Richard Gwyn’s book is a wonderful contribution to Canadian history. This is the second of Gwyn’s two-volume biography of Canada’s first prime minister (the first is entitled John A. The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald (Volume One: 1815-1867).

Gwyn observes in the epilogue that he wrote this book in an effort to make Canadian history alive and relevant again. He has succeeded beyond his expectations. He has described Sir John A. through the lens of the Canada we know today and in the telling, brings to life for a new generation of Canadians the man who, more than any other, willed Canada into existence. The book is impossible to put down as the fascinating story of the life of Sir John A. Macdonald rolls effortlessly from Gwyn’s pen.

Gwyn observes that there has always been an odd and obdurate insistence on the part of Canadians that, whatever else, we are not and will never be Americans. It is not surprising then that our greatest prime minister was an odd and obdurate politician who not only resolved that we would not be Americans, but who then set himself to that task with intelligence and irrepressible charm and rascality. Gwyn’s treatment of Sir John A. is far from fawning, but it is truly impossible to dislike Macdonald as you read this book.

Macdonald was exceptionally intelligent and extraordinarily well read, but he was so confident in his own skin that he usually “sheathed his own intelligence, so as not to block voters’ sight of him” — the witty, down-to-earth politician that he knew they loved. There was, as Gwyn notes, no smallness or meanness in him. To be sure, he drank too much, in part because he had a weakness for it and in part to escape from the very bleakest of private lives. Financial difficulties plagued him. His first wife had become an invalid and opium addict; one son died in infancy; his relationship with his other son was very difficult. His second wife was devoted to him, but their only child, Mary (to whom Macdonald was devoted until his own death), was born hydrocephalic, never able to walk or feed herself.

But his cabinet worshipped him. His caucus loved him. Members even of the Opposition were known to dodge him in the House of Commons “for fear he would seduce them into crossing the floor.” On the hustings he charmed Canadians unlike anyone else, winning six of seven national elections.

Those election victories were not won, however, with charm alone — he was an extremely capable politician — as Gwyn puts it, he “always put the politically effective ahead of the theoretical.” He adroitly co-opted Canada’s first trade unionists into the Conservative election cause in the 1872 election, passing Canada’s first unionist legislation and describing himself from the stage as an “industrial worker” who specialized in making cabinets. Although “by instinct a believer in free trade and the free market,” with the country suffering through a serious depression and facing high US tariffs, he created his National Policy to protect Canada’s young manufacturing sector — and its workers.

He was “genuinely innovative” internally, ensuring regional as well as religious and ethnic representation in his cabinets. And not only was he wily and pragmatic, he was Machiavellian, complaining for the benefit of Ontario’s Orangemen in the 1873 election that he wished he could lay his hands on Louis Riel to punish him, knowing full well that he had himself secretly funded Riel’s sanctuary in the United States purposefully beyond the reach of the Canadian law.

But he also made mistakes.

Gwyn recounts in detail the Riel rebellions (1869 and 1885) and struggles to understand Macdonald’s rationale in allowing Louis Riel to be executed — despite abundant evidence that this would assure Riel’s martyrdom and damage the country — which it did.

And, of course, there was the Pacific Scandal. Gwyn skillfully outlines this complex story. It was never a question of personal corruption, nor of selling the railway to the Americans, for Sir John A. was guilty of neither. He was, however, guilty of accepting extravagant sums of money from railroad interests and then applying those funds in ways that not only violated the scant electoral laws of Canada in that era, but offended public sensibilities. Macdonald resigned as prime minister. Caught in the vortex of it all, he lost his way, resorting to heavy drinking, which weakened his own instincts of response. He even vanished for a period of time.

His opponents were scathing in their victory but, as Gwyn notes, his absence was felt immediately and the nascent, tenuous nation that was Canada suddenly seemed more tenuous than ever. So essential was his leadership to the very existence of Canada at that time that the shame and humiliation of it all permeated the country.

It is hard to overstate the tenacity that Sir John A. must have had at that point in life. He had been completely and fully humiliated. He was dismissed as a failure and a drunk. Yet, tellingly, his Conservatives refused to let him resign as their leader. A good thing for the country, as it turned out — there was much more to be done.

His political instincts remained quietly sharp through the diligent but uninspiring Liberal administration of Alexander Mackenzie, and by 1875 the magazine Grip was able to note that “there’s life and spirit in the old man yet.”

He imaginatively employed “picnic politics” through the summer of 1876 to engineer a political revival and by 1878, at the age of 64, he had been completely reinvented, fully forgiven and freely embraced by the Canadian public. He swept the country in the 1878 election, and again in 1882, 1887 and 1891.

And he accomplished much.

Gwyn recounts the history of the CPR itself rather quickly, but in fairness, that story has been chronicled by others such as Pierre Berton. Moreover, Canada’s “great dare” unfolded quite quickly after Macdonald’s return from the political wilderness, from the time of the signing of the controversial contract with the CPR in 1880, through the passage of legislation in 1881, to the day in 1885 the last spike was driven in. Macdonald, now an old man but still bent on “nation-building,” fought for the all-Canadian railway route with his very health, declaring that it would “give us a great and united, a rich and improving, developing Canada, instead of making us a tributary to American bondage, to American tolls, to American freights.” It did all of that and more. It remains to this day a thin ribbon that ties together an improbable country.

There is also much that is new and thoughtful in Gwyn’s book, including detail on Macdonald’s creation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP). His design for a distinctively Canadian force was a hundred years ahead of its time — some of the force’s members and support personnel were to be drawn from the French, Indians and Métis. Gwyn illustrates well how, directly because of the NWMP and its approach, the Canadian West evolved so differently from south of the border. He concludes that “the NWMP didn’t just help to build Canada by establishing peace, order and good government … it actually helped to build Canada itself.”

Gwyn’s examination of Macdonald’s attitudes toward Canada’s first peoples represents a new and welcome interpretation of Canadian history. Whereas he assesses Sir John A.’s failure to effectively protect the Plains Indians from starvation and disease as their way of life collapsed precipitously in the late 1880s, he also shows that Macdonald’s attitudes toward Indian people were far more progressive than his contemporaries’, and were more enlightened than has been recognized in our history. Gwyn suggests (in the terminology of the time) that Macdonald knew more about Indians and Indian policy than any other Canadian prime minister, at least until Jean Chrétien. “In his dealings with them he made mistakes, but they were the product of political and administrative miscalculations, never of prejudice.” Remarkably, and unknown to almost everyone in Canada today, he introduced a franchise bill in 1885 that would have accorded Indians the right to vote. It was, however, scrapped by the Laurier government in 1898, and the Indians would not secure the right to vote until John Diefenbaker undertook legislative reform in 1960 — 75 years later. Macdonald also repeatedly disallowed racist legislation from being passed by the British Columbia Legislative Assembly aimed at halting the influx of Chinese workers.

Another little-known fact is that Macdonald also sought the franchise for women, albeit unsuccessfully. “He was the first national leader in the world to attempt to grant women the vote, and because of him Canada’s Parliament was the first in the world to debate the issue.”

Macdonald died in office, not long after being re-elected in 1891. Indicative of the respect even his opponents had for him, this quote is from the eulogy given by Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal Leader of the time, who had cut his political teeth watching and learning from Macdonald: “The place of Sir John Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the political life of this country, the fate of this country, can continue without him … as if indeed one of the institutions of the land had given way.”

Canada was never a certainty. This one man came to embody the determination of Canadians to survive against all odds, as our own improbable and curiously fabricated nation.

Gwyn’s book contributes much to our understanding of the figure who fathered and then secured the survival of the great country that we today take for granted. Gwyn is to be thanked for reminding us, through his recounting of Macdonald’s life, that this country is and will always be an act of will, a conscious choice to survive as our own people.

A review of Richard Gwyn. Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times (Volume Two: 1867-1891). Toronto: Random House Canada, 2011.

Photo: Shutterstock

Jim Prentice
Jim Prentice is senior executive vice president and vice chairman of CIBC. He was elected to Parliament from 2004 until 2010, serving variously as minister of Industry, Environment and Indian and Northern Affairs.

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