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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Who was the real Sir John A. Macdonald?

by Tim Anderson

Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister; he served in the office from 1867-1873 & 1878-1891. As the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth approaches, Sir John has been a topic of much conversation and controversy. 

Three things to know about Sir John A. Macdonald:

  1. He was the first Western leader to advocate for women’s suffrage. He claimed in the 1880s that the idea of women voting was certain to happen, and that he would be happy to see it in Canada.
  2. At the Quebec Conference, Sir John wrote fifty of the seventy-two resolutions that emanated from the conference that served as the guideline for the British North America Act.
  3. Sir John A. believed in an elected Senate. In advance of legislative debates on Confederation, Macdonald was an impassioned advocate for senatorial elections, and although he did not prevail, his perspective was well known among his colleagues.

Three myths about Sir John A. Macdonald:

Myth #1:  Macdonald was just a pragmatist; he had no political ideas

The Reality:  Macdonald frequently made use of the ideas of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, the American Federalists, and other both during the Confederation debates and while prime minister.

Myth #2:  Macdonald was simply intolerant towards Indian people

The Reality:  This was not the case. Sir John stated it would be wrong for people not to grieve over the sufferings of Indian people, and as a classical liberal, believed that a better life for them would come with settling on the land, developing self-sufficiency, and embracing the liberal way of life.

Myth #3:  Macdonald wanted a large central government rather than genuine federalism

The Reality:  Not really. He said that legislative union alone was impracticable in Canada, and instead fought for a federation where reserve powers rested in Ottawa.

Tim Anderson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. Originally from the Halifax area, he received an Honours Bachelor of Arts at Saint Mary’s University and a Master of Arts from the University of Calgary. He specializes in the subfields of political theory and Canadian politics. His dissertation focuses on the political thought and statesmanship of Sir John A. Macdonald and Louis Riel. Recently, he has published in National Post about Sir John, and has been a guest speaker for the Canadian Club of Calgary regarding Macdonald.

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