Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Day John A. Macdonald Died

If there was no John A. Macdonald, there would be no Canada.

Our most important Father of Confederation and first Prime Minister died 122 years ago today. Canadians of all political persuasions should take a moment and remember John A. Macdonald, not only because he was responsible for our nation, the Canadian Pacific Railway, the RCMP, our banking sector, among other things, but Canadians should remember because they share so much in common with the man who made this country.

For Conservatives they owe much to Macdonald. Their majority government was elected because of moderation and stability, two values Macdonald owed his 19 years as Prime Minister to.

The late NDP Leader Jack Layton undeniably shared perhaps the most valuable trait with Macdonald, and that is being a man of the people. Though Macdonald and Layton were quite intelligent, they personally connected to Canadians in common, genuine ways.

But if Macdonald was alive today he would most assuredly be a Liberal. His strong and almost unparalleled  beliefs in central government, bilingualism, and pragmatism, led Pierre Elliot Trudeau to proudly refer to himself as a "Macdonald Conservative".

To remember the politician nicknamed "Old Tomorrow", below are a few interesting and surprising extracts from Richard Gwyn's excellent biography on The Man Who Made Us, John A.

Why He Drank

At seven years old John A. Macdonald saw his five year-old brother James killed by a family servant. Of three sons, John A. was the only one to live past childhood. (p27, vol1)

Macdonald married his first wife Isabella in 1843, unfortunately he only enjoyed two years of a rather joyful marriage before she became a "bedridden invalid" with an unknown and increasingly worsening illness.

John A. Macdonald's first son, John Alexander died just after his first birthday, possibly by sudden infant death syndrome. Richard Gwyn describes the obvious impact this had on Macdonald:

"Many years later, Macdonald's second wife, Agnes came upon a small dusty box while cleaning the attic of Earnscliffe, their house in Ottawa. Inside it were some odd wooden objects. When she showed them to her husband, Macdonald explained they were John Alexander's toys; through all the many moves he had made from city to city and from house to lodging house to bachelor quarters and back again to a house, Macdonald had kept with him the relics of his lost son."
Macdonald's riding: "An 1842 municipal survey in Kingston counted 136 taverns for a population of fewer than five thousand people."(p265, vol1)

In 1869 John A.'s second wife Agnes gave birth to Mary who was unable to fully mentally and physically develop. The Prime Minister however would never break his routine where upon coming home from the House of Commons he would rub Mary's shriveled legs and tell her stories about Parliament.

On May 20, 1873, George-Etienne Cartier died. He was not just another pivotal Father of Confederation, he was Macdonald's most trusted political ally and a great friend. When John A. received the telegram with the sorrowful news he opened it in the House of Commons and read it aloud. Upon sitting back down Macdonald stretched an arm over Cartier's desk and broke down in tears. (p230, vol2)

Historic Coincidences

In 1829 John A. Macdonald and Oliver Mowat attended the same grammar school at the same time. Macdonald would later make him a clerk at his law firm. Mowat of course as the longest serving Premier of Ontario would go on to be a bitter rival of Macdonald's in vicious jurisdictional disputes that would define federalism in Canada. (p32, vol1)

In 1838 as a lawyer Macdonald tried to prevent two clients from being tried under a 1352 statute of Edward III that defined treason as an act committed by a non-citizen who "most wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously, did levy and make war against our Said Sovereign." Almost 50 years later as Prime Minister Macdonald would be responsible for the decision to prosecute Louis Riel, who at that time was an American citizen, under that same statute. (p53, vol1)

In an 1849 debate Macdonald challenged William Blake, a Reform minister, to a duel. William was father of Edward Blake, an eventual Liberal Leader and Premier of Ontario. Macdonald would go on to campaign against Edward some 30 years after challenging his father to pistols. (p71, vol1)

Joseph Pope served as John A. Macdonald's secretary beginning in 1882. In 1887, Macdonald told Pope, "Laurier will look after you should you need a friend when I am gone." Laurier, despite many telling him otherwise, kept Pope on in a senior position and eventually made him head of the new Department of External Affairs. In 1910 when Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden defeated Laurier, Pope was retained and remained in government as a deputy minister. In all, Joseph Pope served continuously in various high level positions under three different Prime Ministers for over 40 years. (p355, vol2)

Progressive Conservative

John A. Macdonald created Labour Day, legalized trade unions, and strengthened their right to strike. (p196, vol2)

In a letter written in 1880 Macdonald wrote, "Property has its duties as well as its rights," and "vested rights must yield to the general good."

He abolished public executions in 1869.

Macdonald And Indians

Macdonald was, considering the time, unusually close to Indians. As a lawyer in a more remote region of Ontario he not only defended Indians but had been a member of a choir that included many aboriginals. He would later become good friends with Reverend Peter Jones, an Indian whose original name was Sacred Feathers. (p155, vol1)

In 1885 John A. gave the right to vote to a narrow class of aboriginals. The Franchise Act originally intended to include a wider group of aboriginals but the House of Commons rejected it. Macdonald said at the time, "I hope to see some day the Indian race represented by one of themselves on the floor of the House of Commons." Liberal Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier would go on and repeal the right to vote for aboriginals in 1898. (p420, vol2)

Just as important is that Macdonald also included within the Franchise Act of 1885 the vote for women. Macdonald was the first national leader in the world to attempt to grant women the vote. Unfortunately it too failed in the House of Commons, if it had passed Canada would have been the first country with suffrage equality. New Zealand achieved it in 1893, Canada wouldn't until 1918. (p522, vol2)

Macdonald believed adamantly that treaties with Indians must be upheld. Macdonald told an inquirer as early as 1867 that Indian reserves "cannot be dispossessed nor can the property be alienated from them without their consent." During the North-West Rebellion he told a correspondent that although "Indian reservations will prove a certain extent obstructive of settlement.... this cannot be helped." It was his duty, he said, "to protect the Indians and sustain them in their rights." (p48, vol2)

The predecessor to the RCMP, the North-West Mounted Police was created by Macdonald to, among other things, keep peace between Indians and settlers. For much of Canada's early history the NWMP protected Indians. The force arrested more whites than Indians in the 19th century, below the border the opposite situation existed. Blackfoot chief Crowfoot explained the reason for signing a treaty in 1877, "The Mounted Police protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter." (p242, vol2)


In 1890 D'Alton McCarthy, a rogue Conservative MP moved a private member's bill to cancel guarantees  for French in the North-West Territories. Macdonald eloquently and passionately defended bilingualism, recalling how decades earlier the English majority in the newly created Province of Upper Canada had purposely sought to protect the French minority's language rights. From page 551 of vol.2:
That old pioneering legislature had passed an order that Macdonald read out: "That such acts as have been already passed, or may hereafter pass the Legislature of this Province, be translated into the French language for the benefit of the inhabitants of the western district of this province and other French settlers who may come to reside." At this point, Macdonald put a question to his audience: "Are we, one hundred years later, going to be less liberal to our French-Canadian fellow-subjects than were the few Englishmen, United Empire Loyalists, who settled Ontario?" When the vote was taken, McCarthy's bill was defeated overwhelmingly.
And though bilingualism would only fade after Macdonald's death, including under Laurier, sixty years after that speech bilingualism's most notable defender Henri Bourassa would quote it and say John A. was "the one man who best understood and to a large extent best applied the spirit of confederation."

Soft Heart

One of Macdonald's proudest moments was in his last few weeks he was able to walk with his newly elected son Hugh John into the House of Commons. After his father's passing, Hugh John would go on to become a cabinet minister and Premier of Manitoba, ending his career as a police magistrate.

In 1891, the last year of his life, Macdonald received a letter from an eleven year-old girl detailing how they shared a birthday and how a boy was being mean to her. This was Macdonald's reply, from page 508, vol.2:
My dear Little Friend,
I am glad to get your letter, and to know that next Sunday you and I will be of the same age. I hope and believe, however, that you will see many more birthdays than I shall, and I trust that every birthday may find you in health, and prosperous, and happy.
I think it was mean of that young fellow not to answer your letter. You see, I have been longer in the world than he, and know more than he does of what is due young ladies.
I send you a dollar note, with which pray buy some small keepsake to remember me by.
Believe me. Yours sincerely,
John A. Macdonald
Macdonald rode a portion of the trek to British Columbia on the cowcatcher of the CPR train. His second wife, to everyone's surprise, rode there for hours.

Great Politician

Macdonald is blamed for beginning the infamous summer barbeque circuit for politicians. With pleading from Conservative members Macdonald attended his first picnic rally in Uxbridge in 1876, on Dominion Day. A few days later the party won two by-elections which of course caused picnics to be hastily organized across the region. At a picnic rally in Belleville, a startling 15,000 people were in attendance. (p285, vol2)

John A. was by some accounts offered peerage by the Queen but turned it down because being a Lord would have distanced him from voters. (p498, vol2)

According E.B. Biggar, an early biographer of Macdonald's, after the British Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli died, members of his party approached John A. and asked him to move to Britain "with a view of succeeding the great English statesman." Macdonald reportedly turned it down because "here, he was engaged in the development of a nation; there he would be struggling to hold together the fabric of one." (p315, vol2)


Not only was Macdonald entirely unashamed about his drinking but he actually drew attention to it. Once, when a heckler at a public meeting accused him of being drunk, he responded, "Yes, but the people would prefer a John A. drunk to a George Brown sober." (p267, vol1)

Once, after Macdonald had clambered onto a piece of farm machinery to better address a gathering, word was passed to him that he was actually standing on a manure spreader. His instant reply: "This is the first time I've stood on the Liberal platform." (p236, vol1)

A crowd appluaded his deft recovery from throwing up on the platform at an all candidates meeting when Macdonald responded, "Mr.Chairman, I don't know how it is is but every time I hear Mr.X speak, it turns my stomach."

"If we represent the people of Canada... then we are here to pass laws for the peace, welfare, and good government of the country... If we do not represent the people of Canada, we have no right to be here." (p351, vol1)

"The question is not whether your Local Parliament is of much use, as it is whether it will not serve as a safety valve and relieve us from the conflict of races."

"We must remember that [Indians] are the original owners of the soil, of which they have been dispossessed by the covetousness or ambition of our ancestors. Perhaps if Columbus had not discovered this continent--had left them alone--they would have worked out a tolerable civilization of their own." (p422, vol422)

When D'Arcy McGee, another Father of Confederation, was found curled up on the desk of the editor of Ottawa Citizen after a night of drinking with John A., the federal Cabinet finally confronted the two men over their alcohol problems. Shortly after, Macdonald sought out McGee and informed him, "Look here McGee, this Cabinet can't afford two drunkards, and I'm not quitting." (p387, vol1)

"The fratricidal conflict now unhappily raging in the United states shows us the superiority of our institutions and of the principle on which we are based. Long may that principle-the Monarchial principle-prevail in this land. Let there be 'No Looking to Washington,' as was threatened by a leading member of the opposition." (p241, vol1)

"I am satisfied to confine myself to practical things... I am satisfied not to have a reputation for indulging in imaginary schemes and harbouring visionary ideas... always utopian and never practical." (p297, vol1)

"Parliament is a grand inquest with the right to inquire into anything and everything." (p348, vol1)

"All my hopes and my remembrances are Canadian; and not only are my principles and prejudices Canadian, but. . . my interests are." (p316, vol2)

Goodbye Prime Minister

From page 575, vol.2 of Richard Gwyn's biography on our first Prime Minister:
Friday May 22 was a soft, warm day, and Macdonald spent it on the Hill....Early in the evening, Macdonald went down to the basement for a shave by the parliamentary barber, Napoleon Audette. While there, he studied a framed engraving of the Legislative members of 1855, a decade after he had first entered politics. He called out their names--Morin, Augers, Caron, Mackay, Dunkin, Short, Meredith, LaFontaine, Drummond-- and told Audette, "All gone, all gone." Back in the chamber, Mackenzie Bowell, one of his ministers, teased Macdonald into agreeing that it was time for two oldsters like them to be "at home in bed." Macdonald responded, "I will go. Good-night." These were the last words he ever spoke in the House of Commons.
John A. Macdonald would return home and after suffering a series of strokes would die on the morning of June 6, 1891.

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