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Pin-Up Prime Ministers, Part I
Steve Artelle: Welcome to the Forum on Canadian Democracy, Political Junkie Café...Archives Canada is a regular series; it gives us an opportunity to talk about the documentary heritage here in our collection, and it's really exciting to work at LAC. I notice that there are signs for another event that's happening at this very moment for the folk festival, and the cultures that we bring together. We have the political junkies and we have the flower children all in the same building at once. There's an opportunity for a rich dialogue this evening, I think.
What we're celebrating tonight especially is Sir John A. MacDonald. A while back, Arthur Milnes, who is on our panel here tonight, pointed out this great piece from William Lyon Mackenzie King's diary. December 1922, King writes about a visit to the former National Archives, and he writes in his diary, "At three, I went down to the Archives. Sir John MacDonald's papers were being sorted and bound, boxes full of them. It's a sort of solemn business to realize one is a part of one's country's history; and for good or ill, will be so counted. It places a very great obligation on one."
So it's wonderful now that we're celebrating almost ninety years later the launch of another major Web initiative. We're putting about seventy thousand pages of Sir John A. MacDonald's documents online; and notably, of course, the other Prime Minister that we put all sorts of papers online a few years back was Mackenzie King. So the obligation and the weight of history is certainly on those two individual Prime Ministers. You can have a look at all their records online here.
So on our panel tonight is Arthur Milnes, a former Kingston Whig Standard reporter who writes about political history. He served as former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's research assistant on the latter's Memoirs published in 2007, and that research was conducted primarily here at LAC.
I should also mention what an influence Arthur was on the Sir John A. MacDonald project. He is, I think, the greatest living champion of Sir John A. Arthur and his wife were married on Sir John A's birthday, January 11th - on purpose, not by accident - and this part I get a little confused, Arthur, but they had an individual come dressed as Diefenbaker and he delivered a political speech at the wedding.
Arthur Milnes: He defended cancelling the Arrow.
And he started the night by saying, "Thank God I didn't have to land at Pearson Airport."
Steve Artelle: Arthur, are you still married?
Arthur Milnes: Yes, and I got the John A. MacDonald birthday past my mother-in-law, the last battle I ever won with her.
Steve Artelle: Diefenbaker and the Arrow; that is romance.
Arthur Milnes: It was.
Steve Artelle: That is a romantic evening.
Arthur Milnes: And we were engaged at the Eternal Flame on Parliament Hill on Canada Day; that's where I asked my wife to marry me.
Steve Artelle: We should have you two here on Valentine's Day, I think.
Also with us we are honoured tonight to have Thomas Axworthy here. Among the records that we have at Library and Archives Canada are the papers of Thomas Axworthy. I'll try to deliver a short version of his accomplishments.
From 1975 to about 1984, Mr. Axworthy was a policy advisor, also principal secretary to the Right Honourable Pierre Elliot Trudeau. In the 1980's and '90's, he was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard; Vice President and Executive Director of the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation, and under his leadership the foundation created the famous "Heritage Minutes," dramatizing vignettes from Canadian history that you all know from television and from theatres. He also helped, in the late '90's, to create the Historica Foundation. In 2002, he was invested as an Officer in the Order of Canada. He became Chair in 2003 of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University; and, believe me, that is the short version.
So, once again, we're very pleased to have these folks here tonight and we're very pleased to have you here tonight. The Sir John A. project wants to honour this exceptional Canadian by presenting photographs and other documents from LAC's collection. As well, our website has tens of thousands of pages of correspondence and political documents of Sir John A., which will allow all Canadians to better know the life and career of Sir John A. MacDonald, to understand that career, and the life and the richness of these papers not only for MacDonald, but for Canadian Prime Ministers and leaders.
I will turn it over now to Thomas Axworthy and Arthur Milnes and to the audience to engage in the dialogue tonight. Thanks very much.
Arthur Milnes: Thanks a lot, Steve. To get things going, because Tom is a Liberal, proud one as you should be, I brought a Sir Wilfred Laurier action figure for Tom because we're talking about a Tory, and it's very Canadian; in the States he'd have kung-fu grip and everything, but the action part of my beloved Wilfred Laurier action figure is that his arms moves. So I thought it would make Tom more comfortable.
Thomas Axworthy: Where did you get this?
Arthur Milnes: I collect this stuff, but I have to say that thanks to Steve and the team here at Archives; I had no idea that they used John A. MacDonald to sell lingerie, and my wife thanks you that it's not current. There's Pierre Trudeau lingerie; people out in Vancouver did that a few years ago.
Anyway, Tom and I first met, actually, at John A. MacDonald's statue in Kingston on January 11th, and my wife and I organize a bash at John A.'s statue at noon every January 11th, and I looked out and there was Mr. Trudeau's former principal secretary. So, Tom, why would a Liberal come out and honour Sir John in the middle of winter? He had better things to do.
Thomas Axworthy: Well, being in Kingston, I didn't.
Arthur Milnes: Oh, this is going to be good.
Thomas Axworthy: I hope there's no [7:40].
Arthur Milnes: Don't trust the Whig reporters. I'm just kidding.
Thomas Axworthy: No, I mean, [7:47], but MacDonald was the first and the greatest of our Prime Ministers in Canada; and if you honour that institution, then you start by honouring.
Arthur Milnes: Right, and we have to start there. In my career as a journalist what I loved about Sir John A. is I made a career of asking other Prime Ministers, living ones, about what they thought of John A. Once, I came to work at the Whig at about eight in the morning and there was a call from 24 Sussex at seven-fifteen already on my answering machine, and it was Mr. Chrétien when he was Prime Minister; and I can't do his accent, I love his accent, and he said, "Arthur, I want to talk about MacDonald. Call me." I thought it was my friends joking, right? So I called the switchboard and they put me through to 24, and Mr. Chrétien and I had a wonderful interview because people forget that Mr. Chrétien's birthday is also John A. MacDonald's birthday, January 11th, and I've always found there's a great interest in Sir John by anybody involved in politics, interested in politics, obviously because he's such a lovable rascal, he's such a great character, he's fun.
I think, Tom, you're going to talk a bit about his skills, what made him a great Prime Minister.
Thomas Axworthy: Well, I'll go to the podium, ladies and gentlemen, and give one or two quotes from Sir John A.'s speeches that I want to make. So we'll have just a brief discussion, and then open it up for questions.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's a great pleasure to be with you, and I want to applaud the Archives for the initiative in digitizing the Sir John A. collection and for engaging in this public outreach education program they have on Prime Ministers and important political events.
The really critical aspect is that history begins, in many ways, with documentation, and documentation leads to illumination if you spend time understanding the forces behind those who create those papers. So it's a great issue for archives around the world about how to take static collections and to turn them into living educational instruments; and so our Archives is attempting to do that, and they're attempting to do that even by having something as hip as the Prime Minister's Café, if that's where we're at tonight.
So when you begin with leaders...let's just stop and think for a moment about first leaders, and in our current context think of the difference between Nelson Mandela and Mr. Magawbe, two first-time leaders, one who overcame generations of apartheid, his own incarceration and came out with the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, which has been so enormously important to the development of South Africa. Very few people would have bet on South Africa's peaceful transition without the leadership of someone like Mandela. Leadership matters. Think of Magawbe, his neighbour - an esteemed freedom fighter, a hero of the resistance movement supported by much of the world, not least Mr. Mulroney who Arthur did the Memoirs on, and many others at different points in his career, but slowly and gradually going down that slope of authoritarianism, blaming, eventually, perhaps today, going into madness with complete ruination of the country that he freed from colonialism: a first-time leader gone awry; Mandela, a first-time leader who was an inspiration and still is.
So thinking of important beginnings, of that hard to define but crucial elixir of our political systems, which is political leadership, let's turn back for a moment and think of our first leader and how tremendously lucky we were in the person of Sir John A. MacDonald; and to be brief, let me just outline for you what I regard as the three critical skills of prime ministers, and then briefly discuss how Sir John A., with the documentation which you can go on this website, how he used these skills in the Canadian context.
My three criteria for leadership, great leadership - and there's one or two of my former students I see in our crowd and they will have heard this before, so don't boo at all the inappropriate places - that there are three intersecting circles or elements of leadership which are crucial, and the first are the values that the men or women take to the job. What were the purposes of power, and did they run with or against the sign of the times and the elements of history? What were the values and what were the objectives that leaders hold?
Second is that leadership is more than wishes; you and I can hope to have a brilliant health care system, but what does it take to get it done? And so a second intersecting circle of leadership is capacity, bringing together the human and the financial resources to turn the hopes in your purposes into solid accomplishment. So capacity, administration, personal management, putting together a cabinet. The difference between a prophet who has purpose and a leader who has capacity is that the leader takes the wishes and makes them into a reality.
The third component of leadership is then support, communication. It is not enough for an enduring leadership to have a purpose or to have a capacity. Is it supported in our democracies by the mass of the people? Do the objectives and the purposes of the leader become inculcated within the body of politics as a whole so that the leader's objectives and values become more widely diffused and accepted by a people and build the infrastructure of tolerance and values that a country holds? So support and communication is an absolutely critical aspect of my concept of leadership.
So we really have a trinity of forces when one looks at great leaders. So with that three, that trinity aspect, let me just briefly discuss each one of them in relation to Sir John A. and to try to make the point to you on how blessed we were to have this man at that time.
First of all, on the purposes and the basic overall objectives of Sir John A: You know the aspects about history, I believe, which is often lost is that we look at the seminal events of which the leaders were involved, Sir John A. and Confederation, but we forget that one's basic framework, the value frame that I speak about, usually occurs much earlier in your career. Your basic approach, your basic framework, your basic Weltanschauung comes at a much earlier age, in your teens and your twenties, at which if you go into politics you then attempt to work out that value system when you have actually acquired power. So Canadians tend to think, or certainly my students tend to think, of Sir John A. only really in the Confederation context, the man who created Canada; and, indeed, that was the essential purpose of Sir John A. MacDonald, to create a British North America that would endure with the economy organized on an East-West axis. But that concept of having a British North America, how did that emerge? What was there in the make-up in the young Sir John A. that made that to be the dominating motif of his political life? And in a moment, I'll speak about how he used his human skills around capacity, and his communication skills, in order to persuade Canadians that that was a critical objective to maintain.
MacDonald was born January 1815, the year of Waterloo. In many ways, if we think of Sir John A. to appreciate him, we should think back more to Napoleon and the forces that were evident at that time in the world than we should think of 1900 or our own age. MacDonald became Prime Minister of Canada in 1867 and worked for a generation thereafter, but in many ways Sir John A. is a figure of the 1820's when he came into his maturity: born in 1815, came to Kingston with his family in the 1820's, left school at the age of fourteen to begin his apprenticeship in law, joined the Bar in 1836, went into politics in 1843. Think about that career. In politics running elections from 1843 to 1891, nearly fifty years of electoral campaigns. This is a guy who liked politics. And in the era that he grew up, in my eyes - Peter Waite makes this point in his history - in many ways Sir John A. was a regency figure, if you know your British history. He was a rascal; he loved humour; he had a devil-may-care aspect about him. In his own political career, this devil-may-care rascal saw-off and defeated the righteous puritans and George Brown, Alexander Mackenzie and Edward Blake. Canadians liked having a rascal as their leader.
One historian writes that when Sir John A. was in Nappanee, the tricks and the mischief he would get up to as a teenager would today put him in a group home under the Young Offenders Act.
He was a character, and we know that he had his human frailties, but those frailties he was tolerant with his own and therefore tolerant of other peolpes' as well. But growing up in the 1820's, the seminal event for the generation of Sir John A. was the War of 1812-14. Canada had been invaded; it had been nearly lost. He knew when he began practicing law that his law partners and students had fought in the 1812 war; he joined the government of Allan MacNabb who was in the militia against the Americans in 1812.
The rebellion of 1837 where Sir John A. was in the militia was about the family compact, but it also had connotations that the rebels went to the United States to seek Secord and then would come back to Canada.
The Fenian raids of 1866 were in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario; they were serious; they were like the September 11th, or the terrorist attempts, of that time; these were major armed incursions by private groups. They attempted, the Fenians, in 1817 in Manitoba; and as late as 1889, toward the end of Sir John A.'s life, the Fenians were attempting to mount an operation against Canada at that time. What I'm trying to say to you is that the prospect of maintaining a British North America wasn't an abstraction for Sir John A. MacDonald. When he grew up, the Americans had tried only fifteen years before to take it away from us, and throughout his career a group of Americans kept trying to do so; therefore, in his first campaign in 1844, Sir John says, a quote from his election platform, "I therefore need scarcely state my firm belief that the prosperity of Canada depends upon the permanent connection with the mother country, and that I shall resist to the utmost any attempt whatsoever, or quarter it may come from, which may tend to weaken that union." His very first electoral address is maintaining the British connection. His last famous speech in 1891, "A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die"; this concept of creating and maintaining a British North America with a strong federal government as the guider of that approach with an East-West economy after the national policy being the means to achieve that distinctiveness in North America is a key aspect of the values of Sir John A.
When we think of Sir John A., don't think of him at 1867; think of him as a young man in the 1820's growing up in a Kingston and an Ontario which was suffuse with the dangers of a large power who had attempted to take away our independence. MacDonald, the Tories and a large percentage of Canadians had as the objective of their life to frustrate that attempt which they saw as a real danger. So the values of Sir John A. well in place.
Now on capacity: MacDonald was a marvellous manager of human beings; he understood human frailty. He was very wise; one of the basic lessons in political communication is that if you've got difficulties - Arthur is the reporter here - but if you've got difficulties, how much better it is to shine a light on your own problems: don't let the Opposition do it and never let the media do it.
What were some of John A.'s frailties? Well, we know one. (laughs) He tended to imbibe a little. Some of the stories of the influence of alcohol in Canada in the 19th century, just to put it in context for you, though, that whiskey at that time was a quarter, twenty-five cents, a gallon. When one visited a good home in the 1820's or 1830's, there were buckets of whiskey with a ladle in them. Our House of Commons, parliament, had not one saloon, but two. There was a saloon down below the House right to the left of the speaker, and there was a saloon, the senate never to be forgotten in anything including drinking, also had their own saloon. Laurier believed and wrote that at any one time he thought that fifty percent of the House of Commons was [swazzled] all the time.
MacDonald pointed to his own propensity to enjoy a drink now and then. You know his famous quote, which he said himself that Canadians liked Sir John A. drunk more than George Brown sober. A second time, this is somewhat of a disgusting story, but he had been out on a spree and was speaking on a political platform with a good sturdy Methodist reformer, much like the Axworthy's, and promptly fell ill on the platform, which was awful and upset the crowd, and so on, and Sir John A., when it came his time to speak, he looked towards him and said, "Whenever I hear that opponent, he turns my stomach," not backing off from what had been an embarrassment into something that he would point to.
A third story along that line, since Arthur is a journalist, Sir John A. also would get somewhat carried away at convivial events with the Conservative Party. They went on all night, and one reason they were so drunk in the House of Commons all the time is they had all-night sittings; it was my government, Mr. Trudeau, that began getting rid of all-night sittings, but in those days they would sit literally all night and stay awake by drinking whiskey; and, once, Sir John A. was giving a speech, which went on at some length, and he got more convivial as the evening went on, so he made a somewhat incoherent address, and he was lucky because a journalist called him up the next day, who was taking notes, and said, "Sir John A., there are several points here that don't seem to make...Come to my office, please; I'll sort everything out with you." So he invited the man in, and the journalist began checking things, and so on, and Sir John said, "No, no. What I said was - " and he delivered his speech extemporaneously to the journalist, and the journalist said, "This is wonderful," it's got Sir John A., got it perfect, and "Thank you so much. You cleared up all these points," and began to leave; and just as he was leaving, Sir John said, "Oh, and one last thing, young man. There's a lesson in all this: never take down the remarks of a public man when you are drunk."
So Sir John A. knew frailties, pointed to his own, knew humanity, and was able to weld them together. He put down as his occupation on capacity when he went to Great Britain, he had to put, signing in - I think it was the Windsor Castle, actually - "What was your occupation?" and he put down "cabinet maker." He spent an enormous amount of time having to put together the differing regions of the country in order to have a cohesive whole.
The ability to manage a cabinet with the different regional aspects, maintain their triumphs, was a singular capacity of Sir John A. MacDonald. Well, there have been other Prime Ministers who perhaps had been as good: the man who Arthur worked for for several years, with all his difficulties; Brian Mulroney had a marvellous personal hold over his caucus. At the time when polling results were enormously low, one could expect cabinet revolts, caucus revolts. We're used to them now in Ottawa; we are the Liberal party. Mr. Mulroney was able, by knowing peoples' birthdays, by cajoling them, by spending time with them, in order to keep his caucus and to keep his party together, and Sir John A. was exactly the same way. He had a brilliant memory, and J.S. Williston, a Laurier supporter and a noted journalist at the time, caught this aspect of Sir John A., and he wrote about one of Sir John A.'s last campaigns that "across the country in every constituency, the old guard of the Conservative Party would come out to work for him night and day in every township, and their only recompense for this tremendous voluntary labour was to have a nod or a word for Sir John A. knowing their name; that's all they asked and all they wanted," keeping that party together, the old guard, the volunteers who make parties move. In the archive I'm sure they will have the fantastic correspondence that Sir John A. had with his party and with just Canadians. He liked human beings, he enjoyed their company, and that humanity of the man helped him in the management of the human resources of government.
Lastly, the communication side: Sir John A. does not get enough credit for what a brilliant communicator he was. He was a fantastic House of Commons man: very skilled and quick on the repartee, very good also in the set piece of political oratory at the time. He was a political innovator. He invented the concept of the political picnic. In the 19th century where for many years of Sir John A.'s career there was not a secret ballot, the votes would be staggered, so he would always want to have Kingston early so he would be elected early; all kinds of shenanigans you could do at the time. Bribery was very common and very effective because in a vote without a secret ballot, you know, if the [32:00] was standing up and I paid her five dollars or a gallon of whiskey, I knew which way she voted. So bribery was enormously widespread and judiciously used.
Raising money, which we know from Sir John A. and the Pacific scandal, was an important part of having those kinds of resources: they didn't spend it on polling; they spent it on bribing and on buying-out party newspapers, and MacDonald discovered the technique of having a political picnic where there would be lots of booze, lots of fun, lots of speeches of an hour-and-a-half, getting all the supporters together, and then Alexander Mackenzie and the Liberals had to join him in joining in this concept of the political picnic. The Reformers, probably not; that's why they lost all those elections to Sir John A. (laughs)
He was tremendously combative in the House of Commons, which was as partisan, perhaps even more so because it was fuelled by alcohol, as today. He never held a grudge, but he was a terrific, an impassioned, debater. Sir Oliver Mowat, who was his law student and went on to become Premier of Ontario, they had [33:13] in the House in 1861 with Mowat asking him a series of questions about some scandal of the day, and Sir John A. taking umbrage at his former law student, giving him the stick and saying, "You young pup. I'm going to come over and smack your chops," but he got over it.
Sir John A. always got over his anger. He said one of the secrets of surviving in Canadian politics is never to hold grudges; your enemy of today would be your coalition partner of tomorrow. So he depended and relies on the toleration of people for his difficulties; he also carried that ethic himself. He was one of the least judgemental of Prime Ministers, and he believed himself, he wrote, that he did not believe that a truly Conservative Party could ever be elected in Canada, that a truly Conservative Party had to add to it coalitions of supporters, which is why he called his party the Liberal Conservative Party; and, indeed, there were candidates in the Conservative Party who went under the Liberal Conservative designation as late as 1911. Sir John A. was the first, and I don't know if there are supporters of Joe Clark here. Sir John A. was the first that I know of in Canadian history in letters to write about the necessity for a progressive conservatism.
Sir John A. was a big-tent man; he was not a narrow ideological man; he was not a hater. He was one who believed in inclusion, not exclusion. He had a vision of a strong Canada with the national government as a guiding force, as opposed to a Canada totally dominated by provincial action.
When he died - and I'll end here on my three circles of leadership - Wilfred Laurier said himself, a great Prime Minister, that the whole history of Canada really starts when Sir John A. enters parliament. One man's career is all of our history.
So when you think of this rascal, think of a jaunty 1820's man. When he got on the train of the CPR, 1886, that had just been finished, and came out across the West, he stopped in my hometown of Winnipeg. The Conservatives had not seen him before there, and a vast crowd - this was reported in the Winnipeg papers at the time - a young man enthusiastically applauded him, but then said to his friend, "God, he's a seedy looking bugger, isn't he?" (laughs) That was Sir John A. He was a seedy-looking character. He was a character from the 1820's; he was a character who loved humour; he was a human man; he was a man full of frailty; he was a man full of the grandest idea, which is that he could pull together the British North America we loved. Our first Prime Minister was our best.
Arthur Milnes: I'm not going to say much after that.
I was going to tell the reporter story; that is my favourite. But my other favourite, it also involves the press, is the Governor General, I believe in Montreal, giving an address in Greek.
Thomas Axworthy: Oh, yes. Lord Dufferin.
Arthur Milnes: Yes, and a reporter comes up to Sir John and says, "What did you think if his Excellency's speech?" and Sir John A. praises it to the hilt and he says he praises his Excellency's use of Greek, and the reporter goes off with his quote, and Sir John's companion says, "I didn't know you knew Greek, Prime Minister," and he said, "I don't, but I know politics."
And my only other comment, and I hope Sir John will forgive me, but listening to Tom there my best example of a phrase that captures MacDonald - I'm so sorry, Sir John, but it's American - is somebody wrote of Lyndon Johnson once that he was the American president most reeking of human juices, and that so captures Sir John A.
You don't want to listen to me. Let's have some questions, and let's have a talk.
Well, I'll fill in for one minute. There are two people here; I didn't know they were going to come. We talk about this cause of political history, and my friend Kate Malloy, the editor of the Hill Times, is over there. How long have we been doing political history, Kate? Fifteen years?
Kate Malloy: Fifteen years.
Arthur Milnes: Fifteen years, and she deserves credit. A lot of editors say you're crazy, right? Kate Malloy.
And another group - and Peter Delottinville will tell me if I say the wrong names or anything - but my understanding is, Peter, that your folks drove digitizing and putting the King diary online. Am I right? Okay. Well, that's an incredible thing that our students today now can sit wherever they are in Canada and read that incredible document; the only thing I'd like to thank Peter and his team for is not doing it when I was in university because I'd still be in my basement reading it, so thank you.
Somebody has got to have a comment. That's a pretty incredible address. Yes, sir?
Q: Not to mention another writer, but Richard Gwynn recently has been publicizing his book, which I'm sure is very good. All I know about him is speaking very well on TVO, and he stressed again and again not a new interpretation of Confederation, but one very strongly put that it's the Americans that gave us the country because the threat of American and the attraction of the British connection was crucial. Mr. Axworthy, do you have any comment, basically, not on Richard Gwynn, but on the extent in which the American peril of the victorious northern army having won the war in 1865, etcetera?
Thomas Axworthy: Well, yes. As I said, the threat of American invasion for MacDonald and his generation was not an abstraction; they had lived through it, and at least their political class had lived through it. So they were always conscious of that particular possibility and that particular threat, and MacDonald himself at the Treaty of Washington in 1871 had begun, despite his intense defence of the British connection, to start to be weary of how much Britain would expend its own treasure and army to protect Canada if the Americans really wanted it. So this is not making Americans out to be bad folks, but there was, beginning with Thomas Jefferson who said, "The only thing that it needed to take Canada is boots," just walking up here, thinking that it would fall into the American...Benjamin Franklin who thought the same thing would happen in 1776. There is a long history of that, which is why I emphasize it in my remarks that it seems, of all the aspects of the 19th century, the enmity between Canada and the United States with armed force; it seems the most unbelievable to us, but it was not to that generation; they had lived it.
Then the threats of the Union armies. Several senators and others had the idea that this was the time to take the colony, which should never have existed after 1814 anyway, highlighted by the Fenian raids, which I perhaps stretch the metaphor in saying they were the Al-Qaeda of their time, but they certainly made four to five armed attempts to take Canada, and that lasted until the 1880's.
So MacDonald and his contemporaries had a strategic imperative that if they wanted to maintain a British constitutional system, the monarchy, parliament, not be Americans, these four disparate colonies with an accumulated total of about four million people in the 1860's against this amazing colossus who had been able to field the armies in the millions in the Civil War, that was an enormous potential threat both in the Canadian West and for Canada as a whole. Had there not been confederation, one never knows in history, and perhaps it's [unproffable] to speculate, but the ability of those four independent colonies on their own surviving the American juggernaut is at least problematic; certainly MacDonald and his colleagues thought so. So that, I think, was one driving force.
The second driving force is that the Province of Canada was not working. There was almost complete political stasis, governments shifting almost totally. George Brown came up with the federal idea, which MacDonald was smart enough to accept, and he even accepted Brown as part of his government, his parliament, and that was even harder for him. But the combination of factors of an external security threat coupled with a political system which was plainly not working and hadn't really since Durham, those both a domestic imperative and an external imperative drove the Confederation [44:27].
Arthur Milnes: Tom got me thinking about the Kingston of his time; I hadn't thought about it. That's what I love about listening to Tom; he really gets you thinking. He would have been, if he arrives in 1815 -
Thomas Axworthy: No, he was born 1815 and he arrives in 1820.
Arthur Milnes: I'm sorry, 1820, but as he's a little boy he's living in a city where they had American ships just...You know, he's a little boy and there would have been people there who would have seen those ships firing.
Thomas Axworthy: That's what I'm saying. Virtually everyone he would have talked to, their most vivid...You know, my father fought in World War II and his most vivid recollections were the war, and I think it is for anyone who is in one, and MacDonald growing up was in Kingston, which was in some ways - it and Queenston Heights - were the epicentre of the war.
Arthur Milnes: And, again, that really struck me that he would have been living in a time where those memories would have been so fresh. And I was just reading I believe it's a dictionary Canadian biography entry that Keith Johnson and professor Waite did - I think it's in there, but I could be wrong - that he set up a spying operation, in that pre-Confederation period, because of the U.S. Civil War, on the Americans. It's pre-CSIS we were doing that. I just think that's so cool.
Thomas Axworthy: There's another anecdote, and the wonderful thing about MacDonald is that there are anecdotes for every occasion, but I mentioned the Treaty of Washington and the Americans, and there's a very famous case of him going down for the negotiation, the Treaty of Washington, 1871, and they were waiting at the dock to take a boat on the Potomac - which American presidents still love to do, by the way; you know you really started making Washington if you get to go on a boat - and so he was waiting and the wife of an American senator came by and said, "Are you part of the Canadian delegation?" and he said, "Yes, ma'am, I am.
"Well, they have a Sir John A. MacDonald who is supposed to be very, very smart."
"He is, ma'am."
"But they also say that he is a real rascal."
"He's a perfect rascal."
"Why do they keep him?"
"Well, they can't do without him."
"But isn't he the worst kind of [scallywag]?"
"Yes, he is." The woman's husband came by and said, "I'd like to introduce to you Sir John A. MacDonald." Her face blanched, but this is MacDonald, and then he said to her, "Madame, don't be embarrassed. Everything you said was perfectly true and they know it all at home."
That was MacDonald, both playing the joke - he loved jokes - but also going out of his way to reduce her embarrassment after so she wouldn't be crushed.
Arthur Milnes: Tom told the cabinet-maker story, and I went to England a couple of years ago - my wife wouldn't go on this one - to do research on MacDonald's life in England and experiences in England. On his wedding registry when they asked him what his occupation was, he signed it "honourable."
Q: If I can just get you [47:53] you just see all these MacDonald's documents online at the Library and Archives website. Which document would you look at first, and why?
Arthur Milnes: Okay. That's a great question. Talk about putting a junkie on the spot, and I've never done this. It will be interesting to hear Tom's answer, too.
I was just reading that Tupper, I believe - and I got this kid's book on Tupper the other night; it's great - and I'm not trying to avoid your question, but ever since I read this...I even phoned my wife and I said, "You've got to hear this quote on Tupper," and she said, "Oh, I'm so sick of this, Art."
Anyway, this is about Tupper, not John A., and this is a kid's book; I love this one with the best quotes on the Prime Minister I've ever read, "Though disliked by the aristocracy for his rough manner and clever ways of getting rich, Sir Charles was loved for the humanitarian, caring doctor that he was. He could amputate, negotiate and debate with equal skill."
But I would go to the Confederation resolution or whatever; he wrote personally fifty-four of them, or something, in his own hand, and that's where I'd go. Where would you go?
Thomas Axworthy: Well, Arthur gave the obvious answer, in some way, not that it isn't important, on Confederation with grand history, but this is called the Political Junky Café. So if you're political junkies you should be interested in campaigning, and I think where I would go first is some of MacDonald's campaign speeches. I'll give you a famous one, for example; it's on your Archive site, a speech to the Toronto working men defending the national policy I think in late 1881, early 1882, on his re-election campaign after the national policy, and somehow or other they had a marvellous transcript of this because he spoke [50:02] and I've never heard the speech, and he would go for an hour-and-a-half or two hours like [Castro], actually, and not really a speech. But they had a reporter there taking shorthand or whatever because we have the whole speech with his interjections and the hoots from the crowd and how he responded, and you really get to feel the man. He begins with putting people at ease and at humour. "Four years ago we campaigned for the national policy; I come back," and I hope I'm quoting it correctly from memory now, "that we come back and Toronto is richer and your top hats are higher, and I've had a salary for three years. We're all better!" and they all crowded, and then he starts going on his attack on the Grits, "and what were they saying in '78 and what's Sir Richard Cartwright saying now? What are they talking about the national...Are they going to keep the national policy with the investment we receive from England? Are they going to turn down the national policy and that will threatened that? What about the jobs?" So he just rips the Grits up and down on their weakest point, which is they didn't really have a policy to respond to the national policy until Laurier went for free trade in 1891.
So a second aspect when you're in the political business is you make that connection that I just talked about, you appraise your crowd: speaking to Tom [Dequino's] crowd is different to speaking to Maud Barlow's. So you assess your audience. He had assessed his audience of the old guard of the Conservative Party out in Toronto after the success of the national policy brilliantly, made them feel at ease, got them joking. The second element, then, of political communication is you find the weakest element of your opponent's position and you go at it with a laser; MacDonald was brilliant at that. The Liberals didn't have an economic policy; he made the point that even if you didn't like the Conservative policy, they had one; the Liberals are in total disarray. Third, he then looked at...occasionally in Ottawa now we are interested in leadership politics. (laughs) He looked at some of the aspects of Sir Edward Blake who was a very honourable man, a great orator, but a theoretician, somewhat like a Liberal leader today, and MacDonald then began making just a vivisection of Edward Blake, "Now is not the time for theory; now is not the time for abstraction. We want practical Conservative policies that work, that get them working," and so he did a nice little leadership job on Edward Blake.
Then, when you're like MacDonald, already by 1882 he was a legend because we know something about scandals in this city with Gomery, and so on; they were no nothing compared to this Pacific scandal. I mean they had a telegram saying, "Send me the money."
And Sir John got out of it. He had to resign his government and the Conservatives were defeated, but he survived. He survived the scandal of all scandals, and then he came back to win in 1878. Unbelievable when you think about it. So then his legend was already pretty high by 1882, but then he begins at the end, "I may not be with you longer." "Yes, Sir John A. You'll live forever!" just getting the crowd all ending up...and you see a political master at work in the communication. Don't just go to Confederation and how he looked at Section 91 and 92, but how he also did that support function of bringing people aboard.
And last, just the last element: John Godfrey. He was a senator, Senator John Godfrey, Liberal, and his dad also loved politics, John's father, and his father had gone to MacDonald's speech in Toronto, and the one I'm talking about is a speech to the Toronto Working Men's Association. But in the 1891 campaign, and MacDonald died two months after that campaign, he was also speaking in Toronto, his last speech in Toronto, so he had this enormous overflow crowd, and old man Godfrey was there, but the crowd was so big that they persuaded the old man to give a second speech outside. So they looked around and they found a house with a balcony, so he would go on the balcony and speak to the overflow crowd. So Godfrey who was a Conservative - his father, not John my Godfrey - went and knocked at the door and asked the proprietor if they could use the balcony, and she said, "Well, if you want to leave the old man in my care, it's fine with me," so Sir John went on the balcony, made his last speech in Toronto on the balcony of Toronto's best-known brothel.
Which I've always thought summarized Sir John A.'s career wonderfully. The regency man, the rascal speaking to the Conservative Party on the balcony of a brothel; that's MacDonald for me.
Q: Tom, it's wonderful to hear about Sir John A. and his rippled life and his life among the people, but he had another life that's less well known at [Les Rochers] in St. Patrick's, and how did he spend his leisure time? I'm thinking of a picture on a fridge with Sir Charles Tupper and Sir John A. and Lady MacDonald down at [Les Rochers]. Do you know anything about that?
Thomas Axworthy: What he was was a great reader; he loved novels and loved Dickens in particular. I don't know how many of our leaders read literature anymore; I don't know how many of them read, period, actually. But MacDonald was a brilliant reader of literature, and his speeches are full of allusions to Dickens and the latest popular literature of the times. So he was a tremendous reader.
And as we also know, he liked to drink, and he liked to drink because he liked drinking.
No, I mean he found it convivial, he liked the company, and though his first wife was an invalid and his second wife was a very powerful figure in her own way, you could tell from Sir John A. that he was a man who liked the company of men, and there is a certain tavern character; I don't know if we have them anymore. We used to have it at the press gallery across the road; they all drink mineral water now, but in my day they still imbibed occasionally, but you don't see that much anymore. But in Sir John's day he relaxed by having those kinds of characters. William Pitt did earlier in the Pitt government; he loved William Pitt.
There's also a famous story; it might have been Dufferin again. There was a governor general, and MacDonald was late a lot, and he was late a lot because he was under the weather a lot, and he had a meeting with the Governor General and he was late for it again, so the Governor General sent his aid, [Decamp] [57:52], and they finally located MacDonald who was reading a novel with a decanter of sherry, and the military aid, [Decamp], said, "You're keeping the Governor General waiting," and he said, "Are you coming in a professional capacity or a personal capacity?" he said, "If you're coming in a professional capacity, you can tell the Governor General to got to hell; if you're coming in a personal capacity, you can go to hell."
But he was a great reader: a great reader; a great drinker.
Arthur Milnes: He was very close to his daughter; I love that part of John A.'s story. It's not as funny or as exciting as what Tom was talking about, but he had a special typewriter built for her, and she was handicapped. It's actually Queen's, a wonderful woman in Kingston years ago, went over to England and traced Mary MacDonald. Mary was supposed to have died as a child. Actually, Ian, you might know; you were probably at Queen's when...I forget the woman's name right now, but she went over to England on her own and she traced as much as she could of Mary MacDonald's life as a handicapped woman. She lived until 1933 and the pictures of her in her fifties are painful to look at, the pain she must have had, and this lady brought back to Kingston, and I believe it's at the Queen's archives, any documents and information they could find about Mary's life, and she found the caregiver. She found the nieces, I believe, of the caregivers who looked after Mary and she brought back to Canada Mary MacDonald's autograph book, and she asked her mother to fill-out the opening page, and one of the questions is, "Who is the greatest politician in the empire?" and Lady MacDonald wrote, "Me."
And I think that was quite a marriage.
Thomas Axworthy: Sir John A. had - Arthur just alluded to it, but for those who don't know - with all my discussions about his rascalness, and so on, he had a very tortured private life full of tragedies, which makes his performance both as a politician, as a raconteur, and so on, even more amazing, actually. I mean his brother at two was killed in front of him in Kingston. His parents left the children, along with Sir John A. and his younger brother - John was about seven and his brother two - and they left them in the care of a manservant who they didn't know had a drinking problem; this man got drunk and took the boys to a tavern, and as they left he chased them and the young lad slipped and the fellow hit him with a cane, and so his brother was killed in front of him. His first son died; his first wife was an invalid, and very sad story. She basically almost never got out of bed. He spent all his time, many trips to the United States, taking her down to Georgia. As I said before, he was a tremendously human man, and despite the call to politics, he took his wife everywhere he could to try to find cures for her, but his first son died, and he remarried, and then his daughter was handicapped. So as full as his public life was and as convivial as his public life was, his private life was full of grief almost constantly.
He was always in money trouble; he was constantly broke. His law partner in Kingston went under, and Sir John A. was responsible for his debts. As he was getting up there he owed the equivalent of eighty thousand pounds. When you go through his correspondence there's a huge amount of it about money, not that he's money grubbing; he's under terrible financial pressure all the time. Then if you were a Member of Parliament there were no salaries. So, again, when we read it in the 21st century it seems odd to have their politicians speculating on land and representing, but they had to live; there was no public money for them. So he had that additional set of difficulties. So with all of the public world on his shoulders, he had this private grief almost constantly and he had money worries almost constantly.
His father went broke and ended up as a bank clerk; there's nothing wrong with that, but his father came with several dreams of setting up a mill, and so on, went down in life, he took care of his mother and his sisters through most of his life. And Sir John A. was not a child of privilege; he went to work at fifteen to earn his own way. There were only three universities in Canada at the time - McGill and King's College in New Brunswick - so he didn't go on to higher education. So when I talked about his reading, he was self-educated in many ways. So he carried private troubles everywhere.
Arthur Milnes: His marriage settlement, in those days a woman wasn't allowed to own property, and he married his second wife. His brother-in-law was basically the Deputy Minister of Justice eventually, but MacDonald's closest aid, and they set up one hundred acres of property in Kingston right around Kingston Penitentiary, actually, and that was to put in trust upon Sir John A.'s death so Lady MacDonald would have his money. Well, the deal was signed in England on February 15, 1867, and a bunch of us looked into it once at the Whig and it was really interesting. On February 15, 1877, they flipped the lands back to the government and they sold them, and John A. needed money all the time.
Q: You've told us, Mr. Axworthy, about MacDonald's principals and his brilliance in tactics. One of the things we're supposed to do with history is use it as a lesson for the future, so I'm wondering what advice MacDonald would be giving to present leaders on an issue on climate change?
Thomas Axworthy: That's a good question. Climate change. I think the first thing that he would have done is to...His nickname was Old Tomorrow, and never do today what you can do tomorrow because time has a way of curing problems, and he was once rumoured to be in line for a peerage in England and he was asked he would be Lord what, and he said, "Well, I think they'll call me Lord Tomorrow." So he was aware of his nickname.
MacDonald entered into events slowly; he was not a precipitant man, and he came to Confederation having been persuaded by Brown. So I think on climate change the first thing that he would be doing is looking very carefully at the science to be sure it was right. He was a [berkian] in that he had tremendous distrust of rationalism and of theories; he liked to see how things worked. So I think that he would probably be, Sir John A., at least initially would have been a denier of climate change unless proven otherwise. If he could be persuaded, though, that it was real and that it was the kind of major threat that we think it is, and certainly I think it is, then I think that he would have been much more assiduous at trying to get a national consensus by levelling with people in the communication way in a much more forthright manner.
He was a great communicator, and when he took on a major project like Confederation, to read his Confederation speeches it was not just speeches: he used his party; he used every instrument. He owned party newspapers; he got his party to buy party newspapers when he had a town where they required them, that he spent an enormous amount of time trying to persuade Canadians as to the value of Confederation. I think that, had he accepted the argument, he would have begun a massive significant education job with Canadians, levelling with them as he did over many years on Confederation.
The third is that he was also one who respected the diversity of opinion. As I said, he was far from being a hater. He was a hugely partisan man, but then he would forget it and move on. So I think that MacDonald would be very careful to ensure that no one region was carrying the burden of climate change. There was no man...He and King were the two who best understood the regional nature of the country. There was no Canada, so he understood it because he had to start with it, but he was enormously...We know his view on the Francophones, "Treat them generously as a nation and they will act generously," but in every part of the country he was enormously careful to try to conciliate regional interests. So when we take an issue like climate change, which cuts differently in different places, you would have seen Sir John A. working very hard, as much as possible, to kind of equalize the sacrifice.
So Old Tomorrow would have taken his time getting around to being persuaded; in that case, every Canadian politician was like MacDonald - they all talked it and no one has done anything about it really yet - and now we have a couple of politicians saying they will do something about it, but our record on climate change is non-existent for a decade. We sign protocols and do nothing about them; MacDonald would have loved that; he did that a lot on most things, actually; but then had he been persuaded that this was the real thing and that the Canada he loved were to be threatened, then I think, as we know every other aspect of his career, he would have put a full court press on the communications side and he would have looked at its regional nature; there was no one better at doing that to balance regional demands and sacrifices.
Arthur Milnes: I just wanted to add that my take on that would be that were he still living at Earnscliffe and there was a CD player where he watched movies every night after his reading, he wouldn't rent Inconvenient Truth and he'd stand in front of us and say, "You prefer John A. drunk to Al Gore sober." I'm sure he'd say that.
Q: I have a question about if John A. MacDonald was able to come back through a miracle of genetic sequencing, do you think he could actually get re-elected or elected in modern politics if you were his press secretary and Mr. Axworthy was his campaign chairman? Do you think he'd have a chance of being the Prime Minister? Has the country changed that much? I think we'd find him fun because he's so distant, but I wonder, if he was a contemporary politician, whether our reaction would be different.
Arthur Milnes: I think, again, from Tom's remarks as well, I think Tom's totally right. I think he'd actually...You knew what you were getting when you elected that guy, right? You knew he was a rascal. Just like Clinton in the States; they knew.
Thomas Axworthy: [1:10:54]
Arthur Milnes: Yes, exactly. So when Clinton had all his trouble, the media got caught up in it, the Republicans got caught up in it, his polling numbers went up; they knew what they were electing. I think John A. he's eminently electable; the politician would just be himself.
Thomas Axworthy: I actually think that of all the politicians in our past, he'd be the easiest to elect today because he was genuine, and there was very little artifice about Sir John A. He was a genuine human being, but in many ways his values of generosity, which he had for sure, tolerance which he had for sure, the knowledge of human nature which he had for sure, I think those are all things which continue to be important and in good stead. He was a brilliant House of Commons performer; he had a fantastic memory; he loved party management; he knew how to really put together party coalitions.
Where he would, I think, be surprised and perhaps taken aback is our politics in many ways is narrowing. We know voting turnout is declining. When voting turnout declines, as a campaign manager your goal is to animate your base, and you go for the divisive issues that tend to do that, and you throw red meat to your base to bring them out in a declining voter turnout; that went quite against MacDonald the way that he believed in a broad tent. He always started with his base - his base was usually Quebec and his base was Toryism of Ontario - but then, everywhere he could, he added to it.
He was very flexible in ideology except in believing in a British North America, but he was very flexible as to the means; he was almost the antithesis of an ideological politician. He was the opposite of a neocon. He would not have understood George Bush or Paul Wolfawitz or those one or two Canadian supporters of theirs. One is an important one; he's on Sussex Drive. (laughs) But that approach he would find very hard to comprehend because he was always trying to add to his coalitions, but on everything else it would take MacDonald about a minute-and-a-half. He'd miss the saloons in the House of Commons; he wouldn't understand the Press Club; he wouldn't like mineral water - all that I guarantee - but on the rest of it I think he would be as brilliant a success in our age because he had humour and he had tolerance and he understood human nature. Mackenzie King would not be a success. King would be a total dud today. He was a terrible performer in every case. The television would have crucified him. I mean people were bored even meeting him for lunch.
But he was a brilliant manager, and I'm not saying he wasn't a great Prime Minister. Mackenzie King could not have survived our television age or the Internet age for thirty seconds, in addition to all his weirdness, but Sir John A. would be a brilliant television reporter with the anecdotes and his quick repartee, either that or he would be kind of a late night TV host.
King went, as a little boy...Sean Conway did a great speech a few years ago. There's a ceremony in Kingston at John A.'s grave every June 6th; I highly recommend that you should all bring you husbands and wives, very romantic as well.
But Sean did this incredible speech where he went through Mackenzie King's diary and presented Mackenzie King's John A., and it turns out that Mackenzie King's first political speech - I forget the age; I don't know if he's five or six or whatever - he was put at John A.'s feet, his dad was a big John A. fan, and there was little Mackenzie King. I'm sure he talked to John A. much after that.
Q: I have a question, but I also have a few corrections that I'd like to make, if I may, Mr. Axworthy. First off, you said that the Press Club now, that the gallery stresses that they're teetotallers, and my colleague and I are here from the gallery, and I'd just like to point out that we've come from a saloon directly here; and I hesitate to speak for my colleague, but I'm certainly partly drunk.
And, secondly, I may be a bit drunk, but I'm not so drunk as to have forgotten my alma mater: King's College is in Nova Scotia and not New Brunswick.
Thomas Axworthy: Well, there's two, actually: King's College, Windsor -
And King's College, Fredericton.
Arthur Milnes: What's your comeback?
Q: I'm sorry, I didn't hear that. (laughs) Okay, my question is: Sir John A. would no doubt, if he were still with us, be an avid observer of our political scene. So I'd like to ask both of you when you think the next election will be and what you think will be the outcome?
Arthur Milnes: Is John A. running?
Thomas Axworthy: Yes, what does it have to do with John A.?
Arthur Milnes: What do we do?
Good question, Steve. I'm going to write a letter to the editor of your paper.
You want to go? I'll go first. You want my personal opinion? When, I don't know; I don't think anybody knows. I don't know; I can see a Conservative minority or a Liberal minority. I have a very firm yet flexible view on that question. How's that?
Q: That's a lousy answer. (laughs)
Arthur Milnes: I know, but that's an honest answer. I have no idea.
Thomas Axworthy: I think, Steve, this parliament is well past its due date. You and Kate were down [1:17:48] Queen's, but if you went drinking you didn't invite me anyway.
Arthur Milnes: We solve the problems at my picnic table.
Thomas Axworthy: But this parliament is just about inoperable now because the partisan passions are just so...I wrote a piece a little while ago in the Toronto Star about fanaticism on the Rideau, and we are suffering from partisan fanaticism now, I find. Sir John A. did actually have something to say about those things. He did have a very interesting thing about sessions that are nearing elections and how nothing good comes of them because peoples' eyes are only on to the next election, and he had a famous phrase that sessions right before the next election are full only of bunkum. That's what we're seeing; this parliament is mostly full of bunkam. So it's well past it's due date, and I bet the Conservatives will be defeated in November. My prediction: Liberal minority.
Q: There was a reference there to Sir John A.'s feeling of being British, and born British and die British, and so on. While, of course, at the time there was no contradiction between British and being Canadian, I wonder what you think it meant to be Canadian for Sir John A.?
Thomas Axworthy: I think it meant a tremendous amount because at one point in his career in the late 1870's, early 1880's, Lord Beaconsfield had just died in Britain, and MacDonald actually looked a lot like Disraeli and he had a long correspondence with Disraeli, but fairly significant British Conservatives were after MacDonald to come back, as Harvey [Bennet] did years later, to return to England or Scotland, to the United Kingdom anyway, and to run in the U.K. parliament and possibly even to run for leader, and he turned that down right away saying that he loved Britain, he loved what it represented, but he was in the middle of creating a new country in a new continent, and to him that was a much higher calling. So I think that he was born a Scot, but he was raised a Canadian in Kingston, and he knew what he had created by the end.
One of the nice things about MacDonald is so often in politics it ends in tears - it does for most of them, actually; not all, but for most - they don't see their accomplishments realized or supported. It's pretty rare when you walk out not feeling regret at what you were able to accomplish or not. When Mr. Trudeau lost in '79 and people thought that was the end of him, there were stories about him being an unfulfilled Prime Minister, and he was sexy and he won the '68 election and all that, but his accomplishments up to '79 were not like the accomplishments of the next government where he brought the Charter and he did all those things, putting a cap on a career. He had been arguing for a Charter since 1954, but he had that rarest thing in politics, he had a second chance, and he made the most of it, but many politicians don't have that second chance.
MacDonald, had his career ended in 1873 or 1874 after the Pacific scandal, which most people thought would happen - and he actually very seriously contemplated resigning, told several people he was going to resign, told the Ottawa Citizen editors he was going to resign; we thank God for him they didn't run the story - but he did survive, and when he died in that famous campaign in 1890, he knew that Canada would endure. So he was around long enough to see his handiwork gel.
So the British connection: Sir John A. liked the British connection, but he was not an imperialist. He loved British institutions being adapted to the Canadian circumstance. He and [Karsh] [1:22:42] talked about creating a new nationality: that's what they were interested in doing; not aping the British nationality. He liked British institutions and he wanted to adapt them to North American. He was a House of Commons parliament man, and in many ways Britain for him was the monarchy and the parliamentary system; that's what he meant by it. He was not an imperialist in terms of Britain's imperial wars abroad, or so on, and he had a healthy scepticism about Britain defending Canada's interests in the Treaty of Washington.
So we actually find in MacDonald - I find, anyway - that he was as much of a Canadian nationalist as Edward Blake who was an official Canadian nationalist in the Canada First movement, and so on. MacDonald was a more real one; he wanted British-led institutions, but a Canadian nationality, and that's the definition of a proud Canadian.
Arthur Milnes: And Tom was talking about the tone of parliament recently, and I was thinking about, contrary to that, there was the wonderful event recently where they put up Mr. Clark's portrait, and in the middle of all this crazy atmosphere there was a decent event where people got together and just honoured a past Prime Minister and leader, and the last few years they've done Mr. Mulroney, they've done Ms. Campbell, etc. And just what you're saying about John A., that he was there to see his accomplishments: he unveiled his own portrait.
I just think that is so great. The only guy who topped him, I have to say, and you can tell me if you agree or not, but Mackenzie King he was still Prime Minister when he unveiled his, but he waited until Harry Truman, the President of the United States, was there, so he made the president sit through it.
But I loved John A. unveiling his own portrait; that's so cool.
Q: Right now I'm reading Barack Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, and he talks, just sort of at the beginning, but he talks about the concept of the good old days in government, and he says, you know, of course there's the golden years of the past, but he said it wasn't maybe as inclusive as it could have been. You have spoken a lot about the inclusiveness and the human nature of John A., and I'm just wondering whether or not that extended to women, to aboriginals, to minorities?
Thomas Axworthy: Aboriginals or the Métis. I talked a lot about his accomplishments, but some of the strengths of Sir John A. - he had patience, and so on - all the things I talked about - time will heal most things; government will bugger it up most times; that was his general view - where that approach really came to a rocky conclusion was with the Métis and Louis Riel and aboriginal peoples. MacDonald's record on aboriginals and the Métis is as terrible as his record on Confederation, and some economic measures is, in my view, laudable. So he didn't take the...He believed that the agitation in the West was a tactic to get more goods out of the government, as opposed to being the start of its own national movement. It's interesting. He was starting to get on in years then. He did age, by the way. Sir John A. will never die, but in the last parliament he stopped going to his seat a lot in the House of Commons; he stopped attending late-night sessions. He was trying to conserve his strength because he almost died in 1870 of gallstones, and his weaknesses were most evident on the aboriginal file and the Métis. He badly played that one. He didn't understand it; he made a huge number of mistakes about dealing with it. We didn't need the Riel crisis in 1870. Riel should have been able to be accommodated had MacDonald showed the general kind of reciprocity and generosity that he usually showed - he gave in to the Orangemen of Ontario, and in the 1850's he fought them as often as he had given in to them. Sir John A. was not perfect; he missed that file terribly and to incalculable consequences, and then in many ways the horribleness of our treatment of aboriginal peoples begins with MacDonald. So he had a terrible weakness there.
And delaying is not always the best policy. I mean, there is prior planning, and so make some success around it, and that shows that; but I did also mention probably too many MacDonald anecdotes.
But I didn't mention when he almost died in 1870. He fell in his office, the House of Commons, and he was taken back there, and he was definitely ill, like they thought he was going, and his wife came daily to take care of him and there was very little they could do with him. She was an abstainer, teetotaller. She tried to encourage the old boy rather unsuccessfully. She went off alcohol, but she broke her own vow on this particular day because he was in such pain and she brought a flask of whiskey to rub on his chest, and then she rubs some on his checks, and he says, "Oh, that's good. Give me some more," which was his only kind of cheering up during his gallstone episode.
Arthur Milnes: He was weeks in there, wasn't he?
Thomas Axworthy: He was weeks in his office and they thought he was going to die.
Q: I wonder if I could ask you to reflect on how we remember and commemorate our Prime Ministers, and particularly John A. You mentioned that the two of you met at one of the statues of Sir John A. in Kingston; there are many others. His gravesite in Kingston is modest in the extreme; Bellevue House is more a reflection, I think, of Diefenbaker than of MacDonald's lifestyle, and the Dominion Institute has recently reminded us that most Canadians cannot identify our first Prime Minister. What are we doing? You've talked about the importance of John A. to Canada, to who we are, to our nationality, to our identity, but where is the Lincoln Monument? Where is the Washington Monument? Where is the Lincoln Memorial?
Thomas Axworthy: Let's start off that if we take that he was not only our first Prime Minister, but a great Prime Minister, why do we not celebrate his birthday or his death? Can you name one other country that doesn't celebrate such a magnificent figure, in addition to being our founder, that we don't even have a galvanizing event of a holiday to remind Canadians? You're doing an event tonight, these good people have come out on a wonderful summer night to listen to Sir John A., we teach a little bit about John A. in our school systems, but I spent twenty years teaching in the United States and, boy, you sure knew about Lincoln and Washington on their birthdays because it was everywhere in their media and everywhere in their school system, and yet we have a great one and we don't do it.
This country has got a death wish about historical amnesia; it really does. There's so much to celebrate in our history, and we've got such great characters. Apart from everything else, he's endlessly fascinating. I mean you can just see what the Americans or the Brits would do with a character like Sir John A. So why we don't do that is...Why we are so petrified of our own history is beyond me. I don't know whether it's Canadian modesty; I don't know whether it's because history was badly taught for so long that the educational systems have totally turned against it, but in area after area in countries, the two I know best in terms of history, which is the U.K. and the United States, we don't even begin to be in that league.
When I was head of Historica - I think you may have come to one of our events - before I met Arthur on a cold, blustery day in Kingston, we did things right in Historica when I had a budget of several million dollars. We used to have a scotch-tasting party on January 11th with free scotch for a selected number of guests. Now that's the way to celebrate Sir John A.'s birthday, not mucking around Kingston with the wind whistling through your hair.
Arthur Milnes: We had whiskey, though. We did.
Thomas Axworthy: This institution is making a valiant effort to try to make Canadian history come alive. We had the private sector, which has supported Historica, the Dominion Institute, trying to do that; but while that has occurred, and those are good things, we had a rollback in the teaching of Canadian history in our schools. When it is taught in high school they call it social studies; the historical component is about one third, and it's mishmash and it's junk mostly. You can't teach sociology or economics or geography or history if you lump it all together, and that's what we do in most of our provinces. So you take Canadian history in the middle grades; there are Canadian provinces you don't take any. In the high schools those that you do you mostly take social studies, which is bastardized history if it's even that, and yet history itself there is not a problem our government faces. We were asked questions about climate change, and so on; since human nature never changes, when you've got masters of human nature like Sir John A., history is an endless focus group on every problem in government. So a country that denies its own history is denying the basis of its nationality, which Sir John A. invented, and it's also denying the start of intelligent public policy, which is comparison. We hurt ourselves every day by our historical amnesia.
Arthur Milnes: I was right here in Ottawa - Kate's written about it - and I just can't get over this. I love the British, I'm a monarchist, etc., but the only home our first and founding Prime Minister ever lived in, or ever owned, and where he died is owned by a foreign government. I'm trying to imagine any country allowing that. I don't know this, but I'm sure if you talk to the British off-the-record they simply can't believe it, "Let's give them another house in Rockcliffe Park, for God's sake." I'll never get over that ever; and the moment I do, oh boy. The moment I understand that, I worry.
Thomas Axworthy: But I'll give you another example. We're talking about Sir John A., but I'll give you another example. I took my family down recently to Lundy's Lane, and in talking about the American invasion in the War of 1812-14, which was so important for Sir John A.'s framework, Lundy's Lane, 1814, is where the American invasion was stopped; the largest battle in Canadian history in North American, thousands of lives lost, but the invasion was stopped there; it was our Gettysburg. Now you go to Lundy's Lane today, ladies and gentlemen, and it's surrounded by porn shops, the worst...Niagara Falls is so beautiful the falls, and Niagara Falls City is hideous, and its most hideous place is right around Lundy's Lane. Laura Secord is buried there. You can still see the graves of those who fought; if you really look for it it's a little graveyard beside a Presbyterian church; the plot is about the size of this. Now stop and think: I've also taken my family to Gettysburg with this fantastic vista, statues everywhere, history to dream for, audio-visuals; that's a people who know what history is about.
We allow our history to be taken by the worst of the 20th century culture because you name any other country which has a battle site which saved the country, and they allow it to have junk like that all around it without anybody knowing where it is? You ask people who live in Niagara Falls, "Where is Lundy's Lane?" and they say, "Well, the A&W is over there." "No, no. I mean the real site. A battle was fought there; you're here because of that battle; 3500 folks died there," and that's just one more...There's something seriously amiss in the Canadian psyche that would let that happen.
Arthur Milnes: I'm with you. Queenston Heights: the last time I was there it was in bad shape. I couldn't believe it.
Q: Beyond not knowing our history, in the next couple of years we'll be going to the polls as a country.
Thomas Axworthy: I think we'll be going in November. (laughs)
Q: Perhaps. But when we do go, one of the big issues we're going to be talking about the day of the elections is not who won, but who turned up to vote. So participation in the political process is way down. Do you think Sir John has something to teach us in the present day about raising that number and getting Canadians as a group involved in political processes?
Arthur Milnes: He was good at it, and like Tom said he was fun and he was an entertainer.
Thomas Axworthy: The other thing is that he also believed in parties. He loved parties; he loved his party. He invented the Conservative Party - I mean not this Conservative Party, but a Conservative Party - and he spent an enormous amount of time on what it means to be a party.
Now in his day there often was a financial interest to join a party - that's how you got jobs; that's how you got contracts - and so when they fought their elections they fought bitterly hard not only for ideology, but because it meant whether their uncle was working or not. So that was a real incentive to go to the polls. If we could have gotten my uncles jobs, my aunts would have voted.
So he had less of a problem in making the relevance of parties understood by his populace. We have a bigger problem because jobs aren't dependent on it now; we have the welfare state and we have the state, and lots of things that parties used to do we do as part of government now. So the job of our party leaders is more difficult to make parties relevant as a voluntary body, as opposed to a job-producing one, but they're doing a horrible job at it. Most Canadian parties do not involve their membership in policy; most Canadian parties ask their members only for money; most Canadian parties, in theory, are open, and in practice are closed. There's an iron Ottawa hierarchy and consultants and party insiders who run them all in all our parties, a tiny Ottawa collection of professionals; rather than relying on the party, they hire a pollster; rather than giving good speeches like Sir John A., they hire a PR man to do a sound [1:39:45]. There's been a dumbing-down on Canadian politics of a proportion that is almost indescribable; and so if you run a party that appeals only to the baser instincts of people, you don't spend a dime on policy development, you spend all your time raising money to hire pollsters and attack ads, then why should we be surprised that people are opting out of the process? In terms of our political parties, the inmates are in charge of the asylum.
Arthur Milnes: I was going to say, too, that our own parties they don't even use our history. I was thinking this year if I were a Conservative Prime Minister from the West I might have made a big deal out of the fact that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the great Dief sweep; I think it's a great way to connect your present party with your past; and if I was in the Liberal leader's office I would have been all over, as a fun party event, the fortieth anniversary of the great '68 convention. They don't even celebrate their own; their own parties they don't celebrate this stuff, that I can see anyway. I just don't get it.
Q: Along with voter turnout, one of the other popular issues in the media and in academia certainly is the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office, and I'm just curious to know whether, in fact, executive power has changed that much since Sir John A. was in charge?
Thomas Axworthy: Since Sir John A., sure, a lot, a huge amount. When he began as a young politician in the 1840's and then in the 1850's...Well, look at MacDonald's career, by the way; as I said, he first ran as an alderman in 1843, and then he ran again in 1844. He was in the cabinet by 1847; he had a meteoric career initially. He was Prime Minister of Canada West by the mid 1850's. So before being Prime Minister of Canada this was a meteoric political career, which is why he's learned all his lessons by the time he became Prime Minister in '67; he then just really applied them.
But in his building and his inventing of the Conservative Party; MacDonald, as Laurier did, and right down to my day with Mr. Trudeau, regional politicians were critically important. Joseph Howe took the seats in Ontario; Sir John A. may have helped, but Joseph Howe took those seats, and right across the country there were regional or local politicians with strong followings, and Sir John A.'s whole job was to meld together a coalition in parliament, or in his own party - that's why he was a big-tent man - not concerned about ideological purity, but bringing them in around a concrete objective that they could agree to, and that meant that his cabinet ministers and his regional barons had real power; and, indeed, his government was defeated in 1873 because he lost the independence in parliament after the Pacific scandal; they didn't vote for him anymore. He called them the loose fish, but he couldn't order them around; and today's example where the PMO kind of choreographs every twitch and grunt of the front bench, that would be totally alien to him; he wouldn't understand how self-respecting men and women who got elected on their own right would allow that to happen to them by an non-elected staff. So this is just an enormous change with the centralization and away from the regionalization. He was a master of building regional coalitions; Mackenzie King was a master of building regional coalitions.
Now, by the end of his career, Sir John A., as I said, became legendary, and I think it's Sir John Thompson or Sir Charles Tupper - I forget which one; it may have been Thompson - he was a younger guy from Nova Scotia who had entered the government in the 1880's who wrote lots of letters about Sir John A. that he was the only one in cabinet who disagreed with him, and when the old man said it the rest of them shut up, and so on. So that sounded like cabinets I've been in. (laughs) But through most of Sir John A.'s career he had to deal with important politicians elected in their own right.
The point I tried to make earlier about the party, that was really important because you had to keep your party activist turned on to knock on doors to deliver the pamphlets and to come to the picnics; you really needed them, you know? Nowadays through fundraising, parties are for hire. You hire a pollster, you hire a PR guy; you can run it with five people and $20 million. So what becomes important is you get the $20 million, and the rest of it it's all puffery now about the role of parties; we need them legally, but no party uses them the way that parties used to be used, by having significant elements of power that a Prime Minister had to deal with as an equal.
At the end of his career, MacDonald was clearly dominant, but by that point he had been campaigning for fifty years and he only lost once, and that was to Alexander Mackenzie; it's like Mr. Trudeau only lost once to Joe Clark. Mackenzie was not a successful Prime Minister; Mr. Clark was a short-lived one. So giants had been brought down by lesser politicians - MacDonald was and Trudeau was - but someone asked me earlier about if Sir John A. would come back, and I don't think he would like the PMO's that we have now. Though he loved power and he spent fifty years getting it, he would not like the fact that people had to grovel; he never did.
I was once interviewing Prime Minister Chrétien, and it was during that whole period, the summer where his leadership was under attack or whatever, and I told him that John A. had won five or six majorities, something like that, and he gave me this grin, and I said, "Mr. Prime Minister, is your grin the quote?" and he said, "I'm a big fan of John A. MacDonald now."
Steve Artelle: I think we're all a big fan of Sir John A. now. If anyone wasn't coming in the door, I think we all are now, and we have Thomas Axworthy and Arthur Milnes to thank for that. So thank you very much.
And don't forget to visit the Library and Archives Canada website to have a look at the great new Web exhibition, and have a look at the Forum on Canadian Democracy website as well.
Stay tuned for the next Political Junkie Café. I think at this point it's when we all go out and we rub whiskey on ourselves? Is that the phrase?
Steve Artelle: It'll be in the vicinity. So thank you once again; and on your way out, folks, please do stay and mingle, enjoy some food and drink, and of course the free Sir John A. MacDonald paraphernalia here. Thanks for coming out.