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Manitoba History: Book Review: Dutil, Patrice A. and Roger Hall (eds.), Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies

by Anne Lindsay
University of Manitoba

Number 88, Winter 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Dutil, Patrice A. and Roger Hall (eds.), Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies, Toronto: Dundurn, 2014, 473 pages. ISBN 978-1-45972-459-4, $40.00 (hardcover)

This very accessible and readable book was compiled as Canadians prepared to recognize the 200th anniversary (in 2015) of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth. At the time, commemorative events tended to be somewhat low key and reflective, with commentators taking the opportunity to point out the complex and not always comfortable legacy that Canada’s first prime minister had left behind. Since then, the summer of 2017 has marked a sea change in the public’s interest in Macdonald. In August of that year, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario voted to urge school boards in that province to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from public schools. Meanwhile, in response to media inquiries at the time, former Truth and Reconciliation Commission Commissioner Senator Murray Sinclair spoke against erasure, urging Canadians instead to strive to create balance by focusing their resources and energy in positive ways; specifically by finding ways to mark and honour Indigenous heroes and leaders. In the year that has followed, a number of initiatives have received attention, including the removal of a statue of Sir John A. from in front of the BC legislature, and the renaming of the Canadian Historical Association’s coveted “Sir John A. Macdonald Prize.” These have kept Sir John A. Macdonald in the public consciousness, but sometimes at the expense of a deeper understanding of the man and his place in history.

In this context of public interest and media reporting, Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies is a timely and especially valuable 21st century exploration of the complex and often apparently paradoxical man, who succeeded in the political construction of a large and diverse country on one hand, but in the process has never been far from controversy and divisiveness on the other. Drawn from a 2010 conference held at Ryerson University, editors Patrice Dutil and Roger Hall offer a collection of essays written by fifteen current and well-recognized scholars that deliver on their promise of a fresh and current look at Macdonald. They provide readers with a window on a surprising range of aspects of Macdonald’s personal and political life.

Interestingly, despite the breadth of topics covered in the book—from women’s suffrage to Fenian raids, and from Macdonald’s position on the citizenship of Chinese Canadians to his now popularly famous investment in railways—a number of authors look to Macdonald’s bills on federal enfranchisement, and particularly those of 1885, to find insight into his character and a measure of his true beliefs. This choice is, of course, well thought out, as the framing of personhood and voting rights in a democracy offers a window into the country’s “imagined community,” to borrow from Benedict Anderson. But the debates of 1885 are particularly valuable for historical inquiry. As Donald B. Smith argues, in the same year that Macdonald turned seventy his world was especially demanding and stressful and, as a result, in the process of crafting and debating legislation that would not only form but inform what Canada would become, Macdonald may have let slip some important glimpses into his real self. What is certain is that, in the context of Macdonald’s prime ministership, and in the hands of authors including Colin Grittner, Donald B. Smith, and Timothy J. Stanley, Macdonald’s 1885 positions on personhood for the purpose of the vote defy modern expectations.

If the book has a shortcoming it is that many of the essays could be books in their own right, as their topics deserve even more exploration. For instance, in his discussion of Macdonald’s support of women’s suffrage in 1885, Colin Grittner concludes that Macdonald was ahead of his time in his genuine interest in women’s personhood, even where it involved personal political expense. Yet read alongside Sarah Carter’s Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies, the reader might question whether Macdonald’s position, while possibly quite genuine, may not also have been based on an expectation that the land-holding unmarried women to whom he proposed to give the vote might also have shared his political views, including his commitment to empire.

This challenge notwithstanding, Macdonald at 200 offers important context for our current times, while drawing the reader into a richer understanding of Canada as a country. Of particular present interest are chapters by Donald B. Smith and J.R. Miller, who explore Macdonald’s relationships with Indigenous people and peoples. Here the apparent contradictions (that Macdonald had reasonably good relationships with some Indigenous individuals, and at the same time little understanding of or respect for Indigenous peoples and their cultures) remind the reader that nothing is ever as simple as a media ‘sound bite’ might suggest. In the end, one of the most helpful themes in the book may come from its introduction, from chapters by Yves Y. Pelltier, Patrice Dutil, Ged Martin, and from the afterword by Richard Gwyn—all reminding us that what we know of Macdonald and his history is constructed, and that these constructions may tell us as much about ourselves, our own time, and how we “imagine community,” as they tell us about Macdonald the man or the politician.

Notes

Sarah Carter, Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 April 2021

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