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Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times; Volume Two: 1867-1891

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In advance of the awarding of the annual $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, this Wednesday at the Politics and the Pen Gala in Ottawa, Huffington Post Canada will be running excerpts from the five finalists. This is from author Richard Gwynn's second volume of an award-winning biography of Canada's "first and most important prime minister, the man who made Confederation happen and went on to build this country over the next quarter century."

THE TWO YEARS from mid-1867 to mid-1869 were probably the most satisfying [Sir John A.] Macdonald ever experienced, in both his personal and his political life. Being a Celt and knowing that tragedy is an integral part of life, he would have appreciated his good run even while assuming it couldn't last for long. When it arrived, however, the end of this exceptional period for Macdonald would come with brutal suddenness and be grossly unfair. Nevertheless, as a measure of his contentment, Macdonald drank not a drop for about nine months.

Macdonald's reasons for feeling so ebullient were obvious. He had exchanged the drudgery of small-time politics for the exhilarating challenge of nation-building; he was successfully avoiding the humiliation of personal bankruptcy; and for the first time he had a partner who adored him and worked tirelessly on his behalf -- enabling him, for instance, to invite Conservative MPs to dinner, to bond with them and keep up with caucus gossip. The wider universe was unfolding as agreeably. Macdonald's parliamentary majority would soon be enlarged by Nova Scotian MPs. Construction had begun on the 500-mile-long Intercolonial Railway to link Halifax to the nation's heartland and would be completed in 1876. There were even signs that the economy was coming out of the doldrums.

Most encouragingly, the items listed in the North-West Territory file kept being ticked off. In London, a deal was done -- its terms dictated by the colonial secretary and assented to by the Canadian envoys, George-Étienne Cartier and William McDougall. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC)* agreed that its territory, Rupert's Land, could be expropriated for the handsome sum of £300,000 (Britain advancing an equivalent loan to Canada for the purchase), as well as 45,000 acres of land around its 120 trading posts and the right to claim one-twentieth of the cultivatable prairie land.

In June 1869, Parliament approved an act to set up a temporary administration to run the territory until a permanent government could be established. McDougall was chosen to be the first lieutenant-governor, his term to start on December 1, 1869, when he would take over from the company's governor, William Mactavish.

The interests of all three parties involved -- Britain, Canada and the HBC -- neatly dovetailed. Macdonald exulted that the vast territory was on the brink of becoming truly Canadian as "the land of hope for the hardy youth of the provinces as they seek new homes ... when Canada becomes the highway of immigration from Europe to those fertile valleys." Just one detail was missing. None of the people living in the territory -- mostly Indians, but also some 9,000 Métis (both French and English) centered in the Red River Colony and around 1,000 whites (some newcomers but mostly retired HBC officials) -- had been told anything about these arrangements, let alone asked what they thought of them.

This purchase of Rupert's Land would stretch Canada to the foothills of the Rockies. The next step would be to add the crown colony of British Columbia to the nation. There, Canada's own version of manifest destiny was unfolding as it should. In May 1868, a public meeting in Victoria resulted in the creation of a fledgling Confederation League led by a politician who had changed his name from the prosaic William Smith to Amor de Cosmos, or Lover of the Universe. Macdonald had already begun communicating with B.C. politicians. In some letters he referred to "the Great Pacific Railway," although cautioning, "It is perhaps premature to speculate much on this just now." But the impossible dream was beginning to seem a probability.

In August 1869, the colonial secretary, Lord Granville, sent a note to the new British Columbia lieutenant-governor advising him that "the establishment of a British line of communication between then Atlantic and Pacific Oceans," by way of a railway line across Canada, would accomplish the crucial goal of connecting Liverpool to the ports of Japan and China; Britain's commercial self-interests and Macdonald's dream were now as one.

*Actually, the Hudson's Bay Company was now owned by a mysterious group of investors called the International Finance Corporation, which had quietly bought up its shares and was about to make a plump profit.