In praise of our founding father

Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday Sir John A.! Happy Birthday to you!

OK, technically it's on Sunday. But perhaps you were not aware of it since we don't tend to celebrate him, as the Americans do George Washington, with a holiday, public spectacles or even a mattress sale.

It's curious given the high-volume ersatz patriotism pumped out by our elite. Years ago I read Desmond Morton's 1982 A Short History of Canada and was very much struck by its ending: "Beneath their shell of self-deprecation and cynicism, Canadians are as proud of their land as any people on Earth. Make no mistake about it." The academic doth protest too much, methinks. At any rate, you wouldn't have to issue such a warning about Americans.

Mind you, Sir John A. is no George Washington. Forget cherry trees; Washington really was a man of great accomplishments and character who towers over posterity. Sir John A. was, well, a lovable rogue who lurched toward it. If I were to fail to describe him properly because I succumbed to intoxication, then rescued my reputation with a clever quip, I would be true to the spirit of the man. Whereas to follow in Washington's footsteps ... really, no method suggests itself. At best I might conduct myself in such a manner as not to incur his displeasure.

Is it possible we don't want to remember Macdonald because we're embarrassed? Unlikely, since we like being ashamed of our history. We can't get enough of the Acadian Deportation (the federal government even designated a day to wallow in it, July 28), so we should be able to face "the man who made us" being a drunken schemer. Unless something in our national mythology blurs our vision of our past.

Last April Stéphane Dion told the international Progressive Governance Conference, "Early in Canada's history, Canadians realized that in order to live in peace in our huge, magnificent, but rough country, people and communities from different religious, linguistic and historical backgrounds would have to learn to accept each others' differences. For this purpose, they invented novel institutions ... The Liberal Party of Canada is the political expression of this desire."

This is revealingly sanctimonious gooblahoy. For one thing, our institutions were not novel. They were deliberately modeled on those of Britain except for being federal, in which we were following the Americans. Yet the conception of Canada as growing out of a prematurely postmodern vision may make it intolerable to accept that in many important ways this country was put together on a bargain with Quebec that deliberately elbowed aside considerations of principle. Perhaps unnecessarily; the U.S. was a huge, magnificent but rough country assembled out of very diverse communities and instead of the 18th-century equivalent of duct tape they overcame virtually every problem by the careful and articulate application of political philosophy. (The one area where they made a bargain instead of a principled stand, slavery, was their most appalling failure.)

I would have thought there were things to celebrate about Sir John A. for almost everyone. Even his constitutional settlement fits the bill: for the left, it foiled American expansion; for nationalists it accommodated Quebec by entrenching federalism to protect provincial powers; for the right it was deliberately and generally successfully based on the British model.

OK, Macdonald is no Washington or Alfred the Great. But he set out to create Canada and succeeded; he was also a man of remarkable resilience who largely overcame his personal demons, won eight majority governments, gave loving care to handicapped family members and despite scandals drove the national railway to completion. In many of his expedients there was, if not statesmanship, a rough and serviceable wisdom.

And he said one thing about Confederation worth carving in stone: "We will enjoy here that which is the great test of constitutional freedom -- we will have the rights of the minority respected. In all countries the rights of the majority take care of themselves, but it is only in countries like England, enjoying constitutional liberty, and safe from the tyranny of a single despot or of an unbridled democracy, that the rights of minorities are regarded."

If we don't honour him it can't hurt him now. But ignoring his birthday invites the conclusion that we are not proud of him. Good, bad, sometimes ugly, Sir John A. remains the man who made Canada. Surely we can muster one cheer and a firecracker for his birthday on Sunday.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]