on April 24, 2012
Nation Maker is an excellent look at the man and the times. It is 'moist' book, personal and colloquial rather than a dry and analytical historical survey. With Volume 1, it provides a sprawling epic of Canada's founding.
John A. was a flawed man, at times a drunkard, erratic, melancholic, politically unscrupulous, who greased the machinery of governance with patronage. He was, however, a man who could get things done. From disparate ethnic and religious groups, he cobbled together a national consensus that flew in the face of the overwhelming logic of Canada's annexation to the U.S.; of those whose sole common goal was the avoidance of that fate.
Fractious from the start these groups were motivated by allegiances (as British or French, Protestant or Catholic), most of whom were far more bitter towards their confreres than to an anomalous American threat.. and whose motives, fears, and prejudices were not easily reconciled. The era was marked by tension between radical religious polarities, notably the Ultramontane and Orange Order. The virulently anti-British Fenians represented an external and internal threat to Canada, and produced Canada's first and only political assassination, of D'Arcy McGee, the poet laureate of Canada's founding.
McGee and Georges Etienne Cartier provided a vital force of charismatic idealism that counterbalanced McDonald's acerbic expediency, and formed the foundation of a French, English political accord. It was MacDonald who provided the prose to this poetic idyll. By nature MacDonald was practical and flexible, not a visionary in the utopian sense or an ideologue. He might have been an ideal master of the intricate complexities of forming a nation of a sparse, heterogeneous population on a huge landmass in shadow of the great powers of the age, Britain and the U.S., beholden economically and culturally to both.. and yet in need of a self-sustaining, sovereign identity superseding that of a mere geographical expression.
His primary challenge was to forge that identity in the face of a fiercely acquisitive America, bent on realizing its Manifest Destiny of a continental dominion, centred in Washington. A complex and often contradictory character, he was egalitarian, possessing a common touch and affinity yet formed on deeply traditional values and morals. Although reliant on orthodox institutions and hierarchies, he assumed many progressive causes, in the support of unions and an equitable sharing of wealth and opportunity, over powerful commercial interests.
He tended to his crippled daughter, Mary, who was born with hydrocephalus, with extraordinary tenderness and devotion. But dispensed hard justice on the protagonists of the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, the death penalty for Louis Riel on the morally subjective charge of treason rather than murder, when more generous solutions were available. Riel, in and out of periods of religious messianic mania, also represented the legitimate grievances of Metis and Native people. The execution would transform Riel from rebel and madman into patriot and martyr and would polarize English and French relations for generations. Lost to history were eight Indians also executed, in less ambiguous circumstances.
The national railroad was born in scandal, in no small part due to MacDonald's constant dithering in playing off commercial and popular constituencies, for what he perceived to be the greater good, but failing to adequately supervise with clear ethical standards. At stake with the Canadian Pacific mission was the corporate integrity of the nation. The more sensible plan of making the CPR a branch line of the Northern Pacific would enmesh the West's economic future to that of the United States. The same can be said for his National Policy, which was a radical departure from the Free Trade principles of the British Empire. The impulse to economic nationalism remains stubbornly strong in the Canadian political dialogue, as the Global Free Market paradigm has devolved into disarray.
Many of his metaphors were couched in those of a developing human body, the CPR was to be the 'spine' of the country, he would turn 'gristle to bone' in political structure. To him, Canada was an organic, evolving destiny, carving out a life space in the cultural soil of a harsh wilderness. MacDonald traversed the explosive issues of distribution of powers with the provinces with considerable tact. He sequestered the role of guaranteeing Peace, Order and Good Government and that of overseer of statecraft for the Federal government.
This remarkably open proclamation allowed iteration and necessity to optimize, debatably, a balance over time. The provinces were to be responsible for domestic management of justice, education, resources, commerce and agriculture. It resulted in a highly decentralized structure in comparison to that of other modern nation states. Importantly he maintained the supremacy and sovereignty of Parliament by reserving the right to reverse Provincial legislation, and promoted a popular identification to Canada rather than the Provinces.
What emerges is a portrait of seething energy, stoked by a loosely articulated but passionate patriotism, and actuated by a sometimes ruthless pragmatism in pursuit of national unity.This is an engaging and comprehensive profile of the man who imprinted his own personality into Canada's constitutional DNA, and its self image. It provides a fertile and fascinating study of the historical forces that shaped Canada