Speech on the bicentennial of Sir John A Macdonald's birth

House of Commons, April 29, 2015

Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak this afternoon on behalf of the Official Opposition. Perhaps I was asked to do so because Sir John A. Macdonald was the Member of Parliament for Victoria, a little-known fact, between the years 1878 and 1882, although I am told he did not actually visit the riding until considerably after that.

It must be said at the outset that Sir John A. Macdonald was truly a product of his time. He was a complex man. His contribution to creating Canada cannot be overstated.

On the one hand, it is inconceivable that we would have a country without Sir John A. He had an amazing amount of what people today might call “emotional intelligence”. That intelligence shone at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences. Together with his friend, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, he forged alliances that resulted in what today we call Canada.

On the other hand, contemporary Canadians must contextualize, not condone, certain beliefs and actions that history has rightly condemned.

Driven by the impossible dream of threading the world's longest railway through some of the world's most inhospitable land, Macdonald transformed a young nation into a continent-spanning dominion. Yet, he did so by what Professor James Daschuk called in a recent book “clearing the plains”, starving indigenous communities until they traded freedom for food and made way for the railroad.

He did so by importing Chinese labourers by the thousands for the hardest and most dangerous jobs. Hundreds died to unify Canada. Yet, with the railway nearly finished, this House passed laws to deny Chinese people the vote and to set a punitive head tax on immigrants from China. Believing Chinese and Caucasians to be inherently different, Sir John A. Macdonald defended his xenophobic policy in the language of racial purity and political expediency, warning that Chinese Canadian MPs from British Columba might foist on this House “Asiatic principles, immoralities and eccentricities which are abhorrent to the Aryan race”.

A uniquely skilled mediator, Macdonald was renowned for his ability to reconcile conflicting interests: from reconciling the interests of individuals at a negotiating table, to reconciling the interests of great blocs of settlers from different backgrounds and different faiths. When Macdonald learned that the last spike had been driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway, he declared that “We have been made one people by the road.” And yet, one week later, Louis Riel was hanged in Regina––driving a fresh division into the nation.

Macdonald created a nation distinct from both its powerful American neighbour and its British imperial heritage. He charted a novel course in modern Western history, showing that a colony could evolve peacefully into a nation.

Yet, within this nation, he established a system of residential schools to remove aboriginal children “...as much as possible from the parental influence...and to assimilate the Indian people in all respects...as speedily as they are fit for the change”. 

The last of these schools closed within our lifetime, and their legacy of neglect, abuse and death haunts us, as it should, to this very day.

Macdonald was a product of his time, and yet in some ways, he was ahead of his time. He extended voting rights to aboriginal men, a remarkable and short-lived reform that would not be reinstated until 1960. He advocated women's suffrage decades before it finally became law.

His Trade Union Act of 1872 recognized the legal rights of unions in Canada for the first time, and by intervening in a strike by Toronto typographers, he won the support of Canada's emerging working class in an election where, for the first time, the industrial future of Canada was the chief issue.

Macdonald’s personal life so was no less complex than his public persona. At his peak, he was enormously popular––charming and charismatic, a shrewd and empathetic politician, unmatched as a negotiator.

At other times, he plunged into despair and frustration. He was, of course, a heavy drinker––and more than once had to be physically carried out of this chamber. Luckily, he lived before television cameras were installed on these walls.

He was very funny, with an encyclopedic memory. He knew thousands of jokes and stories. One example of his wit was when he was asked to provide his occupation for a hotel ledger book, he wrote “cabinet maker”.

At home, he cared deeply for his severely disabled daughter, Mary, with whom he spent time every evening, telling her stories of the day's drama in Parliament.

These details and many others have emerged from recent scholarship give us a finer portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald as we mark the bicentennial of his birth. I pay particular tribute to Professor Donald Creighton and Mr. Richard Gwyn for their remarkable works on Sir John A.

When we speak about him today, we do so neither to praise him to nor to bury him. To simply chastise him and to lay the legacy of discriminatory policies against First Nations or Chinese Canadians entirely at his feet would be to absolve ourselves of our obligations to right these wrongs, and to overlook an opportunity to build a better, fairer Canada that we know is possible.

If we can instead be honest about our past and about this key figure who played such a central role in it, we can begin to tell a more inclusive story about our country, one that inspires us all to better it.

The problems of Macdonald's days are still alive in Canada, and they deserve the attention of this House.

More than a century ago, John A. Macdonald spoke about the inevitable recognition of women's equality, yet still today, that equality is not recognized with equal pay or a national effort to stop the violence that threatens Canadian women every day.

More than a century ago, Macdonald was the architect of xenophobic laws, yet still today, we struggle to live up to our image as a multicultural nation, to welcome new Canadians to our social and economic life, and offer a haven to families fleeing violence and persecution.

More than a century has passed since Macdonald built residential schools, yet still we have not closed the shameful gaps in health, housing, income and freedom from violence that separate Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

The passing of Sir John A Macdonald’s 200th birthday will not make the debate over his legacy less polarized. But it may give us a moment to take stock––to consider the progress we have made as a nation, and the obstacles we have yet to overcome.

If by taking stock, we can take any inspiration from Canada's first Prime Minister, I hope that it will be from his visionary spirit. He believed in overcoming obstacles that others thought insurmountable.

The obstacles that we face today are not mountain ranges or rivers, they are in our cities and small towns, in workplaces and on reserves, but they are no less daunting.

As we approach a milestone for Canada, let us remember that the project Sir John A. Macdonald began is not finished. Let us still dream big dreams and, as we seek to make them real for all Canadians, let us move forward with the wisdom that can only come from an honest and complete understanding of our history.