The founding scoundrel

WILL FERGUSON January 14 2002

The founding scoundrel

WILL FERGUSON January 14 2002

The founding scoundrel

The Back Page


Break out the gin! Jan. 11 marks the 187th anniversary of John A. Macdonald's birth, and like Canadians everywhere, I’ll raise a toast to the Father of Our Country on this important national holiday. What? You say Jan. 11 isn’t a national holiday? Surely you jest. John A. Macdonald was the architect of Confederation and our founding prime minister. He oversaw the purchase of the North-West, the entry of British Columbia into Canada and the building of the CPR. How could he not have a holiday in his honour, especially considering that his old nemesis Louis Riel is about to be heralded in the House of Commons as a national hero?

Riel, prophet of the grasslands, led an insurrection against the government that caused the deaths of more than 100 people, including innocent settlers and two priests. You might think, in the wake of what has happened over the past four months, that the appeal of religious zealots leading quixotic holy wars would be diminished, but in the wonky logic of todays Canada, Riel is the hero of history, not Macdonald.

Which is a shame, because Sir John was a wonderful role model—especially when it came to wielding power. In recognition, I’d like to offer the following ‘;j|| primer to our current PM.

Macdonald’s seven keys to success:

1. The party line über alles. An earnest Tory senator once told Macdonald, “I will always support you when I think you’re right.” Macdonald replied: “Anybody may support me when I’m right. What I want is someone who will support me when I’m wrong.”

Moral: Whether a golf course in Shawinigan or a promise to abolish the GST, what matters is not whether your leader is right or wrong, but that you stick with him, no matter what. 2. The tactical use of humour. Once, onstage during a public debate, Sir John, drunk, vomited. An awkward pause followed, but John, smiling, said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what it is about my opponent, but every time I hear him speak, it turns my stomach.” The crowd roared.

Moral: When caught in a tricky situation, laugh it off. If, for example, students are pepper-sprayed and clubbed on the head, do not accept culpability. Instead, turn the thing into a joke. “For me, da pepper, it’s what I put on da plate.” The Canadian public loves a leader with a sense of humour.

3. Mocking the opposition. John’s longtime foe was George Brown, a man both upright and unwavering. Rather than grapple for the high ground, Macdonald acknowledged the obvious, turning his weaknesses into a point of pride. “The

people would rather have John A. drunk than Brown sober,” he proclaimed. He was right.

Moral: Whether your opponents are separatists, socialists or gadflies on Sea-Doos, you can’t go wrong portraying them as prudish and straighdaced. Especially if they are.

4. Neutering the competition. Canada’s first separatist movement began not in Quebec, but Nova Scotia. The movement foundered when the leader of the separatists, Joseph Howe, was won over by Sir Johns considerable charms. A year after arriving in Ottawa, to outraged cries of “Traitor!” Howe crossed the floor to become a minister in Macdonald’s government.

Moral: Keep friends close, and enemies closer. Rather than purging a dangerous enemy, defang him by giving him a cabinet posting. Minister of finance, say.

5. Maintaining proper decorum. Macdonald once charged across the floor of the House and attempted to land a haymaker on an opponent, roaring, “I could lick him quicker than Hell could scorch a feather!”

Moral: Never give an ounce of respect to foes. If a protester gets in your way, throttle him!

6. Dealing with ethics issues. During the 1872 election, Macdonald, desperate to save the railway and his career (the two being inextricably linked), received campaign donations for implied railway contracts. The scandal led to Macdonald becoming the first—and only—PM in Canadian history forced out of office on charges of unethical behaviour. Undaunted, John was swept back to power five years later, and ended his days in triumph.

Moral: In Canada, ethics and politics don’t mix. If you’re going to have an ethics counsellor, make sure he’s in your pocket. You don’t want an independendy appointed do-gooder stirring up trouble. God no!

7. The vision thing. For all his flaws and foibles, John A. Macdonald oversaw the creation of Canada from a patchwork of eastern colonies to a nation spanning the continent, from sea to sea, a mari usque ad mare.

Moral: To be a great leader, you must have a vision. But don’t worry, Jean ... six out of seven ain’t bad.

So let’s raise a drink to the scoundrel who started it all. Maybe next year, Sir John will get a holiday of his own. In the meantime, Happy Louis Riel Day! G3

Will Ferguson is the author of Bastards & Boneheads:

Canada’s Glorious Leaders, Past and Present.