Next year will be a great party. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s founder, builder and savior turns 200. Already ahead of the game, Prime Minister Harper, historians, pundits and even twitter trolls have started the celebration. A group called Sir John A 2015 has organized narrated walks in his home town of Kingston and a play and more. On June 6, I will be at his Kingston gravesite as the keynote speaker at a ceremony commemorating his passing.
It is fitting and proper that we take the time to celebrate Sir John because without him there would be no Canada. Without Sir John Canadians today would all be Americans. I am certain that part of the commemoration will note that there is a great deal of darkness in his legacy. His attitudes regarding Chinese immigrants and Native People were of his time but rightfully make us cringe. His drinking would make Toronto’s Mayor Ford look responsible and we cannot forget that he was once pushed from office by an inexcusable election spending scandal. We must remember, of course, that none of us are perfect people nor is there such a thing as perfect prime minister.
Our remembering Sir John, warts and all, will allow us recall that history’s greatest gift is a better understanding of today. To honour the gift we must fully understand the lessons offered; history, after all, is not an ideological weapon or a nostalgic crutch. History is a teacher and like any good teacher it makes you work. In this case, we must concede that Sir John had to be dragged into Confederation. The man who did that deed was George Brown – our forgotten father.
Everybody knew Brown. He founded and edited the Globe. It was Canada’s most respected and widely-read newspaper at a time when papers were the sole source of news and when all were unfair and unbalanced voices of a particular party. Brown led the Reform Party; not Preston Manning’s party but a precursor of our current Liberals. As such, he and the Globe never tired of criticizing Macdonald and his Tories, at that time called the Liberal-Conservatives. (I know, it’s odd.)
Brown and Macdonald were more than opponents – they were enemies. They first clashed over an issue involving the Kingston penitentiary. Macdonald later outfoxed Brown in a dirty but legal trick called the double-shuffle. Brown became prime minister for two days only to be unseated by the wily Macdonald. They grew to despise each other. Brown was intelligent and hard working but never seemed able to best him. Macdonald was once heckled about his drinking and quipped that Canadians seemed to prefer him drunk to Brown sober.
Like everyone else, Brown knew that the current Canadian political structure was a wreck. Pushed together into one colonial state, the largely English Canada West (Ontario) and the largely French Canada East (Quebec) was so dysfunctional that decisions could not be made, the economy was collapsing and opportunities to expand could not be exploited. Brown tried for years to reform or split the colony in two but it was rejected over and over again. Finally, he cajoled his party into a meeting at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. Beneath the golden glow of the gas lights and the stares of hideous gargoyles, he shook hands, slapped backs and twisted arms until the convention adopted Confederation as part of its platform. The party would support a new government based on a federal scheme where the two provinces could handle municipal matters and the central or federal government could handle larger affairs that demanded broader, more strategic thinking and legislation. He then returned to the House and tried in vain to bring the idea forward. Every attempt was blocked by Macdonald, Cartier and the Tories.
While Canadians refused to entertain change, the United States changed everything. In 1861 it fell into a Civil War that would lead to the death of over 600,000 Americans. Because of Canadian and British reactions to the war and involvement in it, a very real threat arose that when the shooting stopped the Union army would be turned north to take Canada. After the 1863 battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg it became apparent to all that the North would win. At the same time, influential British leaders, called Little Englanders, were saying that they were through supporting Canada. Confederation had thus gone from a good idea to a necessity. If Canadians wanted to stay Canadian they would need to form a bigger, richer, and more efficient Canada. Canada had to invent itself to save itself.
Brown had left politics for a while but returned determined to put partisanship and personal enmity aside to advance the national interest. He single-handedly revived the idea of Confederation. He bullied forward a motion to form a committee to investigate Confederation. They met in a small room and they were all there – Macdonald, Cartier and many others we all know as Canada’s founders, the Fathers of Confederation. Brown stood, locked the door, and dramatically slid the key into his vest pocket. He glared at his startled colleagues and said, “Now gentleman. You must talk about this matter, as you cannot leave this room without coming to me.” He forced them to talk. He forced them to keep talking. The committee eventually developed a proposal for Confederation.
But before the committee could report, the government fell yet again. Its fall proved the point Brown was making – the system was broken. He called Cartier and Macdonald to his hotel room and a shocking deal was struck. Macdonald rose in the House the next day and surprised all when he announced not that yet another election would be held but rather that a coalition government would be formed. Brown, his well-known and well-connected enemy, would join the cabinet. There were cheers and a line formed to shake Brown’s hand. A diminutive Quebec member hugged Brown and loudly exclaimed that he had saved the country while for a moment hanging ludicrously from Brown’s neck.
The Great Coalition, as it was called, persuaded Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick to invite the Canadians to a conference they had already scheduled to consider their political future. Brown and the Canadians arrived and soon the Maritimers forgot their idea for union and began discussing a broader Canada. Brown led the discussion of the intricacies of a new, federal-based constitution. In the brilliant sunshine of tiny Charlottetown and the incessant rain of bustling Quebec City and all in the shadow of the bloody Civil War, a unique and unlikely new country was born.
Brown is important today for the example he offers. Politicians can look beyond the next election and beyond personal and political differences and the scoring of partisan points. We can accept coalition governments as valid expressions of democracy. We can see compromise as a sign of strength and not a surrender of principal. Let us celebrate Sir John but let us not forget George Brown.