John A. Macdonald: 195 Years Young

Had John A. Macdonald not passed away at the age of 86, he would be 195 years old today. Canada’s first (and third) Prime Minister and co-conspirator in the confederacy of the remaining British North American colonies was born on January 11, 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland. He later resettled in Kingston, Ontario where he launched an impressive political career in which he negotiated the first terms of the Canadian Confederation and twice held the office of Prime Minister of Canada.

In today’s Toronto Star, Arthur Milnes chastised professional historians for not paying enough attention to Canada’s Prime Ministers. “Professional Canadian historians,” according to Milnes, “should be asking themselves a lot of questions considering their often sorry modern record in examining and re-examining Canada’s past prime ministers.” Apparently, Canadian historians have not written enough political biographies, celebrating the achievements of Canada’s Prime Ministers. Milnes even goes as far as to decry the lack of a proper monument to R.B. Bennett. Of course, there would have been a Canadian monument at his gravesite were it not for Bennett’s desire to have his body repatriated to Britain, making him the only Canadian Prime Minister not laid to rest in Canadian soil.

Me and John A.

Why have political biographies (once a mainstay of academic Canadian history) fallen from grace? Milnes’ desperate nationalist plea made me think about a trip I took to London years ago where I snapped this terrible photograph of John A. Macdonald’s memorial tucked quietly away in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral (I had to ask someone there to let me see it because it was in a section roped off from the public). The inscription captured Macdonald’s famous declaration of loyalty to the British Crown: “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.” At the time I remember thinking how strange it was for the first (and third) Prime Minister of Canada to declare his absolute allegiance to another country. I doubt any Prime Minister today would have such an inscription on his or her memorial.

This photograph reminds me that celebrating a nationalist history through the lives of our Prime Ministers is complicated by the fact that nationalism in Canada has a history itself. The country has never had a single national identity nor have those national identities remained constant over time. For John A. Macdonald to proudly declare himself a British subject from cradle to grave was perfectly consistent with late nineteenth-century English-Canadian nationalism. Perhaps our contemporary awareness of the shifting meanings of nationalism in Canada’s past make it difficult for historical scholars to write celebratory political biographies of Prime Ministers, like R.B. Bennett or Louis St. Laurent. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have good political biographies of people who had a significant impact on the course of Canadian history, but that those histories should take into account the complexities of the lives and identities of those individuals and the limits of understanding the past through the life of a single Prime Minister. If we want to find heroes through political biography, we would be better off picking up a comic-book.

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4 Responses

  1. Hi Sean,

    Thanks for your thoughts on the Milnes column and on Canadian nationalism in general. I think it’s safe to say I agree with you both. I pine for a more nationalist sentiment in this country, too, and yet I understand there is a shifting reality of what constitutes nationalism in the first place.

    While historians need to step up to the plate I think populist thinking from a kid’s perspective is important too. That’s why my wife and I formed Fireside Publishing House last fall to produce the Leaders & Legacies series for kids on Canada’ s prime ministers.

    Leaders & Legacies is a historical fiction adventure series, geared to ages 10-14, to hook kids early on Canadian history. The first book in the series, just released a few months ago, is The Mystery of the Moonlight Murder: An Early Adventure of John Diefenbaker. (We plan on jumping around in the series, rather than going linear.)

    Historical fiction is a wonderful way to teach history because it is a great entry point. Studies have shown that kids actually absorb more social studies concepts when they are taught through literature instead of text books.

    Thanks for the great entries…..

    Roderick Benns

    • Roderick:

      Thanks for your comments. I hadn’t heard of this series yet so I was glad you brought it up here. It sounds like a really interesting way of integrating Canadian history into popular youth literature.

  2. An honest biography of someone like RB Bennett wouldn’t do much to foster Canadian nationalism because frankly the guy was an ass (politically speaking). Milnes says it was simply his “misfortune” that Bennett got stuck ruling the country during the Depression, but for thousands of Canadians (very few of whom are the subjects of published biographies), “Iron Heel” Bennett was a reason the ’30s were so miserable. “Starvation camps” and “Bennett Buggies” are two terms coined by contemporaries that come to mind, not to mention the Regina Riot and the more than 100 people who literally starved to death just in the neighbourhood I now call home. Yay Canada.

    If there’s one thing I like about our collective Canadian identity, it’s that it tends not to include the sort of chest-thumping flag-waving nationalism we see in the States and other countries. Why anyone would want to instill that in their children with the kind of hagiographies Milnes seems to lament is beyond me.

    Finally, one simple explanation as to why Britain and the US don’t have gaps in their historiography the way we do in Canada is that both those places have far more paid historians than here, as well as much larger and therefore lucrative markets in which to sell their work.

    • Thanks, Lani. I think you’ve basically covered it all in your comment. I think a good, critical biography of a Prime Minister like Bennett would be just fine, but for the numerous reasons you list, a celebratory nationalist history is both undesirable and factually improbable.

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