TW Viewpoint | John A. MacDonald: the Patriot Statesman

February 21, 2018 | Stuart Wachowicz

With his legacy currently under attack, one must ask: "Who is John A. MacDonald?" and "Why was his leadership so important for the establishment of Canada?"


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In Kingston, Ontario, at the old Cataraqui Cemetery, one could miss an unpretentious granite marker, engraved with a simple inscription: John Alexander MacDonald, 1815-1891, At Rest.

One would not suspect that this grave contains the remains of one of the great driving forces behind the creation of the Dominion of Canada. MacDonald was a talented, hard-working visionary who left two great legacies - the unification of British colonies in eastern North America into a single nation, followed by the expansion of this union across the continent to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, bringing into existence the second largest country on earth.

John A., as he was often known, was born in Glasgow, Scotland in January 1815. Five years later his parents immigrated to Kingston, located in what was then Upper Canada. His ability was considerable as he was inducted into the Law Society of Upper Canada at age 20.

In the 1840's MacDonald won a seat in the Upper Canada legislature. By 1854 he became Premier.

As a conservative, he would always defend the democratic right of an individual to voice a dissenting opinion - something today at risk under the censorship of political correctness.

He sought opportunities to create workable coalitions of people, political parties and business to achieve big ideas. "…MacDonald would be bold enough to make tough decisions and sensible enough to submerge his own ego to support a cause." ("Canada's Patriot Statesman - The Politician", Library and Archives Canada.) In a land where there was a strong English-French divide, MacDonald, who spoke French, sought to build partnerships with French Canada, and notably with the great Quebecer, George Etienne Cartier. Together they would help people rise above the immediate challenges to see a vision of what could be if they worked for a common goal.

The ability to see big solutions and make them reality took great skill, wisdom, humility and the ability to inspire. There is a story told by former Prime Minister John Turner which illustrates this quality of John A.

David Thompson, a Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) representing Haldimand and a Macdonald contemporary, had just returned to Parliament after an extended absence due to illness. According to Turner's story, Thompson reported that: "The first man I met was [Liberal leader Edward] Blake; he passed me with a simple nod as if he had forgotten I was away. Then I met [Liberal MP Richard] Cartwright, who was just as cold. Then I met Sir John, who rushed across the Chamber, slapped me on the shoulder, grasped my hand, and said, 'Davy, I am glad you are back again; I hope you will live many a day to vote against me.' It was pretty hard not to follow a man like that." Ibid

Not since the War of 1812 had there been fear of foreign invasion, yet throughout the 1860's an Irish society, called the Fenians, was conducting what today would be called terrorist raids across the border in numerous locations. Some states were granting the Fenians safe haven, creating a risk to Canada. This threat was an impetus for the colonies to consider a union. Following the 1864 U.S. election, the Republicans, to placate Irish Americans, put forward The Canada Annexation Bill in July of 1866. Fear of annexation enabled MacDonald and his allies to bring about a consensus for union.

Consequently, in 1866 the British parliament passed the British North America Act, a large part of which was drafted by John A. July 1, 1867 was selected as the date on which the Dominion of Canada would be born. MacDonald was the obvious choice to become the first prime minister. Many challenges lay ahead, but his vision, patience and willingness to respect other opinions enabled him to be a unifying force.

He was acutely aware of the need to expand Confederation westward to the Pacific. MacDonald led the task of bringing the new province of Manitoba into existence (1870), followed by the addition of British Columbia (1871). The latter required the promise of a transcontinental railway, the greatest single project ever undertaken by the Canadian government. The project led to a financial scandal that caused the government's defeat in 1873. Yet in 1878 he was back. The populace looked for a visionary who had a record of delivery. MacDonald then went on to win 4 consecutive elections, stabilized the young nation, and put it on a pathway to success. MacDonald believed in a strong central government and a willingness to spend on projects that were in the national interest. He oversaw the development of a national police force that would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to bring order to the West. He was faced with a national crisis when a rebellion occurred in the North West, challenges he handled with skill and balance.

He developed a strong friendship with Crowfoot, the leading Blackfoot Chief, who realized MacDonald wanted to make lasting improvements in the lives of aboriginal peoples, desiring them to become full citizens of the British Empire. Unfortunately in the politically-correct environment of today's society, history is not viewed in the context of the time, and MacDonald is judged much too harshly.

He endured many personal trials including the death of his first wife and their daughter, and the debilitating illness of his second daughter. MacDonald was always a devoted husband and loving father. Even in his worst moments he never let his loyalty to country, or his sense of duty to his people depart from his sight.

At times he would delay a difficult decision until the conditions for a successful outcome were evident. This earned him the nickname, "Old Tomorrow".

Canadian Senator Hugh Segal writes of MacDonald: He could always build a coalition on an issue that mattered…That was his most compelling success. There's a point in any partisan debate where you've got to stand back and realize there is something more…and that is loyalty to your country. (Canada's Patriot Statesman - The Prime Minister- Library and Archives Canada.)

"Old Tomorrow" gave a young nation vision and strong, unselfish leadership. MacDonald was not without faults and weaknesses, but lack of love of country and loyalty to family were not among them. Wilfred Laurier, Canada's first French Canadian Prime Minister, said in 1891 on the death of MacDonald: "It may be said without any exaggeration whatever, that the life of Sir John Macdonald, from the date he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada."

Aspiring leaders of today would do well modeling Sir John A.'s vision, passion and loyalty. It is needed as never before.

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