His Mouth Got Him Killed and His Death Changed History

Thomas Scott grew up poor. His parents were Protestant Irish tenant farmers so he would have understood the history of Protestants struggling against the power and enmity of Ireland’s Catholic majority and of the famine, disease, and economic hardships that gripped the country during his childhood and teenage years. In 1863, at age 21, the six-foot-two, ruggedly handsome Scott joined the wave of those leaving Ireland. He arrived in Canada West, what is now Ontario, and settled near Belleville. Scott worked as a labourer and joined Sterling’s 49th Hastings Battalion of Rifles. He also joined the powerful anti-Catholic Orange Lodge.

Seeking greater opportunities, Scott travelled west. In the spring of 1869, he arrived by stagecoach in the Red River Settlement, at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, at what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was home to about 5,000 descendants of French explorers and fur traders who had wed Indigenous women. Most Métis were Catholic and French-speaking and many were Protestant and English speaking. A growing number of Protestant, English-speaking Canadians, like Scott, were also moving to Red River.

His Mouth Got Him Killed

Thomas Scott

The Red River Settlement was part of an expansive region called Rupert’s Land that had been owned by the Hudson Bay Company. In March 1869, just before Scott’s arrival, it had been sold to the British crown with the intent to sell it to the two-year-old Dominion of Canada. The Canadian purchase would not be official until December 1. That nine-month interval created confusion regarding who owned the land and governed its people and added to the resentment among those at Red River that they had not been consulted about the sale. Racial, religious, and ethnic tensions were made worse by the belief that the sale would spark an influx of even more English Protestants from Ontario. The settlement was further split because some people wanted to join Canada, others wanted independence, while others hoped Red River would become a British colony.

Upon his arrival, Scott joined a construction crew building the Dawson Road between Red River and Fort William. In August, it was discovered that the project’s superintendent and paymaster, John A. Snow, had been underpaying the workers. Scott led a gang that dragged Snow to the river and threatened to toss him in. In November, Scott was charged with assault, fined £4, and fired. Scott found work as a labourer and bartender and became known for fighting, drinking, and loudly stating his anti-Catholic, anti- Métis views.

While Scott was working on the Dawson Road, a Canadian survey crew had arrived near the Red River Settlement. They had ignored current land ownership titles and property lines. The Métis quite rightly insisted that until the December 1 ownership transfer, the crew had no official status and were simply trespassers. The Métis spokesperson was a 25-year-old charismatic, fluently bilingual, Louis Riel who had just returned home from Montreal where he had studied to become a priest. Supported by armed men, Riel dramatically placed his foot on the surveying chain and ordered the crew to leave. Its leader, William McDougal, retreated and took his men to nearby Pembina.

The Métis took Upper Fort Garry, the Hudson Bay Company’s post in Red River, and formed a provisional government called the Métis National Committee. Riel was its secretary. On December 1, a frustrated McDougall led his men back to the Red River Settlement but armed Métis, this time acting on behalf of their government, stopped him again.

Meanwhile, the trouble-making Scott had met the 29-year-old doctor and entrepreneur John Christian Shultz. Shultz led the Canadian Party which was a small group of English Protestants who wished to see Red River annexed by Canada and led by English Protestants. In early December, 67 Canadian Party adherents gathered at Shultz’s warehouse in Lower Fort Garry to plan an attack on the Métis government.

A newly constituted provisional government called the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation had been formed with Riel as president. On December 7, Riel had Shultz and his followers arrested and detained. Scott had not been at the warehouse but upon hearing of the arrests he met with Riel and demanded that the prisoners be freed. When the soft-spoken Riel refused, Scott became belligerent, yelled racist insults, and so was arrested. He continued his tirades while under confinement, threatening at one point to shoot Riel.

On January 9, Scott and twelve others escaped. He and fellow prisoner Charles Mair found snowshoes and somehow walked 103 km through a howling blizzard to Portage la Prairie. A month later, still suffering the effects of frostbite, Scott joined Canadian Major Charles Arkoll Boulton and about 60 others who marched through cold and snow, intent on capturing Upper Fort Garry, freeing the prisoners, and overthrowing Riel. They were joined along the way by another 100 men armed with muskets and clubs. Upon their arrival, they learned that Riel had already released the prisoners. While the news led many to turn back, Boulton, Scott, and 45 others continued to insist on Riel’s ouster. Riel had them arrested.

A military council determined that Boulton was guilty of treason and should be executed. After appeals from church leaders and Donald Smith, the commissioner from Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s government, Riel waived the sentence. The incident, and Riel’s mercy led to even broader support among Red River’s disparate groups for the provisional government.

 Meanwhile, the still imprisoned Thomas Scott had become a nuisance. He complained about conditions and constantly shouted violent threats and racist insults at his Métis guards. They chained his feet and hands but he persisted. On February 28, after striking a guard, two other guards dragged Scott outside and began beating him until a member of Riel’s government, who happened to be passing by, intervened. Riel visited Scott and, speaking through a hole in the door, tried to calm the man but Scott merely shouted insults.

Scott’s Execution

On March 3, Scott was brought before a six-man council and charged with insubordination and treason. He was not allowed a lawyer and, because he spoke no French, understood none of the evidence brought against him. Witnesses were not cross-examined. Only at the trial’s conclusion did Riel address Scott in English and summarize what had happened. One member of the council voted for acquittal and another for banishment but four declared Scott guilty and said he should be executed by firing squad.

A minister, a priest, and Donald Smith asked Riel to spare Scott’s life but he refused. Riel believed that the trial and Scott’s execution would demonstrate the legitimate power of his government to the people of Red River and, as he said to Smith, “We must make Canada respect us.”

At one o’clock the next day, March 4, 1870, Scott’s hands were tied behind his back and he was escorted from his cell to the courtyard outside. With Riel watching, Scott knelt in the snow and a white cloth was tied to cover his eyes. He shouted, “This is horrible. This is cold-blooded murder.” Six Métis men raised their muskets but upon hearing the order to fire only three shots rang out. Scott was hit twice and crumpled to the ground but was still alive. François Guillemette, a member of the firing squad, stepped forward, withdrew his revolver, and delivered the coup de grâce, ending Scott’s life.

His Mouth Got Him Killed

French-speaking Quebecers had rallied to Riel’s side as a protector of French-Catholic rights. But with Scott’s execution, many in Ontario, spurred by propaganda spread by Dr. Shultz, who had returned to his native province and was supported by the Orange Lodge, demanded that Riel be arrested for Scott’s murder. Prime Minister Macdonald had welcomed representatives from Red River and agreed with nearly all of Riel’s terms; that Manitoba should be created as a province, there be guaranteed protection for Métis land, the Catholic religion, and French language, and that treaties be negotiated with Indigenous nations. The raging controversy around Scott’s death did not change Macdonald’s mind about Manitoba’s creation but to assuage Ontario’s anger he dispatched 1,200 men to Red River, comprised of a British battalion and two Canadian militia battalions. By the time they arrived, Riel had fled to the United States.

Riel’s part in Scott’s execution had destroyed his ability to take a legal, leadership role in Canadian politics. In July 1870, Manitoba became a province largely under the terms he had proposed and the people of the new province elected him as their Member of Parliament three times. However, denounced as Scott’s murderer, Ontario Orangemen had placed a $5,000 bounty on his head and so a fear of arrest or assassination made him unable to take his seat.

His Mouth Got Him Killed.

Louis Riel

Fifteen years later, Riel returned from his American exile to lead Saskatchewan’s Métis in their fighting for fair treatment by the Canadian government. Riel’s return led Ontario’s Protestant majority to renew their demand that he be arrested for Scott’s murder. The 1885 Northwest Rebellion was crushed, Riel was arrested and charged with high treason. Scott’s execution played a significant part in the jury’s determination of Riel’s guilt, its death sentence, and in Macdonald’s allowing that sentence to be carried out.

Rumours persist over what happened to Scott’s body. Some claim it was thrown into the river and others that it was buried in an unmarked grave or under a building. It has never been found. More importantly, echoes of the gunfire that ended Scott’s life still reverberate through Canada’s culture as bitter and brittle emotions still inform many of our political debates.

  This was written for the Canadian Encyclopedia, on line resource that I highly recommend. If you enjoyed the column, please share it with others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com

Scrubbing History: Sir John and General Lee

Sir John A. Macdonald is no Robert E. Lee. But the 19th-century leaders are similar in that they are leading again.

This time, they are serving as the focus of Americans and Canadians squabbling about their history. In the United States, the fights have sparked riots, injuries and a death. The fight is gearing up in Canada with an Ontario teacher’s union demanding that Sir John A. Macdonald Elementary School change its name.

Power and Sir John's Echo

In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders are being attacked as symbols of white supremacy – and the point is valid. Southern states seceded and fought the Civil War primarily to maintain slavery.

Most of the Confederate statues erected and most of what’s named after Confederate leaders were done to celebrate the legitimacy of that reprehensible goal; they appeared around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws and in the 1960s to combat the civil rights movement.

The statues should come down. The names should be changed.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced. He was the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. He was our first prime minister and built the country behind tariff walls and on steel rails with the National Policy and building of the transcontinental railway.

He saved Canada when he stopped Nova Scotia from seceding. He saved us from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States and negotiated the Washington Treaty in which Britain was considering giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations. He kept us united by having French and English work together and attempted to grant women the right to vote.

In American terms, Macdonald is our Jefferson, Washington and Madison.

However, Macdonald also ruthlessly exploited Chinese railway workers and later tried to expel them while imposing a prohibitively expensive tax on Chinese immigration. He negotiated with Métis leader Louis Riel to bring Manitoba into Confederation but then crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion.

Macdonald thought nothing of taking Indigenous land without consultation or ignoring treaties to take more. He withheld promised food and support from Indigenous nations to pressure them to surrender to reservations.

Lee fought for a horrible end. Macdonald worked for a remarkable goal. Macdonald’s image on our money and public monuments and his name on our highways and schools represent our respect for that goal, and not for all he did to pursue it.

And that is the difference.

We are constantly discussing who we are and who we aspire to be. History’s facts don’t change, but our interpretation of those facts does. History is not a shield to protect ideas or a sword to attack the ideas of others or a fence to keep us from unpleasant things we’d rather not see. History is a teacher.

It is there to teach us about ourselves and to intelligently inform our existential, national conversation.

Ironically, that is the point missed by members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario who asked school boards to rename schools bearing the name of our first prime minister. Since Macdonald’s primary goals were overwhelmingly positive, he should remain celebrated. Because aspects of his means to achieve them were inexcusably appalling, he should be used to teach and learn about crimes that he and we committed.

We should use them to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due and work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that swell our chests or well our tears?

What better place for those conversations than schools, especially those bearing his name. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces, instead, let history to do its job.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and was the subject of my appearances on CTV television’s Your Morning and CBC Radio’s The Current. I would appreciate your comments on this latest conversation about who we are.

Trudeau, Power, & Sir John’s Echo

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’s 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 a country. From Britain, came the ideas of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took a written constitution and a federal state, one comprised of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.

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 Civil War, demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. The Confederation delegates stood 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.”

Power and Sir John's Echo

(Photo: Canadian Colour)

The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty including trade, the military, post office, criminal law, currency, and banking. Unlike the United States where, until 1913, the states appointed Senators, the prime minister would populate our upper chamber. The prime minister would also appoint Lieutenant Governors who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. Anything the constitution left out or that came up later, like 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 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 like the trans-continental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway, and the TransCanada 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.

Ignore whether you like or dislike our current prime minister, or his policies, but grant that Mr. Trudeau’s  tour a few months ago indicated his understanding that Canada 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 nation and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

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 enjoyed this column, please send it to others and perhaps even explore my full argument which is in my latest book, published just two weeks ago, and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sir John’s Echo.  It’s available at bookstores, Amazon, and here through Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html

Thanking the River and More

I don’t know about you, but I always just skim a book’s acknowledgments. They are usually akin to a bad Oscar speech: a list of names of people I don’t know. My latest book, Sir John’s Echo: The Voice for a Stronger Canada, was released last weekend. It’s my seventh book and this time I tried something a little different for my acknowledgments. I thanked some folks, of course, but also tried to consider what really inspired me to write. Let me know what you think.

Acknowledgments: Sir John’s Echo

Dividing and defining our Village is a river that, as Lakefield resident Margaret Laurence once observed, runs both ways. It does, you know. It really does. It is on long, slow runs along the river that I wrote this book. Oh, certainly I typed it in my office but the genuine work, the tumbling and juggling of ideas, the real stuff of writing, came accompanied by the falling of footsteps and washing of water.

And so, odd as it may seem, I would like to acknowledge and thank the river for its uncaring but profound inspiration. It reminded me that somewhere beneath its gently flowing surface, at the heart of its magic, hides the metaphor for our country. The truth and what truly matters lay not in the surface sparkles, gleaming as diamonds in the sun, but with the rocks and roots and weeds below that roil all above, offering resistance and form.

The river urged me to take a broader view, to consider more expansive ideas, deeper concepts, and to think not of passing fads and fancies that capture clicks and headlines but what really matters. Power. The power to shape, inspire, speed up or slow down, to move while lifting or, sometimes, pulling below.

That’s what this book is all about. Power. It’s the power of perpetual motion, of rugged beauty and gentle grace lying comfortably with the awful potential to direct or destroy. That is the river’s power. That is Canada’s power. That is the power we owe ourselves to contemplate; relentless power that moves even when we don’t notice, while we sleep, flexed and expressed and occasionally challenged, and while appearing to be heading in one direction in a natural, linear fashion, sometimes, flows both ways.  I thank the river for encouraging my contemplation so that I might invite yours.

And what of Margaret Laurence? I thank her for being among those who taught me a love of words and a respect for the power of ideas powerfully expressed. There were others: Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Ralston Saul, John Prine, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Gwynne Dyer, Paul Simon, and John W. Boyko, Sr. I thank them all.

This book began with a conversation between Patrick Boyer, Steve Paikin, and me – three men insatiably entranced by books, politics, ideas, and Canada. Patrick invited me to contribute a book to Dundurn’s Point of View series as part of the commemoration of Canada’s 150th birthday. Make it controversial, Patrick urged, stir readers’ passions and propose notions to spark debate. Thank you, Patrick, for inviting and trusting me to write and for your valuable suggestions on an early draft. I hope I have not let you down.

Sir John's Echo

Thank you to the Dundurn team who embraced me so thoughtfully and supported me so professionally. I am grateful for the vision of president and publisher Kirk Howard, and for the editorial skills of Dominic Farrell, Cheryl Hawley, and Michael Carroll. I thank the talented Lawrence Martin for his constructive suggestions and fine forward.

This is my seventh book and I have lost count of the number of editorials, articles, and blog posts I have written. My dear wife Sue has read and edited every word. She brings to all I do an unparalleled editorial precision and skill and sense of when something is going on a little too long or needs to be fleshed out. She knows what it is about my work that works, and doesn’t. Her kindness, care, tenderness, wit, and love, makes all I do better, possible, and worthwhile.

I am grateful to Craig Pyette and Ann Collins of Penguin Random House Knopf who lent me to Dundurn for this project and to my literary agent Daphne Hart who encouraged me.

Being a father is one thing but being a grandfather is something else altogether. Grandchildren teach you to love all over again. Without trying, my two sweet granddaughters remind me of all that truly matters, including the country in which they will be making their lives. Canada was not inevitable and is not immutable. All that is great about it, from its stunning physical beauty to the strength and marvel of its complexity, must be not just celebrated but protected. You won’t protect what you don’t love and can’t protect what you don’t understand. Without understanding, we can sing about standing on guard but not really do the deed. It is the future of my grandchildren, and yours, even if you don’t yet know them, that renders the striving to understand, in order to protect what is worth protecting, worth the effort. I thank my grandchildren for inspiring my contemplation of the home they deserve.

Thank you for reading my thank yous. Please share them with others if you wish. I am now on the road promoting Sir John’s Echo, doing TV, radio, and print interviews, as well as speeches. It is the business part of the book business. I’m also hard at work on my 8th book. Writing is fun.

 

 

One-Sentence Lives and a Challenge

Long-time Toronto Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek once said that every baseball season begins as a story, turns to a paragraph, and ends as a sentence. “Boston breaks the Bambino curse.” “Carter hits the walk-off homer.”

I believe that what is true of baseball is also true of people’s lives. It was this thought that helped me to complete a writing commission in which I was asked to write one-sentence biographies of all 23 Canadian prime ministers. The thought also helped me to reflect on a birthday of note; one of those ending in a zero that moved me into a new decade.

I offer one of the one-sentence biographies and then my own. They are, I confess, run-on sentences that would have my editor’s red pen flying and old English teachers’ fingers wagging, but one sentence none the less. Then comes the challenge.

one-sentence-lives-and-a-challenge

Sir John A. Macdonald: As the most prominent voice at the Confederation conferences, Macdonald was instrumental in creating Canada with its constitution placing dominant power with the federal parliament, essential in building Canada when, as our first prime minister, he added enormously to Canada’s size by purchasing Rupert’s Land and welcoming new provinces, and with his National Policy that allowed the country to grow on steel rails and behind tariff walls, and he was then key in saving Canada at the Washington Treaty negotiations that kept us from American annexation while winning recognition as a sovereign state, and, so, despite some tragic and wrong-headed policies, such as those involving Aboriginal nations, Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man whose echo reverberates to this day.

And now for me: John Boyko is a walking talking advertisement for the power of existentialism for he has been a teacher, administrator, politician, musician, and author, whose insatiable curiosity, confidence in one’s ability to reinvent oneself, and belief in seeking motive in challenge rather than comfort, and value in experience over things, have informed his life, while through it all he has been a loyal if sometimes annoying friend, and, in the most important part of his life, a devoted but sometimes flawed husband, father, and grandfather.

Our lives are write-your-own-adventure stories. There are so many more books to be read, places to explore, ideas to consider, challenges to be accepted, and warm moments to build and share.

And so now the challenge. I challenge you to write your one-sentence biography. If unhappy with the sentence as written, I sincerely believe we can write ourselves a better tomorrow. Our greatest fear is not that we don’t have enough power to change but that we have more than enough.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking more of my thoughts at http://www.johnboyko.com or even my books, available online at Chapters and Amazon and bookstores (if you can still find one).

 

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.

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