This Friday after work, I’ll be having a glass of scotch, well, two or three actually, to honour a great Canadian.
I hope I’m not alone, but given the sad state of appreciation for Canadian history, I likely will be.
No matter. The object of my affection wouldn’t mind. He was known to enjoy a glass or two or three of scotch by himself in his day.
I’m talking about Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first and arguably best prime minister.
Friday, January 11th will mark the 193rd anniversary of Sir John A.’s birth in Glasgow, Scotland. Or maybe it’s the 10th. Like so many things with Sir John A., there’s no shortage of conflicting opinion.
People spoke well of him and people spoke ill. Wilfrid Laurier called Macdonald’s life “the history of Canada.” George Brown called him a “disgrace.”
Not surprising they were of two minds and couldn’t agree on the facts — they were both Liberal leaders.
It would be so much easier for Sir John A., the hard-drinking hard-luck Tory prime minister to get his due if he were a bowtie-sporting Nobel Prize-winner, or a finger-wagging socialist.
Then he would have his name on one of the country’s two biggest airports, instead of Pearson or Trudeau.
He’ll have to settle for getting the English half of the naming of Ottawa’s airport.
I guess it’s better than that oracle named for Mackenzie King, but not quite as respectable as Laurier made out, getting a university named for him.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Laurier outdid Macdonald. Laurier was a one-time newspaper editor — he knew how to get good press.
That’s OK. Sir John A. was a Conservative and, as such, naturally knew he couldn’t catch a break in the media — and this was 40 years before the creation of the CBC.
You know it’s a shame we don’t have a Sir John A. holiday in Canada. The Americans honour their great public figures with national holidays — George Washington, Martin Luther King, Abe Lincoln (in mostly northern states).
Unless it’s to honour a gold medal in hockey, Canadians are loath to exalt the achievements of their fellow citizens.
Of course, if we did have a Sir John A. Day, we would have to assert our cultural sovereignty. We couldn’t honour the day on a Monday as the Americans do. Instead we’d have to do things independently.
Having a Friday off for Sir John A. would be a splendid idea. It would also be helpful to have Saturday morning off work to nurse the obligatory hangover, in keeping with Macdonald’s spirits.
And as I lay in bed in my stupor, like Macdonald so many times before me, I would have time to ponder his legacy.
Take Confederation — that’s a pretty good achievement to kick-start your term as prime minister of Canada. Macdonald deserves our thanks for bringing four cranky colonies together into one big happy, everlasting family.
Confederation is kind of a hard act to follow, but that wily Macdonald did a pretty good job as prime minister for 19 of the first 25 years after 1867.
There was that clever strategy to work with the French to ensure repeated Conservative majorities. A good strategy for future Tory prime ministers to use (hey, worked twice in the ‘80s, wink wink, nudge nudge).
Of course, who could forget building the national railway, starting up the Mounties and shutting out American businesses with the National Policy.
I’m convinced Macdonald invented ice hockey in Kingston too, but gave credit to Cartier and his Canadiens as patronage, that truly Canadian gift.
People with the moralist tinge of George Brown will still point out Macdonald’s flaws, but then again, which prime minister was a saint?
Sure Macdonald drank too much, hung one too many people, stayed in the job too long and (allegedly) took money from some railroaders to bribe voters. I mean, come on — is excess really such a sin?
But Macdonald knew what it took to make friends and influence people, long before Dale Carnegie ever did.
As another scotch-drinking prime minister said: “The irony is that the interesting human aspects of Macdonald’s personality have been allowed to obscure the true greatness of the man.”
You had a choice, Mr. Turner, and you chose your words wisely.
I, for one, want to see a Sir John A. holiday. Are all our holidays exclusively reserved for foreign monarchs, fluffy bunnies and dead turkeys? Where’s the celebration of individual Canadian greatness in that?
As soon as I get over this year’s Macdonald’s hangover I’ll get right on to lobbying my MP for a Sir John A. Day next year. Guess I’ve got to register if I plan to lobby.
If this time next year I’m nursing another Sir John A. special with no holiday in sight, I’ll lobby for one on June 6th instead — the date of Sir John’s death.
That is sure to get unanimous, all-party support in Parliament and in every constituency across the country.
Nothing brings Canadians together like cheering for the death of a politician.
Jeff Gaulin is a Calgary-based freelance writer with a love of Canadian history and politics.