Macdonald’s legacy not stuff of idealistic mythology

As founding fathers go, Sir John A. Macdonald was not exactly a heroic figure. He drank too much, was pretty wilful, his entire military career consisted of a short time as a private soldier mostly conducting routine patrols, and he even got tainted with a massive political scandal just a few years after Canada was formed.

I sort of like that about him. He’s colourful rather than heroic.

“I kind of like the idea that the father of our Confederation wasn’t the guy who couldn’t tell a lie; he was the guy who liked to drink,” Canadian journalist Pierre Berton once said, and I agree.

Of course, I have to admit that chances are he would be considered a poor bet for political success today, especially since his arch-enemy George Brown used his ownership of the Toronto Globe newspaper to publicize every drinking binge.

But he was a pragmatist, and a visionary, and hammered together a collection of colonies and territories into a new nation.

It may be easy today to look back and criticize some of his policies as politically incorrect, but he was a man of his time, not ours, and we should judge him by the standards of his day.

When he died, Parliament declared his birthday, Jan. 11, Sir John A. Macdonald Day, but it is never celebrated. Most Canadians don’t know his birthday, and many don’t even know that the A stands for Alexander. I will admit that, despite being educated in Canada, and being a history nut, I had no idea that our first prime minister was about to turn 200, or what day of the year it was.

While he has been honoured on our $10 bill for some time, it is appropriate that his 200th birthday is celebrated on a coin and a stamp, particularly as we near the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

No doubt we will see some offerings for George-Etienne Cartier, Macdonald’s political ally. In most cases, true to our nation’s commitment to bilingualism and biculturalism, their names are linked together.

It isn’t the first time our first PM has made it to a stamp. He appeared on a one-cent stamp issued in 1927, the 60th anniversary of Confederation, and again on another one-cent stamp in the caricature series of 1973. In a second issue from 1927, he even made it onto a 12-cent stamp, along with, you guessed it, Cartier.

This most recent tribute is very timely, and probably not the last, as Canada gears up to celebrate a century and a half of nationhood.

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