John A. Macdonald

“Had there been no Macdonald, there almost certainly would be today no Canada.”

Richard Gwyn,
Canadian journalist and author of the two-volume biography, The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald

Sir John A. Macdonald – The Man

Sir John Alexander Macdonald was Canada’s founding prime minister and the second-longest serving prime minister since Confederation. Macdonald’s achievements are many and significant. He helped create the Liberal-Conservative party in the 1850s as the dominant political party of his era. Despite being a late convert to the cause, he also shepherded the process of British North American Confederation through to completion from 1864 to 1867. When British North America united as the new nation of Canada, Macdonald became the obvious choice as first prime minister. With one important interruption from 1873 to 1878, Macdonald served as prime minister from 1867 until his death in office in 1891. He helped to unite the new fledgling nation together with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway – expanding the nation westwards, signing treaties with Indigenous peoples across the prairies, and removing the threat of American annexation. Macdonald’s ability to dampen ethnic and religious conflicts, especially between French and English Canadians, set the pattern for successful political leadership at the national level. His career was not without its black spots including accusations of corruption around railways, bouts of drunkenness, and an inept handling of conflict with the Métis in 1869-1870 and again in 1885.

Sir John A. Macdonald – The Controversy

In recent years, our founding prime minister has become a focal point of violent controversy. Crowds have defaced and pulled down his statues; cities and schools have chosen to remove his name from a position of honour on roads and buildings. Those calling for the removal of Macdonald’s honorifics accuse him of being an “architect of the residential school system,” an “architect of genocide,” of starving Indigenous peoples on the Prairies to make way for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and authoring racist and discriminatory legislation.

These accusations all deserve serious scrutiny and careful assessment. Some accusations seem to have been made in haste and with very little attention to detail, most notably the claim that Macdonald was the author of the Indian Act. (In fact, this consolidation of legislation relating to “status Indians” was passed under the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie.) This isn’t the only obvious factual error made amongst the many accusations. But it is striking and worrying that it was so often repeated without correction.

More often, though, the accusations against Macdonald raise important issues about Macdonald’s actions in the past and how we ought to interpret them now. Yet the over-heated and acrimonious public square – on social media, and in the face of angry crowds – makes thoughtful discussion almost impossible. Careful assessment is pushed away by black and white thinking; historical empathy is replaced with moral denunciation; and what we miss is an accurate and thoughtful understanding of the complexity of the past as it really happened – and the different interpretations that are possible.

On this site we will gather additional resources meant to offer serious, balanced assessments of the full career and legacy of John A Macdonald. Our focus will be on the full career of Macdonald including – but not limited to – those actions which are now controversial. The goal is to understand Macdonald both as we see him now and as he was understood in his own era.

Sir John A. Macdonald in Historical Context
a Three Part Colloquium Series

Download the colloquium series PDF HERE

Colloquium #1 – Sir John A. Macdonald – the Man
Tuesday, October 17th 2023 @ 7:00 PM LINK

Colloquium #2 – Sir John A. Macdonald on Indigenous Relations
Wednesday, October 25th 2023 @ 7:00 PM LINK

Colloquium #3 ‘Presentism’ – Or is it ‘Generational Chauvinism’?
Thursday, November 9th 2023 @ 7:00 PM LINK


Share This