The Sir John A. Macdonald Prize

Commentary, Culture Wars, Gerry Bowler

We will begin today’s article with a quiz. So, pencils out please, and answer the following question: what famous personality was described by an unadmiring biographer as “a thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf”? I’ll give you the answer in a paragraph or two as we consider the recent decision by the council of the Canadian Historical Association to remove the name of Sir John A. Macdonald from the prize given annually to the best scholarly book in Canadian history.

On the surface that seems like a strange decision, because Sir John is generally regarded as an important figure in the history of our country. What could have impelled this body of academics to strip his handle from the award and change its title to the yawn-inducing “CHA Prize for Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History”?

CHA President Adele Perry was vague about the motivation, saying the decision was arrived at for “a variety of reasons” and that she thought it was a good time to revisit them. Professor Perry is surely being a little coy here. Canadians have known for years about the stains on John A’s reputation: his record of corruption, manipulation, ruthlessness, and alcoholism are no secret.

Given the current political climate and the call by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to remove Macdonald’s name from the province’s schools, it is clear that the supreme sin that has led to our first Prime Minister’s disgrace is his handling of the native tribes on the prairies. In the 1870s and 1880s the disappearance of the buffalo herds and the advance of Canadian settlement led to widespread distress and starvation among Indigenous peoples of the west. Sir John is deemed by some historians to have been deliberately slow in feeding these desperate people and nowadays that is considered enough to overwhelm any other act of goodness or greatness that he might have performed.

But to judge any historical figure by contemporary standards is to commit the historical fallacy of presentism. It must not be forgotten that it was Sir John who sent the North West Mounted Police on the prairies to rescue natives from American whiskey traders and to establish the rule of law. Those who criticize Macdonald’s part in the distribution of food aid should remember that at that time Canada was suffering a major economic depression and that he was being criticized by the Liberal opposition for being too generous and creating a habit of dependence among the tribes.

It is useful to remember that this is the man who helped create Canada, that without him and his followers it is more than likely that our present leader would be Mr. Donald Trump. And having created a nation, Macdonald enlarged it to the size of half a continent by negotiating the acquisition of the Hudson’s Bay Company lands, ushering in Manitoba, and driving a railway across thousands of miles to secure British Columbia’s membership in the new confederation. He battled British and American diplomats in the Treaty of Washington to enlarge the bounds of Canadian independence.

Which brings us back to the identity of the Albanian dwarf. The person in question was St. Teresa of Calcutta, one of the most revered figures of the twentieth century but who was clearly not a good enough person in the eyes of the writer Christopher Hitchens. This helps us understand that the quest for ultimate personal purity is futile. If John A’s greatness is not sufficient to warrant his name on a trifling history prize, whose is?