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Democracy workshop

You'll Never Die, John A.! By Thomas S. Axworthy

Notes for a speech to the Library and Archives Canada, Forum on Canadian Democracy, "Pin-Up Prime Ministers Part I: Sir John A. Macdonald", July 9, 2008. Thomas Axworthy is Chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University.


First-time leaders of new nations matter. Just think of the difference it has made to their respective countries having Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa, while neighbouring Zimbabwe has had to endure Robert Mugabe. Among Canada's manifold blessings, one of the most significant (and least appreciated) is that Sir John A. Macdonald was our first Prime Minister.

John A. Macdonald had as many accomplishments as William Gladstone and was as interesting as Benjamin Disraeli. His contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, preserved a nation, but Sir John A. Macdonald, along with Sir George-Étienne Cartier, created one. As Richard Gwyn argues in his splendid new biography, Macdonald was "the man who made us."1

We all know Macdonald as the worthy Father of Confederation, the man who presided over the London Conference of 1866 and negotiated with the Colonial Office on the final drafting of the British North America Act, but we make a mistake if we put him on a pedestal or think of him only as a Victorian statesman. John A. was a character - a raffish, flawed, endlessly entertaining individual. Seeing Sir John A. on his first visit to Winnipeg in 1886, a young Tory interrupted his cheering to exclaim "he's a seedy old beggar, isn't he?"2 And so he was. Born in 1815, the year of Waterloo, immigrating to Canada in 1820, and coming to maturity before Victoria became Queen, Macdonald was always more a man of the hard-drinking, dandified, witty, demi-monde Regency than the dour, sober, respectable mid-Victorian Era.3 John A., for example, once challenged an opponent to a duel! The world may view us - and we may view ourselves - as earnest, worthy, dull, Boy Scouts, but we were founded by a man who was anything but. Recognizing his own frailties, he was never too hard on the inadequacies of others. Understanding human nature, with a laugh and a wink, he was able to nudge his fellow citizens toward greatness.

Library and Archives Canada, therefore, is to be congratulated for digitizing tens of thousands of documents and artifacts in their new website exhibit: "Sir John A. Macdonald: Canada's Patriot Statesman," which this Forum of Democracy event is helping to launch. I have used this site, for example, to download Sir John A.'s campaign speeches, and anyone exploring the exhibit's riches will discover, in the words of P.B. Waite, that Macdonald "was, and he is, tremendous company."4


1 Richard Gwyn, (2007), The Man Who Made Us, Toronto, Random House Canada.

2 Quoted in Cynthia M. Smith, Ed., with Jack McLeod, (1986), Sir John A., Toronto, Oxford University Press: 148.

3 This point has been made by biographers such as Donald Creighton and P. B. Waite. In fact, Macdonald made it his habit to defeat those who were the personification of Victorian virtue - George Brown, Alexander Mackenzie, and Edward Blake - and like an ageing Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman, Macdonald still had enough left to dispatch the coming champion (Wilfred Laurier) in 1891.

4 P.B. Waite, (1975), Macdonald: His Life and World, Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ltd.: 216.