John A. MacDonald – The Old Chieftain

This book written in 1955 by Canadian historian Donald Creighton is an absolute page burner! It is one of the most riveting books that I have read in a long time. Written in novel style, it tells the detailed story of the “architect of Canada”, our first Prime Minister – Sir John A. MacDonald – from just after he took office in July 1867 until his death in June 1991 at age 76. It is Vol 2 of a 2 part book that won the Governor General’s award for history and is considered a classic of Canadian history.

Why I like it is because the style of writing makes the history come alive. It is written as if John A. were writing his own autobiography except rather than in the first person “I did this or that or felt this or that” it is told in the third person “He did this or that or felt this or that” with all the intimacy of personal action. Somehow Donald Creighton is inside the head of Sir John A. and so are we the reader.

While this style of history writing may be somewhat discredited now as it can only present one side of the subject, it makes for a most entertaining and intimate portrait. I learned so much about Canadian history that I never knew before:

  • the long delicate balancing act to prevent the U.S. from annexing or attacking parts of the fledgling Dominion
  • the creation of a strong federal government in the face of demands for more power sharing from provincial governments
  • deft political integration and peaceful coexistence between English and French Canadian societies
  • the financial challenges of completing of the Canadian Pacific Railway which literally and figuratively knitted the county together
  • the need for tariff protection to build up a strong Canadian economy in the face of American bullying and self-interest
  • importance of the direct ties with Great Britain, Canada’s one and only ally during these critical birthing times

He was a nationalist like no other. Today many look back and say yeah, but he bulldozed the indigenous culture and had Metis leader Louis Riel executed. He was a colonial tyrant who destroyed everything that was not of the British culture or liking and furthermore he was white and Scottish. Yes but, IMHO, if he had not been so visionary, so persistent, so crafty and so indefatigable, we would not even have a country from within which we could look back to make such judgments. If it were not for Sir John A., we would most likely be casting votes in the upcoming American election!!!

Yes, he has his faults – he was a workaholic and never retired. He would not name or mentor a successor until his dying bed and he drank too much from time to time. His party and he personally accepted bribes from a Montreal business man who was trying to get the contract to build the CPR.

Perhaps in the book there is too much detail about proceedings in the House of Commons and the names of various ministers. Perhaps there is too much denigrating of American politicians. Perhaps we would like more discussion about his private life with his 2nd wife Agnes and their daughter Mary. But all in all, this book is a measure of the times that we know too little about – yet we think we do! Personally, I dropped out of history class as soon as I could in HS. If I had read this book back then, perhaps I would not have done so so quickly.

Whoever says Canadian history is boring should read this book. Highly recommended read – 5 stars out of 5!

Sir John A. – the man who made us

1 Comment

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One response to “John A. MacDonald – The Old Chieftain

  1. Thanks for this David – yes he did a lot of good for our country and all of us as Canadians. He was not perfect and we cannot judge him today for some of his actions/beliefs etc from so long ago. He was a man of his time not now – not perfect but then who of us is perfect. thanks for this!

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