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Democracy workshop

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


In evaluating leadership, I always ask three simple questions: what were the leader's purposes and did they run with, or against, history? Second, was sufficient capacity - both human and financial - employed to achieve those objectives? A goal without sufficient resources is merely a wish, not a reality. And third, did the leader have the communication skills necessary to garner widespread support? Did the objectives of the leader, over time, become part of the value framework of the citizenry? Purposes are grounded in the leader's values, capacity depends on managerial skill, and support requires communication expertise. All three are necessary for superior public policy. Macdonald was a master in each of these domains. Our first Prime Minister was also our greatest.

John A.'s primary purpose in political life was to ensure the survival of British North America through the means of colonial union, a strong federal government, and a national economy oriented to an East-West axis (which he called "The National Policy"). Our mental image of John A. fixes him in 1867, with the creation of Canada and the subsequent building of its institutions over the first quarter-century afterward. But he had a political career of over 50 years and his political framework was established long before he became Prime Minister. He first ran for municipal office in 1843; he won a seat to the Legislative Assembly in 1844; he was a member of Cabinet by 1847; and Attorney General and leader of Canada West Tories by the mid-1850s.

In assessing leaders, a good rule of history is to look for the formative influences on their characters in their early years. John A.'s devotion to the concept of a British North America and his worries about the designs of the United States long-predated his entry into active politics. John A. grew up both within a family and in a city where the 1812-14 war with the United States was still a defining event. Kingston, as Donald Creighton explained so well, was a provincial garrison town of 3 000-4 000 inhabitants which had been, since 1789, the British Naval Base on Lake Ontario.5 The town was full of soldiers, both those on active duty and veterans of the Napoleonic and American Wars who had settled in the land "they had fought to keep British."6 One of these veterans was Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Macpherson, a relative of Macdonald's mother, and it was the Macphersons who welcomed the Macdonalds to Kingston in 1820. Macdonald grew up in an extended family well-acquainted with the challenge of maintaining an independent British North America.

Macdonald himself was a member of the militia which was called out in 1837-38 to defend Upper Canada from border incursions. In his maturity, the Fenians raided Canada in 1866, threatened again in 1870, and were still a problem as late as 1889. To the members of Macdonald's generation, the United States was not only a large and dynamic presence, but always a potential threat. Macdonald's first address in standing for a seat in the Canadian Legislature in 1844 stated: "my firm belief is that the prosperity of Canada depends upon a permanent connection with the mother country. I shall resist to the utmost any attempt, from whatever quarter it may come, which may tend to weaken that union."7 He never wavered: in his last campaign in 1891, he was still proclaiming, "A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die."

A union of four British colonies, each with their own tariffs and postage stamps, was his great scheme to preserve a distinctive way of life on this continent grounded in the monarchy, British Parliamentary traditions, and the common law; as was his further project of extending this union from sea-to-sea; as was his advocacy of a strong federal government to give this union a national spine; as was his National Policy to create an East-West economy. Macdonald's overall purpose was audacious - to resist integration into one dynamic nationality by creating a home for another. With only four million scattered citizens in British North America in 1867, he preserved fully half of the North American continent for the heirs of his vision.8

Nation-builders have followed his example ever since. Tom Van Dusen, former Executive Assistant to John Diefenbaker, once had an extended discussion with Pierre Trudeau, in which Van Dusen exclaimed "Why, Mr. Trudeau, you are a Conservative!" to which Trudeau replied: "Yes, I am, a John A. Macdonald Conservative."


5 Donald Creighton, (1952), John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician, Toronto, The Macmillan Company of Canada, Ltd.: 2-3.

6 Ibid.: 3.

7 Smith and McLeod: 6.

8 As noted by Richard Gwyn, Goldwin Smith, an acerbic contemporary of Macdonald, summarized the Prime Minister's mission as "to hold together a set of elements, national, religious, sectional and personal, as motley as the component patches of any 'crazy quilt,' and actuated each of them by paramount regard for its own interest". Gwyn puts Smith point in a modern language by saying that Macdonald "knew how to herd cats" (Gwyn: 2).

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