John A. Macdonald

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.

We 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.”

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 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.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog,

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...