Macdonald: A Hero for Our Times?

The Old Flag and the Old Policy probably mattered more than the Old Man to most Canadian voters.

By Professor Phillip A. Buckner



BETWEEN THE 1950s AND 1970s biographies were written about every major and many minor politicians in Canadian history. But professional historians have now largely abandoned the full-scale political biography. Partly this is because of the rigid structure of the genre. Inevitably one has to deal with every aspect of the subject’s life from birth to death, however trivial, and it is difficult to add much that is new. The rise of social history has also cast into doubt the value of biographies by insisting on the importance of broader social changes and rejecting the “great man” theory that implicitly underlies most biographies. Nonetheless, biographies remain popular and journalists have rushed in to fill the gap.

Richard Gwyn’s first volume on Macdonald was a national bestseller and won the Charles Taylor prize for literary non-fiction. It is easy to see why. Gwyn knows how to tell a story and how to keep the reader’s attention. He is particularly strong on the private side of Macdonald’s life and the portrait he paints is a nuanced one that reveals both Macdonald’s strengths and weaknesses as a human being. Yet there does not appear to be all that much that is new about Macdonald’s political career. He covers more or less the same ground as Donald Creighton’s two-volume study written fifty years ago and Gwyn himself admits that he “was standing on Creighton’s shoulders.” Gwyn does add some important detail on occasion, much of it drawn from historians whose work postdates Creighton’s, but he pretty well ignores the sources that do not fit his preconceptions and all too frequently he falls back on colourful stereotypes.

No professional historian today would write that the Scots “thought collectively, amid company, and over dinners that ended with lots of broken crockery, or in pubs and taverns amid arguing and shouting and brawling. Even the brainiest among them put on no airs nor suffered any in others.” Nor that “the four principal European ethnic groups in 19th-century Canada – English, French, Irish and Scot – thoroughly disliked each other” but that “there was one striking exception: the French and the Scots got on well.” George Brown might have found this comment a bit amusing. And it is a long time since I have read that there were very few occasions in the 19th century “when Quebecers ignored the opinions of their priests.” As for the French Métis, Gwyn declares that they “were unforgettable – gregarious, impulsive, passionate, bold and vivacious, but also braggarts, credulous, superstitious and improvident.” Their English counterparts were “less distinctive, if more industrious and better farmers.” Even so, the Red River colony was “a semi-civilized dot in the middle of a vast nature reserve.”


John A. Macdonald in about 1858.


STEREOTYPES ABOUT the national character of “Canadians” also run right through both volumes. Federalism in Canada works, Gwyn declares, “because of Canadians themselves, their ingrained aptitude for compromise and readiness to listen to contrary views.” Indeed, to be intolerant is un-Canadian, “the attribute of someone who is not a real member of the Canadian community.” Gwyn even glosses over the commitment of nineteenth-century Canadians to imperial ideals: “Canadians were New Imperialists in a very Canadian way. They weren’t Imperialists: no one ever suggested that Canada should acquire colonies.” I am not sure that Canada’s Métis and first nations would fully concur in that statement, particularly the eighty-one Indians who were brought to trail for their part in the 1885 rebellion, eight of whom were hanged in the largest public execution in Canadian history. Indeed, unless you believe that Canada had some God-given right to the vast area under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company it is hard not see the west as a colony of Canada and the NWMP, which Gwyn praises for establishing “peace, order and good government in an untamed frontier,” as an imperial force designed to secure Canada’s control over the West and its inhabitants. Macdonald himself referred to the North-West in 1883 as a “Crown Colony,” a comment which Gwyn dismisses as “out of date” since the area no longer belonged to Britain. The point is that it now belonged to Canada. Ironically, Gwyn sees the west as the birthplace of a new Canadian nationalism: “It was in the West that Canada became most distinctive as a nation, developing in a way quite different from the U.S. West, ... In the Canadian West the prevailing order became community order first, individual interest second.” Here again is the myth of Canada as the peaceable kingdom, full of tolerant people who place community values above those of the self-interested individual. If only it were true!
Gwyn’s knowledge of social history is limited. He declares that even in the 1860s most Canadians were self-sufficient farmers. In fact, it is dubious that this was the case even in the 1830s. And it is ludicrous to declare that there were “a rough and ready egalitarianism and a marked absence of any class system” in pre-confederation Canada. This would have been news in the 1830s to men like John Strachan and John Beverley Robinson and even to Macdonald himself who took up arms in 1837 to defend a system of government that protected property and placed power in the hands of a privileged elite.


IN THE 1840s AND 1850s Macdonald became a supporter of responsible government and increasingly moderate in his politics. But Gwyn’s efforts to portray him as a simple “man of the people” are more than a little disingenuous. Macdonald liked the good life but he had no inherited wealth and his income was unstable. During his early years in Kingston (a period passed over rather quickly in Gwyn’s account) he purchased real estate and acted as the agent for British speculators and after entering politics he frequently used his political influence to promote legislation to advance his own financial interests and those of his friends. In the 1870s he became virtually bankrupt, relying on a fund of $4000 a year (a substantial sum in this period) raised by his friends. He recovered from the bankruptcy in the 1870s and in the 1880s raised his salary as prime minister to $8000 a year. This enabled him to spend lavishly on a home for his second wife who was at the very centre of Ottawa high society, and he was able to live the style of life to which he wished to become accustomed. When he went to visit the United Kingdom he moved easily among the imperial elite of which he was quite clearly a member.

Macdonald might have had the popular touch, as Gwyn claims, but he was no populist. All his life he fought against the principle of universal male suffrage. When challenged about the purpose of creating a Senate composed of men appointed for life, Macdonald declared that its function was to protect minorities, especially the rich who are always fewer in number than the poor and in 1872 he wrote to a Conservative newspaper editor that it was one thing to attack capitalists but “when the present excitement is over, you must look to them & not to the employed for support.” Nor did he ever show any real concern for the poor. He supported tariff protection because it increased the wealth of property-owners and encouraged people to invest in Canada. It did not bother him that so many of the jobs that were created were poorly paid and that industrialization was creating urban centres where wealth was increasingly unequally distributed. Even Gwyn admits that Macdonald’s support for a very limited measure of trade union recognition was essentially motivated by political considerations. Only one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital that Macdonald set up in 1886 was implemented and it is seems likely that Macdonald never even bothered to read its report. On the flimsiest of evidence Gwyn argues that Macdonald attended a few meetings of the Salvation Army which shows that he did have some concern for the poor.  But if “the poor and landless” were really Macdonald’s “most ardent supporters” (and it is not clear how on earth Gwyn could know this), Macdonald did little for them in return.

In other respects Gwyn also tries to make Macdonald a hero for a modern bilingual and multicultural Canada, a liberal nationalist like Gwyn himself. But I fear it doesn’t wash. He cites at length the famous letter in which Macdonald declares that English Canadians must treat French Canadians as a “nation.” But like most historians Gwyn rather downplays the parts of the letter that state that in the long run the French in Canada would become “smaller and feebler” and that “No man in his senses can suppose that this country can for a century to come be governed by a totally unfrenchified Gov-t” (my italics), the implication of which is that the influence of the French Canadian minority was only to be tolerated as long as it was necessary to do so for political reasons.


MACDONALD ACCEPTED at confederation that Quebec should be a bilingual province in which the French (and English) language and Quebec’s distinctive system of civil law were entrenched but he never doubted that the English language and the English system of common law should be dominant in the rest of the country. He was not an advocate of some form of dualism, which is why he opposed what he felt to be the premature creation of a bilingual province of Manitoba and, when forced to agree to its creation, he sought to ensure that its boundaries were as circumscribed as possible. Despite what Gwyn implies, Macdonald’s Canada included a bilingual Manitoba because Riel wanted it, not Macdonald.


In the 1880s during the discussions over allowing Quebec to acquire the territory in the north previously under the Hudson’s Bay Company’s jurisdiction, Macdonald expressed reservations about creating a barrier between the Maritime Provinces and Ontario. Gwyn is right to stress that when Macdonald declared in 1885 that Riel would hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour, his primary concern was with upholding the law, but the comment also reflected a deeper sense of antagonism to Quebec’s sympathy for Riel. Macdonald may have joined the Orange Lodge for purely political reasons but join it he did and while he thought D’Alton McCarthy’s “equal rights” campaign was untimely, it is not clear that he was entirely unsympathetic to McCarthy’s desire to secure the predominance of British culture and institutions across Canada. As for multiculturalism, Macdonald was not against non-British immigrants so long as they could be assimilated but he took a very different view of the blacks and Chinese who “were not of our race.”


Gwyn’s attempt to show that the barbaric policy of starving the Western Indians into agreeing to unfair treaties basically reflected Macdonald’s lack of adequate information is unconvincing, as is his argument that Macdonald was more liberal than most of this contemporaries on native issues. Initially Macdonald seems to have shared the assumption that Indians could be assimilated and in 1857 he steered through the parliament of the Province of Canada the Gradual Civilization Bill, which was designed to encourage Indians to abandon their own culture and adopt the superior ways of Europeans. But over time his views like those of most Canadians began to  harden and in 1880 he rejected the notion that you could make “an agriculturalist of the Indian” or make “the Indian work and live like a white man.” Macdonald appears to have been broadly in tune with mainstream public opinion in Canada which saw the Indians as a backward people doomed to gradual extinction and which saw no reason to spend valuable resources delaying the inevitable. Macdonald may have been more tolerant than some of his contemporaries but he was a product of the same intellectual environment and shared the same racial assumptions about the superiority of whites.


ABOUT HALF OF GWYN'S first volume focuses on the 1860s. He criticizes Creighton for attempting to situate Macdonald among the early advocates of confederation, but then makes extravagant claims about Macdonald’s role: “It was by making this union that Macdonald made us. He made us in the way he had intended to all along and he made us his way.” He was “British North America’s irreplaceable man.” But the argument that confederation would never have taken place without Macdonald is at best tendentious. One could make an equally plausible case for the irreplaceable role of George Brown, George-Étienne Cartier, Charles Tupper and even Samuel Leonard Tilley. In fact, support for some form of British American union was much more widespread than Gwyn acknowledges. Nor did Macdonald have a free hand in designing confederation. Gwyn makes much of the fact that Macdonald supposedly drafted fifty of the 72 Quebec resolutions but surely the most significant fact about the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences is that the delegates were able to agree relatively easily that a wider union was desirable. The final version of the Quebec resolutions created a somewhat more decentralized form of union than Macdonald had hoped for, one that had to meet the desire of Quebec’s delegates for a province with a French-Canadian majority, but even the agreement over the respective powers of the federal and provincial governments did not take all that long to work out.



This was not because Canada was a nation of self-sufficient farmers who were little concerned over such issues. Most Canadians were indeed farmers and fishermen but the majority of them (and the overwhelming majority of those who had the vote) were already part of a market economy and were aware how government policies could affect their economic and social interests. Just because nineteenth-century governments spent relatively little on social programs and education does not mean that to most Canadians “government was as irrelevant to their day-to-day lives as it is today to the Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish.” Why then were British North American newspapers full of political news? How does one explain the vigorous, indeed sometimes violent, confrontations that took place at elections?


Gwyn repeats the myth that the fight over responsible government was really “a contest between the governor general and Canadian politicians over who should get to dish out patronage.” Nonsense. The struggle over patronage was a symbolic one over who would control the power of the state, an issue that mattered since the state did affect people’s lives in a variety of ways, defining which economic groups would receive government assistance (through canals and railways and tariffs) and how much tax they would pay, the rules under which people could marry and divorce and establish churches and schools, and the measures which would be taken to defend British North America against internal and external threats. There was a great deal more at stake in politics than who controlled the very limited number of positions at the disposal of the government and the debate over the Quebec resolutions was a vigorous and sophisticated one in all of the British North American colonies.


If the issue of federation was a secondary issue (at least outside Quebec), it was because most British Americans believed in the superiority of British over American models of government and wished to adhere as closely as possible to the British model of a centralized union. It was this shared commitment to British models that enabled the fathers of confederation to reach agreement on most issues fairly easily at Charlottetown and Quebec and even if Macdonald had not been there, the outcome would likely have been much the same. So would the debate over confederation that took place in the various colonies that joined together in 1867. Like Creighton before him, Gwyn’s vision of confederation is a central Canadian one and he has little understanding of the debate that did take place in the Maritimes, implying that they joined confederation because the imperial government – “the Great White Mother” – supported it. Even more crudely Gwyn downplays the successful campaign of the pro-confederates in New Brunswick, simplistically declaring that confederation “had been accomplished by money being poured into New Brunswick to defeat an anti-Confederation government.”


IN THE SECOND VOLUME Gwyn once again makes extravagant claims about Macdonald’s influence, arguing that “had there been no Macdonald, there would almost certainly be today no Canada.” Macdonald, according to Gwyn, was “Canada’s first anti-American” and he was responsible for creating and preserving “the un-Americanness of Canada” through “the National Policy of protecting domestic industry, the building of a railway from sea to sea, and his unceasing opposition to cross border free trade.” Macdonald probably did have more negative views about the United States than many of his contemporaries, views rooted in his very conservative and elitist vision of the ideal society, but he was hardly alone in his desire to create a separate (and increasingly independent) state on the North American continent – a “Kingdom of Canada,” as Macdonald wished to call the new federation.


Gwyn argues that Canada had a presidential system of government from the beginning. This greatly exaggerates Macdonald’s influence both within the cabinet and in the country. Macdonald could lead, but only if he could carry his colleagues with him and it is most unlikely that he was worshipped as widely as Gwyn believes. Yes, he won six federal elections but not on his own. Even in his last and most famous election he relied heavily on his Maritime colleagues to give him victory and the Old Flag and the Old Policy probably mattered more than the Old Man to most Canadian voters.


Nor did Macdonald conjure the idea of the National Policy out of thin air. There was growing pressure from capitalists across the country for a protective tariff and both Tupper and Tilley were as important as Macdonald in shaping the tariff system adopted in 1879. As for the CPR, Gwyn declares that it was


the first in a series of collective, out-of-the ordinary undertakings for Canada, including its magnificent participation in the first and second world wars; its postwar recreation of itself as a welfare state with universal health care becoming part of the national DNA; Expo 67 and other celebrations of Canada’s centennial year; the commitment to peacekeeping; the implementation of national bilingualism and the charter of rights and freedoms; and, today, the policies of multiculturalism and of continuous immigration on a scale, proportionately, far larger than that of any nation on the globe.


This is a strange list, which tells you a good deal more about Gwyn’s values and beliefs than it does about Macdonald’s. Even if one accepts Gwyn’s account of the importance of the CPR, Macdonald cannot be given sole credit for the project. Cartier and Montreal business interests were strongly pushing for a railway. One of the key figures was Tupper who, unlike Macdonald, had not been caught with his hand in the till during the Pacific Scandal. He “badgered Macdonald into doing what had to be done to find a syndicate capable of building the CPR,” negotiated the final contract with the CPR syndicate, and presided over the building of much of the railway. Without a sympathetic prime minister the CPR would have taken much longer to build, but this might not have been a bad thing. In any event the idea that Canadians lacked any shared sense of national identity “really until the 1960s” just doesn’t hold up. Even many of those who voted for the Liberals from 1878 to 1891 were just as good Canadian nationalists as Macdonald, even if they differed on the best way to build the new nation.


GWYN'S BOOK HAS BEEN praised for giving us a John A. Macdonald for the 21st century. But Macdonald was a nineteenth-century Victorian who lived in a very different age with very different values from ours. Gwyn is not unaware of this fact. But he believes that history determines “the way we are now, no matter all the transformational changes since – demographic, economic, technological, lifestyle” and that “human nature changes little.” These beliefs seem a bit at odds with each other and with Gwyn’s argument that since the 1960s Canada has abandoned its imperial ties and reinvented itself and that because of their history Canadians are a more tolerant people with a greater commitment to communal values than Americans. Whether Gwyn is correct in these assumptions or not, it is clear that modern Canada is a different country from 19th-century Canada, one that Macdonald played only a limited role in making and one that he might not even have liked.


About the author:

Phillip Buckner was born in Toronto and received his B.A. from the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. from the University of London. He taught history for 31 years at the University of New Brunswick and was founding editor of Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region. He has written for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (of which he was the Associate Editor for Canada) and has written extensively about Canada’s place within the British Empire, most recently as editor of Canada and the British Empire in the Oxford History of the British Empire. He is retired and lives in London.


From The Dorchester Review archive, Vol. 2 No. 1, Spring/Summer 2012. Books reviewed:

John A.: The Man Who Made Us, The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume One, 1815-1867. Richard Gwyn. Random House, 2007.

Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald, His Life, Our Times, Volume Two, 1867-1891. Richard Gwyn. Random House, 2011.

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published