Jeffrey Simpson is full of praise for Richard Gwyn's two volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. And he mourns the place which history holds in modern Canada:
In schools, history remains an orphan, barely taught, often entirely neglected. In the media, ahistoricism reigns. Even in universities, it’s alarming to be among graduates for whom Pierre Trudeau is a vague figure, Sir Wilfrid Laurier an inconnu, and Sir John A. the man with a big nose on our currency.
The Harper government's plan to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 illustrates how little history it knows. But then that's not surprising for a party whose historical memory begins with Preston Manning.
Many people laugh at Sir John's weaknesses. Some years ago, as we were entering Bellevue House -- Macdoanld's former residence in Kingston -- I asked our ten year old son what he knew of Macdonald. "Canada's most famous drunk," was his answer. Simpson and Gwyn do not excuse Macdonald's failings:
Macdonald was a man of many imperfections, which is perhaps why he expected less-than-angelic behaviour from his fellow men. He drank a great deal, went missing in action for stretches (including long vacations in England), held the Indian affairs portfolio but made egregiously wrong decisions at key moments.
But those very failings enabled Macdonald to free himself and this nation from the prevailing ideologies of the time. Simpson writes:
he had a vision of a country with all its crinkled diversity and improbable distances. He loved the British connection, but, as Mr. Gwyn explains, always sought distance between the Mother Country and the new creation, the strategy adopted by his successors until Britain ceased to be a world power. He held the English Protestants and the French Catholics together more in a marriage of convenience than a tight embrace, despite factional tensions over language and religion. They’re still together in that distant but enduring relationship.
In an age noted for its inflexibility, Macdonald was notoriously flexible. He understood the country to its core -- something the present government doesn't. Rather than accepting Canada as it is, the Harper government seeks to remake it in its own image.
Harry Truman once said, "My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. I know of no other motivation which so accounts for my awakening interest as a young lad in the principles of leadership and government." It's a shame Mr. Harper didn't bring Truman's knowledge of history to his job.