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Democracy workshop

John A. Macdonald: An Undemocratic Democrat By Richard Gwyn

In his own person, Macdonald was a democrat in that term's defining aspect. He treated everyone as an equal, no matter whether a hard-scrabble farmer or a British aristocrat; the political commentator Goldwin Smith, the ablest of the day, nicely caught this attribute of Macdonald by remarking how he was "capable of being all things to all men, talking well on serious and even literary subjects to the guests at one end of the table, and cracking rough jokes or telling risqué jokes to the guests at the other end." He took, that is, all people as they came.

He spent a lot of time in pubs, not just drinking although obviously that, but talking to ordinary people, listening to them and learning from them. One of his very closest friends was an illiterate Irish immigrant woman who owned a tavern. On his walks to the office, Macdonald regularly stopped to join gangs of boys playing some game, and then talked to their elders when they had gathered about. On the stump-he was the first leader to make stump speeches-he spoke to his audiences not in the high rhetoric style of the day but conversationally and colloquially (as he did also in Parliament, where he never used prepared texts). He was the first to use humour as a political weapon, understanding that it is the most effective tool of communication of all; once, told by a farmer that the piece of machinery he was standing on to better see a gathering of them was actually a manure spreader, Macdonald answered right back, "This is the first time I've stood on the Liberal platform". He loved being heckled and interrupted, his quick repartee sending out the message that he could actually talk with people and not just at them. Among all our leaders, only John Diefenbaker and Jean Chrétien come anywhere close to his ease among ordinary people. In the end, the reason the people voted for him was because they recognized that Macdonald was one of them.

Macdonald expended very little time or energy pondering grand ideas or "the vision thing". He was intensely practical and realistic. He was, that's to say, a very Scottish Scot. Yet there was a good deal more to his skepticism about democracy than the instinctual responses that could be anticipated in a conservative Conservative. The core reason Macdonald had such doubts about democracy was that he put so much faith in Parliament; as he proclaimed proudly, "Parliament is a general inquest with the right to inquire into anything and everything". It was, that is, supreme.

Macdonald expressed this view most clearly during the Confederation Debate in the legislature of the United Province of Canada (geographically, about half of present-day Ontario and Quebec) during February and March, 1865, to consider approval of the draft constitution for a Canadian Confederation agreed on by delegates from Canada and from the separate Maritime colonies at a conference in Quebec City the preceding fall. Given that Macdonald headed a coalition government composed of both his own Conservatives and of the opposition Reformers (or Liberals), there was little doubt that the Quebec Resolutions would pass. Nevertheless, some critics called for the Quebec Resolutions to be referred to the people for their sanction. The independent member Benjamin O'Halloran thus argued that the people were, "the only rightful source of political power", and that a unilateral decision by the legislature would be "an act of usurpation". Macdonald's answer was: "If this measure received the support of the House, there would be no necessity of going back to the people." One justification that he advanced was, as always, the practical: "If the scheme was not now adopted we could not expect it to be passed this century". The other, though, was intellectual: "We in this House are representatives of the people, not mere delegates, and to pass such a law [to hold a referendum] would be robbing ourselves of the character of representatives," said Macdonald. If the legislature members did not represent the people of Canada, then "we have no right to be here".

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