Woke Captive

By Patrice Dutil

Montreal's pitiful staff report on the founding prime minister is easily demolished. 

BEFORE HE WAS a mystery, and long before he became a subject of study, Sir John A. Macdonald was a monument to me. I have very clear memories of seeing the Macdonald statue on Dominion Square in Montreal as a young boy. It was my paternal grandmother’s idea in the mid-1960s that a good day with the little Dutil boy should include a snack at the Gare centrale (a dry, toasted tomato sandwich for her; a steamé hotdog for me) and a visit next door to the Basilique-Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde on what was then Dorchester Boulevard (René-Lévesque Boulevard today). A hundred years after it was built, that cathedral remained a grand building, the seat of the Montreal Archdiocese and, as Grand-maman reminded me, the place where my parents were married. She’d walk me past the side chapels and the impressive baldaquin above the altar, tell me that the place was patterned after St. Peter’s in the Vatican. We stopped in front of Archbishop Ignace Bourget’s giant effigy, a man stilled in eternal bronze, complete with his high mitre. I gripped my pious granny’s hand a little tighter the first time I saw it; he looked so real and this was too close to death for me. On the way out, we’d stop and admire the outdoor monument to the same man who had willed the building into existence, reassuringly standing high on a neck-craning plinth, far above our heads. 

We’d cross the Rue de la Cathédrale to walk around Dominion Square, as it was then called, and inevitably stopped to examine the other highflyer in the neighbourhood. It was Sir John A. Macdonald in his quasi-regal garb, commanding attention like a medieval knight. It was Grand-maman’s turn to grip my hand. She stopped to pay her respects, as she was a proud Quebecer and Canadian all her life, but Yvette Dorion could not forget that a distant grand-uncle, Antoine-Aimé Dorion, had once led the Liberal Party in Quebec and been Macdonald’s (losing) adversary. No hard feelings. We’d get back on the Notre-Dame bus, heading eastward to the modest apartment in Tétreauville. 

Last year, on the eve of the Labour Day Weekend, Montreal’s key decision makers — the Executive Committee and the Mayor — announced that the 1895 monument to Sir John A. that my grandmother and I had admired so long ago, and that had been vandalized in the summer of 2021, would not be restored. It would be repaired, eventually, and moved to a new location, presumably in the dark corner of a museum far, far from Canada Square, where few people will see it. Sir John A. Macdonald would find his place among the ordinary greats. The elegant pedestal and canopy, however, which were largely unscathed in the attack, will remain in place. 


THE MACDONALD STATUE, one of four erected within years of his death in 1891 (the others were in Kingston, Toronto, and Hamilton) had been damaged before, but had always been restored. Not this time. The damage to the monument in residential school graves panic of 2021 was unprecedented — the result of its violent toppling by a dozen men identified credulously by the City of Montreal as “anticolonial and antiracist.” The police politely looked on, not bothering to identify the vandals, let alone arrest them. It was painfully evident that they were doing the City’s work. 

Ericka Alneus, the City Councillor and Executive Committee member responsible for culture, proved it. She insisted that “The decision was not made to erase history, but to confront it with the values and preoccupations of our time.” She was being disingenuous. Montreal’s decision was precisely taken to erase Macdonald’s place in history, a breathtaking reflex of generational chauvinism. The values and preoccupations of our time are seen as vastly better than those of our forefathers and it was right for the City of Montreal to impose its thinking on those who made the decision to fund and erect the statue 125 years before — as well as to deprive all future generations of Montrealers who may not share the self-destructive malaise of today. “Indigenous Experts” would be consulted, Alneus insisted: “We have the opportunity here to add elements that were missing from the story.” How can one “add” to something that is no longer there?

What was also clear was that there was a lot missing from “the story” in the City’s account and the Quebec government was not pleased. Mathieu Lacombe, the Minister of Culture and Communications, declared that “Our government’s position is very clear: we must not rewrite history,” he told reporters, “we have to live with this history, for better or for worse.” It was a bland announcement from the Coalition Avenir Quebec government and Montreal ignored him.

The treatment of the Sir John A. monument in Montreal followed a recipe that has been used across Canada to discredit historical figures who had contributed significantly to shape the country but who were now in disfavour. Starting in 2020, the City of Toronto considered changing the name of its Dundas Street, its most important east-west artery. It was named in honour of Henry Dundas (Lord Melville), a key 1790s government figure and abolitionist who had a singular impact in appointing a number of like-minded men to govern a nascent Upper Canada and who enabled the green shoots of democracy in British North America. In December 2023 Toronto decided to limit the name-change to Yonge-Dundas Square, a plot of land that urban planners evidently forgot many years ago. Thankfully there has been a good deal of fight-back in Toronto and some of the Dundas legacy may be saved.

Egerton Ryerson, whose name had been given to a college in Toronto in the late 1940s, was also given the boot in 2022. For generations he had been honoured for his singular role in shaping public education, teacher training, post-secondary education, the library system, the Royal Ontario Museum and, no less, education governance. His statue was torn down by hooligans, with the blessing of the university president and another stand-by police detachment, and the institution was re-named. 

In Orillia, 130 km north of downtown Toronto, population 30,000, the beautiful monument to Samuel de Champlain has been restored but not reinstalled in light of objections from the local indigenous community. 

Across Canada, nine of the monuments honouring Sir John A. Macdonald have been removed and only two remain, both under police surveillance. The process of erasing from view the most progressive men of Canada’s past goes like this: First, decide that the historic figure will be removed from the cityscape. Second, create a committee of “community representatives” who have no experience in dealing with historical matters or issues of public memory and who, as a whole, are not representative of the community. Third, fund a research effort that will not consult with experts but that will serve to justify the decision taken in step 1. Fourth, create opportunities for feedback but ensure that they are limited to only very specific segments of the population. Finally, make the decision public on the eve of a public holiday.

Macdonald’s treatment at the hands of Montreal’s city council was textbook. Months after the remains of the statue were carted away, an eleven-member “expert” committee was established under Alneus’s chairmanship. It included four City employees representing various departments like planning, heritage, culture and social inclusion as well as seven “external members.” They were (in alphabetical order) Senator Michèle Audette, a leader in the Quebec indigenous feminist movement and one of the five commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; Harold Bérubé, a historian at the University of Sherbrooke; Dinu Bumbaru, an expert on monuments and a long-time employee of Héritage Montréal, a non-profit organization; André Dudemaine, a long-time activist in Quebec’s indigenous art and culture scene; Leslie Touré Kapo, recently established in Canada and now a Professor at Saint-Paul University in Ottawa specializing in anti-Black racism; Alan Stewart, a Montreal architecture historian; and Anne-Elisabeth Vallée, a published art historian.

All good people — but if Macdonald’s importance to history was going to get a fair hearing, probably not the right ones. Macdonald’s monument was taken down by individuals claiming their legitimacy from the “revelations” of 215 (or 200) graves of children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School and the Black Lives Matter campaign that had been revived a year earlier following the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. Three of the seven identified with the aggrieved segments of the population. Three others were experts on monuments, not on what monuments represent, and certainly not on Macdonald’s successes and failures. Only Bérubé was trained as an historian of Canada and Quebec and in a strong position to evaluate the case for and against Macdonald. The deliberations of this committee have not been made public.


GIVEN ITS COMPOSITION, it was not surprising that the committee came out against restoring the statue, but did favour the preservation of the architectural components of the monument (the pedestal and canopy), in full agreement with what the City of Montreal staff was feeding it.  

In fairness to Montreal, it must be said that its process was more sophisticated than elsewhere. In eight cities and towns across the country, from Victoria to Charlottetown and even Kingston where Macdonald lived, monuments to the first prime minister were removed from public spaces with no published rationale. Montreal City Staff produced a 32-page study on Macdonald himself and two other studies from an architectural and artistic point of view and from an urban planning perspective. The latter two were nicely detailed, providing a fair and straightforward study of the history of the placement of the monument and its features.

The City Staff Report on Macdonald himself, however, is misleading and misinformed. It does represent, contrary to what Alneus may claim, a rewriting of history. It acknowledges his “determining” role in the “creation of the country.” But, it continues, the interpretations of Macdonald’s role are not unanimous — “and never have been.” The study is based on a superficial reading of key secondary sources such as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, the Canadian Encyclopedia, James Daschuk’s discredited Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life (2013), and the flawed Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). The Montreal report also notes that its conclusions were determined in the new light of the numerous graves “discovered” near Indian Residential Schools in 2021 (pp. 4-5). “Macdonald’s legacy is strongly contested and the prestige that was once his has been questioned by many,” the city study declares.

It also argues that what best defined Macdonald was his profound attachment to the British Empire; that in fact he was “the most eminent representative of British Imperialism” in the country. The report goes further: that his affection for British Imperialism supplants his accomplishments in creating Confederation and in consolidating the Canadian economy (p.6). The report emphatically describes Macdonald as anti-democratic in that he sought to concentrate powers in Ottawa and condemns his “racist and colonialist” policies toward immigrants, indigenous peoples, French Canadians, etc.” (p.6) It notes that while his government’s restrictive policies on Chinese immigration were racist, they were relatively moderate for their time. 

The core of the study describes Macdonald’s youth, rise in politics, the Red River uprising of 1869-70, the “Pacific Scandal” of 1873, the National Policy, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, “generalized dissatisfaction” in the 1880s and the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Thereafter, Macdonald’s prestige tumbles as Quebec turns against him and his party following Riel’s hanging in November 1885. The Report does note that Riel’s efforts in the Northwest were not widely supported, observing that most of the Métis and Indian bands in the region wanted nothing to do with Riel.

The City staff report emphasizes Macdonald’s “ethnocide” and “cultural genocide” policies towards indigenous peoples; how Canada robbed them on the prairies of their lands in order to give them to the European settlers. Macdonald is accused of “forcing” children into Indian Residential Schools and denying the traditional Potlatch practised by a few B.C. communities (and which had historically involved the trade and execution of enslaved captives). Citing Daschuk, the report accuses Macdonald of starving indigenous people to death. Hostile towards democracy and universal suffrage, Sir John focused on maintaining the Imperial link, including something apparently bad called “parliamentary supremacy.”

The last section examines Macdonald and the francophones. Here he is depicted as believing in “British superiority” and being an anti-Catholic Orangeman. “It is hardly surprising that his relations with the francophone communities in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada were marked by animosity,” it asserts. Macdonald is depicted as abusing his relations with Sir George-Étienne Cartier, having “had few concerns for the democratic rights of francophones and generally showed a hostile attitude towards their demands” (p.34). His positions on Catholic schools in New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Manitoba are offered as proof, as is his hanging of the “hero” Louis Riel. “Riel is considered a hero in Quebec, a champion of the catholic faith and of the French culture,” it breathlessly declares, and that sealed the attitude against Macdonald in the province. Proof of that, the Report continues, was that in 1992 FLQ sympathizers decapitated the Macdonald monument on the anniversary of Riel’s execution (p. 34).


TO HAMMER THE last nail in Sir John’s memorial coffin, the report asserts that “these facts are well known and are matters of general consensus among historians.” Macdonald is presented as an ordinary politician, “not an innovator.” Hence, the fate of Macdonald is not one based on the conclusions of a historical debate, “but on a contest between memories, heritage and collective symbols.” 

Thus Montreal, with the blessing of a misinformed advisory committee, has issued a document that can only be described as a petty, cartoon view of Macdonald worthy of a lazy secondary school essay. It is based on easily accessible sources, but abandons any critical perspective. One could hardly imagine that the engineering department in the city, or the public health division, would propose policy alternatives based on sophomore trigonometry or biology. The City’s assessment of Macdonald would be laughable were it not so sad. Its arguments, all the same, have been influential and because of them, the statue will not reappear in public for generations (it will return, I am confident, when a wiser generation takes a hard look at the failed judgements of our day). The jejune views of the City of Montreal must be refuted.


Macdonald the Imperialist

The notion that Macdonald’s 50-year career could be summarized by “The Old Flag, the Old Policy, the Old Leader,” the Party’s 1891 campaign slogan, should merely elicit laughter in a city that boasts four universities. Macdonald’s Conservatives were not campaigning for the Empire, but making a pitch for an autonomous Canada in light of the free-trade scheme the Liberals were campaigning for that would draw Canada closer to the United States. Macdonald in the famous poster was not brandishing the Union Jack, but a version of the Canadian Red Ensign. He was depicted on the recognizably Canadian shoulders of a worker and a farmer, not members of the House of Lords. The “old policy” pointed to the protection of Canadian industry and agriculture. The “old leader” was no doubt tongue-in-cheek; he had certainly been around a long time. The entire campaign was nationalistic, hardly what the Montreal report pretends. To think of Macdonald as an Imperialist based on decorations received from Queen Victoria is to ignore his story — to say nothing of his strikingly independentist foreign policy.


Macdonald the Orangeman

This is another old trope. Macdonald did belong to an Orange Lodge in Kingston at some point to curry local support, but was hardly an advocate of its extremism. It was the largest men’s association in Canada for decades, represented in all walks of life. He was also a freemason (Royal Arch). Did he espouse the views of the Protestant Ascendancy? The Montreal Report must think its readers are really dim. What singularly distinguished Macdonald in his time was his extraordinary success in reaching out to Catholics — both French-speaking and Irish — and involving them in all aspects of government. It was the very source of his success, emphatically not a source of animosity. If anything, Macdonald was accused in his own day (and, in Quebec later) of being too close to the Catholic Church hierarchy. The Liberals, in contrast, relied much more on their Protestant and teetotal base, were often hostile to the Church and to the French language, and it in turn, often opposed them.


Macdonald the francophobe

This again is a baseless accusation. Macdonald was careful to give francophone Quebecers fair and substantial representation in cabinet as well as in the senior ranks of the public service. He did not speak French well, but certainly did understand it and he enjoyed the company of Quebecers. His actions on the schools questions in Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Manitoba were certainly not equivalent to those of provincial governments in the 1970s and 1980s, but he respected the provincial jurisdiction in education, a policy followed by Ottawa to this day. The argument about Louis Riel is even more ridiculous. Clearly, Montreal officials forgot that Quebec viewed Riel as the “Mahdi of the West” and sent two battalions to suppress Louis Riel in the Spring of 1885, led by a Minister of Militia and deputy minister of Militia who were both French Canadians and who did so with the full backing of the Catholic hierarchy. This is common knowledge.


Macdonald as genocidaire

Macdonald certainly did establish Indian Residential Schools in 1883 in the Western lands still managed by Ottawa, but the record is clear that no student in his day was ever forced to attend any of these institutions. As the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission pointed out, schools for the native population were established as early as New France and continued for a century after Macdonald’s death. He may have been crude in his language at times, but his goal was clear: He wanted indigenous peoples to become full and willing partners in the modern economy. Like all his contemporaries, he did not particularly care for notions of “indigenous culture” because governments around the world did not concern themselves with such policy issues. I have no doubt that if Macdonald were alive today he would be the first cheerleader of indigenous lawyers, teachers, professors, accountants, environmental activists, doctors and businessmen. Those men and women are the very incarnation of Macdonald’s dream for Canada.

The notion that Macdonald deliberately caused the death of indigenous people through starvation has been debunked. The reality is that over the 1880s, the budget for Indian Affairs (led by Macdonald personally) was the third-highest expense for Ottawa (only transfers to Provinces and Public Works were higher). Macdonald created programs to help Prairie tribes make the transition from bison-hunting to farming and even though they were not successful all the time, he put government efforts where needs were acute. It’s worth remembering that the Opposition Liberals endlessly chastised him for wasting government dollars, including wasting those dollars on Indians. Macdonald’s efforts to ensure that the indigenous population was inoculated against Smallpox in the 1880s saved thousands of lives. 


Macdonald the anti-democrat

The City of Montreal staff was clearly unaware of Macdonald’s dramatic expansion of the franchise in 1885, an act he called his “greatest accomplishment.” He presented a bill in April of that year that proposed giving the right to vote to qualified women and indigenous people. To get enough support, he was forced at the last minute to insert an amendment denying the vote to the Chinese, many of whom were temporary workers. It was indeed a gesture that has tarred his legacy, but it has to be understood in its context — he needed the vote of every MP from British Columbia to pass his enfranchisement bill. In the end, he was not successful in giving women the right to vote, but that took nothing from his merit in being the only statesman of his generation to propose such a measure. He did win the right to vote for indigenous men, with conditions and limited to eastern and central Canada in light of Indian participation in the Riel rebellion, and there is ample evidence that Indigenous men in Ontario did exercise that right to vote until it was taken away by the Laurier Liberals in 1897.


MACDONALD'S RELATIONSHIP with Quebec has been greatly distorted over the past century. He was undoubtedly vulnerable in many ways in the province. Macdonald spoke no French and hardly campaigned in Quebec. His sherpa in Quebec was Cartier, but he died in 1873 leaving no successor equal to him. Twelve years later, Macdonald again was considered acutely vulnerable after the hanging of Riel. Not least, Quebecers left the country in droves on his watch — between 20% and 30% of the population emigrated in order to find work, mostly to the United States. Already 400,000 had established themselves in New England by the mid-1870s. People voted with their feet more than they did with their ballots. 

And yet Macdonald remained popular in Quebec during the entire period from 1867 to his death in 1891, facing the electorate seven times, winning a majority of seats five times (the exceptions were the debacle of 1874 and the rise of Wilfrid Laurier in 1891) and the popular vote in the province on six occasions. In fact, Macdonald proved to be generally far more in step with the ideas and attitudes of his Quebec contemporaries than commonly believed. He was always more popular in Quebec than he was in Ontario (only in the election of 1887 did his score of the popular vote in Ontario beat that in Quebec), and his support in the province proved far less volatile than in the rest of the country. 


HOW DID HE do it? Politically, Macdonald was sans pareil in Quebec. His protectionist message clearly resonated. He avoided intrusions into the province’s affairs. He disallowed only four statutes of the Quebec legislature (compared to seven in Ontario, thirteen in British Columbia and eighteen in Manitoba) and only once openly intervened in provincial politics. He did that by removing a Lieutenant-Governor so that, in turn, the Liberal government would be dismissed. His respect for French Canada, in contrast to the hostility of George Brown, earned Sir John steady support both at the local and the provincial level. Macdonald brilliantly allied himself in Quebec with a creative assortment of key political opinion leaders, local political entrepreneurs and, not least, the Catholic Church, an institution in which he had no interest or tie (though his private secretary, Sir Joseph Pope, was an intellectual convert to Catholicism). The eulogies of Macdonald in the House of Commons, not surprisingly, were started by two French Quebecers, his friend Sir Hector Langevin and his adversary, Wilfrid Laurier.

In part, Macdonald was lucky in his adversaries. In 1867, the issue put before the people was Confederation itself. The shell-shocked opposition of essentially nameless Liberals were informally led by George Brown, a man who detested French Canada. The Grits seemed divided even more in Quebec as many young members denounced the union project, making them all the more vulnerable to the exhortations of church leaders to vote in favour of Confederation. In that first election, fourteen Conservatives were acclaimed as were five Liberal-Conservatives — almost a third of the 65 seats — while the Liberals were acclaimed in four ridings. Macdonald’s Conservative Party took 36 of the 65 seats in the province and 29% of the vote while the Liberal-Conservatives took eleven seats and 12.1% for a combined total of 47 seats and 41.1% of the vote. The Liberal party, in contrast, took only seventeen seats and 28% of the vote. Their putative leader, Antoine-Aimé Dorion, won Hochelaga, the large district that encompassed the eastern part of the island of Montreal, with only a handful of votes to spare against a total unknown. The Conservative coalition and the Liberals won the seats in the House of Commons, hiding the fact that another 31.8% of the votes had been given to a wide variety of independent candidates, though none were actually elected to office. Support for non-affiliated candidates was part of a national trend: Ontario voters gave 37.6% to a mixture of independents, New Brunswick 39.3% and Nova Scotia 24.4%.

Facing a tougher opposition in the informal leadership team of Edward Blake, the Premier of Ontario, and Alexander Mackenzie in 1872, Macdonald emphasized the enormous accomplishments of his first mandate and pleaded for more time to complete the job of Confederation. As in 1867, nineteen ridings were uncontested in Quebec — nine went to the Conservatives, five to the Liberal-Conservatives and five to the Liberals. For the rest, the campaign in Quebec turned on Macdonald’s position of neutrality regarding New Brunswick’s withdrawal of funding for Catholic schools. That issue enflamed the rising ultramontanes and the increasingly confident Liberal leadership of Louis-Amable Jetté who renamed his party as the Parti national. Jetté ran against Cartier himself in Montreal East, and beat him. Macdonald’s coalition of Conservatives, Liberal-Conservatives and one Independent Conservative (in the riding of Beauharnois, which elected either an “independent” Conservative or a Conservative tout court in six of seven elections) still took 38 seats and increased its share of the vote to 44.3%, though it lost ten seats, most notably in Montreal and the south shore. As in the first national election, almost one in four electors voiced their favour for local, unattached, candidates (the secret ballot was introduced in 1874). 


THE SHOCKWAVE of the Pacific Scandal rocked Macdonald’s party in Quebec in the debacle of 1874. Facing a more united Liberal party under Mackenzie and Dorion, and deprived of Cartier’s help, Macdonald’s vote collapsed in Quebec. His Conservatives and Liberal-Conservatives still won by acclamation in fourteen riding, but the Liberals tripled their acclaimed victories and took sixteen seats. In the ridings with contests, Macdonald’s coalition collected 38.1% of the vote, more than a 20% drop, and only 31 seats. The disastrous result, all the same, was more than the Liberals who managed to collect 36.7% of the vote but only 34 seats — more than the Conservatives for the first time. Over 25% of Quebec voters again chose independents. 

Macdonald had the support of a coalition of conservatives in Quebec, including Liberal-Conservatives and “Independent Conservatives” of various sorts. Frédéric Houde, for instance, won first in 1878 as a Nationalist Conservative to make the point that while he was a partisan of Macdonald, he was all the same rather distinct. He was reelected on the same label in 1882. He died in office, two years later, aged 37, but Maskinongé continued to vote Conservative, as it did for four of the seven elections fought under Macdonald. It was also not uncommon for a candidate to run on one label in one election and the other in a subsequent election. Joseph Godéric Blanchet ran in different ridings as a Liberal-Conservative from 1867 to 1875, a Conservative 1875-1878 and again as a Liberal-Conservative 1878-1883. Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, won Montreal West in 1887 and 1891 as an Independent Conservative and supported the government on most questions.

Macdonald came roaring back in 1878, capturing 48 seats and 50.9% of the vote in Quebec, while the Liberals dropped to 17 seats and 21.2%. While the ballot for independent candidates continued to drop elsewhere, in Quebec it climbed again, reaching over 27% of the votes — more than a quarter of the voting public could not commit to supporting a party. Macdonald’s coalition won by acclamation in only three ridings, while the Liberals took one without a contest — another dramatic change in Quebec politics. All the same, the gains were impressive as Quebec voters manifested their disapproval of the Mackenzie government and tripled their bets on Macdonald’s proposal for a National Policy. Macdonald’s provincial team was now headed by Langevin (who lost his seat, ironically, and would have to run in a by-election to return to cabinet) and Joseph-Israël Tarte, the newspaperman and master organizer.

The popularity of the Macdonald government continued into 1882, and no less than sixteen of his partisans (including Octave Méthot in the always “Independent Conservative” holdout of Nicolet) were elected by acclamation to the House of Commons. The Liberals took only one seat by acclamation. Elsewhere in the province the Tories fared well before the opposition led by a reinvigorated Edward Blake. Macdonald’s coalition increased its take with 52 seats and 50.3% of the vote. Finally, the support for no-label candidates in Quebec was beginning to erode, translating into even more support for Macdonald. The Liberals lost three seats and their share of the popular vote dropped to 21.2% — almost 7% less than the vote for the candidates with no party labels at all. It was, for them, their most humiliating defeat of the Macdonald era.

Macdonald’s popularity was riding high when the troubles in the West in 1885 and the execution of Riel in November threatened to destroy his name in Quebec. The timing could hardly have been worse for the government, but Macdonald called an election to be held fifteen months after Riel was hanged. 

Facing Edward Blake again, Macdonald could have expected a drubbing in Quebec in Feb. 1887, and he got one in terms of seats, losing sixteen while winning 23 seats for his Conservatives, eight Liberal-Conservatives, and two Independent Conservatives for a total of 36). Three Liberals were acclaimed, while three more Conservative seats were taken without a contest. 

And yet it is the votes that matter and Macdonald coalition’s took 50.1% of the popular vote, a slight decline from 1882 but no more than a rounding error. All the same, the Liberal gains could not be dismissed. Blake, with Laurier increasingly taking a visible place in the Liberal party leadership, more than doubled the Liberal vote, seeing it climb to 41.5%, and practically wiped out the independent vote. Macdonald got the seats he expected and won handily in Quebec, but his dominance of the popular vote must have surprised even him.

Macdonald’s remarkable resilience in Quebec was confirmed four years later, in 1891, his last election. Once again, that contest turned on the National Policy and the Liberal alternative of a more free-trading form of commercial exchange with the outside world. Somewhat hurt by the allegations of corruption around Langevin and his Quebec-West backbencher Thomas McGreevy, Macdonald faced no less than Wilfrid Laurier, Quebec’s native son, as leader of the opposition. Honoré Mercier, the Quebec Premier and leader of the Parti nationaliste, also campaigned against the Tories. The situation was made worse, as one of his most promising Ontario backbenchers, D’Alton McCarthy, continued an anti-French crusade. 


THE NOW VERY much aged Macdonald could not muster much of a campaign in Quebec, and the Conservatives lost another six seats as a result. Before the votes were counted, one Conservative had been acclaimed, and both Langevin and McGreevy had been reelected. When the votes attributed to the various independent “Conservatives” were counted Macdonald had collected an astounding 49.1% of the vote, a loss of 1% on the result of 1887. The Liberals took 33 seats (three more than Macdonald) and had finally conquered the Quebec stronghold not because more people voted Liberal but because their vote had been more efficient.

Where did Macdonald’s popularity reside during the seven national elections held in the first 24 years of confederation? There is no geographic concentration to it. Twelve of the 65 ridings elected conservatives during all the elections held between 1867 and 1891, with no discernible pattern as they are scattered across the province from as far northeast as Gaspé and as far south as Soulanges. Towns like Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke voted conservative consistently and elected a mix of francophone and anglophone Conservatives. But they were exceptions — Macdonald was very popular in ridings dominated by francophones. Five of these (Bagot, Laval, Montcalm, Montmorency, Terrebonne) were represented by francophones during the entirety of Macdonald’s leadership in or out of government. Six of the seven victories were won by francophones in Champlain and Gaspé. Anglophone domination through the seven elections was present only in Compton (dominated by John Henry Pope until he died in office in April 1889; his son Rufus ran in the by-election two months later and was elected), Sherbrooke, and Quebec-West where Thomas McGreevy was the rainmaker through all these years until he was expelled a few months after Macdonald died. Trois-Rivières was represented by two anglophones and five francophones.

The same could be said for the sixteen ridings that voted for the Macdonald coalition six of seven times (boycotting Macdonald either in 1874 or in 1887): they represented all regions and more than a few were in more concentrated urban areas. Montreal-Centre withheld its vote from Macdonald only in 1867. Thereafter, this English-dominated riding sent an Anglophone to represent it on the government side, though never getting a cabinet seat. Quebec-West voted for Macdonald unless there was a scandal. Eight ridings supported him five times out of seven. 


MACDONALD WAS also generally well-served by his cabinet and he was successful in attracting solid, if sometimes lacklustre, candidates and he seldom lost a cabinet member from Quebec in a general election. Sir George Cartier, certainly, was of the highest rank, putting his friends in the service of the Conservative cause. Cartier cemented a strong base in Quebec that allowed Macdonald to show himself and his administration as friendly to Quebec. The first cabinet contained three French Canadians (all from Quebec): Cartier (Militia and Defence), Langevin (Indian Affairs, then Public Works), and Jean-Charles Chapais (Agriculture and Statistics, and later Receiver General). Others would join Macdonald in cabinet over the evolution of the mandate with various degrees of success, including two former premiers of Quebec, Joseph-Alfred Mousseau and Adolphe Chapleau, and others like Théodore Robitaille, Louis F. G. Baby, Rodrigue Masson, Adolphe Caron.  

In other words, Macdonald was consistently popular in Quebec during his lifetime. 

For more than 125 years, a monument to his memory has stood. It was funded by local citizens and unveiled by the Governor General, the Earl of Aberdeen, on a beautiful spring day in 1895 before a crowd of 5,000 (by some accounts 20,000) and the other three statues mentioned earlier were unveiled before similarly large crowds. The imposing monument stood in the heart of Canada’s greatest city, one of the great cities of the Empire, and the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, as an eloquent reminder of how popular the man was in Quebec in his time.

The installation of the monument was a democratic gesture in the highest degree. What was categorically undemocratic was the way it was taken down, though some disagree with this judgment. Similarly, the fate of the Macdonald monument was ultimately decided because it apparently represented values that were no longer consistent with 21st century Montreal and its famous Charter of Rights and Responsibilities. Macdonald has been framed as representing everything opposite to “dignity, anti-poverty, respect, justice, equity, culture, promotion of harmonious relations among members of the community (cosmopolitanism), respect for French language, duty not to diminish the rights of others.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The pedestal and canopy that remain will now live out their destiny as a hollow shell — a fitting symbol of modern Canada — and more trivially as a platform for minor personages and pet causes. The grandeur of the site has also been diminished but much more than that has been lost. The sense that policy should be guided by a disinterested respect for the facts has been lost in favour of the view that policy can be prompted by criminal violence followed by state-sponsored disinformation. It is telling indeed of our time.

So, Salut! Good-bye to Macdonald-on-Canada-Square. I won’t be seeing you, with my grandchildren, in your rightful place. Perhaps we’ll see your monument in some corner of a museum, though likely never again. Your ambition for Canada will remain in many of the books and articles the City of Montreal staff did not bother to read — and in the hearts and minds of our better-informed citizens. You were brought down by the people who happily sat at the table you set but sniffed that the soup had gone cold.

Patrice Dutil is professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan (Ryerson) University. He has a Ph.D. from York University and his written or edited ten books, the most recent of which is The Unexpected Louis St-Laurent: Politics and Policies for a Modern Canada (UBC, 2020). He was founder-editor of The Literary Review of Canada 1991-96. This article appears in the Summer 2024 edition of The Dorchester Review. Order here.

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  • William on

    When woke “fools” in authority openly lie, in order to satisfy “political correctness” of the day (meaning lying) due to personal cowardice and since they know they are lying and they know that we know they are lying yet they continue down the same wide and smooth and easily traversed dark “crowded” path to hell, then we know Canada as a nation and democracy itself is in decline. It is said that when God wants to judge a nation he allows wicked rulers to rise up as we see today. This not only signifies for our young nation the end of the beginning but the beginning of the end as Communism increasingly tightens its grip, as intended by those ruling over “we the people.” The bottom line for believers, we worship God and not the State, as required by Communism.

  • Aleks Zivanovic on

    Canada doesn’t seem to want to be Canada any more.

    This paragraph was particularly depressing:
    “The pedestal and canopy that remain will now live out their destiny as a hollow shell — a fitting symbol of modern Canada — and more trivially as a platform for minor personages and pet causes. The grandeur of the site has also been diminished but much more than that has been lost. The sense that policy should be guided by a disinterested respect for the facts has been lost in favour of the view that policy can be prompted by criminal violence followed by state-sponsored disinformation. It is telling indeed of our time.”

    Something of great value has been lost and we’re still waiting for its replacement to reveal itself.

  • William Wilhelm on

    Dutil’s excellent chronology of the defamatory political assassination of MacDonald would have author and Canadian historian, Pierre Burton, rolling in his grave. It’s beyond despicable and shameful how a small group of historically blind sycophants could be allowed to lead the visually impaired public into a miasmas of ignorance. Should anyone wonder what caused the dominoes to fall, look no further than the party who obstructed justice in 2021 by cancelling the RCMP investigation into the alleged discovery of all those alleged remains of children, some as young as three ?? This was the day the music died in Canada.

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