New Book Alert: Macdonald at 200

13 11 2014

Macdonald at 200 presents fifteen fresh interpretations of Canada’s founding Prime Minister, published for the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth in 1815. Well researched and crisply written by recognized scholars and specialists, the collection throws new light on Macdonald’s formative role in shaping government, promoting women’s rights, managing the nascent economy, supervising westward expansion, overseeing relations with Native peoples, and dealing with Fenian terrorism. A special section deals with how Macdonald has (or has not) been remembered by historians as well as the general public. The book concludes with an afterword by prominent Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn. Macdonald emerges as a man of full dimensions — an historical figure that is surprisingly relevant to our own times.

Order it here.

About the editors:

Patrice Dutil is professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University. His publications include Canada 1911 and Devil’s Advocate. A frequent media commentator on Canadian affairs, he is the president of the Champlain Society and the founder of The Literary Review of Canada. He lives in Toronto.

Roger Hall is professor emeritus of history at Western University and senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. He has been editor of Ontario History and co-editor of The Canadian Review of American Studies. His publications include A Century to Celebrate and The Rising Country. He lives in Toronto.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Macdonald and Society
Chapter 1: Colin Grittner, “Macdonald and Women’s Enfranchisement”
Chapter 2: Donald Smith, “Macdonald’s Relationship with Aboriginal Peoples”
Chapter 3: David A. Wilson, “Macdonald and the Fenians”
Chapter 4: Timothy J. Stanley, “Macdonald, Chinese Exclusion and the Invention of Canadian White Supremacy”
Chapter 5: Michel Ducharme, “Macdonald and the Concept of Liberty”
Part 2: Macdonald and the Economy
Chapter 6: J.J. Ben Forster, “First Spikes: Railways in John A. Macdonald’s Early Political Career”
Chapter 7: E.A. Heaman, “Macdonald’s Fiscal Realpolitik”
Chapter 8: David W. Delainey and J.C. Herbert Emery, “The National Policy’s Impact on the West: A Reassessment”

Part 3: Macdonald and Government
Chapter 9: Barbara J. Messamore, “Macdonald and the Governors General: A Prime Minister’s Use and Abuse of the Crown”
Chapter 10: Patrice Dutil, “Macdonald, his ‘Ottawa Men’ and the Consolidation of Prime Ministerial Power (1867-1873)”
Chapter 11: J.R. Miller, “Macdonald as Minister of Indian Affairs: The Shaping of Canadian Indian Policy”
Chapter 12: Bill Waiser, “Macdonald’s Appetite for Canadian Expansion: Main Course or Leftovers ?”

Ged Martin’s New Biography of the Dominion of Canada’s First Prime Minister

11 06 2013

Ged Martin, professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, has published his new biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. This long-awaited book includes new information about Macdonald’s drinking problem, his relationship with French Canada, and the scandal that was brewing in the period immediately before his death. (Martin speculates that the Andrew Bancroft scandal may have hastened Macdonald’s demise).

I’m most interested in reading the parts of the book that cover the impact of the 1837 rebellion on Macdonald’s approach to political conflict. It will also be interesting to see what Martin says about Macdonald and race, which is perhaps the most sensitive issue any 21st-century biographer of the man must face.

I understand that Professor Martin is interested in giving interviews about this book. Journalists and others who wish to speak to him can find his contact details by emailing me.


Sir John A. Macdonald and the Bank of Montreal

23 01 2012

Sir John A. Macdonald

11 January 2012 marked the 197th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald,  the Dominion of Canada’s first Prime Minister. To celebrate the anniversary, the federal government named a former Bank of Montreal branch in downtown Ottawa the “Sir John A. Macdonald Building.” For the story, see here. For an image of the building, see below.

I understand the desire to honour the Dominion of Canada’s first Prime Minister. I also think that it is appropriate for Macdonald’s name to be associated with banking, since legislation passed by his government played an absolutely crucial role in the evolution of Canada’s financial sector. The system of trans-continental branch banking that had emerged by the time of Macdonald’s death in 1891 paralleled the political union that Macdonald had constructed between 1864 and 1873.  However, it is singularly inappropriate to name a former BMO branch after Macdonald, as the Bank of Montreal helped to bring down the Kingston-based  Commercial Bank, as this was the bank with which Macdonald was most closely connected.

The financial crisis of 2008 took out banks around the world, but Canada’s financial institutions weathered the storm. In a scholarly article that was published just a few days ago, I show that the foundation of Canada’s distinctive (and famously stable) banking system lies in a series of banking laws passed in 1870-1.

Former Toronto branch of the Commercial Bank. This branch is now within the atrium of BCE Place in downtown Toronto.

Photo of plaque taken by Alan L. Brown

A close examination of the rather murky politics of banking in the Confederation era shows that the policies of the Bank of Montreal, which involved a relatively restricted approached towards credit and the expansion of the money supply, helped to cause the October 1867 collapse of the Commercial Bank.  In the 1860s, Montreal and Toronto were engaged in a struggle to see which city would emerge as Canada’s financial capital. The Dominion was in its infancy and the stakes were high to see who would be dominant in the new nation.  This struggle pitted banks in the two cities against each other– and it also badly divided Macdonald’s own cabinet, since some of his supporters were from Montreal, others from Toronto. One victim of this struggle was the Commercial Bank, which was headquartered in Kingston, Macdonald’s own riding.

It is today generally forgotten that Confederation on 1 July 1867 was followed by an awful financial crisis that brought down the Commercial Bank a few months later. The new federal government could have used its resources to prop up this bank. Indeed, Macdonald probably would have done so had he  had a free hand in the matter. After all, he had reasons to feel grateful to the Commercial Bank, which had extended many soft loans to him. However, the supporters of the Bank of Montreal in Macdonald’s cabinet effectively vetoed the idea of a bailout for the Commercial Bank.

Similarly, Canada’s first Finance Minister, A.T. Galt, pressured the Bank of Montreal to contribute to a private-sector bailout package for the Commercial Bank, something that the Bank of Montreal refused to help out with.

The failure of the Commercial Bank forced Galt to resign his position as Minister of Finance because he had lost much of his personal fortune with it. (Galt was later able to rebuild his fortune).  It also devastated the city of Kingston, which henceforth was  a financial satellite of the major cities.  Macdonald managed to get through this crisis with his personal finances more or less intact. Most of Macdonald’s personal debts were owed to the Commercial Bank, which had long displayed a rather generous attitude when it came to their repayment, largely because of Macdonald’s political clout. When the Commercial Bank failed, Macdonald’s obligations to it were assigned to the Merchants’ Bank, a Montreal-based institution controlled by Sir Hugh Allan. This bank continued the Commercial Bank’s practice of allowing the loans to go unpaid.  It should be noted that  Macdonald’s government later awarded the lucrative contract to build Canada’s transcontinental railway to a syndicate that included Sir Hugh. Indeed, this contract was at the centre of the Pacific Scandal, the affair that brought down Macdonald’s first government.

There is a saying that laws are like sausages– those who like them shouldn’t watch them being made. The backroom political deals that resulted in the post-Confederation banking laws were sleazy by today’s standards. However, I would argue that these statutes were actually quite beneficial and paved the way for present-day Canada’s impressively stable financial sector. Thanks in part to the laws passed by the first post-Confederation parliament, Canada went on to develop a banking sector that was, in many ways, superior to that of the United States.

You can read more about this is my article “Continental Divide: The Canadian Banking and Currency Laws of 1871 in the Mirror of the United States” in Enterprise and Society: The International Journal of Business History. See here.

Historian Ged Martin on the Death of Sir John A. Macdonald

8 12 2010

Historian Ged Martin was in Kingston, Ontario earlier this week to promote his new book about John A. Macdonald.  Favourite Son? : John A. Macdonald and the Voters of Kingston 1841-1891 (Kingston, Ont. : Kingston Historical Society, 2010).

In the book, Martin argues that Macdonald’s death in 1891 was hastened by stress caused by the knowledge that a corruption scandal was about to become public. The scandal centred on “Andrew C. Bancroft”, a non-existent person who had been awarded a contract to build a dry dock in Kingston by the federal government’s Department of Public Works, which was then headed by the notoriously corrupt Hector-Louis Langevin.  The dry dock is now the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes.


Kingston Dry Dock

For press coverage of Martin’s book launch in Kingston, see here.  The reader comments section of the article is amusing, especially where someone challenges Martin to a duel.

Sir John A. Macdonald Honoured in Scotland

12 05 2010

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Canada’s first prime minister was to be honoured Wednesday at a special ceremony in the Scottish Highlands.

Macdonald– may his spirits live on.
On a related note, someone is trying to rename Wellington Street in Ottawa after Macdonald. Apparently he is offended by having a street named after the Iron Duke or something. The irony is that Macdonald likely admired Wellington a great deal.

The Canadian Debate on the Legitimacy of Usury in 1870

23 03 2010

I’m sharing an interesting primary source I discovered in the course of researching the history of the laws governing finance and banking in Canada. For centuries, either Christian countries outlawed the payment or receipt of interest or imposed usury laws that made interest over a certain amount (say six percent) illegal. See here. During and after the Enlightenment, there was a move throughout the Western world to abolish the usury laws.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the usury laws were dismantled the Province of Canada (i.e., present-day Ontario and Quebec). The usury laws were repealed or watered down for two reasons: the desire of the political class to make Canada attractive to British investors and the growing influence of classical political economy (the free-market doctrines of Smith, Ricardo, Mill). The Canadian debates over the usury laws are very interesting because they pitted region against region and net debtor against net creditor. The anti-Semitic comments made during these debates were also interesting. Another fascinating aspect of this debate were its implications for Anglo-Canadian relations.

In the 1860s, there was a long campaign in the 1860s to re-impose some sort of statutory limits of usury. This campaign began before the start of the Civil War in the United States: in the 1860s, an ultramontanist Catholic politician proposed making charging more than six percent usury a criminal offence punishable with a term in prison. The dislocations caused by the Civil War in the United States and the cancellation of the Reciprocity Treaty lent impetus to the demand for a usury law.

After 1867, the politics of usury in Ontario and Quebec became wrapped up in the question of how the pre-Confederation financial laws of the provinces should be harmonized. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, it should be pointed out, still had fairly strict usury laws.

In 1870, Sir Francis Hincks, Macdonald’s Minister of Finance, proposed a law that would have made 8% the maximum rate of interest in all provinces. This bill was defeated due to an unholy alliance of MPs who thought it was too permissive and those who thought it was an undue abridgement of freedom of contract. The Monetary Times, a Toronto publication, published this editorial on the subject.

[Toronto] Monetary Times, 6 May 1870, “Uniformity of Laws: Usury” p. 596

“The usury question has been disposed of for the Session; but there is much reason to fear that like Sir John Macdonald’s apprehension of the Fenian difficulty recurring, it will continue to crop up from time to time. It is very desirable that the nuisance should be abated, and that investors, especially those who live outside of the Dominion, should not have their minds periodically disturbed on the subject, that the law should be considered settled, and not liable to frequent alteration. This condition can be fulfilled only by the usury laws being in complete harmony with public opinion. Bu the opinion of the several Provinces cannot, we fear, during this generation, ever be harmonized. The differences are radical and fundamental, having their seat deep in prejudices derived from religious authority on one side and enlightened economic principles on the other. Ontario has a very decided conviction on the subject; she is fully convinced that the rate of interest should be allowed to regulate itself. Quebec, considered in the aggregate, has, if possible, a more decided opinion on the subject. She places the bills of the Pope above the most irrefragable arguments of Bentham and the whole body of the economists…. when the legislator takes his stand on religious authority, he shuts his ears to argument; it is with him not a question of logic, but of authority.”

Dead Prime Ministers, the Politics of Nostalgia, and Lucky Jim

20 03 2010

In other posts, I have spoken about the opening of a new think tank in Ottawa called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. The institute’s website suggests that it favours a return to Canada’s “founding values” and praises Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first post-Confederation Prime Minister.  I said that the first policy paper it produced was plausible but that the name of the institute is inappropriate for an organization that wants to publish recommendations in such areas as immigration and Native policy. Macdonald’s governments imposed some racist policies, although I suspect that the institute’s creators were not aware of this when they choose the name. Most Canadians  remember Macdonald as just a jovial drunk.

Sir John A. Macdonald, 1883
Image from Library and Archives Canada

Anyway, this got me thinking about the ways in which the social memory of Macdonald and other early Canadian Prime Ministers continues to be used in Canada today.  Selective social memory is an interesting topic. David Orchard, a onetime candidate for the leadership of the PC party, continues to venerate Macdonald. In the Fight for Canada: Four Centuries of Resistance to American Expansionism, Mr Orchard pays plenty of attention to Macdonald, as well as the famous free trade elections of 1891, 1911 and 1988 and Avro Arrow. Mr Orchard uses the social memory of Macdonald to lend credence to his own protectionist ideas. I suppose he needs all the ammunition he can get, since the overwhelming majority of academic economists support free trade. Economists differ on many issues, but this is something on which they agree.


Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appears to venerate Wilfrid Laurier.  In 2008, he wrote this statement about Laurier for an essentially celebratory website called

“He was close to a secular saint in our household.  As a young man, my father, Wellie, had shaken Laurier’s hand – an experience he cherished for the rest of his long life,  For me, a young boy growing up in rural Quebec, a unilingual francophone growing up in a country whose power structure was decidedly – and almost uniquely English-speaking – Laurier was an inspiration and ideal,  Much in the same way that the election of Barack Obama is inspiring all young children to dream today of exciting and unlimited opportunities, Laurier, a rural francophone, who rose to lead an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon Canadian society, was an example to me… Laurier truly believed in the promise of Canada, and he inspired Canadians to make that promise a reality by calling on them to look beyond their particular region, language, or religion. Laurier believed that Canadian unity could be built on diversity, rather than sameness… From 1993 to 2003, the desk in my office on Parliament Hill was Laurier’s own. His portrait hung on the wall. I often found myself wondering, when facing the difficult questions of the day, how to apply his lessons and wisdom. Many of Laurier’s ideas remain as relevant as ever to today’s politics. His wisdom, now a century old, is surprisingly modern.” Chrétien went on to praise Laurier’s belief in “liberalized trade” and efforts “to bring down the walls and fences of protectionism.  He understood that Canada’s true economic promise could only be achieved by opening itself to the world”. Chrétien also extolled Laurier for being “a fierce and courageous advocate of Canadian independence.  For a young country, still very much in the shadow of the British Empire, that was a daunting and audacious stance,  In his time many – if not most – English-speaking Canadians felt themselves more British than Canadian. But Laurier resisted attempts, both at home and abroad, to weave Canada ever more tightly with the Empire.   He put it simply, clearly, unmistakably: ‘Canada first, Canada last, Canada always’ “. Chrétien concludes that “Laurier imagined Canada as a strong, independent country whose voice would be heard on the international stage, and the first modern nation to celebrate diversity, tolerance, and generosity. He built a country in this image through his four terms as prime minister.”

Mr Chrétien’s sentiments are fine indeed, although Laurier’s belief in trade liberalization and Canadian nationalism was only intermittently in evidence. Mr Chrétien’s belief in open immigration is commendable. I note that it was left to one of his successors to issue a formal apology for the Chinese Head Tax.

Robert Borden with Winston Churchill

Robert Borden was a very complex figure, a man who embodies many of contradictions embedded in the words “Progressive Conservative”.  It is therefore somewhat disturbing that political extremists in Canada have adopted Borden as a hero because they admire that racist immigration policies that Borden and most other politicians in Canada (and indeed, the United States as well) supported in the early twentieth century. However, I can understand why they might admire Borden, although I have found evidence in my own research in Borden’s correspondence that Borden was somewhat less racist in thought than his public deeds might indicate. (Part of this research was published in an article in JICH). Anyway, the video I’ve posted below is not for viewing at work (or right before dinner).

As I said in a recent post on nostalgianomics, I have very little time for nostalgia. Some types of nostalgia are essentially benign (e.g., old men admiring vintage cars). However, when nostalgia is translated into the political realm, things are different. The politics of nostalgia are good for neither the discipline of history nor present-day politics. Invoking the memory of past glorious accomplishments, historical heroes, or alleged “golden ages”  really serves no useful purpose. The serious study of history is a powerful tool for making decisions about public policy. But pining for an idealized past is not helpful.

Whenever I see the politics of nostalgia in action, I think of the great comic novel Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The novel follows the exploits of a very junior historian at a small British university in the early 1950s. Jim Dixon is asked by his superiors to give a lecture that is an annual event in the history department. Local dignitaries will be in attendance. The central character has been instructed by the more senior historians to speak on the theme of Merrie England. He is supposed to argue that life in England before the Industrial Revolution was blissful and idyllic. Professor Welch tells Lucky Jim that this talk will determine whether his job at the university will be made permanent. For better or worse, the protagonist gets very drunk and delivers a rambling lecture in which he attacks the senior faculty and the thesis he is supposed to argue. He declares that life before the Industrial Revolution was bloody awful for most people and that it is only the “homemade pottery crowd” who think otherwise.

I share Jim Dixon’s sentiments.  I’m damn glad that I was born when I was and that I grew up in an age with Thai restaurants, antibiotics, inexpensive air travel, multiculturalism, cheap toasters from China, and universal healthcare. It’s just common sense!