Kingston and Sir John A.

The people of Kingston, Ontario, have always held Sir John A. Macdonald close to their hearts. 


He arrived on the point where Lake Ontario feeds into the St. Lawrence River when he was a small boy. The small city was noted for its strategic importance in the continuing hostility between the British North American colonies and the United States.


Both he and the city prospered and grew in stature. Shortly after Macdonald began practicing law, Kingston became the first capital of the United Provinces of Canada. 


As the elected representative for Kingston, Macdonald fought hard for his constituents and ensured that the city got its share of government projects -- including the penitentiary that is today a major tourism attraction.


And over the decades, the strong support of Kingston's voters gave Macdonald the political base he needed to become one of the outstanding nation-builders of the 19th century -- up there with Disraeli, Bismark, Lincoln, Gladstone and Cavour.  


The city has been justifiably proud of him. The main road into the city is the Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard.  The CPR locomotive named in his honour has pride of place in the heart of the city.


The building where he first practiced law has been preserved. 


Bellevue House National Historic Site, where he took care of his invalid wife draws visitors from around the world. 


The wits of the city even like to joke about how the fellowship and likeability that made him such a consensus-builder may have been well lubricated in the tavern of Kingston -- and relieved in the nearby alleyways. 


But in recent years, Sir John A.'s legacy has been questioned.  In Victoria, B.C., for example, his statue was recently removed from City Hall.  Even in Kingston, his statue has been defaced.


A popular downtown pub occupied the building where Macdonald had his law offices from 1849 to 1860 was named in his honour.


Alas, bowing to pressures from local Indigenous groups, the owners changed the name.


Happily, however, management has not changed the interior...


...including a bust from the 1880s when he was Prime Minister.


The controversy will continue.  Indigenous peoples object to Macdonald's role in establishing the young Dominion's policies, including The Indian Act, the withholding of food to force First Nations onto reserves, and setting up the education policies that would eventually lead to abuses at residential schools.

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 In an effort to get ahead of the issue and provide a forum where different versions of his history can be discussed, the City of Kingston today launched a consultation through its "Get Involved" website. Residents are also invited to bring their comments and suggestions to City Hall.

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The City Hall building -- one of the masterpieces of pre-Confederation architecture -- was the place where Macdonald's body lay in state after his death in 1891. Some 20,000 people came to pay their respects. The funeral procession then brought his remains to the Cataraqui Cemetery, in the high ground overlooking the town, where the Macdonald family had a plot.


The obelisk in the centre of the plot is not in commemoration of Sir John A. -- rather, it marks the family plot.  Sir John A.'s own tombstone is modest and unassuming, observing simply that after a life richly lived but when certainly contained its share of personal demons and tragedy, the great statesman is now "At Rest."


May he continue to rest in peace.