One of the Institutions of the Land

More mixed feelings about John A. Macdonald

Some time ago, I posted my impressions on reading the first volume of Richard Gwyn’s biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. I came away from it with admiration for Macdonald’s role in creating Canada and its institutions, but not much love for the man. I have now finished reading the second volume, which covers the period from Confederation until Macdonald’s death in 1891. Here are some further thoughts on the man who continues to generate frantic hatred, determined admiration, and weary exasperation.

My dislike of Macdonald’s nationalism has only been reinforced, although this may be as much Gwyn’s fault as his own. My assessment of the first volume was mostly positive ― I said it was “serious but no less engaging for that, and written with both sympathy for its subject and honesty about his flaws”. These comments, so far as they go, apply to the second volume too. However, the biographer’s nationalist convictions ― already evident in the first volume ― really appear to overwhelm the narrative at times, and leave me wondering whether he does not attribute his own thoughts and purposes to his subject.

In this post, I will address three themes that stood out to me (and ignore any number of other aspects of Macdonald’s life: the Canadian Pacific scandal, for example, or his doting on a disabled daughter). First, nationalism and especially Macdonald’s National Policy, so iconic that my friend Asher Honickman and Ben Woodfinden have sought to recycle its label, if not also its substance, for contemporary purposes. Second, constitutional law and especially the jurisprudence of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. And third, Macdonald’s relationship with Aboriginal Canadians and other minorities.


The National Policy, which Macdonald first proposed in the 1870s in response to a global economic crisis and pursued through the remainder of his life and career, imposed high tariffs on most imports. The hope was to spur Canadian manufacturing and improve the prospects of the growing numbers of industrial workers. Gwynn does his best to write warmly of this policy, proceeding from what he takes to be the axiom that having stuff made in Canada by Canadians is a Good Thing. We are supposed to admire Macdonald’s nation-building instincts for seeking to bring about this result.

But why exactly? Gwynn recognizes that the National Policy was no great economic success. To be sure, the protected manufacturers initially did well. But it’s not clear that overall employment improved. What is clear is that the years of the National Policy were also the years during which, as Gwynn notes, Canada lost population: thousands upon thousands of its people left for the better prospects in the United States, while the hoped-for immigrants from Europe mostly did not come. I take it that this a complex story: many francophone Quebeckers left for reasons that might have been peculiar to their situation and beyond the power of federal politicians to remedy. But certainly the National Policy failed to achieve its economic objectives. And despite its protectionist policy, Canada’s economic fortunes remained tied to those of the world beyond its borders. Things went better when the global economy improved, and worse when it deteriorated.

But economic nationalism is not merely futile, or even counter-productive; it is also deceitful and, , despite its name, more divisive than truly national. While benefitting the manufacturers and perhaps their workers, the National Policy hurt farmers, who increasingly depended on manufactured implements, for which they had to pay more, and who were hit by retaliatory tariffs on their exports. In the name of the nation, a minority reaped the profits, while a majority paid the price. Macdonald knew this of course. But from the beginning of the policy, he misrepresented it as more or less cost-free and avoided using the language of protectionism, knowing that it would be unpopular. In his last election campaigned, he made thinly veiled insinuations of treason to discredit the pro-free trade Liberals.

To my mind, there is nothing admirable in any of this. The history of the National Policy is one of grift and lies. It ought to count against Macdonald on any assessment of his merits ― but even for people who do not admire him like Gwynn, it seldom does. That certainly says more about us than about Macdonald.


In contrast to the first volume’s relative lack of interest in the shaping of the text of what we now call the Constitution Act, 1867, the second volume of Gwynn’s biography devotes some attention to that text’s interpretation by the courts and Macdonald’s reaction to it. Or rather, from Gwynn’s perspective, the courts’ ― and specifically the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council’s misinterpretation and Macdonald’s failure to respond. Gwynn adopts entirely the view, which has long been ascendant in the progressive English-Canadian legal discourse, that confederation was meant to be highly centralized, and that blundering or outright malevolent British judges remade it into something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike its true self.

Macdonald, in Gwynn’s telling, is a victim of this process, suffering from a sort of Stockholm syndrome if not permanent false consciousness. Due to his longstanding admiration for the British legal system and the men running it, he never does much of anything to try countering the step-by-step perversion of his constitutional design. Power-hungry provinces and haughty, stupid jurists doing their bidding in London run the show, while the Prime Minister, so wily, so ambitious, and so determined in just about every aspect of politics, keeps a stoic, resigned silence.

As the reader may have guessed, I find this picture quite implausible. Granted, I also happen to think that the cases which Gwynn and his predecessors in the Canadian legal academy find so offensive were correctly decided. Perhaps that makes me biased here ― but at least it is not, as was often their case, a partisan bias. I dislike and fear both the federal and the provincial governments, roughly equally. They have a clear preference for federal power. But be that as it may, is it not simply more logical to think that, if Macdonald never seriously protested, and never sought to have the UK Parliament revise Canada’s constitutional balance, it is because he did not find the Privy Council’s jurisprudence so out of kilter with his own views of Confederation?

More precisely, is it not more consistent with everything else we know about Macdonald to suppose that he understood that, whatever his personal preferences ― which were, to be sure, for greater centralization ― these preferences weren’t shared even by his political allies (in Québec and, say, Nova Scotia), let alone his opponents. He knew that the constitution that was enacted in 1867 was not quite as centralized as he might have wished. He would also have known that the way in which it was interpreted was not an aberration or an usurpation, but a plausible application of what had been enacted. It’s likely enough that he would have preferred the courts to rule differently. But there is quite a gap between such a preference and a regret that things turned out the way they did, and the picture of pathetic impotence presented by Gwynn.


I turn now to the issue on which Macdonald’s reputation now seems be foundering, at least in some circles: his relationship to the non-white-male sections of society. It’s complicated. One thing to note is that Gwynn’s book, published less than a decade ago, already seems somewhat dated. It barely even mentions residential schools, if it mentions them at all. That seems like a gap. At the same time though, this does suggest that there is a lot more to judge Macdonald by, for the better and for the worse, than this one issue.

Gwynn does devote a great deal of attention to Macdonald’s policy and views toward the Métis (including, but not only, Louis Riel and his companions) and the Prairie First Nations. Macdonald seems to have been somewhat inconsistent, and often the issue did not attract as much of his attention as it deserved. By today’s standards he could be utterly heartless, and the people whose way of life was crumbling in the face of advancing white settlement were often left to suffer without aid or sympathy. As Gwynn points out, the principle that people should not be counting on the state’s help was not only applied to Aboriginals ― but he doesn’t note, in this connection, that the National Policy was a welfare policy of sorts, albeit a destructive one, as welfare policies tend to be. And generally, Gwynn writes that Macdonald ― despite flashes of recognition of the priority of Aboriginal presence in Canada ― didn’t believe that First Nations could truly be part of the Canadian society. (It was a more complicated story with the Métis.)

And yet. It may be daft to point out that, if nothing else, the Canadian state under Macdonald (or later) didn’t physically exterminate its Aboriginal population ― unlike its neighbour across the 49th parallel. But it mattered then. And there is more than just that. How many people tearing down his statutes know that in 1885 Macdonald pushed through electoral legislation that enfranchised (some) First Nations men? They were then disenfranchised by legislation enacted by Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals. I have to admit, I did not know that either. One can certainly object that the franchise is pretty useless when you are starving. That’s fair enough. But if we are interested in assessing Macdonald’s views and record, I still think that his choice to expend political capital on this legislation, from which he did not stand to benefit much at all, has got to count for something. Towards the end of his life, Macdonald was a man increasingly behind the times, a mid-19th century man surviving in the century’s closing decade. As it happens, though, attitudes towards Indigenous peoples were more benevolent ― not, to be sure, egalitarian ― in the middle of the century (not just in Canada ― this was true in New Zealand also), and Macdonald’s views reflected this.

Just as strikingly, to me, Macdonald sought to include women’s suffrage in the same bill that enfranchised First Nations Canadians for the first time. He failed. Despite the fact that this measure would likely have benefitted his party ― Macdonald being very popular with women, apparently ― there was more determined opposition to it, and Macdonald did not get his way. If he had, Canada would have beaten New Zealand to egalitarian bragging rights and, more importantly, enfranchised women a generation before it eventually did (under another self-interested Conservative government). Again, I did not know this, and I suspect that many of Macdonald’s critics ― and perhaps more than a few of his boosters ― don’t either.

The last point I will mention here concerns immigration. Here too, Macdonald’s record is better than Laurier’s. But it’s not great. Macdonald’s government made an effort (not always successful, but real) to recruit immigrants in Europe, including (and even especially) within minority groups persecuted in their home countries. But things were very different where non-white immigration was concerned. Macdonald himself seems to have had little sympathy for the anti-Chinese feelings growing in Canada, especially in British Columbia, towards the end of his life. But he eventually went along with them and brought in legislation that imposed a tax on Chinese immigrants, and so sharply reduced their numbers, although it wasn’t yet set at the prohibitive levels that Laurier’s government would bring in. It was, if I understand correctly, the first immigration restriction in Canadian history, and there is no question that it was motivated by racism, even if not personally felt racism.


So what are we to make of Macdonald? Much depends of course on how we go about making the judgment. The common assumption seems to be that Macdonald was a great man and blameless of any particularly great sins by the standards of his time, and also that he deserves clear condemnation if judged by our contemporary views of political morality. I’m not sold on either view.

Even against the standards of his own time, the National Policy and, more generally, Macdonald’s nationalism, especially in its ugly partisan aspects deserved condemnation. Macdonald knew that the policy was benefitting a section of the nation at the expense of others ― and did his best to hide this and deceive the voters. And the advantages of free trade had been understood for a century by the time he deluded the voters into thinking that he found a weird trick for economic prosperity. Similarly, Macdonald knew that the restrictions on Chinese immigration were an unprincipled sop to populist feeling, even though he wouldn’t have thought about them in terms of racial equality as we do now.

And then, of course there is the matter of the Canadian Pacific scandal, and government corruption more generally. I haven’t focused on that, partly because, to be honest, I’m still not sure I understand what happened, and partly to save space. But mostly, I think this is not the most interesting or important part of Macdonald’s legacy. If, however, we think about him from the perspective of his own time, this issue should probably assume the importance it had for his contemporaries. And this is not to Macdonald’s advantage.

Conversely, though, looking back at Macdonald from today’s vantage point need not lead to unreserved condemnation. As I argued in my post on Gwynn’s first volume, for all his failings on an egalitarian standard, he has had a decisive influence in securing Canada’s independence, and sovereignty in the West. This was not, to put it mildly, an unmitigated blessing for the West’s Indigenous peoples, but it beat the alternative, which was not ― by 1870 ― the preservation of the Indigenous peoples’ freedom and way of life, but colonization by the United States. Macdonald’s enfranchisement of First Nations’ men and even his failed attempt to secure women’s suffrage also deserve a great deal more credit by our standards than by those of his own time.

Wilfrid Laurier eulogized his late rival by observing that “his stesmanship … is written in the history of Canada” and that

the life of Sir John Macdonald, form the date he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada, for he was connected and associated with all the events, all the facts which brought Canada from the position it then occupied―the position of two small provinces, having nothing in common but their common allegiance, united by a bond of paper, and united by nothing else―to the present state of development which Canada has reached.

Laurier also compared Macdonald to “one of the institutions of the land”. All this was accurate, and remains relevant. Ultimately, one’s judgment on Macdonald is one’s judgment on Canada itself. Many people see the very real flaws and sins, and judge negatively. But, for my own part, I compare to the alternatives, and judge―not without sorrow and reproof―but with gratitude.

Would That I Could Love You

My mixed feelings about Sir John A. Macdonald

Sir John A. Macdonald has been much attacked of late; despising him is a reliable signal of progressive virtue, and a symptom of a broader pattern of contempt for people and institutions that have created the most prosperous, freest, and most egalitarian societies the world has ever known. The Faculty of Law at Queen’s has decided to remove Macdonald’s name from its building; his statues have been vandalised or removed; and so on.

For my part, I have been sufficiently provoked by all this to finally, and belatedly, read the late Richard Gwyn’s biography of the man. I have now finished the first volume, which runs from Macdonald’s birth in 1815 to Confederation. Having gone into it with a great deal of sympathy for Macdonald, I come out with very mixed feelings ― but not for the reasons that motivate his progressive critics. What diminishes Macdonald in my eyes is his nationalism ― and, if anything, I wonder that it does not raise his stature in theirs.

Before I explain myself, I should say something about the book itself. Mostly this: you should read it, if you haven’t yet. It’s a breezy read despite being fairly long. It is serious but no less engaging for that, and written with both sympathy for its subject and honesty about his flaws ― and I say this despite not being fully persuaded by Gwyn’s assessment of Macdonald. From a constitutional history perspective, the discussion of Confederation feels a little thin, but this is unfair reproach to level at a book meant for a general audience, and really doesn’t take away from Gwyn’s achievement.


Gwyn’s thesis regarding Macdonald (at least Macdonald as a politician and up to Confederation) is that, other than the enjoyment of the political game and of the power that it brought him thanks to his supreme ability at it, Macdonald’s motivation was above all to preserve Canada as a non-American, and if possible as a British, political community. He sought, first, to make the Province of Canada work, and then to build a strong, centralized federation as a means to prevent what seemed to many ― in Canada itself, but also in the United States and even in Britain ― like the inevitable annexation of the British North American colonies to the American republic.

Loyalty to Britain and opposition to America was both Macdonald’s inner spring and his go-to rhetorical trope. One of the book’s chapters is named “Canada’s First Anti-American”. Macdonald seized on opponents’ flirtations with annexationism or simply on hesitations and accused them of treason. He did not have a very definite view of what his Canada ― first the province, then the Dominion ― ought to be like; he was (to his credit!) no religious zealot or bigot, and ideologically he insisted on leading a broad, perhaps even a shapeless, party, which he cheerfully persuaded erstwhile opponents to join. But on Canada’s distinctiveness, he was unflinching and ruthless.

Gwyn further makes the case, and he makes it convincingly, that Macdonald’s political talents were absolutely necessary to pull it all off. Of course we cannot know how an alternative history without him would have turned out. But it seems fair to take the widespread belief of politicians and journalists of the time that Canada must in due course ― and sooner rather than later ― become American as indicative of something. Macdonald wasn’t alone in making sure that this did not happen, but, as Gwyn argues, the others ― Cartier, Brown, Galt, McGee, Tupper ― wouldn’t have done it without him. Confederation happened when he accepted that it ought to, and it happened because he put his boundless skill and energy into it. And it seems plausible, quite likely even, that had it not happened then, annexation to the United States would indeed have been inevitable.

For this reason, at the risk of concern-trolling, I would suggest that those who are all about pulling down Macdonald’s statues wherever they can still find them may want to reconsider. Much as they are keen to condemn Canada, the one polity they like still less is the United States. On the specific issue of the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, which most exercises them, shameful though Canada’s record is, would things have been better if the prairies, and then the rest of Canada, had become part of America? And of course on any number of other issues also, the Canadian left has long seen the border as demarcating, if not the good, then at least the tolerable from the evil. That border is Macdonald’s doing. It is the monument to him that they neither can nor, in their brightest nightmares, would want to pull down.


But my own reaction to Gwyn’s argument is not so enthusiastic. Something is missing from it: namely, any clear sense of why Macdonald’s anti-Americanism is something for us to admire. Macdonald himslef was moved, so far as I can tell from Gwyn’s book, by little more than a small-c conservative sensibility and consequent gut reactions. Macdonald believed in Britsh institutions and distrusted, perhaps even despised, American ones, but Gwyn insists that he did not know America well, and was not interested in understanding it. He was horrified by the Civil War, but his absolute rejection of an American future for Canada long pre-dated that conflict. He wasn’t actively rejecting American expansionism (except as it affected Canada), or slavery, or acting on some other grand moral belief. He was a nationalist, driven not by principle but by identity.

The closest Gwyn’s Macdonald comes to articulating a rational argument for his nationalism is his criticism of the US Constitution. As Alastair Gillespie details in his essay on Macdonald for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (at 29), he equated American presidential system with despotism, and American federalism with anarchy. The president, he said, was unconstrained by his cabinet, while the States were sovereign and the federal government too weak, which he claimed was a cause of the Civil War. These complaints fit poorly together, and Macdonald’s interpretation of the Civil War’s causes is puzzling. I struggle to see what additional federal powers would have prevented the slave States’ rebellion, and it’s not clear that Macdonald ever explained this. I am inclined to think that he either misunderstood the American system (even the pre-1868 American system), or perhaps even gave a tendentious account of it the better to justify his own vision of highly centralized federalism.

To me, Macdonald’s nationalism, as described by Gwyn, is thoroughly unattractive. Like all nationalism, it is essentially negative, fueled by ignorance and incomprehension, which results in distrust and perhaps even contempt. Nationalism, as Macdonald’s fondness for rhetoric of treason shows, also provides easy means for rhetorical escalation, and for divisiveness under the banner of unity. Other forms of identity politics provide similar examples of intolerance in the name of diversity and inclusion.

Now, Macdonald was no ignoramus and no bigot. Quite the contrary! He was intelligent and well read, not only in history, politics, and law, but in literature too; he got on well with Catholics ― far too well for some of his more bigoted critics ―, and with French and Irish Canadians. He helped create a country where some of these differences could eventually be all but forgotten, while other, more enduring ones, have been peacefully accommodated. This is no accident: the accommodation and eventual diminishment of sectional, linguistic, and religious differences was both a motivation for and a consequence of the structure of government the Fathers of Confederation designed. But this is the tragedy of nationalism: it causes otherwise intelligent and open-minded people to act in thoughtless and petty ways. This is also, of course, the tragedy of other forms of identity politics, including those fashionable in progressive circles.

You might be wondering where rejecting nationalism ― Macdonald’s nationalism of all things, a civic-minded version of the doctrine and the sentiment that begat Confederation ― leaves me. Does it mean, for instance, that I must recant all the good I have said of Confederation and of the Constitution Act, 1867?

I don’t think so. I approach this question from an individualist position, expressed as well as anywhere else in Thoreau’s defence of civil disobedience: “Government is at best but an expedient”, he wrote, and “most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient”. The American government, the one Macdonald looked down upon without ever having seen it very clearly,

what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? … It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.  

But of course the Canadian government, whether that of the Province of Canada or the one set up in 1867, is not much different. It too is at best an expedient, and often not even that. It too is a tradition ― much older now than it, or even its American counterpart, was back then ― and a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves, and a piece of din-making machinery. There is nothing about it to be revered.

Now, thinking this does not prevent me thinking that, as governments go, the one contrived by the Fathers of Confederation under Macdonald’s leadership is more expedient than most, and while that is a low bar to clear, it is a real, and meaningful, accomplishment. We can, and should, measure existing institutions against the requirements of our principles, to see how they can be improved. But we can, and should, also measure existing institutions against plausible alternatives. By the first measure ― the one on which the left tends to focus, and of which the right often loses sight ― Canada certainly falls short in important ways. By the second ― which is of more interest to the right, and which the left tends to ignore ― Canada does well enough.

Confederation, moreover, was a real improvement over the system it predated on both measures. It got closer to at least some ideals, by implementing a meaningful federal system and thus advancing the principle of subsidiarity, and was about as good a system as, realistically, one might have conceived of given the facts on the ground and the state of minds in 1860s Canada. As Gwyn makes clear, its achievement was by no means a given; indeed it is quite remarkable. I have no hesitation in admiring it, and the fact that Macdonald’s motivations, and those of the other Fathers of Confederation for that matter, do not strike me as admirable has nothing to do with it. The intent of their creators is not a useful metric by which to assess institutions.


When it comes to individuals, though, motivations and intentions are more appropriately part of what we should base our judgments on. So of course are deeds and consequences. My own judgment on Macdonald ― based on the first part of Gwyn’s biography and of course on my perspective as a constitutional lawyer ― is thus very ambivalent. He helped create institutions that, on the whole, I admire, although they are not without their flaws. But he acted for reasons that are, from my perspective, quite unadmirable.

Indeed, I’m left with the impression that Macdonald, for all his political talent, for all his ability to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of confederation, was rather less wise than I would have liked him to have been. Whatever may be the case in other disciplines, I think it is very true that, in history, he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Gwyn tells of an opposition MP rather pathetically telling Macdonald “I love you so! Would that I could trust you!” My feelings are the reverse. From my ― very different ― vantage point, I trust Macdonald, or at least I trust his accomplishment. Would that I could love him!