IOG Salutes Canada’s First Prime Minister

6 minute read
John A Macdonald Ca 1875
Photo courtesy of George Lancefield.

Sunday January 11th, 2015 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and the single most important founder of our country.

We often hear that we Canadians do not celebrate our history and have a tendency to deprecate our leaders. We hear this because it’s at least partly true, and our first prime minister is a case in point. He and his partner in Confederation, Sir George-Etienne Cartier, have a highway named after them and more recently an airport, but no metropolis bears the Macdonald name and no US-style civic temples to him grace our capital. Parliament declared January 11 Sir John A Macdonald Day in 2001, but you’ll wait in vain for winter fireworks on The Hill.

Sir John (he was knighted by Queen Victoria on the day of Confederation) is familiar enough to most Canadians, but not always for the best of reasons. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) that he was a besotted if wily old operator without conspicuous scruples in matters of political financing. But these are half-truths and constitute far less than half the story. Sir John certainly had many of what we would regard as the flaws of politicians of his day, including a fondness for drink, a lack of concern about conflicts of interest, a range of bigotries, and a skepticism about the democratic capacities of the non-propertied classes.

But in a number of important ways Sir John was far ahead of his time. For instance, though he defended property requirements, he was perhaps the first leader of a national government to advocate female suffrage, and his 1885 speech lamenting Canada’s failure to accept the full equality of women makes remarkable reading even today:

"I am strongly of the opinion, and have been for a good many years, and I had hoped that Canada would have the honour of first placing women in the position that she is certainly eventually, after centuries of oppression, to obtain…I had hoped that we in Canada would have the great honour of leading the cause of securing the complete emancipation of women, of completely establishing her equality as a human being a member of society with man."

He also advocated the vote for aboriginal Canadians. He fretted about the destruction of Canada’s forests and urged their preservation. And while his personal life saw multiple tragedies, his approach to them was gracious and redemptive. In an age when the disabled were largely shut away, he and his formidable wife Agnes kept their own disabled daughter front and center in their lives, providing a then unique opportunity for her to achieve her full potential.

Of course, from the perspective of Canadians, Sir John’s great accomplishment is the Canadian nation itself, and its remarkably successful variant of the Westminster system. It is doubtful if most Canadians recognize the extent to which Canada owes its very existence to the vision and willpower of a single man. Sir John was certainly not alone in bringing about the Canadian nation (as revisionists will remind you), but after some early doubts he was the strongest driving force for Confederation and a bulwark against the many pressures that almost led to its early dissolution. What is more, he achieved this through an extraordinary combination of stubbornness and capacity for sane, balanced compromise that Canadians are proud to regard as a national characteristic. The tragedy of Louis Riel has obscured the fact that Sir John’s career – starting long before Confederation – was devoted to mutual accommodation and unity between Canada’s founding religious and cultural traditions, something he saw as entirely in keeping with his love of British institutions.

“…We have a constitution now under which all British subjects are in a position of absolute equality, having equal rights of every kind – of language, of religion, of property and of person. There is no paramount race in this country; we are all British subjects, and those who are not English are none the less British subjects on that account.”

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The Pacific Scandal has similarly obscured what an absolutely extraordinary undertaking it was in 1867 for a nation of barely four million to build a transcontinental railway over mountains and wilderness, and just how much ongoing energy and ingenuity it took to keep the enterprise alive.

Macdonald’s ambitions for Canada were audacious, and his audacity paid off handsomely – something modern Canadians would do well to remember.

“If I had influence over the minds of the people of Canada, any power over their intellect, I would leave them this legacy: Whatever you do, adhere to the Union. We are a great country, and shall become one of the greatest in the universe if we preserve it; we shall sink into insignificance and adversity if we suffer it to be broken.”

It may be some time before we erect a magisterial Macdonald Memorial, but in the meantime Christopher Wren’s epithet can also serve as Sir John’s: If you seek his monument look around you. 

Seven Ways Sir John A. Influenced Canadian Governance

  1. Westminster System: The British North America Act (now The Constitution Act, 1867) is one of the two foundational acts that essentially form the written part of Canada’s constitution. Sir John played a lead role in shaping that Act, which states that Canada is to have a system of government “similar in principle” to that of the United Kingdom. In this way, Canada broke new ground in adopting unwritten Westminster principles in a written constitution. An idiosyncratic consequence is that our written constitution doesn't bother with such subjects as responsible government, the Cabinet or even the office of the prime minister. However, Sir John and his fellow Fathers of Confederation launched a strong tradition of respect for Westminster conventions that more than offset any lack of legal precision
  2. Canadian Federalism: Sir John was a singularly strong centralist whose personal preference was for a unitary state. But as a pragmatist he bowed to the clear need for a federal Canada – including the “asymmetrical” provisions that gave Quebec it’s own legal system. But Sir John and his centralizing colleagues ensured that the Government of Canada was allocated many significant powers – including the general residual power under the famous “Peace, Order and Good Government” clause that no one quite understands.
  3. Political Pragmatism and the “Tory touch”: Sir John was not a US-style, 19th century liberal republican; rather, he was a Tory pragmatist and called himself a “liberal Conservative”. He was certainly anxious about mass democracy, which is one of the reasons we have an appointed Senate. But he was also not afraid of an activist state, as attested by his National Policy and deep government involvement in the development of the Canadian National Railway.
  4. Crown Corporations: Sir John did not exactly set up Crown corporations, but the complex (and not always seemly) model for financing and building our national railway was halfway there, and the CNR would eventually be among our first state-owned enterprises.
  5. Coalitions: Canada has had only one true coalition government federally and Sir John didn’t head it (Robert Borden had that honour and it took a world war). However, Confederation itself was the handiwork of a “Great Coalition” of George-Etienne Cartier’s Parti bleu, George Brown’s Clear Grits and Sir John’s own party (itself an amalgam) the Liberal-Conservatives – a historic exercise in overcoming party divisions in the interest of broader national purpose.
  6. The First Dominion: Canada did not become an independent country in 1867, but rather the first “dominion” in the British Empire – an approach that was later adopted for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was an innovative and successful model for the gradual acquisition of independence by one-time colonies. Never mind that no one knows what a “dominion” actually is.
  7. The Senate: Although noted above, the Canadian Senate merits separate mention. Most parliamentary governments are bicameral and Canada is no exception. And most upper houses are designed to provide an element of regional representation (again, we’re no exception). But Canada’s upper chamber was also designed to offset the potential excesses of democracy through the sober second thought of the propertied class. As Sir John said, “Government exists to protect minorities and the rich are always fewer in number than the poor.” But Sir John was enough of a democrat to expect that the elected chamber would always be the dominant one.

About the author

Karl Salgo

Karl Salgo

Executive Director - Public Governance

Karl heads the Public Governance Exchange(PGEx), the IOG’s multi-jurisdictional program of applied research and knowledge exchange on public sector governance.

A career public servant, Karl has degrees in political science, history and law from the University of Toronto and in public administration from the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies.  He worked for many years in the federal Department of Finance, in areas as diverse as tax policy, communications and financial markets.  In the latter capacity, Karl helped to establish the governance framework for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and later served as Chief of Capital Markets Policy.

From 2004 to 2012, Karl worked in the Privy Council Office’s Machinery of Government Secretariat, where he provided advice to the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister on the organization and structure of the Government of Canada – the Cabinet, portfolios, and the creation, winding-up and governance of individual organizations.

As Director of Strategic Policy from 2007 to 2012, Karl was the secretariat’s lead authority on Crown corporation governance, the conventions of the Westminster system, and the conduct standards applicable to ministers and other senior public office holders.  Karl was the author/editor of numerous PCO publications, including Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State and Guidance for Deputy Ministers.  Actively involved in realizing the myriad governance and accountability changes that flowed from the Federal Accountability Act, Karl played a lead role in the design and implementation of the accounting officer mechanism of deputy minister accountability.

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