Conference Programme: Sir John A. Macdonald: Son of Glasgow, Father of Canada

6 01 2015

Sir John A. Macdonald:

Son of Glasgow, Father of Canada

City Chambers, George Square, Glasgow,

Saturday 10 January 2015

1.00pm-6.00pm, followed by Civic Dinner

Keynote speaker: Professor Sir Tom Devine


The historical connections between Scotland and Canada have long been celebrated. This conference brings together a diversity of perspectives for an evaluation of the life and legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald who was born in January 1815 in Glasgow.

12.00-1.00pm – Lunch

1.00pm – Welcome

1.15pm-2.30pm – Professor Ged Martin on Macdonald, Glasgow and Canada (to be read by Professor Alan Hallsworth)

2.30-4.00pm – Panel 1 – Macdonald as Politician, Businessman and Statesman

Session chaired by Professor Faye Hammill, University of Strathclyde

Randy Boswell (Carleton University) – ‘Macdonald’s Mouthpiece’ – Glasgow-born David Creighton and The Empire newspaper

Andrew Smith (University of Liverpool Management School)* and Laurence B. Mussio (McMaster University) – Sir John A Macdonald, the Canadian Military-Commercial Complex and the Preservation of the Capitalist Peace in the Civil War era, 1861-1871

Ed Whitcomb (independent scholar) – Sir John A. Macdonald: Warts and All


4.00-4.30pm refreshments break

4.30-6.00pm – Panel 2 – Macdonald as Emigrant, Favourite Son and Contested Icon

Session chaired by Dr John Young, University of Strathclyde

Stephen Mullen (University of Glasgow) – Macdonald’s Glasgow

Rosie Spooner (University of Glasgow) – Great Grains and Monolithic Minerals: Building a Canadian Nation at Glasgow’s International Exhibitions

Dawn Westwater (Brock University, Ontario) – The Controversy of Commemoration: Sir John A. Macdonald and his Debated Legacy

6.30pm – Civic Reception and Dinner courtesy of The Lord Provost, Glasgow City Council – with after-dinner speech by Sir Tom Devine on ‘The Scottish factor in Canadian history’

This event is organised under the auspices of the British Association for Canadian Studies (BACS) and with the support of the Canadian High Commission and Glasgow City Council.

‘Macdonald, Glasgow and Canada’ – Ged Martin (to be read by Alan Hallsworth)



This talk examines Sir John A. Macdonald’s contribution to Canadian politics – particularly the Confederation, 1864-67 – as well as personal and professional controversies such as marriages, alcohol and the Pacific scandal of 1873. This paper will also examine the debates surrounding the birthplace of Macdonald in Glasgow and assess the case for the two areas assumed to be the spot. Further, Macdonald’s identity as a Scotsman, Canadian or Canadian-Scot will be scrutinised as well as his relationship with fellow Scots in Canada and his contested legacy.


Ged Martin studied at Cambridge, where he took First Class Honours in History in 1967, and completed his PhD in 1972. He was President of the Cambridge Union Society in 1968, and a Research Fellow of Magdalene College, 1970-72. He spent the next five years as a Research Fellow in History at the Australian National University in Canberra, and in 1977 was appointed to a lectureship at University College Cork. Director of the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh from 1983, Ged Martin became a Reader in History in 1994, and in 1996 received the United Kingdom’s first permanent Chair in Canadian Studies. He also served from 1993 to 1997 as Deputy Director of the University’s International Social Sciences Institute. Since 2001 he has lived in Ireland. Ged Martin is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Edinburgh. He is also an honorary Adjunct Professor of History at the National University of Ireland Galway, and at the University of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia.


Professor emeritus Alan Hallsworth has a 40 year research record in both the service sector and the study of Canada. He graduated with a research Masters from Queen’s, Kingston, Ontario, in 1971 and has since lectured at Universities including Surrey and Manchester Business School. He has been external examiner to degree programmes at Stirling and Glasgow Caledonian Universities. He has also served as President, Secretary and Treasurer of the British Association for Canadian Studies and a nine-year term on the Board of the Foundation for Canadian Studies. He is a past holder of the Prix du Quebec. He has co-published on Canadian topics with colleagues in BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec in journals such as The British Journal of Canadian Studies and The London Journal of Canadian Studies. He has been a regular contributor to the annual EUROPA Yearbook on The USA and Canada.

‘Macdonald’s Mouthpiece’ – Glasgow-born David Creighton and The Empire newspaper’ – Randy Boswell (Carleton University)


Recent revelations regarding John A. Macdonald’s birthplace in Glasgow (see attached news article by this writer) have shone a spotlight on The Empire newspaper, a Toronto-based publication founded in 1887 by Macdonald and other top Conservatives in Canada miffed at the perceived Liberal bias of the city’s two other main newspapers, The Mail and The Globe. Notably, Macdonald entrusted the job of publishing this new, aggressively pro-Conservative organ to David Creighton, a fellow native Glaswegian who emigrated to Canada at age 12 in 1855. This presentation would explore the significance of the Scottish connection between Creighton and Macdonald, the nature of partisan journalism in Canada during the post-Confederation era and the specific influence of both Creighton and The Empire in Canadian politics — particularly during the hard-fought 1891 election that Macdonald won but which, in his own mind and in Creighton’s, came at the cost of his health. Macdonald died just a few months after the vote. An Empire “memorial album” published after Macdonald’s death in June 1891 is now one of the earliest and strongest pieces of evidence suggesting that the future Father of Confederation was born at Brunswick Place in downtown Glasgow, though this long-forgotten document was only recently injected into today’s birthplace debate. Creighton, who also ran the Owen Sound Times newspaper and served as an opposition Conservative member in the Ontario legislature from 1875 to 1890, was widely viewed in those roles — but especially in his position as publisher of The Empire — as Macdonald’s mouthpiece. He has never been the subject of any extensive scholarly examination.


Randy Boswell is an Assistant Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ont., Canada and freelance journalist, Toronto-based Postmedia News

‘Sir John A. Macdonald, Canadian Business, and the Preservation of the Capitalist Peace in the North Atlantic Triangle in the Civil War Era, 1861-1871’ – Andrew Smith (University of Liverpool),* and Laurence B. Mussio (McMaster University)



This paper re-examines Macdonald’s place in the history of the North Atlantic triangle by drawing on the literature of the theory of the capitalist peace. The 1860s were a turning point in the relationships between Britain, the United States, and Canada. In the 1860s, the British Empire and the United States came to the brink of war. Canadians were especially concerned that the Anglo-American War of 1812-1815 might be repeated, this time with a deadlier generation of weapons. This article shows that Macdonald played an active and important role in relations between the United States and the British Empire during a tumultuous period surrounding the American Civil War. The paper relates Macdonald’s actions as a statesman to his private interests as a businessman. The paper therefore helps to re-discover a forgotten aspect of Macdonald’s career- his private business activities. The paper discussed Macdonald’s response to British plans for the remilitarization of the Canada-US border and the Great Lakes, the bodies of water shared by the two countries. The paper then examines Macdonald’s response to Edward Cardwell’s plan to withdraw most British troops from Canada.  This paper is based on a wide range of primary sources, including contemporary newspapers and pamphlets, parliamentary speeches, the correspondence of government officials, as well as documents in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The Macdonald papers have, of course, been used.



Andrew Smith is based in the Management School, University of Liverpool.

Laurence B. Mussio is based in Communication Studies and Multimedia, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont. Canada.



‘Sir John A. Macdonald: Warts and All’ – Ed Whitcomb (Independent scholar)



Sir John A. is definitely one of the ten most important people in Canadian history, arguably the number one person, though his long career also produced many mistakes.  Canadian nationalists emphasize his achievements and ignore the mistakes – they make him a super-hero because a nation needs heroes and they agree with the goals he pursued.  But there is no need to ignore the negative, because, even with the warts, John A. is still one of the most important Canadians ever. This paper will cover the achievements AND the mistakes.  John A. is frequently described as THE Father of Confederation.  But Confederation consisted of two developments, the union of the colonies, for which he made the greatest contribution, and the adoption of federalism, which he opposed.  Macdonald never abandoned the attempt to make Canada a unitary state, a policy that reflected the fact that Scottish culture flourished in unitary Great Britain.  His greatest achievements included rounding out the Dominion to include BC, PEI, and the prairies, maintaining independence from the USA, making the new federal system work, and building a transcontinental economy.  The mistakes include two unnecessary rebellions, the execution of Louis Riel, putting the CPR over the wrong mountain pass, attempting to undermine responsible government in the provinces, needless fights with Ontario, and the unequal treatment of all provinces which produced unfairness, resentment, and the pattern of asymmetrical federalism that has bedevilled the country since 1867.  But warts and all, he remains Canada’s greatest Prime Minister.



Ed Whitcomb holds a Ph.D. from University College London and has written histories of all of Canada’s provinces. He is currently writing a history of federal -provincial relations.



‘Macdonald’s Glasgow’ – Stephen Mullen (University of Glasgow)



This paper illuminates ‘Macdonald’s Glasgow’- a five year period from Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth in 1815 until the family emigrated to Quebec in 1820. A case study of the Macdonald family is placed in both a regional and international context: social and economic conditions in commercial Glasgow, migration from the Highlands to the city as well as emigration from the Clyde to the Canadas after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. Finally, the Macdonald family journey across the Atlantic and the processes that facilitated such emigration is examined.



Stephen Mullen is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Glasgow. He has published on Glasgow connections with the New World in the colonial period.



‘Great Grains and Monolithic Minerals: Building a Canadian Nation at Glasgow’s International Exhibitions’ – Rosie Spooner (University of Glasgow)



Described by historian Paul Greenhalgh as the “extraordinary cultural spawn of industry and empire”, International Exhibitions served as platforms for the display of objects, the movement of people, and the dissemination of ideas across the British Empire and beyond. In the late-nineteenth century these highly popular and dynamic events sprung up in cities all over the world. Despite being the so-called ‘Second City of the Empire’, Glasgow only hosted its first exhibition in 1888. Given the strength of the historic links between Scotland and Canada – represented by figures like Sir John A. Macdonald, as well as countless other Scots who worked, traveled and settled there – it was a priority to secure Canadian participation. As one of the exhibition’s organisers stressed to the government’s representative in Glasgow, “I venture to hope from the intimate relations, commercial and personal, subsisting between your colony and this part of the Empire, that…we may receive your hearty support and co-operation.” This paper considers the relationship between Scotland and Canada, looking at how it played out at the International Exhibitions Glasgow hosted in the late-Victorian period. Specifically, it examines how Canadian authorities used these exhibitions to construct and promote a burgeoning sense of unique national identity. Although Canada was the empire’s largest Dominion territory, in some senses it remained a young country, having only achieved federal unity in 1867. As such, this paper addresses some of the legacies of Confederation, adding to analyses of this decisive political moment by framing the unification of Canada as a complex and on-going cultural process.



Originally from Toronto, Rosie Spooner is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Glasgow. Examining the material culture of empire, her research focuses on the circulation of objects, people and ideas between Britain and Canada through the mechanisms of the International Exhibition, exploring how varied and complex colonial, national and imperial identities interacted at events staged between the 1880s and the 1930s. Her developing curatorial practice brings together historic and contemporary objects, artworks and exhibitionary models in an effort to re-frame these categories, issues which similarly underpin her academic research.



‘The Controversy of Commemoration: Sir John A. Macdonald and his Debated Legacy’

– Dawn Westwater (Brock University)



Controversy has recently grown in Canada surrounding the commemoration of the approaching bicentennial of the birth of the country’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Debate about the commemoration centres on the argument that some of the political legacies which have come to characterize Macdonald as a historical figure, are not necessarily positive, and therefore should not be ignored in favour of his remembrance. The two main positions on this controversy highlight questions about how historical figures should be commemorated and whether individuals, like Macdonald, should be judged by modern standards of ‘politically correct’ or acceptable behaviours, or by the views and opinions that were current and acceptable in their own time. Questions have recently been asked in newspaper and magazine articles by various citizens about whether or not it is appropriate or fitting to be perpetuating the legacy of an arguably ‘racist’ individual. If Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy in Canada remains one of the longest and most significant in the nation’s history, then why has controversy plagued the process of commemoration of his life? This paper will examine how modern politics and social standards are effecting popular attitudes toward the potential commemoration of the founding father of the nation of Canada and will question the division among citizens in pondering whether Canadians’ struggle to share a cohesive view of their collective history is in part based on a tendency to judge historical figures by modern standards.



Dawn Westwater is a currently a Master of Arts (History) candidate at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She is studying mid-twentieth century Canadian social history with a research topic of gender and alcohol and the post-war shift toward the social acceptance of women consuming alcohol as an act of leisure.



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