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Canada’s Faithful Servant: A Case for John A. Macdonald

Mr. Morris


April 17, 2018

Canada’s Faithful Servant: A Case for Sir John A. Macdonald

Most Canadians possess a spotty knowledge of their founders; a 2015 Ipsos-Reid survey reported that just 28% of respondents knew that Confederation occurred in 1867 (Postmedia). However, citizens have recently started to reconsider historical figures, as the controversial decisions of past governments continue to resurface. Most notably, in 2017, various groups called for the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s name and figure from public institutions. Proponents of the movement stated that Macdonald’s bigoted actions towards Indigenous and Chinese peoples did not merit positive recognition, while those who disagreed believed that Macdonald’s accomplishments as Canada’s ‘Founding Father’ and first Prime Minister outweighed his negative decisions (Jago). Due to his bold economic tariff policy that established Canada as an independent country, and his championship of the highly successful Canadian Pacific Railway project, Macdonald’s name and likeness should stay in the public sphere.

Without Macdonald’s protectionist economic ideas that steered the young nation clear of the United States, Canada would not exist today. The ‘National Policy’ program enacted by Macdonald in 1879 imposed astronomically high tariffs on cross-border trade in hopes of moving Canada towards “true nationhood by giving its citizens reasons to buy and sell from each other” (Gwyn). Tariffs are essentially taxes that importers or exporters must pay for trading their commodities internationally (Brown). Since American manufacturing companies started to compete with Canadian companies for business in the 1870’s, many Canadians expressed concern that lower tariffs would lead to unregulated trade between Canada and the United States, and eventually, political union (Gwyn). Macdonald’s strongly protectionist actions ensured that Canadian citizens received more goods from Canadian manufacturers. This not only improved the economy in terms of employment and profit, but also boosted national morale. Therefore, since Macdonald’s implementation of higher tariffs strengthened Canada’s economic and social conditions at a time of turmoil, public institutions should honour him as someone who placed Canadian interests at the forefront of his policies.

On the contrary, experts in support of Macdonald’s removal from the public sphere claim that his choice to bring in mass numbers of Chinese immigrants to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway was derogatory, because he treated them as commodities that were low-maintenance and cheap (“Chinese Canadian Stories”). However, his choice to bring in Chinese workers was part of a larger vision that believed in the CPR’s potential to positively change Canada by influencing the development of its cities, and also by churning out huge financial benefits. His ambition, was to create a railway that would “build up Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Halifax and Saint John by means of one great Canadian line, carrying as much traffic as possible by the course of trade through our own country” (NLC). He understood that such a gigantic railway – 4700 kilometers long – would link together a geographically, economically, and socially divided country. Because of the CPR, residents no longer needed to stay in one area for their entire life; trains made vacations and province-to-province immigration a possibility for all, which increased diversity in cities. The railway also fulfilled Macdonald’s dream of boosting Toronto, Montreal, and other cities into fully-fledged metropolises through the creation of railway-affiliated hotels, transportation of more tourists, and an increased flow of resources. Economically, the CPR dominated the Canadian transportation sector for nearly half of the 20th century, moving travellers as well as important goods across Canada. Today, thousands of passenger and freight trains still operate on the CPR every year, generating billions of dollars of revenue (“Rail Transportation”). Even 125 years since the CPR’s inception, Canada’s citizens, cities, and economy can still feel the positive effects of Macdonald’s ambitious vision to build a transformative railway.

In 2017, possibly in response to raised awareness about the Canadian government’s role in assimilating Indigenous and Chinese peoples, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario voted to support the motion to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from public schools, while opponents stated that he “helped build a fantastic and prosperous country” (Nasser). When one considers Macdonald’s determined support of the Canadian economy, along with his idealistic ambitions to complete a railway that unified Canada, it becomes clear that he is a historical figure who should remain in the public eye. Ultimately, by raising conversations about who we consider as ‘heroes’, we can discover that although some values change over time, certain universal actions still resonate with us today regardless of morals or circumstance. In that case, without the leadership of Sir John A. Macdonald, we would have no common Canadian identity to unify behind, no economic interests to support, and most importantly, no Canada to call home.


Works Cited:

Brown, Robert. “National Policy”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2006, Accessed 17 Apr 2018.

“Chinese Canadian Stories”. Ccs.Library.Ubc.Ca, 2006, Accessed 17 Apr 2018.

Postmedia. “One In Four Canadians Can’t Name Country’s First Prime Minister: Poll”. National Post, 2015, Accessed 17 Apr 2018.

Jago, Robert. “Sir John A. Doesn’t Need A School To Be Remembered. He Lives On In Indigenous Pain”. The Globe And Mail, 2017, Accessed 17 Apr 2018.

Nasser, Shanifa. “Ontario Teachers’ Union Wants Sir John A. Macdonald’s Name Stripped From Public Schools | CBC News”. CBC, 2017, Accessed 17 Apr 2018.

“Rail Transportation.” Transport Canada, 2011,

National Library of Canada. “ARCHIVED – Macdonald-Speeches-House Of Commons, Jan. 17, 1881-First Among Equals”. Nlc-Bnc.Ca, 2001, Accessed 17 Apr 2018.

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