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In the modest tradition that is associated with Canada, few monuments have been built to honour Sir John A. Macdonald. Unlike his nation-founding peers, Macdonald's role in building this country has left little physical evidence on the Canadian landscape.
George Washington, for example, is commemorated by coins and paper currency, a university, a 500-foot tall monument, a capital city, a state, a bridge and even a mountain with his likeness permanently carved into it, all in recognition of his efforts in building the United States of America. But Macdonald, although every bit as integral to the genesis of his country as Washington was to his, has seemed to slip from the Canadian consciousness. There are no cities or provinces named in his honour, no institutes of higher learning, no monumental landmarks.
Even the pieces of our country that do bear his name-such as the shared honour of the Macdonald-Cartier freeway (Highway 401 in Ontario) and the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa-are rarely called by their formal titles. His image also adorns the Canadian $10 bill, but it took 110 years for Canadian parliamentarians to commemorate Macdonald with a national day named for him-January 11, which is recognized as Macdonald's birthday. But the day usually comes and goes unnoticed, without so much as a mention in newspapers and on television.
"Canadians . . . for all their becoming modesty, do not seem well equipped to deal with greatness, to praise famous men and women," said Liberal MP John Godfrey, the sponsor of the Sir John A. Macdonald Day bill, during debate in the House of Commons in 2001.
"It is regrettable that in Canada, with those examples before us . . . we lack that kind of robust celebration of our great historical figures and the great moments in our history," said Canadian Alliance (now Conservative) MP Jason Kenney, also during the debate.
The high regard in which Ottawa's political class holds Macdonald is not always reflected in other regions. In Victoria, British Columbia, where Macdonald ran for a seat in Parliament in 1870 after Kingston voters rejected him, the Victoria Times-Colonist published a blistering editorial in 2000 criticizing Macdonald's legacy in its city and province. The editorial was published during a debate over whether to move the city's Macdonald statue from its location in a troubled neighbourhood to a more publicly acceptable spot. "It can be argued that Sir John A. is fine where he is," the editorial stated, "perfectly representative of government as he stares blindly at the drug dealing and prostitution on Broad Street without doing a damn thing about it."
Macdonald's policies on federalism shaped constitutional debates a century after his death. Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney used Macdonald's own words to win support for his constitutional reforms package known as the Charlottetown Accord, which sought to recognize Quebec as a "distinct society."
"In choosing federalism, we put an end to the notion that the path to Canadian unity lay through submerging our diversity in a unitary state," Mulroney said at an address at Macdonald's grave in 1991. "Rather, we chose a system in which provinces are sovereign in their respective areas."
Several of Macdonald's modern peers have said that his true legacy is the way he pieced Canada together-through patience, pragmatism and patriotism. "We don't put a value on coalition and consensus like he did," said Preston Manning, former aspirant to the Prime Minister's Office as the leader of the Reform Party of Canada. "When people look to cross party lines, it's almost looked on as a weakness rather than a strength. In a country that is as diverse as Canada, you can't hold it together unless you had those skills. And Macdonald had those skills."
According to Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, Macdonald's legacy to the country is the country itself. "Without Macdonald we'd be a country that begins somewhere at the Manitoba-Ontario border that probably goes throughout the east. Newfoundland would be like Alaska and I think that would also go for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. We'd be buying our oil from the United States. It would diminish our quality of life and range of careers, and our role in the world would have been substantially reduced."
In 2004, a CBC television contest named Sir John A. Macdonald the eighth greatest Canadian of all time. Ahead of him were two other prime ministers, a provincial premier and a brash hockey commentator. The seven ahead of Macdonald have all achieved success, perhaps greatness, but without Macdonald, there may not have been a country where they could become great.