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A kind of chaos that is always with us

A new book shows Sir John A. Macdonald's politics were much like ours

A kind of chaos that is always with us

National Archives of Canada/CP

History never feels like history while it’s happening. It usually feels like chaos. Like this:

“Throughout the greater part of May 1870, the Ottawa Times kept a six-column obituary of Macdonald set in type so it could be used at any time,” Richard Gwyn writes in Nation Maker, the thumping second volume of his biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. In May 1870, the new Confederation was not yet three years old. Sir John had passed a gallstone of epic proportions and he was drinking too much anyway, and the combination of the two nearly took him to his maker.

In the end he had another 21 years in him, but even if the gallstone had finished him on the spot he’d still be remembered as a veteran of countless glorious battles. Building this new country in the middle of nowhere was never an easy task. The ship of state started springing leaks almost as soon as it was launched.

Dominion Day, as you know, was July 1. By autumn, opponents of Confederation had won every federal seat in Nova Scotia except one. Macdonald responded in a way every later generation would recognize: with bribery and cajoling. He fiddled with import tariffs to Nova Scotia’s advantage. Ottawa assumed the province’s debt and set up a system of annual transfer payments. Fifteen months after he went to Ottawa to take his province out of Confederation, Joseph Howe had joined Macdonald’s cabinet.

Edward Blake, the brilliant, doomed leader of the Liberal opposition, immediately understood the consequences of Macdonald’s taxpayer-funded salvage operation in Nova Scotia. Soon every province would have a hand out. “When will the floodgates now opened be closed again?” He made fair-share arguments Dalton McGuinty would easily have recognized a century and a half later. Each Ontarian was paying 27 cents to Ottawa for six cents of public services, whereas Nova Scotians were getting 18 cents’ worth for 5½ cents paid in.

In a country born with such regional jealousy, Macdonald was at pains to strike regional, religious and ethnic balances. Columnists today worry that the notion of a federal cabinet as a regional spoils system is some kind of recent innovation. Hardly. Gwyn points out that Macdonald had seats reserved in his cabinet for every founding province, for an Irish Catholic, for an Orange Lodge Protestant, and for each new province.

The point of the whole enterprise, of course, was to build a country that could resist the continentalist affections of the rich and populous United States. Sir John A. needed new provinces; he set out to win them. He needed to demonstrate effective control over the sparsely populated West; he built the Northwest Mounted Police to do the job. He needed a railroad to bind the whole thing together; he got it, and with it the scandal that nearly ended his career, but eventually the scandal blew over and the rails remained.

All along he dealt with U.S. presidents who would have been happy to swallow Canada whole and British prime ministers who would not have mourned the loss of it. He governed a profoundly prosaic populace—Gwyn points out that in 1867, Canada had only two public libraries—and often made crucial choices with almost no data. When the mystic Louis Riel launched an uprising on the Red River, Macdonald was keenly aware he knew almost nothing about the distant territory. His orders to unreliable envoys landed weeks too late. Riel had Thomas Scott executed and Macdonald found himself facing the very real threat of civil war. It was March 1870.

The hits just kept on coming. In 1871, a conference brought together Americans and Brits in Washington to settle outstanding debts from the Civil War (England had none-too-subtly supported the South). Macdonald astonished his hosts by putting domestic Canadian concerns on the table. He knew, as each of his successors would learn in turn, that Canada will be ignored at the big table unless Canadians force their issues to the top of the agenda.

There’s more to Gwyn’s book, a worthy successor to the classic life of Macdonald, Donald Creighton’s 1955 The Old Chieftain. Gwyn’s account of Macdonald’s last election, in 1891, is stirring. Like other recent biographers—John English on Pierre Trudeau, Allan Levine on Mackenzie King—Gwyn gives us more of Macdonald’s personal life, mixed in with the high business of state, than we’re used to seeing. There is more social history here than in Creighton’s book. Gwyn knows most readers need to be reminded what the early Canada and its people were like.

But I especially like the breakneck tempo of the book’s early chapters. In this vast and endangered land whose reason for existing was not fully understood by the neighbours or by the Empire an ocean away, Macdonald needed all the wit and guile at his disposal. The tools at hand—flattery, threats, payoffs, hidden agendas—weren’t lovely. But they were the tools available to every prime minister after him. Gwyn, like his subject, is the furthest thing from a fool. He will be well aware that in telling the story of Confederation’s first steps, he has penned an excellent textbook in 21st-century Canadian politics.