It should come as no surprise that at the mention of Sir John A MacDonald, you get a lot of negative feedback. He managed to in his time attract a lot of controversies. Like his law career, he drew as much positive attention as he does negative today. Born the 11th of January 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a somewhat successful business owner by age five he and his family had immigrated to Canada settling in Kingston, Upper Canada. While his father continued to see moderate success in running various mills and businesses, most of the family income would go towards John’s education. In addition to the district grammar school, his parents enrolled him in various private schools. John would later state that he had no childhood, as by the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to notable local lawyer George Mackenzie. MacDonald took to the practice of law, and within two years Mackenzie appointed John as manager of his Napanee office. By 1835, MacDonald would be called to the bar and open his practice in Kingston. But not in that order, he opened his practice first, then in a couple of months called to the bar. Wanting to make a name for himself, he took on all manner of desperate cases. From the defence and legal advisor to Nils Von Schultz the Polish national who had led the Hunter Army at the battle of the Windmill to a well known local man who had been accused of rape. MacDonald would win as many cases as he lost. His days in criminal law did not last; he switched to commercial law when two notable banks, the Commerical Bank of the Midland District and the Trust & Loan Company of Upper Canada retained him as their solicitor. He would also marry his first wife, Isabella Clarke that same year.
MacDonald’s first taste of public office came as he sought and won a seat on the Kingston city council as an alderman. And when provincial elections came around, MacDonald ran for a place on the Legislative Assembly winning on the Conservative ticket. Politically, MacDonald aligned perfectly with the Tory view, he firmly believed in commercial expansion, maintaining ties with England, state support religious institutions, and rule by the elite. As a representative in government, he fought for the requests of his constituents, at least those he had some investment in their businesses. And while his financial difficulties would have kept him out of the Family Compact, his political views would have made him a reliable ally. And MacDonald did not hold an excellent financial house, often moving both home and office to keep ahead. Most of his efforts to build wealth usually cost him more. When Henry Draper took power in 1846, MacDonald would be appointed Reciever General in the cabinet. And when the Reformers took control in the next election, he graciously stepped down. And while he fought hard against responsible government, he did not participate in the riots that broke out during the debates surrounding the Rebellion Losses Bill in 1849. He found himself facing violence by the Tory Mob. He yielded to the times and settled into being a member of the opposition, but when the Hincks government needed help. He crossed the floor with the party leader Sir Allan Napier MacNab and became a member of the new Liberal-Conservative Party accepting the post of Attorney General in the Cabinet. He often faced attacks from both William Lyon MacKenzie and George Brown during his time, but when hints of the scandal were made at both Hincks and then MacNab, MacDonald knew what to do. And it would be MacDonald who ultimately forced MacNab to resign the Premiership.
When the dust cleared, it would be MacDonald who became the new Premiere in Canada West. Between the ongoing instability in the government and the loss of his wife in 1857, MacDonald began to rely heavily on his usual coping method, drinking. Having little in the way of childhood, he knew no other way to cope. And for the most part as a simple assembly member the drinking wouldn’t be a problem, but as premiere when a bill came up for debate in 1862 MacDonald was on a bender. The bill failed, and the government fell as a result. The government would flip back and forth several times before everyone, including MacDonald, became tired of the constant deadlock. MacDonald and his co-premiere, George Cartier, reached out to George Brown to investigate how to prevent future deadlocks. And when the idea of a single union came up of all the provinces in British North America, they would reach out to the Colonial Office in 1859 only to get a polite no in response. The problems would continue, and when in 1864 the issue came up again, and the government was poised to fall, MacDonald reached out to the only man he knew would be able to shore up the government, George Brown. Despite their opposites in the political arena, Brown joined the government in a grand coalition, but at the cost of exploring a full union. MacDonald agreed and working through the Governor-General, Sir Charles Monck, arranged for the Canadians to join the Maritime Provinces in Charlottetown. While the star of Charlottetown was certainly George Brown, it would be MacDonald who sold the whole matter. He would master the art of compromise at Quebec City in managed to build a framework around what the new confederation would look and act like — giving up his dream of a single central government in favour of a balance of power between the Federal and Provincial Governments, while allowing the Senate to remain an appointed body to provide a sober second thought to the elected House of Commons. He would sell the matter to the Canadian Parliament and while Brown would leave the coalition in 1865 over arguments with MacDonald over the leadership but they continued to work together on selling the idea of Confederation to Parliament. He continued to fight over the separation of Canada East and West and combined with the Fenian Threat forced MacDonald back into the bottle in the summer of 1866. The awkward part is that while he was on his bender the delegates where waiting, unable to move forward on Confederation, in London. It would take both Monck and the New Brunswick Premier to get MacDonald to sober up and get to London by November. While in London the show was MacDonald’s, he continued to use the art of compromise and salesmanship to move Confederation forward, earning the reputation of an able politician and a genius leader from British authorities. He even managed to court and married his second wife, Agnus, while in London. When he returned to Canada for the establishment of the Dominion, Monck would appoint MacDonald Prime Minister and make him a Knight Commander in the Order of Bath. When the Federal elections ran in August, MacDonald would be formally elected Prime Minister.
The first years of the new Dominion were rough. To build a strong local economy, MacDonald issued high tariffs on American imports and worked towards the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company, establishing it as the North-West Territories under the Canadian Government. MacDonald’s first test would be the Red River Rebellion which saw Louis Reil form a provisional government with demands for Provincehood. Canadian Militia alongside British troops would squash the rebellion; Riel would escape into exile and Manitoba would be welcomed into Confederation under the same demands. Through his efforts, the dominion expanded with both Prince Edward Island and British Columbia joining in 1871 and 1873 respectively. With British Columbia now a province and the ever-expanding attempts to colonise the North-West Territories efforts to build a railroad across the dominion increased but only caught the government up in a bribery scandal. A Liberal Government would be elected and MacDonald, like any good Conservative waited for them to foul up somewhere. During his time as leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, he took time to go on vacation and restart his law practice and even considered retirement. But when the Liberals failed to build the railroad he jumped into action, running on a new platform to build the railroad and increase tariffs to grown the economy. It worked, and he was returned to the Prime Minister’s office in 1878. By 1880 he had gotten his drinking under control, but the years had left him in poor health, and the new decade would prove his most controversial through the lens of history. In a malaligned effort to improve the life of the indigenous Canadian population and to work with reports ordered in the past by Sir Francis Bond-Head and Sir Charles Baggot, the Canadian Government and several churches established Industrial and Residential Schools to help teach western language and skills in factory and farm work. But the system never worked and instead ushered in a dark part of Canadian history that saw a near-total culture genocide of many civilisations. When Louis Reil returned and started a second rebellion in the North-West, MacDonald ordered the militia and the North-West Mounted Police to quell the insurrection again. Reil would not escape this time and would stand trial for treason, MacDonald authorised his execution along with other leaders including (incorrectly) Chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker). Pîhtokahanapiwiyin would receive a pardon far too late in May 2019 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. These controversies were not considered such in the 1880s although there was an outcry for the execution of Riel. He also established a head tax on Chinese immigrants to ensure European domination in Canada. These were all overshadowed by the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1886. MacDonald had solidified himself as the lucky penny for the Conservatives and despite age and illness starting to catch up, he hit the campaign trail one more time. A collapse would leave him bedridden at home which did little to affect his campaign, and the Conservatives took the election in 1891. And a few days after the win a stroke would disable the Prime Minister leaving him unable to speak or stand but still alert. He would hold on, and he passed away on the 6th of June 1891. Sir John A MacDonald had served in the office of the Prime Minister for nineteen years before his death; thousands would pass his coffin as he laid in state in the Senate Chamber, thousands more would attend his funeral train on its way to Kingston. He would be laid to rest in Kingston’s Cataraqui Cemetary.
Most of the ill will that surrounds Sir John A MacDonald is in regards to the establishment of the Residential School System, which saw the final school close in 1996. And while he should take some of the blame for the matter, it was a long-standing systemic issue that kept on getting worse and worse as the years went by. But it is also an opportunity for a better narrative about our historical figures. We often look at these men (and women) through the lens of super-heroism, that they could do no wrong. And who doesn’t like a little hero worship? And when I look at Sir John A, I think of Star Trek First Contact where all these Enterprise crew members are so enamoured with meeting Zephram Cochrane, the inventor of Faster-Than-Light travel on Earth and realise that he invented it for his own game and is a hard-drinking crude man, they’re a little disappointed. Maybe we have to stop applying super-human standing to our historical figures and realise that they’re just like us, human, fallible. Did MacDonald do great things? Yes, without him, we wouldn’t have the modern Canada we know today, his efforts bound the first provinces together and allowed for expansion. Did he do terrible things? Also, yes, his historical track record of racism and colonialism speak for themselves. But does that mean we need to start tearing down statues and stripping his name off buildings and prizes? Well, that depends on the context, maybe if the building was on a reserve or a government office dealing with our rocky relationship with indigenous people, or if the statue was on a reserve. But for the most part statues to MacDonald are raised for his role as Prime Minister or one of the father’s of Confederation. We need to accept both our good and bad histories to keep it from happening, and it’s a lesson we’re still struggling to learn. Today you can find even several statues to Sir John A MacDonald across Canada, such as on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and Queen’s Park in Toronto. One of MacDonald’s many homes in Kingston, Bellevue, is a National Historic Site dedicated to the Prime Minister and is a great spot to learn more about the man behind the myth. Kingston also has both MacDonald’s first and second law offices standing, the latter being turned into a restaurant that until 2018 was known as Sir John A’s Public House, today it’s the Cajun on King. A Candian Pacific Locomotive in Kingston’s Confederation Park (No. 1095) known as the Spirit of Sir John A is a memorial to MacDonald’s efforts to build the Canadian Pacific Line and also to the connection of the city to the Railroad industry.