Mr. Speaker, I rise today to celebrate the Right Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald, founding father and Canada's first prime minister. Born 200 years ago this year, on January 11, 1815, in Glasgow, Scotland, Sir John A. Macdonald's story is the story of Canada.
Sir John A. Macdonald left Glasgow, Scotland when he was just five years old and emigrated to Kingston, Ontario. The child of a hard-working family, he grew up under somewhat stressful financial circumstances and by 15 was out working and soon after was articling at a law firm. He became a successful lawyer and businessman, but most notably a wise and skillful politician.
Astute observers will conclude that John A.'s greatest work was done before Confederation. Through his organizational skills and keen understanding of people, he was able to rebuild, modernize and unify a Conservative Party that was struggling. It is a feat that Conservative leaders have been compelled to repeat from time to time since.
However, that was only a prelude to his life's greatest achievement, Confederation and the creation of Canada.
Macdonald appreciated the threats facing British North America at the time: an expansionist and determined neighbour to the south, with hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened soldiers, many looking for new adventures; a British homeland which increasingly saw its North American outpost as a liability, costly to defend; and finally, a section of domestic society which increasingly looked to the American model with admiration, cloaking a desire for annexation in the rhetoric of Republicanism and modernization.
In this environment, Macdonald stood out as a leader who understood that the survival of a Canada distinct from the United States depended upon a new assertiveness and unity. It required the building of a sovereign dominion of Canada to be master of its own destiny. It required vision, judgement, but most of all, strong leadership.
Sir John A. Macdonald was a gifted nation builder. His vision was of a country where people could live together as citizens with a common future, sharing values in common, without regard for whether they were French or English, east or west, new Canadians or long-time citizens, city or country. It was a vision of a country of prosperity, generosity, tolerance and accommodation. His vision of Canada’s possibility and opportunity for the future remain without parallel today.
He captured it well when he said in the House of Commons, toward the end of his life:
—if I had influence over the minds of the people of Canada, any power over their intellects, 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.” God and Nature have made the two Canadas one—let no factious men be allowed to put them asunder.
This vision, achieved by his remarkable skill at bringing people together, was consecrated in Confederation—built on the framework of the British North America Act, which was overwhelmingly personally penned by John A.
The proof of its genius is the success of Canada. While Canada is one of the youngest great countries of the world, our Constitution—the British North America Act—is one of the oldest operating constitutions. The framework has served well for almost 150 years, guiding Canada as it grew from four provinces to ten provinces and three territories—and as we have grown from 3.5 million people at Confederation to close to 35 million today. Its wise balance and structures serve us well today.
John A.'s passion for Canada and his wisdom in politics served to drive him and his ambition for the country at a remarkable pace. During his years as prime minister, Canada experienced unprecedented growth and prosperity. Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia all entered Confederation. The Canadian Pacific Railway's transcontinental line was completed with great speed, quite an accomplishment in 1885, for the first time linking Canadians together from coast to coast.
Sir John A. Macdonald established the North-West Mounted Police, later renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He also created the first Canadian national park in Banff, Alberta. Sir John A. Macdonald bound this country together against impossible odds.
There is a story from the 1871 negotiations on the Treaty of Washington while they were under way. Macdonald was one of three on the imperial delegation and perhaps the only one who was really looking out for Canada's interests. The others seemed more anxious to try to improve British-U.S. relations.
At a social event during those negotiations, an American senator's wife struck up a conversation with a charming Canadian who was present.
“I guess you are from Canada”, she said.
“Yes, ma'am”, he replied.
“You've got a very smart man over there, the Honorable John A. Macdonald”, she commented.
“Yes, ma'am, he is”.
“But they say he's a regu'ar rascal”.
“Yes, ma'am, he's a perfect rascal”.
“But why do they keep such a man in power?”, she asked.
“Well, you see, they cannot get along without him.”
At that moment, the American senator arrived on the spot and said, “My dear, let me introduce you to the Honorable John A. Macdonald”.
As the woman looked mortified, John A. quickly set out to put her at ease, “Now, don't apologize. All you've said is perfectly true, and it is well known at home”.
I like that particular story because it captures so much about the essence of John. A., his strengths, his weaknesses, his understanding of humanity and its frailties, including his own, and it is part of that understanding that made him such a great leader.
Not only was Sir John A. Macdonald an economic visionary, he was ahead of his time as the world's first national leader to try to grant women the right to vote.
In 1885, Sir John A. Macdonald brought forward an electoral reform bill that proposed to extend the vote to both women and aboriginals. As a House leader, I would observe that the Liberals so fiercely opposed, obstructed and delayed these changes—they thought the changes were partisan and that they would benefit the Conservative Party—that they held up the bill for the better part of two years.
The bill only passed when Sir John A. and the Conservatives reluctantly removed the provision for votes for women. As a result, it delayed the vote for women until Prime Minister Borden's Conservative government completed John A.'s initiative.
However, aboriginals did win the right to vote in Macdonald's 1887 bill. Sadly, Laurier's government would remove that vote for aboriginals in 1897, an injustice that would not be corrected until Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker restored aboriginal votes in 1960.
In addition to that visionary approach, Sir John A. Macdonald was a fierce defender of both our values and our borders. He ensured that Canada was a country that was distinct from the United States. He also sought to avoid what he considered to be flaws in the American model. He recognized that we were a big country geographically, a diverse country in terms of the types of people we had, and that it took a special approach to bring them all together.
Macdonald's great achievements as a politician and as prime minister seem to be all the more admirable when one considers the great challenges he experienced in a private life filled with tragedy and heartbreak—the death of his first wife, a son who died in infancy and his only daughter born with a debilitating illness.
The visionary leadership of John A. Macdonald for his Dominion of Canada, when he rendered the blueprint for what has proven to be the best country in the world, has indeed become a reality today. We can be amazed at his foresight and thankful for his legacy.
Two hundred years after the birth of our first prime minister, let us all remember that the Canada we love today was made possible by what our current Prime Minister has recently said was an ordinary man of whom little was expected but who, given the opportunity, did extraordinary things.
Let us reflect on the tremendous success of Sir John A. Macdonald's dream of Confederation, a truly personal project of global consequences of a country that is today the envy of the world.