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Democracy workshop

John A. Macdonald: An Undemocratic Democrat By Richard Gwyn

Richard Gwyn is the author of John A, The Man Who Made Us. The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald Vol. 1 1815-1867.

Beyond much argument, John A. Macdonald was the least democratic of all of Canada's leaders. His lifelong opposition to any extension of the vote beyond those who owned property (then, only males needed to apply), was the principal reason the universal male franchise did not come to Canada until the very end of the nineteenth century-after Macdonald's death. By contrast, universal male suffrage (for Whites only) was implemented in the United States three-quarters of a century earlier, in the 1820s. Macdonald resisted, no less strongly and no less successfully, proposals made in the legislature for the Constitution of the new Confederation of Canada to be decided by a referendum rather than only by a vote of the 130 elected members.

Macdonald's resistance to democracy was comprehensive. He dismissed as "immoral" the American practice of holding conventions to elect party leaders and local candidates. He advocated "some division of the classes", justifying limiting the vote to property owners by the argument that political decisions should be influenced by the views of those with some education and some stake in the system itself rather than by "the unreasoning masses." If only teasingly, probably, he once declared that because "the rich are always fewer in number than the poor", their rights needed particular protection.

The case that Macdonald was an unrepentant and unregenerate anti-democrat appears to be open and shut. In fact, it is anything but. At the same time he held these views, without apology, Macdonald was quite certainly the most democratic of all our leaders throughout the near century and a half since Confederation.

Macdonald was a democratic leader for the most basic of reasons: the people kept on choosing him to lead them in elections that were themselves democratic, however insufficiently so by today's standards. Of the seven elections Macdonald contested from 1867 to 1891, he won six, all by majorities. He would have won each by considerably wider margins (nothing could have saved him from defeat in 1874 after the Canadian Pacific Railway Scandal) had the franchise been as wide as some Canadians-if very few then-urged. Macdonald would have been the principal beneficiary of an extension of the vote to women: Sir John Willison, the astute editor of The Globe, wrote that "there was among women a passionate devotion to Sir John A. Macdonald". He would have benefited as considerably by an extension of the vote to those without property: industrial workers, who commonly had no vote because, unlike farmers, they owned neither land nor a house, strongly favoured him: Canada's first working-class MP (in 1879) was a Conservative.