Macdonald’s Legacy (Part 2): The Man and His Vision for Canada

Part 2 of a 5 part series
Published on May 29, 2023

Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, in an undated photo. Library and Archives Canada is reportedly removing its online content which paints Macdonald in a positive light. (CP Photo/National Archives of Canada)


Click here for part 1.


Throughout the annals of history, countless pieces of art, sculpture, architecture, literature, drama, and poetry have been dedicated to the memory of respected forebears seen to have been vital to the advancement of a particular family, tribe, nation, or empire.

In human societies blessed with the virtues of gratitude and forgiveness, even flawed national heroes can be permanently valued for their contribution to the common good.

One of the most important attributes of those who capture the imagination of descendants has always been the gift of “vision.”

‘The Man Who Made Us’

Up until the capture of our culture by the global left, the vision of Canada’s founding prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was deeply respected across partisan lines.

John A. was a man of modest beginnings. He was not raised among the privileged North American colonial establishment. His Scottish ancestors and family members were soldiers, farmers, and small-town merchants who worked assiduously to carve out a decent living in the new world of the Americas.

In the summer of 1820, the Macdonald family left Scotland for the town of Kingston in the United Empire Loyalist enclave then known as Upper Canada.

Health and life were uncertain things in the 19th century, and the Macdonald family saw their share of tragedy. Of the five children born to Hugh and Helen Macdonald, only three survived childhood. Their eldest son, William, died in infancy long before they left Scotland, and their second boy, James, was fatally injured in Kingston when he was left one evening in the negligent care of a family acquaintance.

Two of the three remaining Macdonald children were girls. Their surviving son, John Alexander, was only five-and-a-half years old when the family came to Canada, and he grew up as a typical Midland District boy in what is now central Ontario.

The young John Alexander was said to be a thoughtful boy, at times full of fun and mischief. He learned to read early and became passionately interested in books. His father’s business acumen was uncertain at best. The family made do on a modest income, but in the best Scottish tradition, one shared today by many Canadian immigrants from India, Asia, and other parts of the world, the Macdonald family placed a high priority on the education of their children.

Hugh and Helen Macdonald could ill afford the expense, but somehow they managed to place their son in Kingston’s Midland District Grammar School. It wasn’t Upper Canada College, but the pre-progressive, broad, scholarly education the boy received propelled him into the study of law and on to a vital contribution to the founding of the Canadian nation.

As a young man, John Alexander experienced his own personal and family tragedies. His first wife, Isabella Clark, suffered from bouts of a serious illness that led to her death in 1857. She and Macdonald had two sons. One died in infancy and the other had to be raised by Macdonald’s sister Margaret and her husband. John A. would remarry in 1867 and have one daughter with his second wife, Agnes Bernard.

During Isabella’s illness, Macdonald became an alcoholic. But despite personal demons, he remained engaged in an active political career. He was elected as an alderman in Kingston in 1843, and by 1854 had risen to become Canada’s attorney general.

In 1856 he became joint premier of the Province of Canada. He was leader of the opposition from 1862 to 1864, and spent the next three years driving the legislation needed to confederate the British Canadian colonies into the Dominion of Canada.

Sir John A’s Vision

In the decades before a Marxist analysis of history became the conventional wisdom among Canadian academics, eminent historians like Sir Joseph Pope and Donald Creighton celebrated Macdonald’s historic vision of a united Canada.

More recently, the late Richard Gwyn, one of Canada’s greatest authors and journalists, penned two volumes on the life of Macdonald. The title of Gwyn’s first volume spoke for itself. “The Man Who Made Us” chronicled the life of Macdonald from his birth in Scotland through his tragedy-ridden family life, the development of his political vision, and the achievement of Confederation in 1867.

For those inclined to seek understanding through history, Gwyn reminded readers of the enormous geographical obstacles that existed between Britain’s lone outpost on the Pacific coast, the vast expanses of the prairies, the northern Hudson Bay territories, the upper and lower regions of central Canada, and the endless coastlines of the Atlantic colonies.

Geographical challenges were complicated by all the usual flaws in the human condition, from long-standing cultural divisions between French and English, Catholics and Protestants, indigenous and Europeans, to fierce ideological confrontations between liberals, conservatives, and reformers.

In the face of impending annexation by what was then considered to be an adversarial American Republic, it was John A. Macdonald and his fellow Fathers of Confederation who foresaw the need to bring the British North American colonies together around the creation of a new Dominion.

Macdonald’s vision may have contained mixed objectives. As the ever-practical Scot, he sought to create a strong federal government for the sake of maximum managerial efficiency. At the same time he sought to overcome the fiercely sectarian ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions of his era and create a nation that would be worthy of our best instincts in the future.

In the end, his vision led to the emergence of a 20th-century North Atlantic Alliance of sovereign democracies—Canada, the United States, Britain, and Western Europe—which became one of the most powerful forces for the resistance of tyranny in the 20th century.

Educators who no longer regard any of this to be worth remembering and recognizing are poorly equipped to be in control of the nation’s schools.


Bill Brooks is a Senior Fellow at Frontier Centre For Public Policy. This essay was first published here.

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