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.

Image George Brown

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.

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Sir John the Saviour

Part of the joy of being an author is the privilege of travelling the country and meeting people who share a passion for books and ideas. Interviews are fascinating too because questions reveal the issues that are stirring interest. The questions are sometimes surprising.

Last January I was speaking with an American journalist from Louisiana about my book dealing with Canada and the American Civil War. She said, “I read your book and admit I had never heard of John Macdonald. It seems like he was quite was a big deal.” “Yes,” I offered politely, “He was and is quite a big deal.”  She continued, “So how would you explain Macdonald to our American readers in one sentence?” “Well,” I said, drawing a breath, “Macdonald is like America’s James Madison in that he led the writing of our constitution, and he is like your Thomas Jefferson in that he provided the ideological basis and political justification for the creation of our country, and he is like your George Washington in that he was our first chief executive that put flesh on the country’s skeleton while his every decision provided a precedent that resonates to this day; so our Macdonald was your Madison, Jefferson and Washington rolled into one man.”

I could have said much more. We can’t escape Macdonald. Every time we discuss the Senate, or the power of the prime minister, or the role of an MP, or government’s power we are revisiting his vision. We know that he created and built Canada. Less well known, however, is how he saved Canada.

Image Sir John A. Macdonald

In 1871, Canada was four years old. The American Civil War that had affected how and when the country had been created had been over for six years; but it was not really over. When the war began, Britain had declared itself neutral. That made Canada neutral too but still about 40,000 Canadians and Maritimers broke the law to don the blue and gray and fight. Canadians sold weapons to both sides and housed a Confederate spy ring that organized raids from Toronto and Montreal. John Wilkes Booth visited Montreal to organize Lincoln’s assassination. All of this and more led a great many Americans to call for revenge; generals, newspapers and politicians called for invasion and annexation.

Throughout the war, Britain had ignored its neutrality law and allowed ships to be bought or built then sold to dummy companies that turned them over to the Confederate navy. One such ship was called the Enrica. The Americans knew about it even while she was under construction at the Laird Yards in Liverpool in the fall of 1861. The British government allowed it to be built and then snuck down the Mersey to the Azores where it was refitted for war and rechristened the CSS Alabama.

The Alabama roamed the seas and eventually sank 64 American commercial vessels and a warship. Lincoln ordered it destroyed and the global hunt was on. In July, 1864, the Alabama was sunk outside a French port.

Image CSS Alabama

At the war’s conclusion, the United States continued its Manifest Destiny driven desire to have Canada. Annexationist Secretary of State William Henry Seward purchased Alaska in 1867. He explained that the purchase was merely a step in driving Britain out of British Columbia and eventually all of North America. But Macdonald stopped him by persuading those in Vancouver and Victoria to join Canada. Seward negotiated with Britain to purchase Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company – nearly all of what is now northern Ontario and the prairies. But Macdonald stopped him again by negotiating around the United States and buying it for Canada.

Seward had one card left to play. He argued that by allowing ships such as the Alabama to be built and bought that Britain had prolonged the Civil War and cost America money and lives. He added up everything from lost ships to increased maritime insurance rates and presented Britain with a bill totalling an astronomical 125 million dollars.

Britain would not, and in fact simply could not pay. Its economy would be crushed. Plus it needed what money it had to build its defence in light of growing troubles in Europe. It reacted to what became known as the Alabama claims by playing the diplomatic game of deny and delay.

By 1871, Ulysses S. Grant had become president. Like Seward, Grant hated the roles Canada and Britain had played in the war. He told his cabinet, “If not for our debt, I wish Congress would declare war on Great Britain, then we could take Canada and wipe out her Commerce as she has done ours, then we would start fair.” Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish spoke with the British minister to Washington Edward Thornton. He said that Grant would waive the entire Alabama reparation payment if Britain would simply hand over Canada. Thornton said the Canadians would probably not like it but that he would inform his government. Shortly afterwards, a conference was convened to settle the matter. Grant was pleased and said that if Canada was annexed then the Alabama claims could be settled in five minutes.

Image President Grant

In February, 1871 five Americans, including Secretary of State Fish, welcomed five Brits to Washington. As a courtesy, the British allowed Sir John to be a part of their delegation. Macdonald knew that the future of his infant country was at stake. He took the proceedings so seriously that he even abstained from drink for the entire conference!

Macdonald maneuvered the agenda so that they began negotiating the American abuse of rules regarding inland fishing rights. It was an enormously important issue for Canada and he refused to budge an inch. But focussing on fishing was also a brilliant strategy for no matter how many other matters were raised Macdonald kept coming back to fishing. Every time anyone brought up the main question at hand – the Alabama claims – Macdonald talked to Fish about fish.

The Americans badgered him during the day. The British delegates badgered him every night. The Brits threatened him with a withdrawal of British military support. He was unmoved. They tried to bribe him with an appointment to Her Majesty’s Privy Council. He laughed them off. When cornered, Macdonald delayed by saying he needed to write home for advice. It was later discovered that his cables to the cabinet and governor general were being boomeranged back to Washington by Governor General Lisgar who had more loyalty to Britain than Canada. The backstabbing double-cross meant that British delegates knew exactly what Macdonald was doing and all of his fall back positions; but they could still not best him.

The conference ended after 9 weeks and 37 meetings. Macdonald won everything he had wanted. Fishing rights were settled in Canada’s favour. Because the Americans refused, Britain would pay Canada 4 million pounds in compensation for losses incurred in the Fenian Raids; Macdonald would use the money for railway construction. Free access to the American market for a number of Canadian products was guaranteed while Canadian tariffs could remain. Two concessions were more important than these and others. First, the Alabama claims would be settled by an international tribunal and it was agreed that the reparations for Canada swap was off the table. Second, it had been established that the ratification of the Washington Treaty would need approval by the American Congress, British parliament and by the Canadian parliament.

The Washington Treaty was the final battle of the American Civil War. It was the final episode of the American Manifest Destiny dream of Canadian annexation. Macdonald ensured that Canada could thrive because it would survive.

When he arrived back in Ottawa Macdonald delivered a four hour speech in the House. He did not strut. He did not gloat. Rather, he acted as a responsible statesman who respected Canadians sufficiently to explain what had been at stake and what had happened in all of its complex detail. He then went home and for the first time in over two months enjoyed a drink; perhaps more than one. He deserved it, he had saved his country, and that was quite a big deal.

Civil War Hero or Villian

Civil War Hero or Villain

You may not know Jacob Thompson but he knew us. One hundred and fifty years ago this week Thompson brought the American Civil War to Canada as it hadn’t been before and helped spur Confederation. His role in our birth reminds us of the ideas that seem to be motivating us still.

The winter of 1863-64 was tough on the Confederate States of America. Its armies were losing men and battles, its cities saw food riots and its dollar was plummeting. President Jefferson Davis needed to turn things around and so he turned to Jacob Thompson.

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Thompson was a Mississippi lawyer, politician and former federal cabinet secretary. Davis asked him to save the South by going north. He was given one million dollars, an astronomical sum at the time, and ordered to harass and distract Lincoln’s Union from Canada.

Thompson arrived in the first week of May, 1864 and established offices in Montreal and in Toronto’s swankiest hotel, the Queen’s, located where the Royal York is today. He mobilized Confederate deserters and escaped prisoners and Canadians sympathizers.

One of his first acts was to invite America’s most influential newspaper publisher and Lincoln’s personal secretary to Niagara Falls under the pretence of negotiating a peace agreement. When Lincoln set terms the South could never meet, Thompson’s contacts pilloried him in the press for being a warmonger with no interest in peace. Lincoln’s already shaky support in the war-weary North suffered.

Union ships on Lake Erie were hijacked. Attempts were made to free Confederates from Northern prisons. Arms and ammunition were manufactured in Guelph and Toronto and shipped to the South. Thompson worked with the Copperhead movement to stop Lincoln’s re-election and split the North by creating a new, independent country. The Copperhead leader ran operations from his hotel in Windsor. Thompson and the Copperheads disrupted Lincoln’s Republican Party convention.

Thompson’s underground actions led to more Union troops being moved to the border. American ships ignored a War of 1812 agreement and rearmed. In response, more British soldiers were deployed to Canada along with more complaints from London that the colony was too expensive and should be left to its own devices. Canadian militia units were mobilized with the realization that the broke, politically dysfunctional colony could not effectively defend itself in the face of growing American threats.

John A. Macdonald knew that Thompson’s actions had enraged a United States that was already upset with Canadian war-time actions and attitudes. The likelihood of a post-war invasion seemed real and terrifying. For years, Confederation had been an interesting idea but it had become a necessity. To save itself Canada needed to create itself. It is no coincidence that five months after Thompson arrived in Toronto the Fathers of Confederation arrived in Charlottetown.

While Macdonald debated Thompson terrorized. His men simultaneously engulfed a number of Manhattan’s hotels and theatres in flames and then fled back to Toronto. Among the New Yorkers caught in the chaos on Broadway was the famous actor John Wilkes Booth. As part of his plot that killed Lincoln, he spent a week with Thompson’s men in Montreal.

Several of Thompson’s terrorists raided St. Alban’s, Vermont. They robbed its banks, killed a man and then fled with guns blazing and a posse in pursuit. They were caught by Canadian authorities but a judge freed them. American newspapers insisted that Lincoln immediately invade Canada in retribution. The American Senate reacted by ending the Canadian-American free trade agreement and taking other actions that promised to economically punish Canada. Canadians were further convinced of the threat to all they valued and yearned to preserve.

With his country dying, Jacob Thompson inadvertently aided in the birth of ours; he was our Uncle of Confederation. Considering his role in motivating change allows us to consider the degree to which our political decisions are still based upon equal parts courage, hope and fear. And, as in politics so often and war always, we are left to ponder whether Thompson was a hero or a villain.

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Read more about Jacob Thompson and about Canada’s role in the war in the bestselling Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation.

http://www.amazon.ca/John-Boyko-Books/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A916520%2Cp_27%3AJohn%20Boyko

http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/home/search/?keywords=john%20boyko