By Arthur Milnes
For better or for worse, Canadians have traditionally not done a very good job in honouring our heroes, particularly past political leaders. Unlike our American and British cousins, and peoples in many other nations, we have been collectively hesitant to do so.
Until now that is.
With the bicentennial of the birth of Canada’s Father of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald, being marked across Canada and in his home Canadian community of Kingston this month, the tide is turning. From Prime Minister Stephen Harper on through historians, playwrights, historical societies, students and so many others, Canadian are, uncharacteristically, pausing to consider the life and legacy of an immigrant to our shores who went on to found and then transform a great nation.
And that is good thing. Because in considering the story of Sir John A. Macdonald Canadians are realizing that in our first prime minister we were very fortunate to have such a skilled man on the scene when our young nation needed leadership most. And in Sir John A. Macdonald we had a leader who would have ranked as front bench material anywhere in the world.
Before Macdonald, joined by Cartier, Brown, McGee and select others, got to work, what was to become Canada, to use a modern phrase, was a failed state. So rife with division we were that we could not even pick a capital city. Divided by race, religion, geography and so much more, no betting person back then would have laid down serious money and backed our future.
But Macdonald of Kingston did.
“We are a great country, and shall become one of the greatest in the universe if we preserve it,” he said. “We shall sink into insignificance and adversity if we suffer it to be broken.”
This wily politician, a man who reeked of humanity and all her juices, played the key role in bringing the Fathers of Confederation to the table. Once he had them in his pocket, he went on to extend his vision for Canada all the way to the Pacific coast.
By the time he died in 1891, in office still as prime minister after 19 years, Canada was a transcontinental reality, united by a band of steel. The CPR was a feat of engineering and raw political will that still boggles the mind and sparkles the Canadian imagination.
By advancing his vision Macdonald – through six majority victories and while still experiencing political ups and downs that would have crushed a lesser man and leader – forever ensured the existence of a distinct nation, separate from the United States, on the northern half of our continent.
If that isn’t greatness I don’t know what is.
Were there mistakes made on the road to cementing the Canadian nation? Absolutely. Building the CPR came at great cost to Chinese labourers and Aboriginal peoples. The execution of Louis Riel left divisions that still haven’t fully healed. The Pacific Scandal makes the Watergate break-in, by comparison, seem like an amateur sideshow.
And on the personal front, our Father of Confederation’s drinking would not be tolerated in today’s less forgiving times. But historians and commentators, at the time and today, largely agree that Sir John A. had it right when he told the Canadians of his day that “this country prefers John A. drunk to George Brown sober.”
Indeed it did.
Upon his death it was his most worthy political opponent, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who summed Macdonald’s continuing challenge to Canadians best. It is one we still must rise to in our own time.
“Before the grave of him who, above all, was the Father of Confederation,” Laurier told a hushed House of Commons in June of 1891, “let not grief be barren grief; but let grief be coupled with the resolution, the determination that the work in which the Liberals and Conservatives, in which (George) Brown and Macdonald united, shall not perish, but that though (a) United Canada may be deprived of the services of her greatest men, still Canada shall and will live.”
Perhaps Canadians are turning a more mature page in taking time this month to pay tribute to Sir John A. Macdonald. We are debating, discussing him in our schools and finally, and most importantly, embracing the Macdonald legacy.
It is very hard to separate the Macdonald story from that of the Canadian community that defined him most, as he in turn he defined it. I speak, of course, about Kingston, Ontario.
That is why so many of the celebrations and commemorations of the Father of Confederation’s bicentennial are centred in Kingston. The community, in fact, is inviting all Canadians to come “home” to Kingston in 2015. An impressive suite of activities and events are planned for all of 2015. You can learn more at www.canadacomeshome.ca.
Until then, and as we mark Sir John A.’s bicentennial in communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast this month, let us, together, celebrate what matters most:
Sir John A. Macdonald would most heartily agree – probably even hoisting one (or more) in our nation’s honour as we approach the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.
Happy 200th birthday Sir John A.
Thank you for the country you bequeathed us.
Veteran journalist and political speechwriter Arthur Milnes is the City of Kingston’s Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Ambassador and the co-editor, with Dr. Sarah Gibson, of Canada Transformed: The Speeches of Sir John A. Macdonald, A Bicentennial Celebration, published by McClelland and Stewart.