The spirit of past ages never dies -
It lives and walks abroad and cries aloud.
Susanna Moodie, Victoria Magazine, 1847
If an international competition were ever to be staged to identify the world's most complex and contradictory country, Canada would be a serious contender. The winner, surely, would be India, with its sixteen official languages and more than two hundred local languages, its sacred cows and cutting-edge computer software, its combination of being both the world's largest democracy and the only nation-state with a caste system. Canada might well come in second. It's become a commonplace to describe the country as "the world's first postmodern country," given its unparalleled ethnic diversity, its decentralization (exceeded, if at all, only by Switzerland and Belgium), the in-rush of immigrants (the largest proportionately among developed nations), the expanding population of Aboriginal peoples (second only to New Zealand), and the ever-increasing number of "nations" within the nation-state - Quebec as the latest to join the list.
In quite a few ways, we were postmodern before we ever became modern. That was the way we were in John A. Macdonald's time. In 1884, Goldwin Smith, the leading political commentator of his day, summarized Macdonald's lifelong mission as "to hold together a set of elements, national, religious, sectional and personal, as motley as the component patches of any 'crazy quilt,'and actuated each of them by paramount regard for its own interest." Here, Smith identified exactly Macdonald's supreme talent - that he knew how to herd cats.
No one else in Canada came close to Macdonald; after him, perhaps only Mackenzie King did, his paramount art being that of doing as little as possible for as long as possible. At the time, few others anywhere could match him. Even without the spur of chauvinism, any reasonable ranking of nineteenth-century democratic leaders would be Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, John A. Macdonald. (Otto von Bismarck, no democrat, would otherwise rank near to the top.) Macdonald happened to perform on a stage that was small and threadbare. But in the primordial political tasks - the managing of men (then, only them) and the winning of their hearts and minds, and so their votes - contemporary equals are not easy to identify. Nor were there many nation-builders like him in his day: Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Sim--n Bol'var. His achievement may have been the more demanding because none of the others had to create a country out of a crazy quilt.
Within the range of Macdonald's accomplishments, there are sizable gaps. The largest, surely, is that, unlike Lincoln, he never appealed to people's "better angels."He was a doer, not a thinker, although highly intelligent and omnivorously well read. He lacked the certitudes of a moralist, instead taking human nature as he found it and turning it to his purposes. He was, that is, a very Scottish Scot. He of course drank too much. And although he was in no way the first to use patronage and election funds for partisan purposes - a cherished and well-embedded Canadian tradition (which still thrives) - Macdonald gave the practice credibility and durability by his masterful exercise of it. That's a shoddy legacy for the father of a country to leave behind.
Yet his accomplishments were staggering: Confederation above all, but almost as important, if not more so, extending the country across the continent by a railway that was, objectively, a financial and economic insanity. Also, the National Policy of tariff protection, which endured in one form or other into the 1980s. And the RCMP or, more exactly, its precursor, the...