Love Letter to a Country

Dear Canada,

It’s been said that you have too little history and too much geography. It’s a nice quip but the first part just speaks of too many bad history teachers convincing generations of kids that your past is short, boring, and without inspiring heroes and snidely villains. None of it is true, of course, but once a myth takes hold, it’s hard to shake.

The geography bit is interesting and a trifle more accurate because Canada, you are indeed massive. While old, thankfully gone history classes were having us memorize dates and the deeds of dead white guys, geography teachers were bragging that only the Soviet Union was bigger than you. Since, no matter what anyone says, size does indeed matter, it was exciting when Mr. Gorbachev let the ailing Soviet giant fall. The sparkle of elation was followed, however, as often happens, by the snuffed candle of disappointment. Even when shorn of its satellites, Russia remained biggest. But that’s alright. Famously modest Canadians would have been embarrassed to chant “We’re Number One”, so perhaps it’s for the best. But you’re still big.

A fun exercise is to have a friend close her eyes and then place her index fingers on an imaginary map, starting at the western tip of Lake Superior. Then, slowly move east and west to St. John’s and Vancouver Island, and then turn north with both fingers, angling in by the Yukon and Labrador to finally meet at the North Pole. If she squints just the right way, she has just drawn homeland as a home plate. That’s kind of nice.

Like in baseball, home is where we start. And during the frantic efforts of love and loss and jobs and kids and moving and moving again and through the trails and trials and travails of constructing our scrapbooks of madness along the base paths of our own design, home remains the constant, home remains the goal. After all, through it all, through the problems we invent for ourselves or have visited upon us, all we really want is to get home, and to be safe. Plus, its kind of nice that Santa Claus is Canadian.

But your geography is deceiving, because while you’re big, you’re relatively empty. Of course there are people everywhere but the vast majority of Canadians live along a two hundred mile swath hugging the American border. It makes sense. It’s warmer there. Crops grow there. But not every country is organized according to those considerations. This is where geography meets history.

The land has been here forever and aboriginal peoples almost as long, but you are not even 150 years old. That fact, by the way, makes you among the world’s oldest countries; but I digress. In the 1860s, the Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and also threatening, for a host of reasons, to invade and take the British colonies on their northern border. They’d tried before and were ready to give it another go. The bitty, broke Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them needed to save themselves by creating themselves.

Your birth had many midwives, but primary among them was John A. Macdonald. He linked his ambition to that of the country he envisioned. The conferences that cobbled you together would have failed without him. Much of the constitution is written in his hand. As the first prime minister, he knew two things for sure. First, the Americans still yearned for more land. Second, if the infant country did not grow, the Americans would soon have it surrounded and suffocated. It was grow or be gone and the only way was north and west. And the only way to do that, was with a railway.

Brady-Handy_John_A_Macdonald_-_cropped

The idea was ludicrous. If completed, and experts lined up to say it could not be done; it would be the longest railway in the world. Not only that, it would be built over the world’s most inhospitable terrain. The rocks and thick forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines whole would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rocky Mountains, well, they were impossible. Macdonald told the people of British Columbia that he would have the steel line to them in ten years and, based on that audacious pledge, they joined Canada rather than the United States which was bigger, richer and just next door. Now, the impossible had to be done.

There is a great deal about Macdonald that deserves admiration. There’s a lot that makes our twenty-first century selves squirm. To build his railway he exploited Chinese workers – the navvies. They were imported to build the line, given the worst and most dangerous jobs and, when finished, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide. He was slapped into the opposition penalty box when caught swapping railway contracts for political donations, but was soon back.

Canadians preferred Macdonald drunk to the sobor alternative and him a little crooked than the less bold a little straighter. Beyond that, the building of the railway and the building of the country had become synonymous. It was both or neither. Without him, it looked like it would never get done.

When the railway was done the country was one. Try the imaginary map again. Start at Lake Superior and draw a straight line west and see if it touches nearly every major prairie city. That’s the line Sir John built. He built it on the backs of the forgotten and dispossessed, but all for the glory of the rest.

Too much Geography? No. you has just enough to hold your bursting potential. Too little History? No again. No one understands where they are unless they know where they’ve been. It is the marriage of geography and history that makes you and makes us. And together, our iron will to continue, to remain whole and strong and on guard for thee remains reflected in the unlikely but ultimately indestructible and now largely metaphorical long steel rail.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

The Power of Humility

If the universe is infinite then you are at its very centre. The notion is momentarily intoxicating until you realize that so is everywhere and everyone else. Twin that thought with the three or four score we’ll be here while the universe celebrates its 13.8 billionth birthday. Both facts invite humility just as we need more of the stuff.

Humility is not the surrender of self-confidence or the abandonment of ambition. Rather, it is the conquering of the self-defeating twin demons of ego and narcissism. Humility offers the road to happiness and ticket to redemption.

With humility, accomplishment can be celebrated as the team effort it always is; the immediate team with which you attained the goal and the accident of your birth that put you at the right time in history, the right place on Earth, and with the right genes and health and doses of luck and ability to work in the first place. No team can thrive without humility. Without humility, a boss can only be a bully and a parent only a boss.

The Power of Humility

(Photo: postjesusonline.wordpress.com)

These, I believe, are humility’s three most important lessons:

1. Cool is a Myth: I recall the day it happened. I was with colleagues on a Friday afternoon when it was whispered, “Look over there. All the young people are deciding what they’re going to do tonight.” My eyes widened. How did that happen? I thought I was one of the young people.

Most people in their twenties think they’re cool. Most in their thirties worry that they are no longer cool. In their forties, many swear they don’t care about no longer being cool. Most folks in their fifties realize they were never really cool at all.

Test yourself at the next wedding or party. Try to find that person on the dance floor that made you giggle as a teenager. Can’t find him? Then it’s probably you.

Rather than standing as King Canute on the thundering, relentless shore, humility offers the option of laughter, the tranquility of acceptance, and comfort in one’s inevitably aging skin.

2. There’s Always Someone Better: I have played guitar since I was nine years old. I’ve played and sung in bars, clubs, and coffee houses and my band still plays a monthly gig at Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle pub.

Last Sunday I was plugged in and enjoying a loping run along the river when Brian Setzer’s version of Mystery Train stopped me in my sweaty tracks. His guitar work was stunning, masterful, and unearthly. I clicked over to YouTube to hear more of his work of which I had always been sort of aware but never paid adequate attention to. He makes the guitar sing.

Back home, my trusty Gretsch felt like a fence post in my arms. I resisted the urge to put it on eBay. Only slowly did I regain my composure and re-dedicate myself to the instrument.

Humility allows the realization that not being the best, or even in the same ballpark as the best, is never a reason to quit or stop trying to improve. Humility invites us to imagine the tragic silence of a forest where only birds with the best voices sing and then find our song.

3. Some Things Can’t Be Fixed: Last Wednesday I held my three and a half month old granddaughter. I know how lucky I am that she and her sister live so close and that I see them nearly every day. On this morning, however, she was screaming. Tears flooded her squinting eyes as she launched into the vibrating cry that shakes parent’s and grandparent’s souls.

Her first tooth was poking through with the pain that, I am told, would drop any adult to their knees. Worse, is that infants live in the moment and so, in their minds, the agony will never go away. Worse still, for me at least, was that beyond the gel, teething toy, and cooing comfort of the gentle sway, there was nothing I could do, nothing.

Sometimes there is, indeed, nothing you can do. Sometimes, no matter who we are or who in our society to whom we turn, it can be neither avoided nor fixed. Pain will be suffered, disease will strike, an accident will happen, and a loss so devastating as to urge quitting it all will occur. Character is not made in those moments, it is revealed. Humility is character’s handmaiden.

The Power of Humility..

(Photo: http://www.discoveryplace.info)

So let’s praise the examined life, the charm of folly, the seeking of goals rather than credit, the experience rather than the picture, and the humble acceptance that we are what we are for the speck of time we’re here. With humility as our guide, our brief journey will be a whole lot happier for ourselves, for those with whom we work and play, and especially for those we love and love us back and make the trip worth taking.

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The Little Known Canadian Links to Lincoln’s Assassination

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, on April 15, 1865, famous actor John Wilkes Booth placed a small derringer behind Abraham Lincoln’s left ear. Several hours later, the president who had led the United States through the horrific Civil War that had ended only days before, was dead.

With Lincoln went his goal of treating Southerners not as conquered but countrymen. The Senate’s Radical Republicans ran roughshod over a new and weak president to impose their program of punishment and retribution. To a large degree, America’s regional, political, and racial divisions are echoes of the botched reconstruction that Lincoln would not have allowed. We understand the assassination’s consequences for America but few know of its Canadian connections.

Canada and Lincoln Assassination

(Photo: en.wikipedia.org)

A virulent racist and staunch believer in the Southern cause, Booth gathered a group of like-minded people at Mary Surratt’s Washington boarding house and hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln. They would release him when the United States, seen by Southerners as a foreign country that had invaded theirs, withdrew its forces. To help organize the plot, Booth travelled to Montreal.

Like many other Canadian cities, Montreal was a hotbed of Confederate activity. A year before, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had appointed Jacob Thompson, a former federal cabinet secretary, to save the South by going north. Thompson established offices in Montreal and Toronto. He organized Confederate deserters, escaped prisoners, and sympathetic Canadians who then harassed Lincoln’s Union with daring raids, Great Lakes piracy, and fifth column intrigues.

Booth arrived in Montreal in October 1864. He took a room at the swanky St. Lawrence Hall hotel that served as Thompson’s headquarters. He met with Confederate spies and gun and blockade-runners. At the Bank of Ontario, he exchanged $300 for gold sterling. Booth worked for 10 days making plans and contacts.

Booth’s failed kidnapping plot and the war’s end led to a new idea. On a single night they would kill Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and General Grant. The government would be decapitated and the South inspired to rise again. However, at the appointed hour, Grant had left Washington, Johnson’s assassin got drunk, and Seward survived his stab wounds. Only Booth succeeded.

Booth was hunted down and shot by a 26-man detail led by Quebec-born First Lieutenant Edward Doherty. On May 2, a proclamation stated that the government was seeking a number of Booth’s accomplices, including “rebels and traitors against the United States, harboured in Canada.” Among those listed was John Surratt. He had fled to Canada and was being hidden by priests, first in a Village north of Montreal and then in the city. Canadians helped him to escape to Europe.

Booth’s other conspirators were captured and brought to trial. The prosecution sought to prove their guilt along with the complicity of what it called the Confederacy’s “Canadian Cabinet”. The first words spoken in testimony were by a War Department spy, “I visited Canada in the summer of 1864, and except for the time I have going backward and forward, have remained there for almost two years.” Canada was central to the majority of testimony that followed, including that of a spy posing as a Montreal businessman who later arrived to clear his name. The trial’s final words went to Special Judge Advocate Bingham, “Surely no word further need be spoken to show that…[Booth, Surratt] and Davis and his several agents named in Canada, were in this conspiracy.”

Sensational American newspaper coverage spoke of Canada’s complicity in their president’s murder. Public meetings and vicious letters to editors revealed even greater anti-Canadian sentiment than had developed during the war. There were calls for retribution. The rising tide of hatred led Canadians and Maritimers to renew their demand for Confederation that the Civil War had turned from a good idea to a necessity. Canada had to create itself to save itself.

Today’s divided America and united Canada are the twin legacies of Booth’s smoking gun.

For more on this story and of Canada and the American Civil War please check out “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”. It’s available everywhere including here: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/contributor/author/john-boyko/#page=0&pid=978030736146

Happy is a Decision

Happy is not a goal. It’s not a destination. Happy is not a dream or some Hallmark card hokum. Happy is a decision. I once enjoyed a lecture by a Tibetan monk. He said a great deal that rang of declarative knowledge, that is, he dragged things I already knew into the light where, for the first time, I could see them clearly. Of all that he said that day, the one thing that resonated most was, “If you want to be happy, go ahead.”

It sounds easy, but it’s not. Many people struggle with depression or other ailments that make happiness frustratingly illusive. Thankfully, I am not among them. But, for a long time, I might as well have been. I simply refused to see that if happiness is indeed a decision, then it implies responsibility. I had work to do. I had to differentiate between those things that make me happy from those that do not. Like changing one’s diet rather than going on a diet, the challenge suggested a long-term life-style change. The idea that happiness is a decision forced me to redefine happy.

I have, for instance, taught myself to avoid what Germans call schadenfreude; taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Shameful joy is too easy. It’s what makes slapstick comedy fun, from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey. But in real life, it’s a sad and shabby pleasure. Shameful joy’s price is shame and its reward is not joy. Like the emptiness of envy or materialist consumption, it is an abdication of responsibility; it is the outsourcing of one’s happiness.

Like an alcoholic summoning the strength to avoid a sip of that rich double malt, I sometimes still struggle to avoid drinking from the sour nectar of shameful joy. But I force myself to keep that old habit locked in the cage with other happiness-draining habits such as succumbing to the media’s fear du jour, or the tug of an advertiser’s appeal, or the succulence of the latest celebrity, neighbourhood, or office gossip. I guard the cage’s frail and fragile bars. I heed the monk.

trail

Last week I was running along the trail near my home. It is a beautiful place. There are fields and woods along one side and a river along the other. On this particular afternoon, the sun was striking the river so that it shone as diamonds. The sky was a deep and vivid blue. I had just passed the 6K-mark where the endorphins kick in and my mind begins to float and even my Clydesdale-like gait feels graceful. I said, out loud and to no one, “This is a good moment.” And it was.

My practice of quietly announcing good moments has helped me to see life as a bonsai tree. I snip off the parts that ruin its symmetry; the situations, people, and places that bring me no happiness. After all, consider how many people lie on their death bed and whisper, “I wish I had spent more time at the office, or in lineups, or in traffic, or buying stuff, or with people whose insecurities or inner demons poisoned rooms.” How many, on the other hand, say with their last breaths, “I wish I had filled my life with more moments that filled my heart?”

Try it. Wait for a moment that offers true tranquility, pure enjoyment, heart-skipping joy, or tear-inducing warmth. Then say it: “This is a good moment.” It won’t count unless you mean it and it won’t count unless you say it out loud. Say it although others may hear it. Say it because others may hear it. Say it because you have decided to be happy.

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Robert Kennedy and Mỹ Lai; A Coincidence That Matters

Talented Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette enjoyed a hit song a few years ago listing a number of things she found ironic. Actually, the things about which she sang were not ironic at all but merely unfortunate or at best coincidences. Coincidences are fun. Sometimes they matter. Let’s consider one that resonates today.

The Coincidence of March 16, 1968.

The Americanized portion of the Vietnam War had been grinding on for nearly four years. Despite President Johnson’s repeated assurances, there was no end in sight. The people trying to carry on with their lives in tiny, rural villages were regularly terrorized by men fighting for one or the other of the war’s many sides. The horrors felt by the men doing the terrorizing were overwhelming. By the spring of 1968 it was clear to everyone but the willfully blind that the war would have victims but no victors.

One afternoon a group of Americans walked into two small hamlets and went insane. They ceased to be soldiers. They ceased to be human. They murdered between 350 and 500 unarmed men, women, and children. It took a long time. Many were shot and some were hacked the death; many were tortured. Children watched their mothers being gang-raped. A few soldiers laughed as one of their comrades took three shots to kill a baby who was lying on the ground. It became known as the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

On that same day, Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Everyone knew him because he had been his brother’s attorney general and in many ways the co-president. While John Kennedy was a realist disguised as a dreamer, Robert was a true romantic with a realist’s understanding of how to get things done. After the assassination in Dallas, he became a New York senator. He led a number of initiatives including the reconstruction of Brooklyn’s tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood through partnerships with three levels of government, banks, corporations, and community organizers. He got things done.

As he stood before a bank of microphones that March afternoon he didn’t know about the massacre. But he knew that Vietnam was among many things that were wrong as he announced that he would run to be president in an effort to end the war and make some of those other things right. He said, “I run to seek new policies – policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.  I run for the presidency because I want the Democratic Party and the United States of America to stand for hope instead of despair, for reconciliation of men instead of the growing risk of world war. I run because it is now unmistakably clear that we can change these disastrous, divisive policies only by changing the men who are now making them.”

RFK

As he campaigned he spoke to Black audiences about taking more responsibility for their families. He spoke to university students about the unfairness of their draft deferments. He spoke to business leaders about being responsible to more than just their bottom lines. He made people mad. He made people think.

Consider his beliefs regarding how we measure wealth: “Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

On the same day that some men were visiting unspeakable horror on people they did not know, another man was pledging himself to help people he would never meet. It was not ironic. It was a coincidence. It is a coincidence that matters because it enabled Americans then and us today to consider the dark side that lurks within us all and right alongside it our yearning to do better; to be better, to do good.

The March 16, 1968 coincidence challenges us to ask whether we can accept horrors that make us cringe without losing faith. Can we remain idealistic without being naïve? Can we remain realistic without being cynical? Today we are inundated by images of hatred and despair and there are plenty that match Mỹ Lai’s power. Can we reject those who use the images to sell themselves and their divisive views and instead remain convinced that our public discourse is a place for respect, for alternate opinions, the telling of hard truths, calm determination, and for hope and even for love?

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John F. Kennedy and My Mother’s Tears

I recall the first time I saw my mother cry. You need to understand that my mom was a tough woman, as tough as burnished leather, at least on the outside, the side she allowed most folks to see. But on this day she was sobbing. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was a middle-class Canadian kid in a brush cut just rolled home from the rigours of grade one but now standing in my living room, still and stunned at the sight of my mother, slumped into the couch, red-eyed and weeping before the flickering television.

She explained that a man had died, a good man, and that he had been shot by a crazy man. I remember that I cried too. It was not for him – I had no idea who the good man was – but for her, for her grief, and for my addled efforts to understand. Today, for the same three reasons, I cried again.

You see, the little boy grew up to be an author and this week I’m doing research at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Boston is a terrific city. On my first morning I jumped the red line to Pawk Street, that’s right, that’s what the man said. Within 200 steps of the subway stop I glommed on to a walking tour of the Freedom Trail led by a gentleman in period costume who was among the best guides I have ever experienced. It was marvelous; there were great sites and greater stories. I then watched a legalize marijuana rally in the Commons and laughed out loud when at the count of three the thousand or so folks splayed on blankets on the grass lit up their grass. I told a yellow T-shirted volunteer about Justin Trudeau’s pledge up in Canada but she didn’t care.

The dawn brought work. The Kennedy Library’s enormous, white, flat tower soars like a sail into the sky and overlooks the bay that reminds visitors of Kennedy’s love of the sea. The commissionaire found my name on the list, led me to an elevator in the back and with the turn his special key I was lifted to the fourth floor archives. For the rest of the day and the next two I time travelled to the 1960s. Tapping away on my laptop I recorded notes from box after box and file after file.

Kennedy library archives

My spot on the 4th floor.

On the afternoon of the third day I declared a break to finally see the museum. I stood with a group of women enchanted by home movie clips showing the Kennedys at play in Hyannisport. Kennedy smiled as he swung a golf club, sailed, swam, and at one point drove a gaggle of laughing, bare-chested, sun-tanned children far too fast on a bouncing golf cart. They were pictures of a family and life about which only the stone-hearted could not feel warmth. It was then on to politics. Films and artifacts depicted the nomination and then the election. No wonder people watching the debate thought he wiped the floor with Nixon. No kidding, did people really wear those goofy buttons and hats?

It was all good. I wandered with the gentle acceptance that like most museums its analysis was skimming as a stone over very deep ponds with its focus on entertainment more than education. But then I arrived at the gallery dedicated to the inauguration. The large screen with seating before it invited you to suspend belief and imagine you were there. About fifteen people were doing just that. There was a clutch of teenage boys with their big caps and big feet, three or four couples about my age, and a young man and woman whose eyes and hands betrayed either a honeymoon trip or one in the offing. I stood at the side not expecting to stay for the whole thing but I became entranced. There was Kennedy, tanned on that freezing January afternoon so long ago and speaking in that Boston twang. And here were these people, generations later sitting silent, eyes wide, many mouths agape, drinking in the idealism of his message as if cool water in a steaming desert oasis. I listened to him but watched them.

Kennedy inauguration

It was then it happened; a tear found my eye. I smiled and my lip quivered. I let it hang there and then run down my cheek, closed my eyes, and nodded. My mother has been gone for years now and I had not felt so close to her in a long while. The tear was not mine – it was hers. After all this time I think I finally understood that November afternoon.

The day Kennedy was murdered tore time. For millions of people the irreparable rending forever split the before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. As I watched the people watching him and smudged my cheek I realized that in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and polices but himself. His contribution, and the one that brought my mother to him then and the people to his museum now, was the courageous determination that idealism is not naive, hope is not silly, that acting collectively is not surrendering liberty, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, or city, or even country.

Of course Kennedy was a flawed man. The museum is silent about his hiding crippling health issues and the cocktail of drugs with which he was injected each day to carry on. It did not mention the women. He was a flawed leader. The museum ignored his ballooning the deficit to build a mammoth military and glanced over his being late in joining the march to civil rights and his having started the march to Vietnam. But that’s okay. There is no such thing as a perfect man or leader.

Now I’m back in my hotel scrunching notes into prose. When this book is published I hope that readers will understand Kennedy’s time a little better and consider the effects that his policies and personality had on Canada. What they will not know is our secret; that in the book’s writing I came to an understanding far more profound. In a city far from home, and for just a moment, I was once again my mother’s little boy.

Lessons Learned from Fear, Vision and Tradition

On a cool September afternoon a group of Canadians aboard a luxury ship arrived at the picturesque Charlottetown harbour. They dressed in their best finery and awaited a grand welcome. It didn’t come. Instead, a lone man appeared in a row boat far below and shouted up an invitation to dinner. It was an unexpected beginning to a week that for many would have an unexpected end. Within nine days, most of it spent dining, drinking, and dancing, a new country would be born.

The men assembled embarked on an audacious experiment that remains underway. In the shadow of a brutal war and the demands of an unforgiving clock they attempted to improve on what the British had bequeathed and the Americans seemed intent on burning. We can better understand today by considering what they created then.

Wily politician and political survivor John A. Macdonald led the Canadian delegation. At that moment – September 1, 1864, 150 years ago – Canada was a dysfunctional amalgam of what are now the southern bits of Ontario and Quebec. They were crashing a previously arranged meeting of delegates from New Brunswick, PEI, and Nova Scotia who were gathering to discuss a possible Maritime union.

photo

 

Author with Sir John A. and George Brown (OK, not really)

 
Confederation had been discussed and dismissed for years. But changes in the United States and Britain meant that to save itself Canada had to create itself. America had fallen into Civil War. It left cities burned and families destroyed. If we extrapolated the population then for now it would claim the equivalent of over six million lives.

Canada and the Maritimes were officially neutral but most newspapers were pro-South, Halifax and Saint John ports sold goods to both sides, factories ran weapons to the South, an anti-Lincoln political party operated from Windsor, and a Confederate spy ring organized raids from Toronto and Montreal. American newspapers and generals threatened and Lincoln hinted that when the war ended, the Northern army would turn north.

Britain had dispatched 11,000 troops to the border but a powerful group of British politicians were questioning the cost of that defence and of imperialism itself. They wanted the expensive and troublesome British North American colonies to find their own way.

Canada resembled a teenager whose parents were kicking her out of the house. She wouldn’t move in with the neighbours because their house was on fire. She needed to build a new house. The architects met in Charlottetown. They were government and opposition members who had pledged to surrender partisanship for the greater good.

The United States was the world’s first and most successful manifestation of John Locke’s 18th century Enlightenment ideas. But the men (and they were all men) in Charlottetown believed that while the sentiments were noble, the Civil War was demonstrating that America’s attempt to create an enlightened republic was a blazing failure. They channelled Irish nationalist and British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke. He believed that governments should not be based upon temporary popularity which he equated to shouts from a mob, but on tested and respected tradition. Facts and the circumstances of the day should dictate reasonable solutions; decisions should never be based on blind adherence to an ideology. With admiration for Burke and Britain and America as their negative example they envisioned Canada.

Power, they said, should not rest with the executive – they derided the American president as a four-year dictator – but with parliament. Through free elections, they argued, the people should not pick a prime minister or even a government. Rather, voters should create a House and the House would choose the government according to which group could earn support. Members of parliament must not be delegates merely echoing the views of their constituents but thoughtful free thinkers unencumbered by the often un- or ill-informed electorate or partisan newspapers. The Senate must be appointed to keep it illegitimate so that real power remained where it belonged – in the House. The struggle for State’s rights had led to the Civil War so they insisted that the federal government alone speak for Canada. They saw provinces as municipal in nature and restricted their power to areas on a short, proscriptive list. The British monarch should oversee it all as Head of State.

Anniversaries, and a 150th is one of significance, are invitations to reflect on the past and ponder the future. Canada was born of fear, vision and tradition. What of the old fear? The Americans may not be ready to bomb us anymore but have they bought us? What of the old vision? A democratic state locates power to best serve the nation but are we happy with where power has been relocated? What of the old tradition? Should we pursue our sovereignty by eschewing the sovereign? What would Sir John say? More importantly, on our collective anniversary, what do you say?

An edited version of this article appeared last week in the Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun. To discover more about Canada’s birth in the shadow of the American Civil War and about Canada’s involvement in that war please see “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”.

http://www.amazon.ca/Blood-Daring-Canada-Fought-American/dp/0307361462/ref=sr_1_1_title_2_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410174613&sr=1-1

We Always Recall the First

George Washington was America’s first president but who was the second? Can’t recall? It’s a rare Canadian that couldn’t name Sir John A. Macdonald as their first prime minister but how many know their second? We seldom remember the second of anything. Because the purpose of History is to recall our past without prejudice in order to better understand our present with clarity our natural predilection to focus only on the first is a shame.

Canada’s second prime minister, like America’s second president, was a man whose character was sound, ambitions restrained, and accomplishments significant. Are those not qualities that we value in leaders and celebrate in those who helped shaped our story? It is with this perspective that we should recall and understand Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie.

Those who work with stone must be patient. To rush is to risk crumbling what to an untrained eye seems indestructible but to the skilled mason can be carefully shaped to stand and serve forever. Imagine a stone carver bringing that sensibility to the leadership of a nation.

Mackenzie learned to work with stone while a boy in his native Scotland. He was born in 1822 to a large and poor family. By the age of 16 he had mastered his craft and was helping with expenses. The Mackenzie family was one of thousands who fled poverty for the hope of a better life in Canada. Mackenzie’s skills acquitted him well and he soon secured contracts to build houses, churches, canals and public buildings. He eventually settled in Sarnia, Canada West.

A dour man, Mackenzie was slow to smile, joked only to jibe, drank very little for those hard-drinking days, and believed sports a waste of energy. He was none the less a popular figure in Sarnia and became active in public affairs including serving on the fire brigade and school board. He was attracted to the Reform Party (a precursor to the current Liberals) which reflected his belief in free markets and rewards based on merit and effort. He won a seat in the legislature in 1861, just as the American Civil War was seeing the butchering of brothers and the increasingly belligerent neighbour was leading Canadian political leaders to sense the urgent need to protect the country by growing the country.

alexander mackenzie Mackenzie

At first Mackenzie opposed his party’s joining with the hated Conservatives to bring about Confederation. He was not convinced that the scheme was a good idea and he had little respect for John A. Macdonald who he considered politically duplicitous and personally unsavory. The Great Coalition government nonetheless created the skeleton that would become Canada.

The Confederation negotiations led to Reform leader George Brown’s resignation in 1865 and a party crisis. Too many men of too little talent vied to succeed him. Mackenzie watched the leadership competition with disdain while continuing to work hard at his craft and in both the provincial and federal legislatures. His talents and diligence were rewarded when in March, 1873 he won the party’s leadership. He had little time to celebrate, however, for within a month the Pacific Scandal rocked the Macdonald government. In November it fell.

Mackenzie was asked to form a government and shortly afterwards he called for an election. Few outside of south western Ontario knew him. Although disgraced, Macdonald remained a giant. To Canadians he was a rogue but he was their rogue and they had grown used to forgiving his mistakes and foibles. The scandal, however, had been too much. Canadians turned on him and handed Mackenzie a handsome 60-seat majority.

Mackenzie faced a number of problems going forward and the first was the knives in his back. The Reformers/Liberals were at war with each other and the worst of the lot was the conniving and ambitious Edward Blake. He believed he should be party leader and even had the temerity to ask Mackenzie to step aside so that he could become prime minister. Of greater importance to Canadians was that the country had slid into a deep recession. Contracts were cancelled, trade declined, and unemployment climbed. Absent today’s social programs, the suffering was devastating. Another leader may have panicked or taken rash action but the stone carver weighed options and moved slowly.

Plummeting tax revenue met demands for more funds to continue the massive railway project that Macdonald had begun. Mackenzie was forced to slow construction and even ask the people of British Columbia who had been promised the line to entice them to join Canada to wait a little longer. Railway construction continued but at a much slower, more affordable pace.

Canada was less than a decade old. While Mackenzie needed to address current issues he also recognized his responsibility to build the infant country. In 1875, he created the Supreme Court of Canada. It was designed to wrest power from Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which at that point was Canada’s court of last resort. It would not be until 1949 that Canada’s Supreme Court would be truly supreme but Mackenzie’s action was an important step in Canada’s march toward judicial independence.

Mackenzie had been a militia major and respected the military’s role in securing Canada’s defence and establishing its sovereignty. He undertook a complete overhaul of the Department of Militia and Defence. He also established Canada’s first military training college in Kingston.

He completely revamped Canadian democracy. Mackenzie introduced the secret ballot. He passed laws that led to elections being held in all ridings on the same day. He removed property as a qualification for candidates for public office. To protect the people from unscrupulous politicians he created the office of the Auditor General and had it report not to the prime minister but to parliament.

The sprawling country was linked with three bold new laws. The Post Office Act created door-to-door delivery to cities across Canada. The Weights and Measures Act said that everyone had to begin using the same systems. The Collection of Criminal Statistics Act modernized police services across the country through the gathering, filing and sharing of information.

Mackenzie’s government had accomplished a great deal but the people cared more about the government’s addressing immediate needs and those needs had become desperate. There were even food riots in Montreal. While all of this was going on Sir John was reinventing campaigning by creating the political BBQ. He travelled the country attending outdoor picnics where he worked his inimitable charm and slowly earned forgiveness. In the election of September, 1878 Canadians returned the old chieftain to power.

Alexander Mackenzie’s service as Canada’s second prime minister was one of significant accomplishment. He acted with the stone carver’s patience and precision. He slowly did what could be done, left what should be left alone, and carefully moved the project along – the Canada project – the sculpture that to this day remains, as it should, under construction.

(And by the way, the second American president was John Adams.)

A version of this column appeared originally on the excellent site Leaders and Legacies. Find it at http://leadersandlegacies.com/2014/06/26/building-a-nation-brick-by-brick-canadas-forgotten-prime-minister/

Roman Was a Russian

Roman was Russian or maybe Ukrainian. The folks of his town went from one to the other with each shift of the restless border. From the bitter cold of the 1905 winter came a worker’s revolt. Tsar Nicholas reacted first with concessions but soldiers were soon attacking trouble-makers, including those with books deemed dangerous. Roman’s uncle imperiled his family for reading, among other things, the poetry of Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko whose words inspired the oppressed to feel power and the shamed to know pride.

With rumours of soldiers on the way Roman’s parents told him to run. The eighteen-year-old hitched rides and jumped trains until finding the coast. He snuck aboard the first lackadaisically secured ship he could find and hid beneath a lifeboat’s thick tarp. After two days at sea he emerged dirty and hungry and agreed to work for his fare.

 A long and roiling journey took him to Rio de Janeiro. For nearly two years he hacked roads to resources through the Amazonian rain forest. One steaming afternoon a workmate rhapsodized of a place with more high-paying jobs than people – Canada.

Roman bought a ticket for the first northbound ship but was tricked. Declared a stowaway, he was forced into back-breaking labour as the hulking cargo vessel steamed around the world. After nearly a year of depredation he gazed longingly at the Statue of Liberty.  Excited for his first leave in months, he and two friends signed for their meagre pay but then were grabbed, lashed, and thrown onto their bunks; they’d been duped into re-upping for another year.

Just before dawn a sympathetic crewmate cut the ropes and helped them sneak to the deck where they leapt into the cold, dark water. Three unkempt young sailors shuffled through the Battery’s morning mist. A gentleman with an expensive suit and friendly smile said they looked lost. In his best but broken English Roman explained that they were on their way to Canada. The man laughed and said they must be the luckiest boys alive because he worked at the Canadian consulate. The sorry little gang were given train tickets to Montreal.

Montreal was a French city run by the English, and all on the backs of those speaking a hundred tongues. Roman found a job in a large and dirty iron works and happiness in the city’s thriving Ukrainian community. After a particularly trying shift he was told that steel factories offered safer work and better pay and that an American had just started a new steel company in Ontario. Within days he was on a train to Ontario.

Hamilton was a tough, hard-hat town. Factories hugged Burlington Bay, shady bosses held sway in the multi-ethnic east side, and everyone called the towering Niagara escarpment that watched over it all the mountain.  The place brimmed with the power and potential of the industrial age. Roman was among the first employees at Hamilton’s Dominion Steel and Casting Company that became Dofasco.  Roman was a molder. He created castings into which molten metal was poured to make machines, the bank vault now part of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and even the Hoover Dam’s turbines. He built weapons for the First World War and in the Second his three daughters were among the women who traded dresses for overalls to defeat Hitler. 

Upon retirement, Roman purchased a farm near Port Dover. He grew corn and every year turned 11 acres of grapes into sweet wine. His grandson worked the farm each summer. He walked his great-grandson among what to the little boy were towering corn stalks and he tried but failed to reassure him that chickens were not terrifying.

Today, above my piano, is a painting of my great-grand father’s Port Dover farm. It is more ideal than real; perhaps like elements of his adventurous escape. But that’s okay. Societies need myths that define and inspire and so do families. Like the tenacious Ukraine, my family is a little dysfunctional at the edges but rock-solid at its core. In the New Year, we’ll welcome a baby. The child will embody an audacious confidence in tomorrow, 1905’s legacy, and Roman’s latest gift.

Meanwhile, Russia is back fighting for imaginary lines and Shevchenko’s poems are again on Ukrainian lips.  As we watch egos and power and money at war let’s pause to consider the people in those border towns who wake up each day and do their best. I know, as do thousands of others living in Canada today that their struggle will echo for generations and in ways we can’t imagine.

The Slave Who Helped Create Two Countries and Wreck a Third

John Anderson was born property. At 29 he was a prisoner. He was seated in Toronto’s Osgood Hall while outside on the chilly morning of December 15, 1860 stood fifty armed police officers. A company of the Royal Canadian Rifles stood with muskets ready and bayonets menacingly attached. All were prepared for the demonstration promised and the riot expected should the court decision go as the crowd of two hundred or so Anderson supporters feared. Stretchers were piled against a wall, ready to haul away the injured and killed.

His adventure had begun seven years before. He had run when life as a Missouri slave had become too much. It was too much to watch his mother being beaten and then sold. It was too much to lose his name. It was too much to be kept from living with his wife and child. It was too much to be denied opportunity; to be denied his very humanity. And so he ran. In running he had committed a crime for he robbed his owner by stealing himself.

On the third day of his flight, Anderson accidently stumbled upon a White farmer named Seneca Digges and four of his slaves. They gave chase and for thirty minutes ran through woods and fields until Anderson encountered Digges. Digges raised either a cane or a tree branch and they fell together. Anderson’s knife plunged three times into Digges’ chest and back.

Dirty, exhausted and starving, Anderson slowly snuck his way north. When he encountered a White man who offered a meal and bed for the night Anderson boarded the Underground Railroad. A few weeks later he was over the Detroit River and in Windsor, Canada West. With the help of a thriving Black community he learned to read and do sums and within a few years he had learned masonry, begun his own business and purchased a house.

Anderson confided to a friend that he had stabbed a man while fleeing. He was betrayed and arrested. A judge informed Missouri officials that Anderson was in a Brantford jail. Soon, officials from the Missouri governor to the American Secretary of State were writing to Canadian and British leaders demanding his extradition.

Anderson had moved from slave to symbol. Southerners had grown enraged with the Canadian Black communities and the abolitionists that enabled them. For generations they had insisted that slaves were unable and unwilling to work, read, or succeed on their own. And yet, up in Canada, ex-slaves were illuminating the lie that was the foundation of their economic, political and social ethos. The Underground Railroad, Northern abolitionists, and Canada had in this way become part of the Southern impetus to insist on State Rights and contemplate a divorce from the American state.

If Anderson could be extradited then the Canadian Black communities and the Underground Railroad itself could be destroyed with slave catchers able to grab prey in Canadian cities as easily and legally as if they were Boston or New York. A New Orleans attorney wrote, “We are going to have Anderson by hook or by crook; we will have him by fair means or foul; the South is determined to have that man.”

John Anderson

At that time, Canadians were debating their future as a British colony, a new country, or perhaps an American state. Meanwhile, a growing number of influential British leaders were advocating cutting ties with the increasingly expensive and bothersome Canada. The Anderson case led other Brits to argue that there was a moral issue at stake that trumped political concerns. They advocated intervening in the case even if it kept Canada colonial and threatened war with the United States.

The court decided that Anderson must be returned to Missouri but there was an appeal. American Secretary of State Lewis Cass wrote a letter insisting that Anderson be immediately sent south. British Prime Minister Palmerston demanded that Anderson be dispatched to Britain. Canada’s Attorney General summoned the temerity to say no to both. His name was John A. Macdonald, soon afterwards, an independent Canada’s first prime minister. He quietly covered all Anderson’s legal bills.

Sir John A Macdonald

John A. Macdonald

Finally, after weeks of legal wrangling and insults across the ocean, over the Canadian border and back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line, the time had come for a final decision. British, American and Canadian reporters were huddled in the imposing courtroom as police and soldiers outside nervously held their weapons. Three justices argued that the Missouri writ had charged Anderson with killing and that there was no such crime – the only charge available was murder. On a technicality, Anderson was free to go.

Anderson rose unsteadily to his feet and beamed a huge smile. In a quiet voice he whispered, “Thank you, gentlemen—thank you, your lordships.” The gavel fell and there was a roar of shouting and applause from those in the courtroom and from the crowd shivering outside in the snow.

Canadian reaction was ecstatic for it was a three-way victory. Anderson was free. Canada had told the United States to forget its designs its Black citizens and to respect its borders. It told Britain to mind its own business. Macdonald pushed and in March 1862 the British government passed the Habeas Corpus Act rendering it illegal for Britain to issue writs in Canada. A major step toward Canadian nationhood had been taken.

Canadian and American abolitionists quickly had Anderson delivering speeches to educate and raise funds. By June, he was in England delivering more speeches. His largest audience was at Exeter Hall, where the newly formed John Anderson Society welcomed six thousand to see him.

Meanwhile, Fort Sumter had been pummelled and Bull Run bullets had screamed. By 1862, the American Civil War was grinding into its second year. Anderson was no longer needed to make a point or further a cause. Without consulting him, British abolitionists arranged for him to be given land in and passage to Liberia.

On December 22, 1862, Anderson delivered his last speech. As always, he ended with the mournful hope that he might again see his family. The next day he was aboard a steamer bound for Cape Palmas. There are no records of him in Liberia, nor of his wife Maria or their child in Missouri. They became as lost to history as they were to each other. However, John Anderson’s legacy lives on in the America that was torn in two and Confederacy and Canada he had inadvertently, with his primal desire to be free, helped to create.

To discover more about John Anderson and Canada’s role in the American Civil War please check out Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, available online and, if you can still find one, book stores everywhere. http://www.amazon.ca/Blood-Daring-Canada-Fought-American/dp/0307361446

 

Watch for Your Crazy-Eyed Monkey

We were all nervous so I went first. The nurse walked me to a world map where I pointed to Nepal’s remote north-west and explained that the other teacher, six Lakefield College School students and I would be enjoying a two-week rafting and kayaking adventure down the Karnali River.
“Well then,” she said, “let’s not worry about the rabies shot because it’s just meant to keep you alive for a few hours until you can reach a hospital. But if you’re way out there then by the time you get to a medical facility you’ll be dead anyway. So I suggest you stay away from crazy-eyed monkeys.”
I promised to do my best. When properly stabbed I told the first of what would be several white lies; the little stories for which parents and teachers forgive themselves when protecting kids from being afraid of things they can do nothing about anyway. “Good news,” I said, “the needles are painless and we don’t need the rabies shot.”
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport is the perfect introduction to Nepal. We deplaned down rusting metal stairs and as we crossed the cracking tarmac we grouped a little closer upon entering the cacophony of the small terminal. Pimple-faced kids not much older than our young charges slouched in ill-fitting army uniforms with the universal look of sullen teenaged boredom and enormous automatic weapons slung over slender shoulders.
There is always a point, a precise moment, when you realize that the carousel will not produce your bags. I stood in a long line of disgruntled tourists until finally able to tell the disinterested young woman behind the old card table about our mixed up connecting flight in Los Angeles and the promise that our bags would be properly transferred. She had me fill out a long form and then drop it into a tall, wooden box that must have contained at least two hundred others. With a glance over her John Lennon glasses she promised to call our hotel if the bags arrived. If.
Stepping into the bright sunlight, we were staggered by the line of shouting cab drivers, hucksters and sign-wavers , the sudden sting of heat and the pungent smell of diesel and cow shit. We stumbled to our bus and after swerving around a large and sickly looking cow lying casually in the middle of the road were soon on our way to the tourist district.
A jaunty guide told us of the city. The green lawn and white gleaming splendour of the Narayanhiti Palace was a jarring sight after miles of shabby brown buildings and dusty brown streets. It was March, 2001. On the day of our arrival, the long-suspended parliament reconvened only to be suspended again when members immediately fell into a bench-clearing brawl. A few months after our departure, a young prince interrupted a palace dinner by spraying gun fire and killing nine members of his family including his father the king. A few days later the prince died mysteriously which put his uncle on the throne. This would happen later, of course, but the chatty guide that day said of nothing the country’s current political chaos or of the Maoist rebellion that was sweeping the countryside.
Our hotel was a clean and pleasant three-story concrete bunker. We enjoyed dinner on the roof, awed by the spectacular view of the city bathed in the gold of the gigantic sun sinking slowly behind the mountains. We met our lead river guide who promised to loan us camping gear while delaying our departure so we could buy clothes.

Jonah M. Kessel / China Daily

Armed with useless maps and pocketsful of rupees we navigated the district’s narrow winding streets. We found that stop signs were merely suggestions, mangy dogs were everywhere, the diesel fumes were suffocating, and the packed, tiny stores with their negotiable prices invited claustrophobia. We drank it in. We loved it all.
After leaving the group to find something a little different, one of the students and I hopped into a small, three-wheeled cab. After a minute I tapped the driver’s shoulder and suggested that he was going the wrong way. “Short cut,” he insisted. A couple of minutes later I said, in a little firmer tone, that we really needed to turn around and he then confessed that we were on our way to his uncle’s “very special” store. I whispered to my young friend and then on the count of three we leapt from the moving cab, disappeared under string of colourful saris and ran until the driver’s shouts faded. Safely back at the hotel our guide told us that we were indeed probably being kidnapped.
The next morning found us standing together in stunned silence before a small Tata bus. It was a Frankenstein of a rusty hulk, obviously cobbled together from long-gone others. The back of my cracked, vinyl seat scissored me forward at 75 degrees or so and its legs were secured by two concrete blocks. This was our home for two days.
The countryside was spectacular. The jungle was dense, the valleys deep and vast and the enormous sky was a brilliant clear blue. We had seen Everest piercing the clouds as we flew in and now the Himalayas were a backdrop to overwhelming beauty.
The villages along the way were small, poor and dusty. Around noon we stepped over an open sewer to an outdoor restaurant to enjoy our first of many plates of Bhat, Nepal’s staple diet, consisting of rice, lentils and curried vegetables that you dip into one of three fiery hot sauces. Our guide had warned that we would adjust but only after first falling ill after a day or so of Bhat. The vomiting soon began with a green and moaning girl hanging her head out the window of the rickety, bouncing bus.
We slept that night in the third floor rooms of another bunker hotel. The lone toilet was bolted to a cement porch surrounded by plywood walls, a ceiling open to the sky and a hole beneath it that allowed deposits to plop loudly into a large barrel on the ground far below. I spent most of the night alone on the roof with its cooler, fresher air and making frequent jogs to offer Bhat to the barrel.
The next day saw us on increasingly narrow roads carved into mountain sides that dropped into deep, rocky chasms. A boy of about ten years of age had joined our group and was hanging out the side of the bus and from time to time tapping on the roof. The driver explained that his tap indicated when the tires were nearing the edge of the abyss. I decided to neither distract the boy nor explain his job to the others.
We were all riding on the roof when stopped by a makeshift barricade. The driver had us climb back inside while he spoke with a small group of folks. I was a little shaken to see a man appear wearing shorts and flip flops like everyone else but also an alarmingly out of place powder-blue button-down oxford shirt. In his left hand he casually toted an automatic weapon. The driver said that he was a Maoist rebel and was demanding a fee for us to continue. I reached for my money but the driver said he could negotiate. He waved off my objection and disappeared with oxford man into a small hut. I told everyone that the driver was just paying a toll but waited to hear shots and wondered what I could possibly do if oxford man then returned for us. In five minutes that seemed like hours the driver was back. He had bargained the price of our lives and freedom down to about three Canadian dollars.
The twelve days on the river were magnificent. The guides were skilled and friendly and every night around the fire we shared songs and stories. An Australian told us of his love for the outback. An Isreali spoke of his military service and his desperate hope for peace. An American told us of the vastness of Montana and his love for horses, rivers and adventure. Each of us was far, far from home and yet when each day’s thrill of rapids and serenity of floating through the dazzling valley was over, it was thoughts of home to which each of us returned.

Karnali%20river

After our short flight back to Kathmandu the rest of our group enjoyed a tour in which they saw temples and even a little girl who was celebrated as a living God – but I was at the airport. Not surprisingly, my form was lost but after ascending several rungs of the bureaucratic ladder a man was escorting me to his office when I glanced through an open door and into a gym-sized room strewn with suitcases. I spotted my big green pack perched high on one of the piles. I eventually found all of my group’s packs and secured a cart to haul them away. The gentleman never consulted a piece of paper or had me sign a thing. I guess he either trusted me or didn’t care.
All travel is time travel and all travel is good. Few minds that travel remain small. How invigorating and instructive to allow even a brief immersion into a society where one’s rules, assumptions and expectations no longer apply. It is to be humbled with the twin reminders that people wake up every day everywhere and do the best they can and that other cultures are not failed attempts at being you.
Last night I sat on my deck and stared up at Orion glittering in the heavens. It was years ago now that I gazed up at him every night from the banks of the Karnali River. Shortly after our return, the Maoists won their revolution and swept aside Nepal’s monarchy and the planes that struck New York and Washington swept away much of the west’s blind innocence. But tonight, in my safe little Ontario village, there is Orion reminding me of how much that truly matters remains the same. And waiting for me somewhere is a crazy-eyed monkey that I will meet someday in whatever form he decides to appear – but not tonight.

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A Man You Need to Know More Than Ever Before: Mistahimaskwa

On June 26, 2014 Canada changed. The Supreme Court rendered a decision that remade the relationship between Native nations and the Canadian state by dictating that Native land and related concerns must be respected even if absent a treaty. We need to begin adjusting to the new reality and perhaps a good place to start is bringing Native heroes to the centre of Canada’s story. The effort must afford them respect as individuals with agency and not simply victims or foils or important only as they hindered or helped the country’s development. Let’s begin with someone we should all know – Big Bear, whose real name was Mistahimaskwa.

He was born around 1825 near what is now Port Carlton, Saskatchewan. Home was a predominately Cree community that included a number of Ojibwa people. His father was Black Powder, his people’s respected Chief. Young Mistahimaskwa internalized the freedom of the plains, moving south with his community every summer to hunt buffalo and back to winter along the North Saskatchewan River. By the early 1870s he was Chief of the 500 or so people living well according to ancient ways. But things were changing.

God, gold or the gumption to start life anew brought the Hudson’s Bay Company, the police and then more and more White settlers. The aftermath of the 1869-1870 Manitoba uprising introduced a Metis community. More people meant fewer buffalo and less freedom of movement. Metis buffalo hunter Gabriel Dumont began practices that affected traditional migration routes and there was a clash but Mistahimaskwa and Dumont met and arranged a compromise.

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man but with respect to Native nations his tactics and goals reflected the racism of his time. He wanted the semi-nomadic plains nations immobilized and farming or gone. In 1874, he sent a Hudson’s Bay commissioner to bring them to treaty. Some nations accepted the proffered blankets, tobacco and trinkets but Mistahimaskwa said no. He explained that he meant no disrespect but he would not be bought and would not sign.

A Methodist Minister arrived the next year promising more gifts including that of God’s blessing. Mistahimaskwa again declined saying, “When we set a fox-trap we scatter pieces of meat all round, but when the fox gets into the trap we knock him on the head; we want no bait; let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.” The Minister reported that while several Native leaders were friendly and had signed, Big Bear was a trouble maker.

A year later, Macdonald sent another delegation, this time led by Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris. Morris convened a large conference at Fort Carlton and with Treaty No. 6 offered reserves, money, and farm implements. A number of Chiefs signed. Mistahimaskwa arrived just as the conference was wrapping up. He carefully considered all that was on offer but again rejected it. In an impassioned speech he equated trading the 120,000 square miles of prairie for reserves to slipping a rope around the necks of his people. He had become the leader of the defiant Chiefs and a thorn in Macdonald’s side.

With buffalo herds continuing to shrink Mistahimaskwa and others invented new ways to trap and hunt. In the fall of 1878 he was asked to help Chief Minahikosis who had found White surveyors on land that had been ceded to his people near present-day Medicine Hat, Alberta. Mistahimaskwa met with the surveyors and police and had the work stopped. The incident afforded him even more prestige and power.

By the winter of 1878–79 the buffalo were all but gone. For the first time in their long histories, many Native communities suffered starvation. Mistahimaskwa convened a remarkable gathering of Chiefs and other leaders from the Blackfoot, Bloods, Sioux, Saulteaux, Sarcees, Stoney, Assiniboine, Metis and Cree Nations. Dumont was there as was Sitting Bull. Nations who had based their cultures on the buffalo and the freedom of the plains understood that everything they treasured was disappearing. He encouraged them to learn new ways, to share what they had, and to avoid fighting one another while keeping peace with the growing White communities.

Another spring saw more Native Chiefs taking treaty to secure food for their hungry children. Mistahimaskwa led his people and any who wished to follow to Montana where it was rumoured that the buffalo still roamed. The plan failed as the American herds were gone too. Mistahimaskwa returned and tried several ways to renew prosperity but by the winter of 1882 the 250 people that remained in his community were reduced to eating gophers. On December 8, Mistahimaskwa travelled to Fort Walsh and traded his signature on Treaty No. 6 for food.

The next summer, his people moved north to their assigned reservation near Fort Pitt. The land was terrible. He toured other reserves and found similar conditions. He repeatedly contacted Ottawa’s officials with demands that treaty obligations be observed and asked that his people and all others that wanted it be awarded new land that was more like they needed and had been promised. His requests were answered by his people’s rations being cut and then ended.

Mistahimaskwa organized another large meeting of Chiefs. In the spring of 1884 he led around 500 men and women from his community and rode to Poundmaker’s reserve near Battleford, Saskatchewan. The gathering began with songs, drums and, in honour of Mistahimaskwa, a special Thirst Dance. About 2000 people from several nations negotiated things they could do together to improve the lot of them all.

Image

 Mistahimaskwa

While negotiations proceeded, a young Cree man left to purchase food and beat up a White government official who refused him. News of the incident spread quickly and soon about 90 police stood glaring at a line of 400 armed Native men. With guns cocked, the two lines strode toward each other when suddenly Mistahimaskwa and Poundmaker galloped between them yelling, “Peace! Peace!” Both sides retreated and the two Chiefs negotiated a supply of food to placate their angry young men. A massacre and perhaps a war had been averted.

Mistahimaskwa met with Metis leader Louis Riel but refused to support or join his planned resistance. His rejection of Riel and constant talk of peace alienated a number of angry young men in his community who wanted quick action and quicker results. Near the end of March they heard of Metis fighters having won a victory against Canadian soldiers at Duck Lake and were inspired to attack the White settlement at Frog Lake. Mistahimaskwa rushed to the scene and arrived yelling, “Stop! Stop!” But this time he was too late. A church service had been interrupted and the unarmed and terrified people forced outside. An Indian agent, two priests and seven other men were killed. The settlement was destroyed.

A growing number of young Cree men who rejected Mistahimaskwa’s leadership were now led by Āyimisīs and Wandering Spirit. Two weeks later, on April 13, they surrounded Fort Pitt with 250 men. Mistahimaskwa got a note to those trapped inside advising them to escape and forget thoughts of negotiation as the young men were wild and beyond his control. A number of soldiers managed to get out but the Fort was taken, ransacked and burned.

Mistahimaskwa saved the twenty-eight civilians captured at Fort Pitt by returning them to his village. Meanwhile, Poundmaker led an attack at Battleford and Riel’s forces clashed with soldiers at Batoche. Canadian troops and militia won both contests and near the end of May, more troops defeated Wandering Spirit’s men near Frenchman Butte. During each of the battles, Mistahimaskwa had been home protecting the White captives and his equally frightened people.

When soldiers began arresting Native leaders, Mistahimaskwa rode to Fort Carlton and on July 2, 1885, he surrendered. He was charged with treason-felony and in September stood trial in Regina. A number of witnesses swore that he had not been present or in any way participated in any of the battles and had, in fact, tried to stop them. Judge Richardson told the six White men of the jury that he could be found guilty only if he had left his reservation and participated in or led the insurrection. It didn’t matter. After only 15 minutes the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Mistahimaskwa was then allowed to speak for the first time. He asked for nothing for himself, saying only, “Many of my band are hiding in the woods, paralyzed with terror. . . . I plead again, to you, the chiefs of the white men’s laws, for pity and help to the outcasts of my band!” Richardson sentenced him to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

Locked behind walls and bars the free man of the plains grew weak and ill. In March, 1887 he was released. His family and people had been scattered among various reserves. He made his way to Poundmaker’s reserve where on January 17, 1888 he died. Mistahimaskwa’s body was consigned to the prairie he loved, near the spot where the Thirst Dance had honoured his courage and celebrated his spirit. In this new country in which we now live, may we do the same.

A Man Even His Friends Don’t Like: Seeking Stephen Harper

At the funeral of a colleague Stephen Harper joked that even his friends don’t like him. Few seem to know him. The public personae is apparently very different from the man. Despite his having been prime minister for nearly a decade, for many Canadians, Mr. Harper remains an enigma. As Canadians enter their longest campaign since the 19th century, it is perhaps an appropriate time to pause and consider how the country’s most public person can remain such a mystery. Maybe the best way to seek an understanding of our inscrutable prime minister and the road down which he is leading the country is to recall three former prime ministers with whom he shares policies, principles and personalities.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Mr. Harper’s control of his cabinet, caucus and senior bureaucrats knows few bounds. All appearances, speeches and press releases are vetted to ensure that the government speaks with one voice – his voice. Even the prime minister’s own remarks are seldom extemporaneous while reporters’ questions are always limited and often ignored.

In this way, Mr. Harper reminds one of R. B. Bennett. Bennett was prime minister in the worst days of the Great Depression. Like Harper, he was an easterner who represented a Calgary riding. Like Mr. Harper, Bennett enjoyed a reputation as a skilled political strategist and nearly every member of his caucus rode to Ottawa on his coat tails. Bennett held a similar lock on his colleagues, disdain for the press and a reputation for running a one-man show. A popular joke had a Parliament Hill tourist query a guide about the well-dressed man walking alone and talking to himself and being told that it was the prime minister conducting a cabinet meeting. Bennett used to speak of “his” government like the current PMO refers not to the Canadian but the Harper government. Bennett’s iron control, like Mr. Harper’s, rendered all errors his and all opposition personal.

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Prime Minister R. B. Bennett

Mr. Harper also reminds one of Joe Clark. Like Mr. Harper, Clark called Alberta home and was a career politician who entered the profession quite young. They both earned reputations as astute policy wonks. While they both exude obvious intelligence and political acumen both men also often appear uncomfortable in their own skin, walk to podiums as if to gallows and read speeches like they can’t wait for them to end. Many Canadians grew uncomfortable with both, perhaps because they seemed uncomfortable with themselves. This unease could explain why so many people were surprised and bemused when Clark made self-referential jokes about his lack of charisma or when Mr. Harper performed a Beatles tune at Ottawa’s National Arts Center or was seen in a leaked YouTube clip doing clever imitations of past leaders.

The ice in Clark’s manner seemed even colder when contrasted with the fire of Pierre Trudeau for whom magnetism came as naturally as breathing. Alas, another Trudeau is now radiating heat around a man who, like Clark, appears to be an introvert in an extrovert’s game.

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Prime Minister Joe Clark

The Prime Minister that is most like Mr. Harper is John Diefenbaker. Like Harper, Diefenbaker was born in Ontario but became a transplanted westerner who made a name for himself by giving voice to the yearning and alienation of a region believing, with some justification, to have been underappreciated and ill-treated. Also like Harper, Diefenbaker behaved like an outsider even when he became the ultimate insider. Both seemed to perceive politics as a contest waged with enemies.

There are other similarities. One of Diefenbaker’s goals was to open the north. Mr. Harper has sought to protect Canada’s Arctic sovereignty while spurring economic development in the vast part of the country that, with climate change changing everything, holds more potential than Diefenbaker could have imagined. Diefenbaker also fought for imperial ties long after the empire was gone, including keeping the Red Ensign as our flag. He would salute Mr. Harper’s re-hanging pictures of the Queen and putting the Royal back into our military while reviving old ranks and insignia.

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Prime Minister John Diefenbaker

Diefenbaker spoke of nationalist unity and sought to end hyphenated Canadianism. He called his vision One Canada. Harper holds a similar view of the country. While Diefenbaker rejected and largely ignored Quebec’s ethnic-nationalism, Harper emasculated it by having a bill passed that recognized “the Québécois” as forming a nation within a united Canada. That is, Quebec is not a nation, just those French-speaking people who self-identify as Québécois. The Harper bill channelled Diefenbaker’s pan-Canadian, One Canada nationalism.

Harper’s relationship with the United States was as tricky as Diefenbaker’s but their motivating ideas were similar. Throughout the difficult 1963 campaign in which he was accused of being anti-American, Diefenbaker said that his fight was for Canada and not against the United States. He repeated the point in his memoirs: “It was simple logic that Canada could not maintain its independence if we continued existing Liberal policies. Recognition of this implied no hostility to the United States. It was a case, as it was for many of my government’s policies, of being pro-Canadian, not anti-American.”

Two generations later, on November 19, 2012, Prime Minister Harper answered questions before the Canadian-American Business Council. He echoed Diefenbaker by offering, “We are strong Canadian nationalists who value what is distinctive and unique about this country and think in our own modest way that this is actually a better country. What we’ve tried to do and tried to tell Canadians is there’s no need for true Canadian nationalism to have any sense of anti-Americanism.”

Robert Kennedy once said that of all the leaders with whom his brother interacted, Diefenbaker was the only one he hated. That sour relationship negatively affected cross border relations. President Obama surely harbours no such feelings for Mr. Harper but they are certainly not close and they disagree on many fundamental issues, most importantly, at the moment, is the environment and related issue of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Diefenbaker would not have agreed with everything Harper has done or how he is doing it. Diefenbaker was a man of the House and so would have risen in outrageous anger at the prorogations and other parliamentary parlor tricks through which Harper has bent the rules. Further, like Bennett and Clark, Diefenbaker was a Red Tory and so would have been orphaned in Harper’s party that purged the word Progressive and had the Conservatives become more conservative.

The similarities nonetheless remain. That Harper recognizes his link to Diefenbaker has been seen in the ways he has saluted him. Harper’s government has provided money to update and upscale Saskatoon’s Diefenbaker Centre. When Ottawa’s old city hall building was renovated to house government departments it was renamed the John G. Diefenbaker Building. A new Coast Guard icebreaker will be called the John G. Diefenbaker.

Considering the leaders and ideas of yesterday allows a deeper context within which we can comprehend today and, through seeking our unreadable prime minister, perhaps to better understand tomorrow. Prime Ministers Bennett, Clark and Diefenbaker continue to serve Canada by inviting us to glimpse the road ahead not by peering through the windshield but glancing in the rear view mirror.

KISS is Cute But Keeps Us Stupid: Consider an Example

The KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) is cute but keeping anything simple keeps us stupid. While I contend that this idea is true in every aspect of our lives let’s test its validity by looking at one event in History that we know about, or think we know about – the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves. The document is far too often simplified beyond recognition. In so doing, in robbing it of its complexity, History itself is deprived of its ability to do what it exists to do, to act as a wise teacher invoking yesterday in an invitation to better understand today. So let’s test the idea with a consideration of the lessons offered by Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

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Lincoln was a visionary but he was also a pragmatist and hard-nosed realist. The American Civil War began with the shelling of Fort Sumter in April, 1861 and for a year Lincoln’s Northern armies lost nearly every major battle. With each bloody month the costs mounted, the astounding number of casualties tore families, support for Lincoln and the war waned, and Britain threatened to tip the balance by entering on the side of the Confederate South.

In the summer of 1862, with everything falling in tatters about him, the president told his incredulous cabinet that he wanted to free slaves in states still in rebellion. The notion met with unanimous opposition. Lincoln swayed them by arguing that he was motivated not by a moral imperative but by military expediency. His stated goal in going to war in the first place, after all, had not been to end slavery but to preserve the union. Freeing slaves now, he told his dubious cabinet, would help pursue that goal by helping to crush the South. The act would allow for the creation of so-called ‘coloured’ regiments to bolster the North’s faltering recruitment efforts. It would stir havoc in the South as even more slaves were inspired to escape. After all, the Proclamation would mean nothing if the North lost the war. Further, the Proclamation would dissuade Britain from offering aid or diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. Having banned slavery decades before, he reasoned, Britain could hardly be seen supporting the peculiar institution in a war now redrawn as about good versus an evil.

The cabinet relented but persuaded Lincoln to postpone announcing the Emancipation Proclamation until a Union victory was won so that it would not appear to be an act of military desperation. When Lee’s Confederates were not really defeated but at least repulsed at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln claimed the battle as the victory he needed. He publicly announced that he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

The Proclamation freed some but not all the slaves. It allowed slavery to remain in the Border States of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. To end slavery there, Lincoln believed, would possibly end their neutrality and spur them to join the South. The act also exempted parts of the South that had already come under Northern control for those areas were chaotic enough without adding the crush of runaway slaves seeking the protection of the Northern army. Also limiting Lincoln’s action was that it was not a constitutional amendment or even a law for he could not have won or waited to win those victories. It was merely a Proclamation that could be more easily ignored at the time or later.

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Despite its limitations, the Proclamation changed everything. It meant that with the Civil War’s costs and casualties mounting and Lincoln’s fragile alliance of Republicans, abolitionists and northern Democrats fraying, the struggle was suddenly about something greater than the preservation of a political state. From that point forward the war would be about an idea. It would be about freedom. It would be about the very concept of humanity. The Declaration of Independence had insisted that all men are created equal but the Emancipation Proclamation stated an intention to transform that aspiration to a fact. Millions of people who for over 200 years had been property could become human.

Northern abolitionists and radical Republicans applauded the Proclamation. Britain initially reacted with skepticism but then responded as Lincoln had hoped. Gone was talk of Britain entering the war on behalf of the South or of its recognizing the Confederate government. “Colored Regiments” were formed beginning with enlistment to Boston’s famous Massachusetts 54th. Eventually about 200,000 African Americans donned the blue uniform. Lincoln said their contributions and numbers represented a turning point in the war that could have been lost without them.

But all were not happy. Not surprisingly, the South was outraged. From the Southern point of view the Proclamation was useless as it was merely an act by a foreign leader with no jurisdiction in what it insisted was a newly formed and sovereign state. It was another example of what many were fighting about – a far-away federal government insulting the Southern way of life and attacking the economic foundation of their society. There was more rage when, as Lincoln had predicted, the number of slaves escaping from Southern plantations rose.

There was also consternation among many in the North. Editorials attacked Lincoln for changing the aim of the war arguing, quite rightly, that it had never been about abolition. The Copperheads, a loose amalgam of northerners who wanted peace at any price, said that even though the war was now about freeing slaves that the cost was still too high. They increased their efforts to defeat Lincoln in 1864 and to negotiate an end to the war with slavery in place. Hundreds of Union soldiers deserted. They claimed that they had not signed up to free slaves. Lincoln’s commanding General George McClellan was advised to stage a coup. McClellan refused to do so but a year later he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run against Lincoln for the presidency.

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Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation

The Proclamation also affected Canada. Britain had declared itself neutral in the war and so Canada and the Maritime colonies were automatically neutral as well. But then as now Canadians were a cantankerous lot who considered dictates as merely suggestions. Many were disappointed when Lincoln did not immediately free the slaves upon becoming president and so supported the South. The majority of Canadian newspapers were pro-Confederate. Many Quebecers identified with Southern interests fighting a government that seemed unsympathetic to their beliefs about a threatened culture. Many Canadians and Maritimers saw business advantages and believed that Canada would be more militarily secure with a shattered United States and so supported the South. Two members of parliament who ran into the Canadian legislature shouting that the South had won the war’s first battle at Bull Run were welcomed with a loud cheer.

However, even given all of this, newspaper editorials throughout Canada and the Maritimes were unanimous in their praise for the Emancipation Proclamation. It spurred a new wave of Canadians and Maritimers to cross the border and join the thousands of their countrymen who had already enlisted. The vast majority, ironically given pro-Southern sentiment in official circles, fought with the Union. Among those heading south to fight for the North were hundreds who had escaped as slaves but were returning as men. Approximately 40,000 Canadians and Maritimers served in the Civil War. They fought in every major battle and 29 won Congressional Medals of honour.

The legitimate fear of American attack or annexation grew more acute with the Emancipation Proclamation because it was, as Lincoln expected, a boon to his cause. Six months after its enactment, the Confederacy was broke and nearly broken. Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg altered the war’s trajectory as surely as the Proclamation had recalibrated its moral imperative. With the Union victory more certain than ever and many Canadian leaders sure that once the South had been dispatched that Lincoln would march his armies north, the impulse to act became acute. Confederation had been talked about for years but it was suddenly a necessity. Canada needed to invent itself to save itself. Plans were made to meet in Charlottetown in September, 1864 to forge a new country.

Abraham Lincoln understood the enormity of what he had done. Upon affixing his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation he said, “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act.” We owe it to ourselves to pause and reflect upon the Proclamation for the milestone it represents in the evolution of mankind’s freedom. But in considering what it was we should also accept what it was not. We should consider the role it played not just in the re-imagination of America but also in the birth of Canada.

We should also consider the Emancipation Proclamation as an example of how we must invite History to teach us lessons that resonate today and that in order to properly learn those lessons we must dismiss the balm of simplicity and welcome, in fact, demand complexity. Complexity, after all, is History’s highway to the truth. In fact, complexity and truth are reliant upon each other in every sphere of our lives.

Our Forgotten Father

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.

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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.