Power Where it Belongs

Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim Hortons is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.

Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters, and so it matters who has it.

Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into the creation of a country. From Britain came the concepts of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took the ideas of a written constitution and a federal state, in Canada’s case one composed of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.

Power and Sir John's Echo

Sir John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in the Civil War demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. Seeing this, the Canadian Confederation delegates decided to stand the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”

The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and a limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty, including trade, the military, the post office, criminal law, currency and banking. Unlike in the United States, where, until 1913, the states appointed senators, in Canada the prime minister was given the power to populate the country’s Senate. The prime minister would also appoint the lieutenant-governors, who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. It was decided that responsibility for anything the Constitution left out or that came up later, such as airports, would go automatically to the federal government.

Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence for the country by gaining control of our Constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.

This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects such as the transcontinental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trans-Canada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression and the FLQ crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate-change leaders.

Some federal leaders have made boneheaded mistakes and some perpetrated tragic policies. Macdonald himself can never be forgiven for the crimes he committed with respect to indigenous people. Those actions condemn the men not the structure from which they worked.

Let us move to the present. Ignore whether you like or dislike our current Prime Minister or his policies, but grant that his Canadian tour last spring indicated his understanding that this country is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a country and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.

We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but, more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.

Every time you hear our Prime Minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.

If you liked this column or disagree with it, please send it to others and consider leaving a comment. You see, the Globe and Mail posted it last week as an opinion piece and it sparked debate then. It is a summary of my latest book, Sir John’s Echo, which Dundurn Press asked me to write, urging me to stir debate as part of Canada 150. It has been doing so. The book is available at book stores or online through Chapters, Amazon, and elsewhere. Polite, informed debate is good, it’s our conversaion.

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html

 

 

Book Review: Three Weeks in Quebec

Christopher Moore’s latest work, at its core, is about long meetings. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could be as frightfully boring as most meetings themselves. Instead, the book crackles with wit, intrigue and, despite knowing how it all ends, genuine tension. Three Weeks in Quebec City is an entertaining, informative and gracefully written must-read for every Canadian concerned about the state of our country’s democracy. The story begins in the fall of 1864. British North America is comprised of the poor and poorly governed colonies of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada that was united in the forced marriage of what are now the southern portions of Quebec and Ontario. The Charlottetown Conference had taken place the month before. Delegates had agreed to form a new federal state. The goal of the 33 men assembled in Quebec was to forge a constitutional framework for their bold and improbable idea.

A harsh critic might note that Three Weeks in Quebec City is merely a rewrite of Moore’s 1867: How The Fathers Made a Deal. Let’s concede that Moore’s hugely successful 1997 book is at least his newest work’s father. Both hang their narratives on mini-biographies and invite us to the dinners and balls where alliances were made. Both take Sir John A. Macdonald down a peg. They note his being reluctantly dragged to the idea of Confederation, drinking too much and even fiddling with the minutes to balloon his actual importance.

The main point of both books is also the same. Moore believes, as did our founders, that the complex Canadian nation is best served by a state with power located not in the provinces but the federal government and not in the Prime Minister’s Office but Parliament.

The founders’ dedication to parliamentary democracy was demonstrated when each of the five delegations arrived with both government and opposition members. Important initiatives and decisions, they believed, are not the sole purview of the executive. Once assembled, they comfortably ignored public opinion. After all, parliamentary democracy empowers representatives to act responsibly on the citizenry’s behalf. They never discussed the creation of a Bill of Rights. A properly constituted and operating parliamentary democracy, they thought, is all the protection from the state a citizen needs.

The constitutional framework they forged reflected their fundamental beliefs. The longest debate, for example, involved the Senate. They wanted appointed senators to ensure the undemocratic body would enjoy nothing but dignified, advisory, ceremonial power. A neutered Senate met their goal of aping Britain’s bicameral parliament while locating real power where it belonged – in the elected House.

They afforded the central government a long list of powers to ensure its dominance. Important among them was the ability to disallow provincial laws and that any new areas of jurisdiction would become federal responsibilities. This division of power was fine with Quebec that needed to protect its French culture and tradition, the Maritimes that sought to avoid being swamped by the central Canadians and Macdonald, who didn’t want provinces in the first place.

The Conference did not, as the book unfortunately hints, occur in a vacuum. Moore merely mentions at various points that the American Civil War was happening at the time. In fact, Canadian and British actions, including a well-financed Canadian-based Confederate spy ring, led to real and perceived threats of American reprisals that focused minds on the urgency of getting Confederation done. Moore mentions the Irish American Fenians but ignores how their threats influenced Maritime support for Confederation. Similarly, Moore affords scant attention to the growing power of Britain’s Little Englander movement. Its advocating an end to colonialism rendered the old idea of Confederation a new and urgent necessity. The impatient Brits and angry Americans were the twin elephants in Quebec City conference rooms where Confederation was born and in the pubs, papers and Parliaments where it was later debated.

Much of what the founders created during their three weeks in Quebec remains in force. However, shortly after Confederation, court cases began handing more power to provinces. Beginning in the 1960s the executive began hoarding more power to itself. Macdonald, Cartier, Tilley, Tupper and the others would not recognize and would rage against today’s Americanized balances of power.

Three Weeks in Quebec invites readers to mourn Canada’s slow drift away from its centralist, parliamentary democratic founding principles. As recent events and trends have led many of us to consider the state of our state, the book’s greatest gift is its glimpse at original intentions. Moore’s insightful and valuable work encourages Canadians to ponder what has been lost and perhaps what needs to be won again.

This review appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday June 7, 2015.

Time to Change the Faces on Our Money

It’s been loud lately. The tragic popping of gunfire from criminal minds in Paris and Alberta and from Canadian troops in Iraq, along with the sucking sound of the latest oil boom going bust have been loud indeed. Lost in the din have been two related arguments that deserve some attention.

The first began with Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. Many commemorated our first prime minister as a visionary. Others castigated him as a racist. The second was stirred by a letter from NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Murray Rankin to Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz in support of an effort begun a year ago by Victoria’s Merna Forster to have more women, such as the Famous Five, on our money.

The arguments are related because they go to the heart of our nationhood. Those we choose to celebrate in books or bronze, or on whatever that sticky polymer stuff passing as paper money is, say a great deal about the character traits and achievements we believe represent the best of us.

So perhaps we should remove Sir John from our money. But then, William Lyon Mackenzie King is on our 50, yet in the Second World War he interned Japanese-Canadians who had committed no crimes. Sir Robert Borden is on our 100, yet he approved his party’s virulently anti-Asian British Columbia campaign under the slogan “White Power.” Should they be removed from our money too?

Oscar Peterson banknote

Queen Elizabeth is the only woman currently on our currency. But does our sovereign’s visage remind us of our sovereignty’s limits? Does she represent a political system based on the hereditary passage of power that contradicts current Canadian values and has passed its best-before date? Accordingly, should she be removed from our money?

And what of the Famous Five? Their fame began when Edmonton’s Emily Murphy was appointed Canada’s first female police magistrate. Shortly afterward, an uppity male lawyer said she was unqualified because the constitution listed “Persons” who could be judges with the implication that they were male. Murphy and her Alberta friends took the case all the way to Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council where, in 1929, it was determined that women were Persons. It was an enormous step for women and toward citizenship and equality for all.

However, Emily Murphy was also a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Janey Canuck. In The Black Candle, published in 1922, she wrote of non-White immigrants running the Canadian drug trade to intentionally defile White women and destroy the White race. The only option, she argued, was to purify Canada by ridding it of all people of colour. Should the writer of such reprehensible ideas be on Parliament hill, or on the Edmonton mural, or on our money? What would Sir John or those currently attacking him say?

The Ashton and Rankin letter states, “Our banknotes are an important opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our country and the innumerable contributions to its history made by people of all genders, ages, religions and ethnicities.” Perhaps agreeing with that very Canadian thought leads to a desire to replace all of the political figures now on our money with those who better animate our collective soul: our artists.

Susanna Moodie banknote

Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” He was right. Painters, poets, authors, songwriters, and sculptors and more speak to our intellects and emotions while inviting us to think deeper about that which truly matters. Let us celebrate those who help us celebrate our spirit.

The Bank of Canada regularly considers recommendations for changes to our currency and advises the minister of finance who signs off on new designs. Let the conversation begin. Mr. Poloz, for our 10, 20, 50 and 100 I recommend Oscar Peterson, Susanna Moodie, Norval Morrisseau, and Alice Munro.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on February 2, 2015. The Citizen created the images. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your favourite social media.

Eight Ways To Look At Sir John A. Macdonald

January 11th was Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. As Canada’s first prime minister and key founding father, he deserves to be remembered. Across the country there were cakes, candles, songs, and speeches. Many Canadians will enjoy celebrations of one sort or another all year. Others, however, will not celebrate but castigate. The attacks have begun and some have been viscous.

The spirited debates remind us of history’s importance and of its terrific habit of never shutting up. History is not a warm bath of nostalgia but a mean teacher that forces us to think of things we have not before and, even more importantly, consider things we thought we knew for sure. The conflicted commemoration of our first prime minister is as it should be for there are at least eight ways to see Sir John.

Brady-Handy_John_A_Macdonald_-_cropped

Creator: In the 1860s, Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and threatening an invasion of the British colonies on their northern border. The bitty Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them, needed to save themselves by creating themselves. Canada’s birth had many midwives, but the conferences and subsequent debates that brought it into the world would have failed without Sir John’s charm and political acumen. The Constitution creating the state to house the nation was written largely in his hand.

Saviour: With the Civil War’s end, the United States demanded astronomical reparations from Britain for its role in prolonging the conflict. The Americans offered to trade the cash for Canada. As part of the British delegation in Washington, to negotiate what was called the Alabama claims, Macdonald deftly controlled the agenda. He refused to be bribed by the Brits or bullied by the Americans. He left with generous concessions and the swap swept from the table.

Visionary: Macdonald knew Canada must grow or be gone and the only way was west on rails. Without the railway, British Columbia could join the United States and the United States could, as its Manifest Destiny decreed, take the prairies. The railway idea was ludicrous. It would be the world’s longest railway through the world’s most inhospitable land. The rocks and impenetrable forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rockies would be impossible. Macdonald told British Columbians they’d have the steel line to the Pacific in ten years and the money flowed and hammers rang. His will and conniving saw the impossible done and Canada linked from sea to sea.

Centralist: Macdonald put power in parliament. He saw the prime minister as the servant of the House and provinces like municipalities. Parliament could overturn provincial laws deemed to contradict the national interest and he disallowed many. He interpreted parliament’s purchase of what is now most of the west as its ownership of the land and resources. When premiers met to complain, he refused to attend.

Charlatan: He was not above political trickery to get or keep power. Globe editor and Reform Party leader George Brown learned the hard way when Macdonald tricked him into office and then two days later tricked him right back out again. He used patronage jobs to openly and unapologetically reward friends and punish enemies. He was once scandalized out of power when caught linking political donations to railway contracts.

Rogue: No one knew more stories and jokes than Sir John. No one remembered more names or slapped more backs. He never met a voter with whom he disagreed or an opponent he did not try to woo. He once entered his occupation in a hotel ledger as “cabinet maker”. A hard drinker, he once threw up during a campaign speech but then won the election. He told another audience that Canadians preferred him drunk to George Brown sober – he was right. He was a scoundrel but he was their scoundrel.

Racist: He imported Chinese workers for the worst and most dangerous railway construction jobs. With the task done, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. He did not want Canadians to become what he called a “mongrel race”. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide.

Founding Father: To our American friends, consider this: Sir John was like your Thomas Jefferson in that he provided the philosophical foundation upon which the country was based; he was like your James Madison as he was primary among those who wrote the constitution; he was like your George Washington in that he was Canada’s first chief executive and fully cognizant that everything he said or did set a precedent that would affect the behaviour of every prime minister that followed – so Sir John was your Jefferson, Madison, and Washington rolled into one man.

Sir John's Grave

Sir John’s humble grave site

Sir Christopher Wren, the man who designed St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the most spectacularly graceful and awe-inspiring buildings on the planet, once said that if you wished to see his monument you should look around. Canada is not as perfect as St. Paul’s but no country is. However, while flawed, it is safer, richer, and more democratic than most. Its long and fascinating history bursts with sources of pride and shame as well as progress and redemption. So as the key figure in creating, building, and saving the country, it is fitting and proper that we commemorate Sir John. Without him there would be no Canada. Perhaps we honour him best by acknowledging that he was as complex a man as is the country he left in our care. Perhaps we understand him as we understand Wren, by looking around.

 An edited version of this column appeared as part of Globe and Mail debates in which I was asked to be one of four historians to consider whether Sir John was a “Visionary or Hateful Embarrassment”. You can see what the others wrote and vote for who you think should win at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/sir-john/article22362438/

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/

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.

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.