much more informed, we have a much greater sense of power individually and we’re all better connected, there is an onus on the government, on the state, to collaborate, to find ways of communicating with others. Working with the population. I think this is where governments are groping. The reality is they are trying to work with each other, federally, provincially, municipally, working with First Nations, but it’s hard. In terms of public policy today, that is the challenge. How can we get the state to insure that it remains permanent but responds to the needs of society in a way that will respect society? There’s certainly no way that the government of Canada can deal with First Nations the way John A. dealt with First Nations. That has changed completely. But there is still a national authority, and there has to be a way to move forward. So the spirit of John A. can still inspire in the sense that we want to build for the future, we want to build flexibility, we want to be responsive, but we have to go further than John A. did.

Gwyn. Can I just add something to what Pat has just said because I think it is important. In one way Macdonald was lucky: he was treated with a certain deference—prime minsters were, cabinet ministers were, all that kind of thing, which is largely gone but not vanished today. There was a willingness to believe they were doing their best, a willingness to give them space. Today there’s a tendency to say you screwed up and that’s the end of the discussion. I’m not trying to criticize, I’m just saying that was a benefit. The second one that was mentioned was that if you’re trying to build a nation out of a country that really isn’t a country, which is what the challenge was, the public knows what you’re trying to do instinctively and is with you. Today it is much harder to get that sense of vision, or direction, it is much harder. We should recognize that Macdonald was a bit lucky, so was Laurier, in the same way, because he also benefited from that sort of… Nation builders are always given the benefit of the doubt, up to a certain limit.

Wherry. Speaking of how things have changed politically, if you took Sir John A. and stuck him in a time travel machine and dropped him off tomorrow, we’d have to explain Twitter to him, but—

Dutil. He would get it!

Wherry. That’s maybe another discussion. But if he went to Ottawa, was sitting in the House of Commons, what would he think of the politics we have now?

Hilderman. I think he would recognize a great deal of it. The operations of the House hasn’t changed, the party structure is there. I would be curious to know, even from Richard and Patrice, how maybe the caucus really worked for him. I know he had to talk about chasing down his loose fish, in terms of wrangling MPs who were not on board necessarily with his views. I don’t know if we see loose fish so much today but I think he would certainly be able to operate in the environment we have.

Gwyn. I think Jane’s absolutely right: he would understand how parliament works. There’s a few changes, obviously there’s bilingualism etc etc, but these are things you can accommodate. He would have been completely at home in Ottawa and he was very, very smart politically, he really was. We were extraordinarily lucky. We were a runty, backward provincial colony, that’s all we were in 1867. We got a leader who I believe is of the calibre of Lincoln and Disraeli in sheer political skill. He took part in a conference in Washington between the world’s superpower, Britain, and the world’s coming superpower, the United States, to discuss solving all the problems between them that had come up during the civil war. Britain was on the South side, though it didn’t say so officially. His voice, and he wasn’t even supposed to be talking about it, which was the Canadian fisheries—who gave a damn about the Canadian fisheries?—dominated more than 50 per cent of all the discussion between these two superpowers. Little old Canada, represented by Macdonald, it was an incredible performance. He was so good and we were so lucky. 

Dutil. He was a natural communicator, as Jane points out. He had to deal with his caucus, and you’ve got a coalition, Macdonald’s got this interesting coalition of conservatives—liberal conservatives, independent conservatives—and he worked them. He charms them. He spends his time with them. He’s a caucus man, you know the eye witnesses of the day talk about how he had a regular dinner for members of the House of Commons every week. Agnes Macdonald, his wife, was a natural hostess. He communicated with his caucus, he communicated with the public, he was a campaigner. He invented the summer picnic tour! That was a creation of John A. Well, I’ve got time off, it’s the summertime, let’s go out and meet the people. We’re talking about what political habits we still live with—that’s John A. And the Twitter thing? I mean this guy was the master of the quip. With that tool in his hands, he would devastate the rest of the Twitter feed. He’d be fantastic, I have no doubt about that. Plus he had this charm, everybody recognizes that’s an important thing. Especially today, when a lot of politicians feel as though they must repress their personality for fear that some aspect will me magnified on camera, on radio, and it will be distorted and misunderstood. John A. had this fantastic personality. He was a friendly man and a humorous man. He made people at ease and I think that was part of his magic. He was a charmer.

Wherry. What would you say is the most under-appreciated fact about John A. What stands out as the one thing we don’t talk about enough?

Dutil. For me, without a doubt, it’s that this man was a workaholic. What impresses me most about him is his dogged work ethic. I’ve studied him very closely and he worked night and day. Work at the desk, but communicating, talking to people. He was always working and I think that’s part of the story that’s been completely forgotten or been underemphasized. You look at the record, I’ve got a chapter on that in my book and I’m working on that some more, this guy worked everybody under the table. Never mind drinking under the table, he worked them under the table.

Wherry. Is there anything that sticks out to you, Jane?

Hilderman. One thing that I mention, and people are often surprised, is that he was an advocate for women’s right to vote. If he had his way, parliament ultimately defeated his proposal to give women the vote, but had that succeeded, we’d have been the first country in the world to do that. He certainly wasn’t afraid of the notion that woman had a right to have a voice, and should have their opinions heard. 

Gwyn. He was highly intelligent. We all think of Pierre Trudeau as the most intelligent prime minister. An expert would say Arthur Meighen. Trudeau kept on making sure that everyone knew he was the smartest man in the room. Macdonald never did that. And what Jane just said about him trying to get the vote for women, that was staggering. There was no Suffragette movement in Canada. There was none in Britain until 1885. The only place there was one was in the United States with a very charismatic women called Susan B. Anthony, but it was right on the margins of politics then. He not only said women should have the vote, but he said it was inevitable. The MPs must have been shocked out of their mind. He said it was inevitable that sooner or later women will take their positions as equals in society. The only person I know of in the world who thought that way at that time was John Stuart Mill, one of the finest minds in the world in the 19th century.

Dutil. Certainly the only head of state.

Gwyn. Nobody was remotely… because you’d lose all the votes! All the men would be appalled. Change is here! Seriously. That was highly intelligent—I could give you a string of other examples, but that’s the most dramatic. But he didn’t brag about it. He deliberately downplayed his intelligence to save contact with the ordinary person.

Wherry. How is it—you write about it in the Introduction to your first volume—this idea that Canadians don’t celebrate our history as much. Americans pump out volumes about their Presidents at a ridiculous pace. For as much as we celebrate John A, is he almost under-appreciated in certain ways?

Gwyn. In certain ways, yes. I mean, there are other factors, but the drinking thing turns people off, the thought of our Prime Minister being a drunk, well grow up, we all have weaknesses, a number of us have sniffed some, you know, Rob Ford. We aren’t used to that… because we suspect ourselves, I think, that we suspect the excellence amongst us. There’s a nervousness about excellence in this country and I would argue that one of Trudeau’s greatest gifts to us was not the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is magnificent, but that he taught us to dare to be excellent. You can really see a change in Canadian attitudes and speech, pre-Trudeau and post-Trudeau. Cause he was not scared of anything and he took risks and that’s not Canadian. Taking out insurance is.

Dutil. Very Macdonald in that respect. 

Wherry. What are the other reasons we don’t take it as seriously?

Gwyn. We don’t fully believe in our history, at least we all believe it’s boring. We use the word boring as a way not to read it.

Dutil. But we’re conditioned to that. The media, and I’ll be frank about this.

Wherry. Not Maclean’s

Dutil. Not Maclean’s. No the media in general. And I’ll preface this by saying how much publications like the Toronto Star have done a great deal over the last few years. I’ve been very impressed and I’ve told their editors how much more care they’re giving history. But this is new. Our media, especially television, not so much print but television has completely suppressed our history. If you don’t give a taste of history to people, then people will not ask for it in school. This has been a viscous cycle that we’ve come into. We don’t talk about Canadian history on television, and people say therefore it cannot be important. It’s not important because I never hear about it, and television is still the dominant media of our time. If I don’t see it, then I don’t need it, and why do we need to have history in class when there are so many other things we should be studying? Then because we don’t study it in class, there’s no demand for it on television. Look at what happens in the U.S., look at what happens on PBS, the way they cover the same history over and over again. The beautiful documentaries that come out of the BBC. I was in France this spring and there’s a constant stream of historical documentaries on all sorts of topics in France, brought to you by the public broadcaster. We don’t have that in this country. Our Canadian broadcasters and especially the Canadian public broadcaster has eliminated history from its menu. If we don’t know history, if we only have a cartoonish impression of our prime ministers it is because we don’t talk about it. That’s what made Richard’s book so important when it came out a few year ago: he brought back an element of history that had not been covered, with a few small exceptions in 60 years. The last big biography was by Donald Creighton in the 50s. We’ve had a few little things, Pierre Burton did fantastic work in the 1970s that brought back a little bit of Macdonald, and the CBC had an absolutely fantastic rating with that. We’ve had a few small books on Macdonald since then but we need to know a lot more. To answer your question, we’ve lost a sense of Canadian history. That a member of cabinet can say the Pont Champlain in Montreal should be renamed something completely different for me demonstrates to what degree we have fallen in terms of completely ignoring our history and simply not knowing our history.

Wherry. Do you remember when you first started looking into John A. and is there any way to compare your first understanding of the man with where you’re at now?

Hilderman. I’ll admit that I think I would fall into the stereotype about knowing two things: he was our first  prime minister and he had a drinking problem. I don’t think I appreciated his life, his full impact on Canadian public policy. Reading about the National Policy, especially the way Richard tells it, makes it extremely interesting, in terms of the politics of the time, there were two big competing visions for the country: protectionism versus closer economic ties with the U.S. and free trade. What was all at stake was enormous. And the fact that he had time to do so many other things—building a police force, campaigning, writing letters back to little girls who wrote to him, which is one of my favourite parts in your book as well. It just blew my mind away. This was a man I really felt I had not had the chance to know. I say I belong to the Heritage Minute generation, which is great, but they’re a minute.

Gwyn. It’s a great minute!

Dutil. And thank God for it, cause it made you (Richard) write a book.

Hilderman. There’s a very large gap between the minute and a book like this and how to bridge that is going to be a really interesting challenge. The good news is there’s more debate now around how we remember. The War of 1812 elicited a lot of comments about if this was something we should be celebrating. We were really British, we weren’t Canada yet, and having those debates are really important about how we remember rather than just merely forgetting.

Wherry. You mentioned Lincoln. There’s a man who the United States just unquestionably understand as a great man. We talk about deference and there’s something to be said about not being too differential to government. In addition to understanding Sir John A. as the first, do we have to understand him as a great man? Is he somebody we should look at the way the Americans look at Lincoln?

Dutil. I think so. Unquestionably, for Canada he is more than Lincoln, he’s Washington. His thinking, his vision, his restraint, his force, his bridge-building abilities, all those things that we recognize in Washington we should recognize in Macdonald. Not innocently in the sense of accepting this, but as a starting point in terms of a dialogue. We need to talk history; history is a dialogue. I certainly reject any idea that we understand history completely, far from it. It’s a dialogue, you tell me a story, I tell you a story and somewhere along the line we will develop a line of inquiry, a line of debate, and we will think about the past. How does the past shape what we are today? Cause it does, it does. I did a quick little study last year. You count the number of Washington streets and Lincoln streets and Jefferson streets in Canada, put them against the name Macdonald, and you’re going to see a lot more of those streets than Macdonald. Spelled properly, small D not a capital D. It says a lot about how we wilfully forget who we are and forget those people who shaped our society, for good or bad. And that’s really too bad. An anniversary like this, why celebrate a 200th birthday? It’s artificial, but it’s a point of remembrance. Round numbers are good. We’ll celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation and sit here and wonder, gosh, how did this happen? It’s a good talking point.

Gwyn. I would regretfully disagree with you. Macdonald was not great in the meaning of the word great. You need circumstances to be great, the best example is Winston Churchill. Had there been no Second World War, he’s have been a loser of a politician. He is instead the single most important person in the entire 20th century. Macdonald was really running a backward poor runty little colony, that’s all we were in 1867. What you are telling the story of, with Macdonald, is the Canadian version. We are not dramatic, we did not kill people. We have killed a pathetic number of people in our entire existence, probably the lowest. Maybe 100 people we killed. Well this doesn’t count … we’re not a great power in this sense. You need blood for it to be dramatic, but it is ours and it’s very interesting and lastly it has succeeded. We’re in very good shape, though there are serious problems. And the moment you relax you fall into trouble. But at the moment, our immigration program is easily the best in the world. When have we have done anything that the world would have to recognize as the best? But we’ve done it. In a very important field. But we are still nice little Canada up in the cold and all the rest of it.

Dutil. You mentioned immigration, but in fairness, in terms of Macdonald, it started badly. Macdonald imposed a head tax on Chinese. He had reasons to do it, but today is vilified for his gesture and today we have to recognize that. Canada imposed a limit on one racial group and not on others. We think of ourselves today as progressive, and we can mock and dismiss and be condescending to Macdonald for doing what he did in the 1880s, but are we really any better? In many ways, we have followed that path. We are still today establishing limits on how many people come to the country. They have to go through various hoops, there’s a point system, there’s all sorts of quota systems, we still choose the immigrants we want. It is a success, as Richard says, it’s also a legacy of the Macdonald era and an unsavoury one. But we have to address it, that’s part of the history.

Wherry. Speaking of things we have to address, what about John A. and the Aboriginal population? I think Richard wrote about it this week, it seems like sometimes we’re finally going to take seriously and deal with that issue. Maybe we are. But when we look at Macdonald, how do we fit him into that story?

Gwyn. The last three or four years, there has been a barrage at Macdonald, calling him a racist and sometimes implying he’s a genocidal racist. The second one is utterly insane. The idea that he wanted to wipe out an entire ethnic group or race or whatever is totally ridiculous and outrageous. But that he did things that today we’d call racism is perfectly correct. He did. But by the standards of the day, he was one of the most liberal-minded on Aboriginal issues in the country, at least in public affairs. He had a lot of friends among Aboriginals, both Indian and Metis, his understanding of them was uncanny. He came up with this beautiful point originating from a chief saying that whites, all of us around the table, are oxen. We go dutifully off to work at 9 o’clock and we come back at 5 o’clock and if a meeting’s held at such and such a time we’re all there. Indians were wild and free as the wind. How do you mix those two? It’s excruciatingly difficult. Macdonald understood and he forecast that it would take until his children’s children’s children before Native people would be accommodated in society. He’s just about right, that’s what’s happening now. We’re at last making a serious attempt to come to terms with the fact that there are all these Aboriginals who we have done wrong to and we have failed. We all know that.  But what’s happened, which is so self-defeating, is people who are genuinely infuriated say by the residential schools— absolutely right they are disgusting—are kind of unloading their anger and resentment and guilt onto a guy who was conveniently dead a long, long time ago. And trying to pretend that everything happened because of Macdonald, which is ridiculous. Every single Canadian, one way or another was involved with it, right up until today and some are still today.

Dutil. And to give justice to Macdonald, the residential schools idea was born out of his own personal experience. Donald Smith makes the point in my book, the Aboriginals that he knew were all eastern, they were educated and, let’s be blunt, they were also heavily assimilated. In his mind’s eye, he’s saying these guys and women are successful and I wish this for all First Nations. What’s interesting about Macdonald is there’s a massive amount of funding, people forget that. Look at the public accounts of the government of Canada, the amount of money that goes into Indian affairs between 1878 and the late 1880s skyrockets. Why? Residential schools. Programs to help western, the Crees, Plains Indians learn how to farm. Some people say that was a crazy idea and it probably was a crazy idea, but that was their idea. We want the Plains Indians and Crees to settle into their reserves, they need to learn how to farm, what can we do? Well let’s send them farmer instructors. Now it turns out the farmer instructors weren’t very good but at least they tried, they had a certain idea. He also insisted that children of both sexes go to school. Not just the boys, but both sexes, and I think that points to his progressivism and it points to his ambition. I still think he had the best of intentions. The government made horrible mistakes, the government hanged Indians in the west, probably far more than they should have as a result of the 1885 rebellions. There were terrible mistakes made. Macdonald bears responsibility for those mistakes but that does not erase his ambitions, his intentions and his strategies to help create a partnership. He is a hard politician, Macdonald was not a joke. He was running government and there will be no tolerance to the people who oppose the government of Canada. At the same time, his vision to modernize First Nations, to bring them up to the looming 20th century. We have to appreciate that. The dialogue has to be balanced. The 200th anniversary is an opportunity for that. Genocidal? As Richard says, it’s completely wrong. It is a falsehood, it is a disservice to history, and worse than that, it kills the dialogue on history. For that reason, I think it has to be completely cast aside. You know, the Irish have been dealing this. They were devastated in the 1840s and 50s and they come to the conclusion that this was not a genocide. People tried to make the argument that what happened was genocide, but it was not. Same thing in Canada. Terrible mistakes were made and we have to acknowledge that.

Wherry. The idea of John A. and greatness, is he great to you? Do you view him as an inspirational figure? 

Hilderman. Yes, I have a few though and I feel like if you’re not uncomfortable with something about your hero, then you probably don’t know them well enough. I think about the Famous 5, who I also hold in great esteem, and Emily Murphy was one of the leading advocates of eugenics in Canada at the time as well, in addition to advancing women’s rights. It’s complicated. This goes to recognizing the whole person and to hold up some view of perfection for leadership is probably misplaced. But yes, I look to Sir John A as Canadian—we use that term now to describe him, he would have called himself British, that was his expression of nationalism at the time—as a Canadian that is worth celebrating.

Wherry. Another divide is English-French. How does John A. fit into that story of Canada?

Gwyn. He made one of the most brilliant comments about the relationship between the English and the French when he wrote to a friend, talking about how English Canadians should deal with French Canadians. Obviously Macdonald had a certain view on French Canadians—that they were a pain in the ass, but they were our ass. He obviously understood that you had to come to terms with them, you had to treat them with respect, even if you wish they would all speak English and that would solve the problem, it wasn’t going to happen. And that’s when he made the beautiful phrase “treat them as a nation and they’ll respond as a free people usually do, generously. Treat them as a faction and they will become factious.” Nothing better has been said, that I know of, in terms of dealing with the fact that we were this curious country where there were two countries. But we have made it work. There was a bad time in 1995, you know, when we damn near blew the referendum, but that is a fact of life and we’ve seen it in England with Scotland. But we have actually worked on it. Macdonald and Cartier—Cartier was enormously important—fashioned out a working arrangement, where the federal government had certain powers and the province had certain powers and you kind of knew Quebec was a province like all the others except you knew it wasn’t. We learned to lie to accommodate, and we did pretty damn well.

Dutil. The reality is Macdonald is completely forgotten in Quebec. There’s a beautiful statue in Montreal—

Gwyn. So is Cartier, by the way.

Dutil. Absolutely. Cartier’s bicentennial was in September, and it was completely bypassed. Macdonald had a respect for French Canada and the reality is, if you look at electoral results, even in 1891 when young Wilfrid Laurier is running against him, he still beats him in Quebec. John A. will lose 2% of the vote, and that’s after hanging Louis Riel. John A. was respected in Quebec and I think he did it mostly in the first years of his mandate. The loss of Cartier to him was debilitating. As I look at his politics in Quebec, as the 1870s and 1880s go on, it loses his bite. He relied on Cartier for so much, on Cartier’s network, on Cartier’s thinking. Look at the 1867 election and you can make a fine argument that Quebec voted against Confederation. And somehow it stuck. For me, the best, most eloquent statement of Macdonald’s success on English-French relations is that Wilfrid Laurier, a francophone Catholic, will be elected in 1896. That the country is so solid after 30 years that people in Ontario will say, yeah, that French-Catholic might be worth a chance because we’re solid enough as a country to take it on. That’s not just John A., there’s a lot of things going on here and I’m not minimizing that. But there’s a spirit of generosity, an optimism, that if we set the structures right, men and women will make it work. And John A., that’s what impresses me the most. He thought deep in time. He had optimism. Set the structures right, we’ll borrow British institutions because they kind of work, solid, respectful, flexible, and if good people of good will work it, it will make a country, it will make something good.

Hilderman. At the eulogy that Laurier gave after Macdonald’s passing was some of the best words spoken in Parliament in terms of revealing how much Macdonald had influenced what leadership would mean in this country. It would mean French and English, Macdonald knew instinctively that you would have to build caucuses that represented Canada to lead the country. He set that model forward and we’ve lived with it since.

Wherry. When we celebrate his 200th birthday, is there a lesson that John A. teaches us or an ideal that we should have in mind? 

Dutil. For me, it’s think boldly. Take it on, take a big bite. Move forward. For me, it’s that optimism and the spirit of going further and asking why not? Why not do this? Why not try it? To me that’s the best legacy of Macdonald.

Hilderman. I think he ultimately brought a lot of, I know we’ve said reasons why he wasn’t the strongest maybe at inclusion, but I do think his spirit was there to invite people from all over to come to our shores. You (Richard) talk about him being very happy about the first Jewish immigrants arriving to Canada and that was unique in his period. He recognized that if you came to the shores and were going to be hardworking he’d have tremendous respect for you. He wanted to build a nation that included people like that.

Gwyn. He did. America of course set the pattern of mass immigration and we should always accept that and reflect that as a great achievement by the United States. But we have come to match that, we actually have for a number of years brought in far more proportional to our population, and our diversity is incredible. In a way, that immigration and multiculturalism is Canada’s tribute to Macdonald. He was a man of real ambition, he had a feeling that there was a validity to Canada which legitimately someone could else say there’s no validity in Canada. Why don’t you join the United States? You’ll all have bigger salaries and so on. He understood that there was something about Canada that was distinctive and it was expressed much earlier in the Northwest Mounted Police. The Klondike story is staggering; you’ve got a tiny handful of policemen and the thousands of people looking for gold, and when you’re looking for gold, nothing will stand in your way, and they obeyed. So the respect for the law in Canada is very, very strong. All his generation had enormous respect for the rule of law. In the end, the rule of law was more important than whether it was right or wrong—I mean it’s much better to be right than wrong, obviously, but you respect the rule of law. This is part of our nature. We are different from the Americans and we are different in a way that these days seems to be working better.

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A toast to Sir John A., Canada’s controversial nation builder

  1. I understand that Sir John had deep personal trajedies in his life. In your conversation this is not touched upon, and yet would that not affect a person and contribute to his thought process in areas on governance?

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