Alternately called a drunk, a visionary, a racist, a groundbreaker, a crook, a negotiator, or a murderer, all often in the same breath, Sir John A. MacDonald is no doubt one of the more controversial figures in Canadian history. Railways funding scandals, a series of violent and shameful expansionist policies, and an oblique reference to being a “procrastinating drunk” from no less than the CBC have done little to help his image. Love him or hate him though, Sir John A. (as most Kingston folk are liable to call him) was instrumental in the founding of the nation and in its formative post-Confed years. Last week, Kingston marked the bicentennial of his birth, and SALON Theatre helmed a week’s worth of programming that both educated and commemorated (as for celebrated? Perhaps not, as you’ll see).
I was able to catch up with Sir John A. himself to ask him about last week’s events, his controversial reputation, and what he loves about Kingston.
1. Not everyone knows the Sir John A. MacDonald story. Can you tell us a little of your history?
Well I was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and came over to Canada at the age of 5. I started studying as a lawyer in Kingston and was 15 when I started apprenticing. I went on to get into municipal politics and then eventually federal politics. After that, me and a couple of the lads (also known as the Fathers of Confederation) got together and through a series of conferences we brought this nation of Canada into being with Confederation coming to a pass on July 1st 1867. After that I went on to serve the second-longest term in office as Prime Minister and I won six majority governments. I died at the age of 76 in 1891, and came back here and was buried in Kingston, Ontario, the place that my heart never left.
2. What would you consider to be some of your proudest accomplishments?
Well Canada itself, of course. Bringing the nation together was not an easy thing to do. The American threat was encroaching, and the colonies all had their own agendas and couldn’t get along. The railway was an accomplishment too, the bands of steel that connected this country from coast to coast. That was essential for bringing us together and bringing places like B.C. into the mix. I’m also proud of the British North America act, our constitution, which I wrote in 1867 in my own hand, in under two weeks. I gave us the RCMP and the Canadian Coast Guard as well. And I was the first democratic leader to ever attempt to give women the vote. The house refused it but I said, “Today you’ve lost the chance to do what is going to become inevitable.”
3. Any mistakes or obstacles you’d like to share?
The reason people leave politics is because they usually don’t have the stomach to do the things it requires. A lot of bad stuff happens. In making the railway, a lot of the First Nations and Indigenous peoples were displaced in less than savoury ways. Speaking of Indigenous peoples, Louis Riel, the leader of the Métis there in Manitoba, had a couple of run-ins with me that eventually resulted in his hanging in 1885. That was perhaps my biggest mistake in office. Other obstacles? George Brown was a big enemy of mine all through my career. And there was a scandal with the railway in ’73 when some political donations went missing. I actually had to resign, but I would be back in ’78.
4. Some would say that to celebrate Sir John A. MacDonald means celebrating Canada’s history of colonization and the decimation of Indigenous populations across the country. How do you respond to charges like that?
That is one of the reasons why SALON Theatre has worked really hard over the last couple of years to change our wording of that to ‘commemorate’ and ‘mark’ rather than ‘celebrate.’. And in the process of commemorating we hope to bring together both the positives and the negatives, the supporters and the detractors, under one umbrella bicentennial conversation. I mean, it is important to mark the birthday and recognize it because I was one of the most influential Canadians of all time. In a lot of ways, the Canada I dealt with is still our Canada today: we are working through Indigenous issues, division of French and English, and Confederation being a contentious issue in the East Coast, for instance. So that’s why it’s important to look at the man, myself, who made it all happen. I was a complex man, as most people are. Not all good and not all bad.
5. You spent much of your life in Kingston. What’s special about the city as an integral part of the formation of Canada, and what do you love about it?
Back in my day, Kingston was one of the four biggest most important cities in Canada next to Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. It had a bustling economy and was a political mecca. Even today it remains one of the most important stops—if not the only big stop—between Toronto and Montreal. So it’s really essential to eastern Ontario. It might be a small town relatively, but it’s got a big city attitude.
Personally what I love about Kingston is just all the rich history that’s here. It’s so apparent wherever you go. It goes so far back to the Loyalists and before that a lot of Native history. You see this history reflected in all the buildings and architecture. These are the buildings of my day and it’s great to see them still standing and up-kept. At SALON we often like to say that this is a billion dollar set, except it’s not two-dimensional, it’s all 3D. It’s hard not to be reminded of that great history.
6. How much work did it take organizers to deliver last week’s bicentennial programming?
The last three years or so, we’ve really been ramping up our programing and pushing towards 2015, although back when SALON was revived in 2008, even then our executive producer Jim Garrard was already looking ahead to 2015 as the big date. This is it.
Sir John A. MacDonald is portrayed by SALON Theatre’s Paul Dyck. For more information about the programming as well as SALON Theatre’s forthcoming VIA Rail roadshow, visit Sir John 2015.