Hooray for Sir John A.!
Canada’s first Prime Minister was a flawed man and a nation builder.
Author: Rebbeca Marroquin
Many Canadians, including the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, celebrated the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first serving Prime Minister and a Father of Confederation, on Jan. 11, 2015. Others, however, rebuked his commemoration and expressed their contrary beliefs over his political legacy, most of which defined him as a racist, senseless, and trouble-minded leader.
Clearly, our opinions are greatly influenced by the present. But, in order to study history, one must try to remove him/herself from the present and see things from the perspective of those who lived in that time period. And so, before I commence, I ask you to keep one thing in mind: guard against presentism. Yes, it is important to judge the past in order to make a better future. However, when studying history, it is the utmost importance to simply understand the circumstances of the past in order to understand the present.
Sir John A. Macdonald is recognized as one of the country’s most important Prime Ministers because he helped set the foundations of the country. He was committed to the idea of turning Canada into a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts by building a railroad. One may argue that this doesn’t prove that he was a great prime minister because Chinese workers were imported to British Columbia and placed to work under dangerous conditions in railway constructions; in a modern day mind-set, there is no justification for such unfair treatment. But Macdonald was a visionary, and that was his justification. He saw a Western Canada rich with agriculture, economic growth, and land opportunities, and he would do anything to achieve his vision as long as he could. Had he not followed through, it is very unlikely that Western Canada would exist today.
As for the First Nations people, in the mind of Sir John A. Macdonald, they were a burden delaying his vision of Canada from being achieved. The First Nations refused to be driven out of their own land by the government and in response they rebelled. Ironically, Macdonald didn’t realize that the European settlers were a burden to the First Nations when they first arrived in North America. In modern-day thinking, it seems illogical for the Europeans to take over land that was founded by the First Nations, but to Macdonald and the British Army, that didn’t matter because they could easily win in a battle against the First Nations. Macdonald was very fond of Britain and wanted to ensure Britain remained closely linked to Canada, mainly so that the British would protect Canada.
The truth is, not every politician was or is perfect and that will never be the case. In our way of thinking, there are many other wrongs Sir John A. Macdonald arguably committed politically and ethically. It’s good to know that at least we can identify these mistakes so we can establish a better future. However, we have to understand his circumstances and avoid judgment. Keep in mind that he is responsible for building the foundations of the nation we call home.