Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley calls on Canadians to re-examine the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald as we prepare to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Macdonald is responsible for more than just a few statues and a likeness on the $10 bill; he distilled the ideas, politics and institutions that make Canada what it is today.

“On his birthday (January 11th) and throughout Macdonald’s 200th anniversary year, Canadians might well celebrate their impressive present and brilliant potential by raising a toast to our first prime minister”, Crowley writes.

“He lives on in us.”

By Brian Lee Crowley, January 2, 2015

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

Truer words were never spoken as we enter 2015, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s principal founder and first prime minister.

Those who think that Sir John’s only legacy to Canada is a few statues around the country and a poor likeness on the 10 dollar bill do not understand that the very warp and weft of this country are made up of threads drawn from this man’s strategic and tactical genius. Out of the unpromising materials of thinly-populated and mutually antagonistic British colonies unloved by London and coveted by Washington, riven by racial and linguistic disputes, he distilled the ideas, politics and institutions that today place us at the forefront of the nations of the world. We are his legacy.

In his magisterial new history of Canada, Conrad Black does not exaggerate when he asserts that, had Canada not been so small at the outset, Macdonald’s feat would have undoubtedly won him the acclaim history accords to the other great statesmen of the 19th century: Lincoln, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury, Cavour and Bismarck. There is still time for history to be revised.

Much as he admired the United States and its founders’ vision (he carried his copy of the Federalist Papers with him to the conferences that led to Confederation) he saw the weaknesses of their creation, not least in the sanguinary civil war that had just wracked their great republic.  Chief among those defects was a constitution that gave too much power to the states and too little to the federal government with the result that the centre could not hold.

To make a nation out of British North Americans, therefore, he knew that he had to create for them the instruments of nationhood and not merely project into the future the local and parochial interests of the individual colonies. Accordingly he defended the idea of a powerful national government and parliament that would represent and unite all Canadians and be the instrument of the construction of a national consciousness, pride and action. He had to compromise and accept the creation of provinces independent of Ottawa, but if you read the actual text of the British North America Act (subsequently and prosaically renamed the Constitution Act 1867) he clearly won his point and Ottawa was intended to be by far the more powerful agent of Canadians’ political will.

Ignorant and busybody judges along with Ottawa’s political timidity, including in the face of separatist provocations in Quebec, have watered down Sir John A.’s wine but even in that insipid tipple you can still detect the full-bodied flavour that fuelled this man and his vision. And those politicians who have known how to tap into Canadians’ desire to rise above petty regional squabbles and articulate what Canada could be if it transcended parochialism have often found themselves richly rewarded. That is one of Macdonald’s lurking legacies.

But there was more. He didn’t just want a nation. He wanted a nation that would preserve and promote a way of life that he believed had proven its superiority over all others. That meant embracing a society of freedom. Peace, Order and Good Government are not boring and uninspiring; they are the wellspring of progress. The constitution “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom” promised by the BNA Act was one based on the freedom of the individual, limited government, an independent judiciary, the rule of law and a powerful civil society. Those who think the Charter introduced rights into Canada fail to grasp how deeply infused our founding institutions were with those values, thanks in large part to Macdonald.

On his birthday (January 11th) and throughout Macdonald’s 200th anniversary year, Canadians might well celebrate their impressive present and brilliant potential by raising a toast to our first prime minister. He lives on in us.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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