In the many letters and articles I have read on Sir John A. Macdonald from Canadians in the last week, on the occasion of what would have been the former Prime Ministers 200th birthday, the one that stood out most for me was the one public letter written by a person named Mohamed el Haram. This was in response to an article written by Macdonald's biographer, Richard Gwyn, in The Toronto Star. The letter stated how; "Although it's difficult, we must keep history in perspective and judge good & bad by their contemporary, contextual standards. Of course, we must strive to improve our society, keep the good, drop the bad and not make the same mistakes of history. To judge every historical figure, policy or event by modern mores would leave us with no one to respect and admire -- only condemnation for all".
In all of the 22 Canadian Prime Minister's we have had in our confederation, some footnotes and few noted, there is no one Prime Minster that has best defined us, united us and envisioned the Canada that we know today than our very first Prime Minister. That is a fact. To the critics of the former Prime Minister, some valid but most invalid, I hope it is understood the double standard placed on him is both unfair and disingenuous.
If we were to place the same standard on other leaders of past years, the reality is that we might not have any one to celebrate and emulate. Take one of Canada's most admired former NDP leader, Tommy Douglas, for instance.
Before he became one of the most influential politician in Canada, he held some of the most horrible views on human productions. His graduate thesis at McMaster University linked poverty to "subnormal families, ones that are mentally inadequate -- 'anywhere from high-grade moron to mentally defective' -- of low moral character and/or a burden on the public purse."
As a solution, he advocated for "sterilization of those deemed mentally defective or incurably diseased, arguing it is 'consummate folly' to let subnormal families 'bring in to the world large numbers of individuals to fill our jails and mental institutions and to live upon charity.'" If that fails, he offered a solution of "segregation of sub-normal families, and medical certification to ensure someone is mentally and physically fit before getting married."
Remember, his words were not written as a high school aspiring politician so that it can easily be excused or ignored as an adolescent intellectual adventure but as a 28 year old soon-to-be adult politician on the verge of launching a political career with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), what would later on become the NDP.
However, again and again, Canadians have looked beyond those words and judged him based on his era, with his contemporaries and gave much weight to his signature public service contribution as the father-of-Medicare in later years. If we were to look at him by the standard we hold today, he would absolutely not survive the scrutiny.
Sure, many of his defenders might argue the fact that his were mere words and Sir John A. Macdonald's were action and that is true. However, for his boosters, it's almost like defending the current actions of some Dalhousie University's dentistry school male students, whose only alleged crimes, until now, have been writing sexually violent words on a Facebook group about their female classmates. By today's standard, even inappropriate words, that are hostile to others, are grossly wrong and that is why those students are rightfully facing the consequences.
By today's standard, both Sir John A. Macdonald and Tommy Douglas, would be considered wrong.
So would many of Canada's famous important actors of the past such as the Famous Five who contributed to women's rights in Canada but held controversial and dark views on race and religion. Even the most successful Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who once remarked "the people of Canada want to have a white country" and strongly discouraged American blacks from immigrating to Canada would have been considered a fringe voice.
Yet, we celebrate their pre-eminent leadership roles in Canada's past, try to understand their shortcomings, and judge them accordingly. In their lived lives, we attempt to find our own citizenship and find a role to have our country reflect the better part of our collective public ideals.
At the 200th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald is underway, I cannot help but reflect how much Sir John A. Macdonald meant for Canada and Canadians. From being an architect of affirmative action like vision of welcoming Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick Nova Scotia, British Columbia and the great North West Territories and PEI, to confederation, not based on their status but potential, his railway vision that glued a new nation, to envisioning the rightful status of our French-Canadian population inside confederation to defining the eventual and certain role of the Canadian women, he stood tall among distinguished men and woman as one of our 23 Prime Ministers.
When it seemed Quebec was about to separate from Canada in 1995, Bill Clinton, once reflected how "In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts that tear nations apart, Canada stands as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity, and mutual respect".
That model, that is still the envy of a brutal and even dangerous world, is indeed the work and vision of Canada's remarkable first Prime Minister.
This post first appeared here.
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