One Canadian's Reflection On Sir John A. Macdonald's Legacy

Posted on Monday, January 19 at 15:16 by JaredMilne

January 11, 2015 marked the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald's birthday. Given that we haven't really commemorated it yet on this forum, I thought that this would be a worthwhile occasion to reflect on Macdonald's legacy, the good and the bad, and how it has impacted us all as Canadians. As historian Will Ferguson has pointed out, without Macdonald there would be no Canada to begin with at all. His influence on Canada, for both the good and the bad, cannot be understated-Richard Gwyn aptly describes him as "the man that made us".

Macdonald's influence can most readily be seen in Confederation itself and the British North America Act, and how well it fits into the pattern of Canadian compromise and accommodation that marks our best tendencies in history. Trying to solve the political gridlock that had paralyzed the United Province of Canada was one of the main reasons for Confederation, and Macdonald's political enemy George Brown was a major advocate of "representation by population" to resolve it. Macdonald and Brown despised one another, and their political feud was one of the main reasons for the United Province's gridlock, but Macdonald agreed to call a truce with Brown while they worked on a new constitutional arrangement, putting aside their feuds for the greater overall good of the country.

The political gridlock wasn't the only area in which Macdonald was willing to compromise, though. He, Brown and many other Anglophones wanted the new constitution to be a plain union of all the British North American colonies, erasing all their borders and treating everyone the same. But Macdonald knew that George-Etienne Cartier and the rest of the Francophones who lived in Lower Canada, as well as quite a few of the Maritime Fathers of Confederation, insisted that any new Canadian union had to be a federal one. Macdonald agreed to this because in working with Cartier he had gotten to know the Franco-Quebecois perspective quite well, and correctly observed that if you treat them as a nation, they will respond generously. If you call them a faction however, they will become factious. This led early Quebec nationalist Henri Bourassa to praise Macdonald as being the man who best understood the spirit of Confederation. Confederation contained many subtle but clear references to the distinct and unique place Quebec occupies in Canada, as noted by political scientists like Peter Russell and Samuel LaSelva.

Macdonald played an important role in bridging the gap between what reformers like Brown wanted and what Francophones like Cartier wanted, skilfully integrating all of their concerns into what would become the final Confederation settlement. Historian Peter B. Waite remarks on how the Confederation debates were marked far less with concerns about ideological or theoretical purity than they were about pragmatically balancing the different goals and ideas of the population, adapting federalism and its principles to fit Canada, rather than trying to force the country to rigidly adhere to a particular ideology or dogma.

That compromise, balance and pragmatism is an important part of Macdonald's legacy. But he demonstrated other essential Canadian traits, such as his marshalling of government power to complement the efforts of the private sector and individual effort. It was the government that built the Canadian Pacific Railway that truly linked Western and Eastern Canada together, and enabled mass settlement to begin. The settlers had to rely on their own gumption and effort to survive, but it was the railway that enabled them to actually get there in the first place. He also established the Northwest Mounted Police as a means of keeping a lid on any lawlessness and violence that might spring up, in the hopes of avoiding much of the chaos from the "Wild West" happening south of the border.

Macdonald's use of government power and his pragmatism come together neatly with his "National Policy" of tariffs to shield Canadian industry from foreign competition. While he initially supported free trade, he switched to protectionism when he decided that this was what was necessary at the time, rather than continuing to slavishly follow any particular ideology or set of plans when it was clear they weren't working. Some politicians today do this not because they want to, but because they have to, but if anything Macdonald demonstrated himself to be less dogmatically bound than some of his successors have shown themselves to be, not to mention setting the pattern in the first place.

In some respects, he was also remarkably ahead of his time. In one of his last major acts before his death in office, he legalized the formation of trade unions, and also argued that it was inevitable that women would one day be allowed to vote and that the rights of Francophones should be respected outside Quebec. Remarkably, he also supported giving Aboriginal people who had been assimilated receive the federal right to vote, showing that his views towards Aboriginal peoples, for all its warts, is more complicated than most people give him credit for.

Unfortunately, while he was ahead of his time in some ways, he was also still of his time in others. He viewed the Aboriginal peoples as inferior savages who needed to be properly "civilized" and taught the "correct" way to live, which in turn led to the ghastly legacy of the residential schools, which directly led to many of the social problems Aboriginal peoples have today...and also showed how Canadian racism could often be more subtle than its American counterpart. He also imposed the appalling "head tax" on Chinese immigrants, and didn't care at all for their welfare in building the CPR-I remember one Heritage Minute citing the story that one Chinese man died for every mile of track building the CPR. All that can be said in Macdonald's defence is that such bigotry was the standard of the day...and it should be noted that many citizens were far worse than he personally was, whether the virulent reactions against the Chinese in B.C. or the hysterics of some radical Orange Protestants in Ontario in calling for Louis Riel to be hanged after the Riel Resistance.

Nor was he always sensitive to the regional needs of different parts of the country, given the difficulties that the National Policy caused for residents of the Prairies and led to what political scientist Donald Smiley said was Western Canada becoming almost an "economic colony" of the central provinces, or the fights he continually picked with provincial premiers like Oliver Mowat, using federal power to disallow provincial legislation, which often caused needless frustration and grief for different provinces and regions.

Some might call Macdonald a wealthy bourgeois with no real problems in his life...but if you look at his family troubles, you'll see what a load of bunk such claims are. His daughter suffered from hydrocephaly, his first son died at birth, and his first wife Isabella died a slow, painful death, problems which were the cause of Macdonald's heavy drinking in the first place. Historian Donald Creighton also notes how Macdonald often dangerously overworked himself, which meant that both his personal and professional lives could be grueling and painful. If anything, Macdonald is an example of how tragedy and misfortune can strike anyone of any social class...and how it can eventually be overcome, as later in his life Macdonald managed to beat the bottle and proved his remarkable inner strength.

So it is that for better and for worse, Sir John A. Macdonald either built upon or established so many of the tendencies and characteristics that have defined Canada. His successes reflect many of our successes, and his flaws reflect many of our flaws. Much like his country, he was a complex, multifaceted man whose impact is often overlooked in favour of more outgoing individuals like Abraham Lincoln or Otto Von Bismarck and the countries they led.

And yet, just as Canada's contributions to the world are often overlooked, so too are Macdonald's contributions to Canada...and the world by extension.

Vive le Canada uni!

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