Every time I spend ten dollars, I come face-to-face with Sir John A Macdonald, our first Prime Minister. As “the most famous of all Canadian leaders”, Sir John A. was a nation-builder, a man with many serious flaws (1) who looked beyond himself and saw a great dream.
The Province of BC recently celebrated its 150th Anniversary. Without Sir John A, there is no doubt in my mind that BC would have been lost to Canada. The vast majority of BC settlers were Americans drawn from San Francisco by the 1858 Gold Rush. John A’s promise of the Canadian Pacific Railway won over the hearts and mind of ambivalent BCers. This extravagant promise almost bankrupted Canada and nearly destroyed Sir John’s A. Macdonald’s political career. Imagine if the Federal Government in 2010 promised to send Canadian Astronauts to Jupiter by 2020! A railway all the way to BC was just as unthinkable in 1870. Some cynics joked that Canada was not a nation, but a railroad in search of a nation
John A was not only a nation-builder but also a bridge-builder. He commented: “We should accept as men and brothers all those who think alike of the future of the country, and wish to act alike for the good of the country, no matter what their antecedents may have been.” He saw Canadian Confederation as a spiritual marriage between francophones and anglophones. Unlike many of his fellow party members, John A could read French, understand it, and speak it reasonably well.” Sir John A commented: “God and nature have made the two Canadas one – let no factious men be allowed to put them asunder.”
After the tragic death of his first wife Isabella, he married Agnes Bernard, just before the national ‘marriage’ of the Dominion of Canada on July 1st, 1867. Agnes wrote in her diary: “I have found something worth living for – living in – my husband’s heart and love.” As a devout Anglican, Agnes had a significant impact on her husband’s life, causing him to cut back on his drinking and start attending church on Sunday. John A was deeply impressed by the Beatitudes, and made a practice of reading his bible every night before bedtime.
In 1888, during six weeks of Hunter-Crossley renewal meetings in Ottawa, Prime Minister Macdonald had a deep encounter with Jesus Christ. As one journalist put it, “When the well-known form of the Honorable Prime Minister arose in the centre of the church, many strong men bowed their heads and wept for joy.” After dining at the prime minister’s home several days later, Rev John Hunter confirmed that “Sir John is a changed man.”
May we all, like Sir John A. Macdonald, have the courage to change the things we can.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
– previously published in the North Shore News
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
(1) Sadly John A Macdonald was complicit in the hanging of Louis Riel, the tragic starting of Nicholas Flood Davin’s Indian Residential Schools, using food to force Indigenous people to move to reserves, and denying Chinese people the right to vote. He supported Black Canadians voting because they valued freedom, shared Canadian values, and were here to stay. Ironically, after Macdonald gave First Nation people the right to vote in Ontario, this was removed by the succeeding Liberal government of Wilfred Laurier. Only in 1960 were Indigenous people again allowed to vote in Canada.