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Confederation has become the hallmark of Sir John A. Macdonald's political career. On the surface, it may appear that the Confederation process that gave birth to Canada was the outcome of political conferences led by a cadre of like-minded politicians. In reality, the road to nationhood was long, arduous and often lonely for Macdonald. Canada at the time consisted of a loose array of precarious governments that needed one man's determination, vision and skill to unite. This took most of Macdonald's life to achieve and it was destined to become his most important legacy.
One has to look back only 10 years before Confederation to see the political quagmire that Macdonald somehow managed to mould into a united country. By 1857, the political process in the Province of Canada had ground to a halt. The joint-premiers system, intended to unite the interests of Canada East (Lower Canada) and Canada West (Upper Canada), was paralyzed by political disputes. French and English factions in the legislature could not agree on anything with the result that there had been six governments in six years. Meanwhile, the prospect of persuading the Maritimes to join Canada was increasingly unlikely.
In the first of many great nation-building achievements, Macdonald managed to unite three parties-his Liberal-Conservatives, Le Parti Bleu under George-Étienne Cartier and the Clear Grits under George Brown-to form the Great Coalition government in 1864. It proved to be a coming of age for Canada and was the precursor to Confederation. With leaders from what would go on to be Ontario and Quebec finally united, Macdonald, with a new confidence, again took up his goal of uniting the Maritimes and Canada.
Using his masterful political skills, Macdonald persuaded Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (which had been close to forming a union of their own) to join Canada at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864. Prince Edward Island, after initially flirting with joining the United States, would follow the other Maritime provinces into Canada. Macdonald drafted 50 of the 72 resolutions that would establish the framework for a united Canada. The resolutions were debated and passed at the Québec Conference by 31 political leaders. Macdonald had his country and needed the formal approval from the British House of Commons to make it official. He travelled to London to watch as British politicians approved the British North America Act on March 29, 1867.
Macdonald continued nation building as a Conservative prime minister, inviting Prince Edward Island into the union largely on a promise to erase its debt, and pulling British Columbia and Manitoba on side with the Canadian Pacific Railway. But to modern-day Conservatives, the policies of Sir John A. Macdonald's governments would hardly be considered Conservative at all. The tenets of minimal government, fiscal responsibility and open trade markets were generally rejected by Macdonald's constituents. Canada's first prime minister believed that a strong central government, a willingness to spend and closed foreign trade policy were integral to his goal of building a transcontinental union.
The railway, at a final cost of about $52 million (roughly $1.3 billion in today's currency) was seen as a necessary public expenditure by Macdonald. On foreign policy, Macdonald was a fierce British loyalist, but he refused to put London's wishes ahead of Canada's interests. On one occasion, the British government asked Macdonald to send military support to the Sudan to aid a British offensive. Macdonald was indignant at the request. "Our men and money would be sacrificed to get [British Prime Minister William] Gladstone and company out of the hole they have plunged themselves into by their own imbecility."
On economics, Macdonald introduced his National Policy during the 1878 election campaign together with a promise to finish building the Canadian Pacific Railway. With this platform, Macdonald was returned to power over Alexander Mackenzie's Liberals. With a railway linking the country together, Macdonald felt Canada's economy would also need protection from the United States' expanding influence, as well as a way to encourage trade across Canada. The National Policy effectively closed Canada's border to American imports by imposing high tariffs on American goods, and prevented Canadian producers from competing in foreign markets. Macdonald also created a law enforcement agency, the North West Mounted Police (precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), to thwart any attempt by the United States to annex the western territories.
Given the passage of legislation by U.S. congressmen, like the Canada Annexation Act, Macdonald was likely justified in his concern. However, some historians suggest the National Policy caused a rift between the populations of Western and Atlantic Canada and the central economic region of Ontario. According to Historian Claude Bélanger, "The country developed unequally under the national policy and it gave rise to all sorts of regional problems. Westerners became alienated and have complained of unfairness since. Maritimers lost their traditional prosperity and with it their proud heritage of vigorous and autonomous government."
Macdonald's insistence on one strong central government also prompted him to try to assimilate First Nations into the Canadian identity. "Macdonald combined a romantic sentimentalism for First Nations people with a total disregard for their right to keep their ancestral cultures and religion," wrote historian Donald B. Smith. "[Macdonald's] policies eliminated institutions by which the First Nations governed themselves."
Whether visionary or short-sighted, impractical or inspired, Macdonald's policies continue to shape our country and compel Canadians to continually examine their shared past, present and future.