Hot! Modest country, ambitious leader [John A. Macdonald]

TheStar.com – news/insight
Published On Sat Oct 22 2011.    Richard Gwyn

There must always be working men, men to work with their hands, to be poor, to be industrious, to be unfortunate, to suffer; it is the will of God, and the destiny of the race.

— Halifax Evening Express

The country Macdonald presided over in 1867 can be quickly described. It stretched from Cape Breton Island to just beyond the Great Lakes. Its population was 3.5 million, one in three of them French and some 105,000 Aboriginal. The dominion’s only real city was Montreal, with 115,000 inhabitants; Toronto and Quebec City each had about 60,000. The principal exports were lumber and grain. Manufacturing was starting up, but only a few companies had more than a dozen employees; one exception was the agricultural implements manufacturer Massey, which won two awards at the great Paris Exposition of 1867. The new nation’s principal asset was abundant space, except that little arable land now remained to attract new settlers.

Canada’s dominant characteristic was its Britishness: cricket was more popular than baseball, and no social success matched getting an invitation from the titled incumbent at Rideau Hall.

Every bit as important, Canada was outgrowing its pioneer phase, often owdy, raunchy and uninhibitedly bibulous, and becoming a Victorian society — a condition it would retain far longer than its Britishness, right through to the early 1960s.

Four in fi ve Canadians were farmers, many having only a few acres of stony or swampy land. Their working hours were long, their work was brutally hard and their small houses (often just shacks) were dark and chilly. Because they owned their land, though, they were independent and self-sufficient.

Although workers in the towns earned more money in good times, they had it much harder. They had to rent accommodation and had no woodlots to supply fuel for the long winters. Not that the towns, Montreal excepted, were very different from the countryside. In Toronto, local newspapers carried notices such as “Lost, a roan cow, horns inclined inward, last seen on Queen Street east.”

Everywhere, entertainment was limited to hellfi re speeches by itinerant preachers, concerts by military bands, and an occasional show put on by touring actors, usually over-age and drunken. The people themselves staged their own barn-raisings, ploughing competitions and fall fairs. Food often went bad, and water, especially in towns, was frequently befouled. Death, from diseases such as smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria, let alone from the ministrations of doctors who wielded unsterilized instruments with unwashed hands, came early and was a commonplace among young children.

Visits to dentists were sorties into horror. Despite the best efforts of educational reformers such as Egerton Ryerson, who took as his creed, “Education is a public good; ignorance is a public evil,” it was not until 1874 that Ontario made primary education compulsory.

Even then, up to half the children often stayed away to do essential farm work. In Quebec, almost half the population over 20 years of age could not read or write. And as the towns expanded, Canadians faced challenges mostly unknown in the villages they had emigrated from — overcrowded slums, pollution and prostitution. Only if they read Charles Dickens had they even heard of such things.

The principal antidote to all this hardship was drink. Each year, every man, woman and child in the country consumed an average of four gallons of alcohol. Macdonald wasn’t in the least unusual in his habit, although, as society grew ever more Victorian, he became an odd man out in public life, particularly because he never hid his drinking or apologized for it. Canada’s defining attitudes were those of practicality, realism and stoicism; matters theoretical or aesthetical seldom provoked the least interest. Significantly, in 1867, there were just two public libraries in the entire country.

If there was little that was fancy in the country, a great deal was solid. Loyalty — marriage, family, church, employer, political party, clan or tribe, and to Queen and country — was the supreme national virtue. Belief in the cardinal importance of the rule of law was near universal. Rural areas had neither police nor scarcely any crime, and Canada’s soon-to-be-acquired “Far West” would develop radically differently from the same flatlands below the border because of the presence of Macdonald’s North-West Mounted Police.

Still, Canada was a rough place, and brawls broke out frequently between Green and Orange Irish as well as between French and Irish during labour strikes. But there was none of the general acceptance of violence so widespread in the United States, the lynch mobs and vigilante squads, the gangs of New York and the deliberately provoked Indian wars. While the now-iconic phrase “Peace, Order and Good Government” was never used at this time to describe the state’s founding purpose, Canada from its beginning was an unusually peaceable kingdom.

Religion mattered greatly — more so than to Americans, with their strict constitutional separation of church and state. Canadians attended church regularly and rarely divorced. In the two decades after 1867, there were around 300,000 divorces in the United States, compared with 116 in Canada. And while much about 19th-century Canada shocks today’s sensibilities — such as public executions to which crowds fl ocked, bringing their children — those earlier Canadians would have been as shocked that, a century later, old people are warehoused in institutions rather than living with their children and grandchildren.

There was no democracy in Canada, the vote being limited to those men who owned sufficient property. Canadians regarded the U.S.-style universal male franchise as “mob rule.” As the Ottawa Times put it in 1869, “The besetting sin of democracy is . . . to debase everything to its own level, to pull down, never to elevate.”

There was, though, a rough and ready egalitarianism and a complete absence of any class system, whether based on birth, as in Britain, or on extremes of wealth and poverty, as in the United States. Macdonald understood the distinction. Although he opposed the universal franchise to the end of his days, on the grounds that it amounted to rule by those with no financial stake in the system, he also proclaimed proudly, “Classes and systems have not had time to grow here naturally. We have no aristocracy but of virtue and talent.”

The Victorians have generally had a bad press, being identified most commonly with sexual repression and overstuffed furniture. But a good case can be made that they were the most interesting generation ever. They were hypocritical for sure, but their seriousness, moral steadfastness and sheer sturdiness are beyond question. They needed these heroic qualities, because they had to cope with two revolutions of a magnitude never equalled before.

The initial challenge was the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The first, in the 18th century, consisted of brilliant inventions in mechanized devices and steam engines concocted by solitary geniuses. The second used advances in financing, corporate organization and the systemization of research to spew out endless new marvels — railways, steamships, steam tractors, electricity, streetcars, the telegraph, telephones, typewriters and sewing machines.

The consequences of these inventions went far beyond effi ciency and convenience: streetcars created suburbs by making it possible for people to live at a distance from their work; railways created national markets, with the print media as the first beneficiary; and typewriters generated jobs for women in previously male-only offices.

The intellectual revolution that burst forth was even more radical in its implications. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), by questioning man’s divine creation, compelled Victorians to reconsider their unquestioning faith in God and the Bible. Canadians, even if they occupied the rim of the known world, were well aware of this existential challenge.

Principal William Dawson of McGill University warned that the new doctrines “threaten to overthrow the whole fabric of society as at present constituted.”

Victorians reacted to the intellectual and moral threat in one of three ways: by becoming even firmer in their faith (Torontonians, for example, gained the title of “Good” for their city by banning streetcars on Sundays); by exploring alternatives such as spirituality; or by concluding that religion had to refashion itself by helping to make earth more heavenly. This last response became a prime source of the Victorians’ faith in the possibility of endless progress, pursued in Britain by Christian Socialism and in Canada, soon after the century’s turn, by the Social Gospel movement.

Moral earnestness became an integral part of Canadian identity. Soon after Confederation, the first Humane Society for animals was established, followed by the Children’s Aid Society. As a direct consequence of the new public morality, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was established in 1874, representing the initial entry by women into public debate. Canada’s first strong labour movement, the Knights of Labor, imported from the United States, had both a moral and an economic mission.

Things did get better, gradually, in early Canada. Universities, such as Toronto, Queen’s, McGill and Dalhousie, were growing. Sports were organized, with inter-city leagues for lacrosse, baseball, cricket and hockey.

Cities began to acquire some urban niceties. In Toronto in 1869, the first version of Eaton’s department store opened. Henry George, the American radical, attracted huge audiences, particularly in Hamilton, by asking the fundamental, unanswerable question of the age: Why was there “advancing poverty amid advancing wealth”?

All the changes did leave people unsettled. Professor Goldwin Smith, after he moved to Toronto in the 1870s, wrote of the horror of “unsexed female students who go about with their hair cut short and smoking in the streets.”

Macdonald didn’t believe in progress — in this sense he wasn’t a Victorian. As John Willison of the Toronto Globe wrote in his Reminiscences, “For the evangelical school of reconstructionists who would remake the world in their own image and redeem mankind by legislation, he had only a complacent tolerance.” And as Macdonald himself put it in the Commons, “I am satisfied not to have a reputation for indulging in imaginary schemes and harbouring visionary ideas.”

Overwhelmingly, Canadians agreed with him. Everyone hated taxes; few supported government spending (except on their own town). There was no Poor Law, as in Britain; charity was the responsibility of the churches, not the government.

Even public funding of education was criticized: “There is no reason or justice in making one man pay for the education of another man’s children,” complained the Bystander. Those without jobs were not “the unemployed” but the “idle poor” or the “undeserving poor.” The one way 19th-century governments were more interventionist than those of today was in their ample exercise of patronage: It was employed mainly for partisan political purposes, but sometimes as a welfare program for old guys whose legs had given out, or as a kind of affirmative action program to apportion public posts among all the regional, religious and racial groups.

Even if the government had wanted to do more, it would have been hard pressed. The entire federal civil service comprised just 2,660 people. Whether Conservative or Liberal, no government enacted any social legislation in Ottawa until a half-century later, in 1927.

Macdonald believed that human nature did not change; by logical extension, there was therefore no point in trying to make the world a better place.

For Macondald, power was a means to an end — though he enjoyed having it immensely, not least because he was so good at exercising it. He had a clear idea of why he wanted power: to make certain Canada did not become American, either by conquest or by handing itself over to its overpowering neighbour. He also had a clear idea of how this goal must be achieved: by stretching Canada into a continental nation that would be a mirror image of its rival, and by winning enough time for the new dominion to mature into a true nation.

The new prime minister approached this objective warily, recognizing that progress wouldn’t come easily . . . In 1868, he commented to the new governor general, Lord Lisgar, “At present we are all mere politicians, but by and by it may be to the good luck for some of us to rise to the level of national statesmen.”

He was just as cautious in public. At the new Parliament’s first session, he avoided giving the government leader’s usual inspirational opening speech by giving no speech at all. He did so because he was not yet a real prime minister, one elected by the people with a mandate, but only a prime minister whom the governor general had picked to get the show going. So, before the summer of 1867 was over, Macdonald called his first election . . .

The results trickled in through September and October, with individual constituencies still holding elections on different days. Macdonald won comfortably, although not overwhelmingly. Overall, he won 101 seats to the 80 of the various opposition parties . . .

Macdonald was now prime minister by the free choice of the people, or at least of a majority of the 15 per cent of them entitled to vote. He set November 7 for the opening of the first Parliament of the new Confederation of Canada.

Excerpted with permission from Richard Gwyn’s Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times Volume Two: 1867-1891, published by Random House Canada.

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