NATION BUILDERS

Binding a fractious people together

July 1 1998
NATION BUILDERS

Binding a fractious people together

July 1 1998

Binding a fractious people together

NATION BUILDERS

Separated by distance, language, region and religion, Canadians have always needed leaders who could make them transcend the country’s divisions. Those who could bring us together and who had a vision of a common future merit the title of Nation Builders.

Consider Pontiac, the Ottawa chief who organized the tribes to fight against the English in the era of the Seven Years War. He allied with the French until their defeat, then continued the struggle against the English, hastening the Proclamation of 1763, which remains a foundation for native land claims. But when peace was finally made in 1765,

Pontiac supported it. Peace was better than war, not always a popular view with native peoples or those who sought dominance over the continent.

Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine believed in peaceful coexistence, too, and these two leaders in Upper and Lower Canada were able to set aside ancient racial biases to work together to achieve responsible government late in the 1840s. If the Canadas were to survive, these two men knew,

Frenchand English-Canadians had to co-operate and the French language had to be protected.

If the Dominion of Canada was to be created out of the turmoil and fear of the 1860s, then a coalition of parties in the Canadas was essential, something that troubled George Brown, the irascible leader of the Clear Grits. But in 1862, Brown’s life—and his outlook—changed when he married a remarkable woman. The daughter of a Scottish publisher, Anne Nelson Brown was everything her husband, a hard-driving, opinionated newspaper proprietor (The Globe) and politician, was not. Cultured and widely travelled (among other accomplishments, she spoke fluent German), Anne Brown gave George perspective and contentment. The great historian J. M. S. Careless called the marriage the “climactic step in George Brown’s life.” Without his new wife’s calming presence, her husband could never have sat down with his bitter antagonist, John A. Macdonald, a man he disliked intensely, long enough to strike the compromise that made Confederation possible.

Shrewd and congenial, Macdonald formed the first government of the Dominion, working in tandem with his Quebec leader, George-Etienne Cartier, with whom he twice served as co-premier of the Canadas before Confederation. The two understood, like Baldwin and LaFontaine, that they had to co-operate to serve the interests of all Canadians. The nation they built was laid on that foundation.

Certainly Sir Wilfrid Laurier understood the necessity of reconciling French and English. This great orator who governed for 15 unbroken years after 1896 presided over boom times, but he was viewed with suspicion by many English-speaking Canadians.

At the same time, many of his own compatriots thought him too compliant to the demands of the majority. He performed a balancing act with skill, but he suffered fierce attacks from his onetime protégé, Henri Bourassa. Bourassa was no separatist—he favored a panCanadian vision of the nation, one in which all Canadians could share a common nationality. In his day, few English-Canadians were prepared to concede such a place to Quebecers if it meant turning away from Britain and the Empire, and to Bourassa it did.

For Canada to be independent, the nation needed a foreign service and a public service that could provide information on the world and the administrative skill to make bureaucracy work well. The key figure in the creation of both was O. D. Skelton, the Queen’s University academic brought to Ottawa by Mackenzie King in the 1920s. In 15 years, Oscar Skelton transformed the civil service into one envied around the world. An isolationist who thought in continental, not imperial, terms, Skelton led the bureaucracy into the Second World War, something he did unhappily but well.

One of Skelton’s men was Mike Pearson, who joined External Affairs in 1928. Personable, self-deprecating and civil, Lester Bowles Pearson had great ability, and he rose through the foreign service until, in 1948, it seemed natural that he move into politics. Ten years later, he was the Liberal Opposition leader and the holder of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role during the Suez Crisis—and, five years after that, prime minister, all achievements that belied his rumpled ordinariness. His government created the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, laid the groundwork for the Official Languages Act, introduced the Canadian flag, and implemented nationwide medicare and the Canada Pension Plan—all without ever commanding a majority in Parliament.

Pearson also drew Pierre Elliott Trudeau into politics, the only one of The 100 Most Important Canadians to be nominated by Maclean’s panelists in five categories. “Smart, rude, arrogant, flippant, endlessly intriguing,” Norman Hillmer said of Trudeau, “he was so certain, so unafraid, and had such a clear vision of the country.” Trudeau dominated the nation like no politician since King. He won huge support in Quebec both electorally and when he imposed the War Measures Act to crush terrorism in 1970. He whipped the separatists in the 1980 referendum, and he patriated the Constitution and gave Canada its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. No former prime minister has ever retained such influence on events as Trudeau, his interventions during the Meech Lake and Charlottetown debates likely determining the outcome of events, for better or worse. □