Sir John A -- the Greatest Canadian

Old Ottawa East Examines

The Greatest Canadian of them All



Don Cummer

When CBC viewers cast their ballots in 2004 on who was the Greatest Canadian, Sir John A. Macdonald ranked number eight – one place behind Don Cherry.

As part of the Canada150 celebration organized by the Old Ottawa East Community Association, Dr. Philippe Azzie of Carleton University made a compelling case for why he deserves a much higher ranking.

Macdonald excelled in three distinct but related fields: as founder, nation builder, and leader.

He was a founder of Canada – a Father of Confederation. In fact, he was the principal architect of our Constitution.

But earlier he also founded an alliance that brought Upper Canada Tories with Lower Canada Bleus to form a political party that has helped shape Canada ever since.

As a nation builder, he held office as Prime Minister for 19 of Canada’s formative first 24 years. Under his guidance, four eastern provinces grew to become a trans-continental dominion. Among the achievements Professor Azzie listed:

·         Prime minister during the creation of the provinces of Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island;

·         the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway;

·         the establishment of the North West Mounted Police;

·         Canada’s first labour legislation (Trade Unions Act of 1873); and

·         the implementation of the National Policy of tariff protection.

As a leader, he held a Parliamentary Caucus together and led his Party to victory in six federal elections. His leadership style was pragmatic and practical. It was both partisan and patriotic. He used camaraderie and good humour to make allies and placate opponents. To create a new nation, he was capable of forming a Great Coalition with his enemy, George Brown.

While one could argue that other Canadians were equally important and exceptional in one or even two of those fields, Professor Azzie points out that no one matches Macdonald in combining all three. Mackenzie-King governed the country longer, but did not help create the country and its constitution. Apart from Charles Tupper’s administration which lasted a mere ten weeks, none of the other Fathers of Confederation led a federal government. Wilfrid Laurier may have been Macdonald’s equal as a Parliamentarian and a nation builder, but he was not a founder.

What was Macdonald like?  “When we think about Macdonald,” says Professor Azzie, “we tend to forget or not know how highly intelligent he was.”  He deliberately cultivated an image of himself as a practical man, not much interested in visionary ideas.  Yet, he was the most adept constitutional scholar among the Fathers of Confederation.

Professor Azzie noted that, “He genuinely liked people – including political opponents – and had a legendary memory for names and faces.” His life was marred with personal tragedy, but he maintained an aura of bonhomie and good will.

The father of Medicare and Canada’s first NDP Premier, Tommy Douglas was the choice of the CBC viewers in 2004 as the Greatest Canadian. Professor Azzie suggested that, without John A. Macdonald, we might not have been able to vote on who was the Greatest Canadian, because there might not have been a Canada.

Professor Azzie’s talk was the second in a series of discussions on Canada’s Prime Ministers. In the first lecture in March, Professor Richard Clippingdale spoke about Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

May 29 will see Dr. Greg Donaghy lead a discussion on Sir Robert Borden. Dr. Donaghy is the Head of the Historical Section and Deputy Director of Policy Research at Global Affairs Canada. His biography of Paul Martin was short-listed for the 2015 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize.

The lectures – which will continue through the year – begin at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s University, Rom L120, 233 Main Street.

Admission is free.

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Don Cummer lives in Old Ottawa South.  Every January he helps organize Sir John A’s Great Canadian Kilt Skate to celebrate Canada’s first Prime Minister.