David Warrick is a retired professor of Communications and Humanities, Humber College. He has also taught English at the university and secondary school level. He holds four degrees including a PhD from York University in English Literature and a B.Ed, from McArthur College, Queen’s University. He is a former examiner in the International Baccalaureate and a researcher and consultant on educational policy. He received a Distinguished Faculty Award from Humber College for his collaborative teaching strategies and research projects on educational and training technologies. He was a researcher on the effects of computer-mediated technologies on learning and training in higher education and the workplace. As curriculum advisor and member of expert panels to the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, he participated in the reforms to the K-12 curriculum, evaluation and assessment, and secondary school reform. He also served as advisor to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities 1995-1999.
The John A. Macdonald you don’t know
by David Warrick
Published: July 1st, 2016
Last year, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald. This year we marked the 125th anniversary of his death. And next year Canadians will celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial.
Why do we celebrate these anniversaries? And why do we celebrate Macdonald?
One answer is that Macdonald plays a major role in Canada’s narrative. Canada wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for Macdonald. As historian Richard Gwyn puts it: “No Macdonald, no Canada.”
During his unprecedented forty-seven years in Canadian parliaments, he shaped Canada’s geography and its history.
Not only was he co-premier of the Province of Canada when Canada was a British colony, he later became the principal negotiator and driving force behind the merger of four British colonies into what became the Dominion of Canada.
Macdonald drafted fifty of the seventy-two resolutions that became the blueprint of the British North America Act, today known as Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867.
Not only was he chosen as the first prime minister of Canada, but over his career he also served as receiver general, attorney general, minister of Militia Affairs, minister of Justice, minister of Interior Affairs, minister of Indian Affairs and minister of Railways and Canals.
In 1870, Macdonald and his colleague, George-Étienne Cartier, negotiated the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The acquisition of this vast landmass — a third of Canada’s territory today — made it possible to create a nation from sea to sea to sea.
The purchase paved the way for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the largest engineering project of its kind in the world. Unquestionably, without the CPR there could be no Canada.
He created the North West Mounted Police to bring law and order to the West. And he created Canada’s first national park in Banff, Alberta.
Today, Canada is admired around the world for its stability, tolerance and inclusiveness — values that Macdonald helped shape.
At the time of his death in 1891, the nation knew the real Macdonald. Canadians from coast to coast mourned his passing. Tributes were sent from around the world.
But few people today know who he was, and what he accomplished in his lifetime. There’s a reason for this collective amnesia.
Only four provinces require high school students to take a Canadian history course to graduate. Ontario’s one compulsory high school course deals only with modern Canadian history. In total, there are two minor footnotes to Macdonald in the entire K to 12 curriculum. That’s it.
Is it any wonder, then, that in the absence of facts about our past, Canadians tend to invent them?
Mention Macdonald and many will say he drank to excess. But the legend of Macdonald as a chronic drunk is false. He wasn’t. He was a binge drinker. He drank to excess when life’s stresses became too great. And he had a lifetime of personal tragedies — too many to list here. But those were different times. Social drinking was not what it is today. Once, when responding to a heckler who called him a drunk, he said:
In the last decade of his life, his drinking was firmly under control, thanks to his wife Agnes.
It’s also true that Macdonald, as minister of Justice and Interior Affairs, believed in swift punishment for those who rebelled against the state. But to call Macdonald a racist and a bigot is to misunderstand his role in the creation of the Canada we know today.
All his life, he was open to working with anyone who might share opportunities for social and political reform. He was a true progressive — in fact, he coined the phrase “progressive conservative.”
Before Confederation, he helped form the ‘Great Coalition’, which united Reformers and Conservatives, Orangemen and Catholics, francophones and anglophones, republicans and monarchists in the cause of responsible, democratic government in Canada.
How many of us know that he was the first world leader to propose extending the vote to women at a time when no country in the world had female suffrage?
He said that women were oppressed and should be equal with men in every way. You could say he was Canada’s first feminist prime minister.
How many of us know that Macdonald was deeply troubled by the plight of the Plains Indians and Métis who were left destitute by the slaughter of 30 million bison by American and Canadian hunters in the mid to late nineteenth century?
That’s 30 million — reduced to less than 100 throughout the entire continent of North America.
Here’s what he said about it in the House of Commons:
The whole theory of supplying the Indians is that we must prevent them from starving. In consequence of the extinction of the buffalo, and their not having yet betaken themselves to raising crops, they were suffering greatly … All we can hope to do is to wean them by slow degrees from their nomadic habits, which have almost become an instinct, and by slow degrees absorb them or settle them on the land. Meantime they must be fairly protected.
In spite of these sympathies, he introduced the infamous residential schools model to Canada based on the flawed policies and practices introduced by President Grant in the U.S. years earlier.
The consequences of that policy have been devastating to indigenous peoples in Canada. The inhumane practices of assimilation were continued under every prime minister in Canada until 1996, when they were finally abandoned.
The problem, however, is not confined to North America. It is a worldwide problem. A 2010 UN comparative study of indigenous peoples and boarding schools around the world found that “(they) were generally a failure at improving the lives of indigenous peoples … mainly because their purpose was not to benefit indigenous peoples (but) to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into the larger society.”
On the question of the vote, Macdonald firmly believed that Indians should be granted the same rights as other British subjects, which included the federal vote, provided they met the same conditions imposed on other citizens.
But these rights were repealed thirteen years later by another prime minister.
His Trade Unions Act gave workers the right to associate in trade unions.
For Macdonald, there was no paramount race in Canada. In a debate in the House of Commons, he wholeheartedly defended francophone rights and “the constitutional rights of all citizens of Canada to language, religion, property, and person.”
How many of us know that Macdonald “also took it for granted that blacks in Canada had the same rights as anyone else” long before the American Civil War and the Emancipation Act?
All this he did in the nineteenth century — long before human rights were enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.
While it is difficult to know exactly how Macdonald’s values would have changed with the times, based on his track record of progressive reforms I think we can safely say that he would have embraced the core values that we Canadians defend today.