Pulvis et Umbra Sumus
A good man cannot be a great man. However, the definition of “great” changes fluidly through time. The lasting representations of a historical figure’s eminence are the physical objects that remain through time, space, and a changing historical zeitgeist. Similarly, the use of JAM’s name and likeness in the public sphere is a lasting representation of his work in the creation of the Dominion of Canada, and his legacy as the first Prime Minister of Canada. His administrations set the basis for Canadian independence, and united Canada from coast to coast. Yet in review, parts of his legislation contrast with our modern-day values, leading some to believe that he is unworthy to remain in the public realm. Although many view John A. Macdonald as the enlightened founding father of Canadian confederacy, others see him in a darker light, campaigning to remove his name and likeness from public places. However, considering his role in centralizing the Canadian Government and creating the CPR, Macdonald’s name and likeness should continue to be used in the public sphere.
JAM enacted a system in which there would be a central government with authority over the provincial governments, creating the basis for a strong and unified Canada. In his speech in the Confederation debates, Macdonald proposed a scheme where “[they] thereby strengthen the Central Parliament, and make the Confederation one people and one government, instead of five peoples and five governments, with merely a point of authority connecting us to a limited and insufficient extent.” (Macdonald, 1865) His declaration shows how the centralization of Canadian government unites the values of the country, setting the stage for a system Canada uses today. Creating a central political identity for Canadians shifted perception and further spread the message of “one people and one government” amongst the previously disconnected groups. Now, the young Confederation was united in name but needed a lifeline upon which to sustain itself: a railway that traveled from coast to coast
Critics declare that Macdonald’s treatment of Indigenous peoples taints his legacy, and makes him unworthy of representation in the public sphere of today. However, settlement of Western Canada and construction of the CPR was imperative at the time. Macdonald came into and held power because he prioritized and unified the politically dominant peoples against the threat of American imperialism. His fear is evident in a line from his Parliament speech in which he predicts that without the CPR, “people would gradually see that the colonies would gradually be severed from each other; that we should become a bundle of sticks, as we were before, without a binding cord, and that we should fall, helpless, powerless, and aimless, into the hands of the neighbouring Republic” (Macdonald, 1881). He set an early basis for Canadian identity as away from the shadow of America, and independence away from the bloody American Revolution. Macdonald’s ideal for Canadian unity is one that has lasted through the ages, until the present.
John A. Macdonald politically and socially united Canadians through a centralized government and sea-to-sea railway line; His legislation hurt and isolated Indigenous communities. Macdonald’s legacy remains even now, and is represented in everyday life. When one considers Macdonald’s work in unifying Canada and the long-term effects of his centralized government system, it is clear that he is a man of great historical significance that should stay in the public sphere. The theory of historical relativism makes it difficult to state an objective idea of “truth”, considering any interpretation is affected by the current values and ideals. Does a fleeting moment of moral superiority enable us to strike a Founding Father out of the public realm? Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy has shaped and defined what it means to be Canadian; creating a unity that surpasses shadow.