PHOTOS: John A. Macdonald, first prime minister of Canada, in his prime. Below: A younger Macdonald and the man in his later years.

Today, or possibly yesterday, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Macdonald, first prime minister of Canada, arguably the person most responsible for the creation of our country and surely the one who deserves the most credit for it surviving as long as it has.

Let’s keep those facts in mind when we argue about the historical legacy of Sir (for his accomplishments as the dominant figure of Confederation) John A. (for Alexander) Macdonald, as reasonable people are bound to do.

YoungJohnWe should remember that Prime Minister Macdonald could work with others for the good of his country. It is particularly relevant at this fraught moment in Canada’s history that Macdonald was prepared to form a coalition with his greatest rival, George Brown of the Reform Movement, whom he disliked, to ensure Confederation came about in 1867.

With the hideous example of the U.S. Civil War fresh in everyone’s memories, the political union Macdonald, Brown and their contemporaries created, mere colonials themselves, allowed a disparate nation soon to span the top half of a vast continent despite different regional interests, two major religious traditions eyeing each other distrustfully, two languages and two cultures. And so it has thrived and prospered for most of a century and a half without civil war or breakup.

Peace. Order. Good Government. Plus a healthy respect for the value of putting our own compatriots first, in trade as well as simple patriotism. Sound ideals to live by, as it turned out, and thankfully resistant to the tinkerers, like those in our present government, who to serve their own interests would turn this place into a warped reflection of the United States as quickly as they could if given half a chance – which we have very nearly done and ought not to risk doing again.

Macdonald, a Tory in the true meaning of the word, recognized the threat that United States imperialism posed then to our country, as it does in a different way now, even if the current stewards of his great old party’s name do not and will not.

Nowadays, Macdonald is often caricatured as a drunk, as if that were the sum total of his character. He certainly had a problem with alcohol, as he recognized himself. This is usually remembered in colourful stories, like the anecdote about his reply to a heckler who accused him of drunkenness: “Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober!”

But as journalist and historian Richard Gwynne reminds us, he was aware of the problem, and was prepared to take responsibility for it: “… before his marriage to Agnes, Macdonald had drawn up a pre-nuptial agreement that transferred to her a sizeable share of his assets. This arrangement had probably been suggested by Agnes’s brother … worried that his drinking might leave her a pauper.”OldJohn

And we must acknowledge that, as was the character of the time, he was a racist. Perhaps this is part of the answer to the mystery of why we do not celebrate a national holiday on this date, or, as noted, yesterday, when his birth was recorded in Glasgow.

Regardless, we have it in our power to correct the errors of the past, not add to them as some would have us do, and still to acknowledge the great good that was handed down to us by this imperfect Canadian.

Our current “Conservative” government, today and in the weeks leading up to the next general election, is bound to make much of the fact that Macdonald was also our first Conservative prime minister. But the so-called Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is Conservative and Tory in name and nothing else, as irresistibly convenient as a four-letter word may be to headline writers.

Whether it is their faith in American political institutions such as elected upper houses, fixed election dates (except when it suits them), term limits (ditto) and the separation of powers, their love for the worst features of the American economic system, or their divisive reliance on American-style political wedge issues, they have pursued a radical policy agenda since the reverse takeover in 2003 of the then-Progressive Conservative Party by the so-called Reform Party of that tireless Americanizer, Preston Manning. (There was no relation to Brown’s Reform Movement, despite the appropriation of its name.)

Canada’s “Tories,” of course, began as Empire Loyalists, that is, British patriots in North America who sided with the Crown during the American Revolution. The venerable English political term was hurled at them as an insult by the treasonous American rebels.

Those who were not murdered by the American traitors for their loyalty to the Crown were robbed and driven from their homes. They landed in British North America very much like the political refugees that Mr. Harper’s party today strives to turn away from Canada.

Not surprisingly, they and their descendants became fierce Canadians, determined to hang on to our traditions and our nationhood and thus truly conservative in the proper sense of the word.

By association, in this country “Tory” became shorthand for the party of Macdonald, determinedly protectionist builder of Canada, and, by near-apostolic succession, Conservative prime ministers right down to John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark and even Brian Mulroney.

No more. Today’s “Tories” despise the real Canada. As Mr. Harper famously said in the National Post in December 2000, Canada isn’t the finest, freest country on the planet, it’s nothing more than “a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.”

Well, he intends to fix that, doesn’t he?

There are so many examples of the efforts of our current prime minister and his cronies in government, corporations and the professional outrage industry to Americanize our country that the CPC should properly be known as “the American Party of Canada.” Macdonald would spin in his grave in Kingston if he knew that crew had appropriated his party’s name!

We can be thankful John A. Macdonald was our first prime minister. As we look toward the future, we should remember that today’s “Tories” are not the same thing at all.

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  1. In his book “A Fair Country,” John Raulston Saul tells us that the first drafts of the BNA act used the words “peace, welfare, and good government,” but that was replaced in the final draft by “peace, order, and good government.” Welfare in this sense meant the state of wellbeing, protection of the common wealth, and general public good. It’s too bad the word was changed, because we are seeing our wellbeing slowly eroded under Harper.

    1. I agree with Cam that “Peace, Welfare and Good Government” would have been an improvement, or, rather, that the change was NOT an improvement. That said, I don’t think it would have done much to discourage the neoliberal depredations of the Harper Party.

  2. “…to ensure Confederation came about in 1967….” Is that a typo, or an attempt to make sure your readers are paying attention ;-). Of course, it was 1867.

    Enjoyed the post, though.

    1. Well, you know, Jerry, time flies when you’re having fun … I swear, it said “1867” in my head. Anyway, it’s been fixed, and I thank you and my other alert readers who spot these errors and keep me on the straight and narrow. DJC

  3. “Prime Minister Stephen Harper is Conservative and Tory in name and nothing else, as irresistibly convenient as a four-letter word may be to headline writers.” – This is something that many conservative voters seem not to grasp as they go on voting for a label. It’s not for nothing the name was appropriated. #NailTheCupboardShut

  4. I’m not sure whether John A. Macdonald’s party affiliation affect how voters decide today. Justin Trudeau has much better success in gaining recognition from the legacy of another. However, the most disgusting display has to be Republicans today calling themselves “The party of Abraham Lincoln.”

    1. In Justin’s defence, he is the man’s son, whether or not his party believes quite the same things. Moreover, I very much doubt the Liberals will be campaigning this time as “The Party of Pierre Trudeau.” Leastways in this part of the country.

  5. Harper is in our area today – big birthday celebrations and all that. I thought there was something about the air that made it more difficult to breathe…

    When I first moved to this area, (lo these many years ago!), I was driving into Kingston past the church and cemetery where Sir John A. is buried (although I didn’t know it at the time) and saw a full-blown Victorian funeral procession going on in front of the church – horse-drawn glass-sided hearse, black horses with black plumes fixed to their bridles at their foreheads, people in top hats and black arm bands. I thought I had completely lost my mind or had slid sideways into a parallel universe. Later, I found out that his death is commemorated every year in this way.

    Harper is in Kingston “under tight security”, so the local media say. Not sure why. I won’t say anything about the abundance of closets in the area. When I think about the divisive, destructive, hyper-partisan way he has treated this country, and that quote Mr. Climenhaga mentioned about Harper’s real feelings for the place, I feel that hyperallergic response coming on again. Don’t know when he’s leaving. I’ll be able to tell by the air tomorrow.

    1. Harper is a CON, not a Conservative, and was in Kingston because he has no shame. He uses anything and everything to his political advantage. And Dave, I’m quite sure John A. is turning is his Tory grave. Good article.

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