A ‘strange kind of hero’

Macdonald at 200:New Reflections and Legacies, co-edited by Western History professor emeritus Roger Hall and Ryerson University professor Patrice Dutil, marks the bicentennial of the 1815 birth of Canada’s founding Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald. The essay collection offers 15 fresh interpretations of Macdonald’s role in Canadian history and its political landscape, and even pins him as a spymaster who fought terrorism in his time.

Western News reporter Adela Talbot recently spoke with Hall about the new book.


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With a plethora of books written about John A., what makes this book different from the rest?

Many biographies of John A. Macdonald have appeared over the years. The earliest were really campaign documents, unstinting in praise. It was only in the 20th century that we saw the emergence of ‘professional’ historians in Canada and a more objective approach. The best known of these efforts is that of Donald Creighton in the 1950s and Richard Gwyn during this last decade. A more recent, shorter work is by Ged Martin, a British scholar.

What we have done in our book is to use the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s 1815 birth to bring together a group of specialist scholars to discuss Macdonald’s record and memory by using contemporary methodologies to extract a multi-dimensional portrait of the man. Remarkably, this is the first book of its kind – the first collection of scholarly articles to focus on Macdonald.

I should say that both Richard Gwyn and Ged Martin mentioned above have articles in the book.

Where does the essay collection fall into a discussion and understanding of Macdonald’s life and role in Canadian history? What new insights does it shed? Does it change, in any way, a previously held conception of who he was?

This is a departure in the historiography of Macdonald – a modern analysis using modern methodological tools. What emerges for us is an historical figure who is surprisingly relevant to our own times. One can read the book not just to understand the past, but also the present.

We tend too often to simplify our understanding of figures in the past – this book shows Macdonald as a very complex figure with many progressive views, and not by any means as an old-school Tory, as he is sometimes portrayed and, to use an example of simplification of the past, not a drunk. Well, yes, he drank. But consider he was a man who, as my co-editor has said of him, “had witnessed the brutal murder of his brother, suffered the mysterious death of his first-born, lost his first wife after a long illness, endured often crushing debt and shouldered the task of building a country.”

Today, we might say he was self-medicating to deal with might be a case of PTSD.


What’s the most surprising thing a reader would find about Macdonald in this book? What are some misconceptions Canadians might have about him?

One of the most interesting things is how well he was regarded by others in other countries – not least Prime Minister Disraeli in the U.K. Remember, Macdonald helped to define the path a self-governing colony might follow to independence while still be a part, in some fashion, of a Greater Britain. He knew the ways of Westminster and knew how to ‘play’ the Queen’s Representative in Ottawa as (University of the Fraser Valley) professor Barbara Messamore, one of our contributors, explains in a fine essay about that complex, evolving relationship so adroitly handled by Macdonald.


What is his ‘spymaster’ role?

The terrorism of his day was with the Fenians, the Irish nationalists who hoped to attack Britain through invading Canada. Macdonald, essentially, put together a secret police to address the matter and largely directed their affairs. (University of Toronto) professor David Wilson, the editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, writes about this in our book and uncovers enough intrigue and covert actions for a spy novel.

In what ways is John A. still relevant today to Canadians? What kind foundation did he leave for Canada’s political landscape? Is Canadian history doing him justice?

We have to be careful not to be ‘presentists’ – that is not to judge an historical character too much by the prejudices and postures of our own day. Macdonald, on this bicentennial of his birth, has come in for a lot of static regarding policies of his time regarding race, particularly the question of First Nations and Chinese emigrants. Some have absurdly called his policies purposefully genocidal on the prairies – intentional starvation of native people to clear the lands for white settlement.

This is nonsense.

Macdonald’s response to what was a natural crisis on the western plains was clearly insufficient. There is no doubt that native peoples on the prairies suffered starvation, but it is important to remember Macdonald’s government did try to respond to an environmental disaster over which it had little control. The buffalo had disappeared; the winters in the early 1880s were brutally long; agriculture was extremely difficult. Still, he did more than the Mackenzie Liberal government before him.

According to the reports of the Auditor General of the time, government expenses on the native files more than doubled thorough those years as Ottawa tried new programs, sent agricultural instructors and built model farms that could guide and instruct initiatives in the First Nations (as aboriginal leaders of the time supported). The challenges were too great – the policies failed. But something was done about the crisis and it wasn’t genocide.

His discrimination against Chinese immigrants is also repugnant to us today. Like many of his contemporaries, he was afraid of a massive Chinese influx. He saw it as a political, cultural and demographic threat and considered that Chinese could never, with such a different culture, be incorporated into Canadian society. Incidentally, he did not feel that way about Black immigrants who he felt shared the same values as European settlers.


Anything else you would like to share?

Every generation writes its own history and has its own particular perspective on the past. We think we have achieved in this book some of the spadework necessary for a 21st century view of Macdonald.

But some things are constants.

Macdonald set Canadian political society as we know it in motion. That evidence is still with us: the parliamentary system he championed, a strong Treasury Board, economic infrastructure, the RCMP, the Supreme Court and our banking system. And most of that was done in the first five years, while he stared down a secessionist movement in Nova Scotia and would soon grapple with another in the west.

Of course, there were mistakes. But in his total of almost 20 years in power, he showed independent government could defend itself, and he helped establish a workable legal system that commanded legitimacy and delivered the services it promised. He also showed there was another Manifest Destiny on this continent besides that trumpeted by the United States.

He makes a strange kind of hero according to conventional analyses – definitely not a figure on horseback or an unblemished leader. Rather, he is altogether more complicated and sometimes compromised human and we hope in this book we have uncovered, displayed and accounted for some of that complexity.


READ ALL ABOUT IT: Copies of Macdonald at 200:New Reflections and Legacies can be ordered through The Book Store at Western.