Happy 200th birthday to a man of many controversies

If you’re a history buff, you might already know that Canada’s first prime minister has about as many public perceptions as he has birthday candles this year.

Jan. 11 marked the 200th birthday of Sir John A. MacDonald, long regarded as the leading father of Confederation. That said, the man is perhaps more controversial these days than the majority of today’s world leaders.

According to Chris Pihlak, vice-president social of the University of Ottawa’s History Student Association, MacDonald was the architect that built up the Canadian Confederation—but one with many downfalls.

“I find him quite an interesting character,” he says. “His politics were detestable, but he remains oddly charismatic for myself, and statesmanlike in the eyes of most Canadians.”

By learning about MacDonald in history classes, Pihlak particularly remembers him to be a conflicted, complicated man.

“He was a complex character who may not have been particularly nice to others, and was an alcoholic. But he gained respect, popularity, and pride from people and was politically practical, while building up the Canadian Confederation. He doesn’t hold 21st century values.”

To see a different side of MacDonald, Pihlak recommends James Daschuk’s book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life.

“It devotes a decent number of pages on the policies and actions that John A. helped to implement; it provides (an) explanation for what led to me characterizing him as a figure to which celebration of his life may be an overstatement.”

According to U of O history professor Damien-Claude Bélanger, “His legacy, to an extent, is a bit overblown, in the sense that if Canadians think about anything about the period, they can probably (only) name MacDonald, and many other significant figures are just forgotten. He’s assumed to be the principal architect of Confederation.”

Bélanger says MacDonald is one of many key players, in this time, but most go unnoticed.

“He was a successful political leader and at the same time he owes his success to the alliance he had with the conservatives of French speaking Canada.”

In fact, what he is known for historically should be looked at through a different lens. “The fact that he turns towards the National Policy and economic protection, is a sign that he failed to negotiate (an) agreement with the US,” he says.

Bélanger suggests learning about other historical Canadian figures from MacDonald’s time period to get a better sense of what he owes his reputation to. George Brown, George-Étienne Cartier, and Joseph Howe are all great examples of people who helped form Canada politically.

Although some have harsh remarks about the first PM, he did help Canada tremendously by advocating the Trans-Canada Railway be built from coast to coast. MacDonald also founded the North West Mounted Police (now called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) in 1873.

Even Sir John A. MacDonald’s birthday remains a matter of divisiveness. In his father’s journal, his birthday is recorded as Jan. 11, and his family celebrated that date as his birthday. However, the registration of MacDonald’s birth is listed as Jan. 10, a day earlier.

In any case, for historians and all Canadians, it’s a time to remember John. A. MacDonald and recognize him for his contributions to the success of Canada, as well as reflecting on his scandalous reputation.

So, raise a glass to the founding father of Canada—or perhaps read up on the guy a little more before you decide whether to give him a toast.

Sir John A. facts

  • He was a lawyer without obtaining a university education.
  • His favourite alcoholic drinks were brandy and champagne.
  • He saw his brother die in front of him by their family servant who struck him with a cane.
  • His portrait in the House of Commons has him depicted wearing royal uniform, while most Prime Ministers are painted wearing everyday attire.