Victoria gave Sir John A. his third political life

With calls to remove statues of controversial figures such as Sir John A. Macdonald, the University of Victoria is putting on a series of lectures about the historical characters in the news.

Four historians will present brief “warts and all” biographies of four historical figures in the news: John A. Macdonald, Joseph W. Trutch, Matthew Baillie Begbie and James Douglas and put them in their historical context to help inform public discussion. Each talk will be followed by a discussion on such questions as “how should we remember these characters and their contexts?” and/or “to commemorate or not commemorate?”

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The first is P.E. Bryden’s discussion of Macdonald on May 9. All talks will take place in Council Chambers, City Hall, 1 Centennial Square, Victoria, 7-8:30 p.m.

John A. Macdonald — Scotsman, lawyer, drinker, colonial politician, Canada’s first prime minister and briefly MP for Victoria — was no stranger to scandal. In fact, his life was shaped by controversies big and small, and it appears that the same is true for his legacy.

With current proposals to remove his name from schools and book prizes, and his statue from public spaces, it seems clear that scandal has followed Macdonald deep into the grave. In Victoria, in fact, even Macdonald’s very presence as an MP owes much to scandal. As another swirls around his likeness, it is useful to re-examine how scandals shaped his world and ours, both in the 19th century and today.

Macdonald was always ambitious. He arrived in Kingston from Glasgow at the age of five. Ten years later, he was articling for a law firm. Over the next 15 years, he established a career as a reasonably successful “corporate” lawyer. His clients included leading Kingston brewers and distillers, and the local banks. They also, occasionally, included “lost causes,” as in the case of his defence of one of the leaders of the Rebellion of 1837. Mostly, however, he was interested in the inner workings of the colonial business world. And he was interested in making money.

He served on the boards of a dozen or more Kingston-area firms, which meant he had a passing familiarity with the insurance industry, transportation companies and utilities. He speculated on land in Kingston, in Guelph and in downtown Toronto itself.

His business interests were varied and far-flung, and not always successful. He lost money when the Bank of Upper Canada failed in the 1860s, and his interconnected business dealings occasionally left him in a “muddled and perilous state,” according to historian J. K. Johnson, “but he always managed to extricate himself.” In his business career, then, it seems that he managed to keep one step ahead of outright scandal, even as creditors knocked on his door.

His interests pointed toward public office. He was an alderman in Kingston in the mid-1840s, then shifted to colonial politics in the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada, representing Kingston, and moved quickly into a leadership position. He was always a Conservative.

In politics, as in business, he was wily and, occasionally, underhanded. He was especially well-known for his insistence that voters be given only two choices at the polls — us or them.

If too many Conservatives were vying for the same position, Macdonald urged his supporters to narrow the field. When that proved difficult, Macdonald was not above buying off the weakest of the candidates, arguing that “desperate cases require desperate remedies.” The results sometimes caused local scandals, and certainly wounded pride, but for Macdonald the ends justified the means.

The man who had speculated on land in the 1840s and 1850s speculated on a new nation in the 1860s. Indeed, speculation came to characterize his political career as much as it had Macdonald’s business career. Like many in the 19th century, he dreamed of railways, an industry in which companies were created for the sole purpose of taking investments (from both individuals and, more lucratively, governments) and funnelling them into the hands of the railway promoters. It was a bit of a shell game.

It is not surprising, then, that scandals rocked the railway world throughout North America, prompting judicial inquiries and criminal charges and leaving political lives in ruins. Young Canada proved itself the equal of the much more mature United States when it came to railway scandal.

In his first term as prime minister, Macdonald employed a trick that he had perhaps used in business: He took money from a railway promoter on the promise of later favours. The promoter was Montrealer Hugh Allan, and the money he took funded a number of campaigns in the 1872 election. The problem arose the following year, when the Liberals got wind of the secret deal. The Pacific Scandal, as it was known, was Macdonald’s downfall.

Forced to resign as prime minister, his career was in tatters. So, too, were the promises he had made to British Columbia. The Terms of Union had included a guarantee that work would begin on a transnational railway within two years, and would stretch toward a terminus in Esquimalt, but the new Liberal prime minister Alexander Mackenzie was convinced that it was “a bargain made to be broke.”

The Pacific Scandal thus not only sullied the first decade of government in Canada, illustrating the graft on which the new nation was perilously perched, but it also threw British Columbia’s inclusion into question. The leaders were corrupt, and the railway unbuildable. Macdonald disappeared into a deep depression, drinking heavily, but remaining on as leader of the Opposition.

From there, he concocted a second act. From Opposition, Macdonald and the Conservatives proposed a tariff, a completed railway, and a heightened emphasis on immigration; the collection of policies would together be called “the National Policy,” and it would save both Canada and Macdonald.

Macdonald campaigned for more than a year on the ideas, explaining them at picnics and small gatherings in central Canada. The effort achieved both the impossible — a majority for the Conservatives in the 1878 election — and the unexpected. Macdonald lost his own seat in Kingston.

Byelections were quickly orchestrated in a Manitoba riding and in Victoria; despite never having visited either, Macdonald won in both. He chose to represent Victoria. As the prime minister of a nation that now stretched across the continent, and dedicated to the implementation of a “National Policy,” representing, even figuratively, one of the most westerly ridings carried great symbolic power.

British Columbians had been outraged by the lack of action by the Mackenzie government. A mediated decision about railways reached by colonial secretary Lord Carnarvon that required both the completion of the Island E&N Railway and the completion of the transnational railway quickly became a line in the sand for British Columbians. In the 1878 provincial election, the Island returned 10 candidates who rallied under a “Carnarvon Terms or Separation” banner, returned premier George Anthony Walkem to office, and immediately passed a secession petition that was sent to Queen Victoria.

Macdonald’s arrival — even figuratively — into the volatile British Columbia political environment served as a calming influence. The petition did not reach London until after Macdonald’s win in Victoria, and slipped from public view. No reference was made to secession in the speech from the throne at the opening of the House in 1879. Macdonald’s tenure in Victoria ensured Walkem’s government a direct line to Ottawa, and the decision to sign railway contracts at least as far as the mainland went some distance to assuaging British Columbia’s anger with the federal government.

Macdonald’s sojourn in Victoria owed everything to railway scandals. The Pacific Scandal had ousted him from the prime minister’s office in the first place, throwing B.C.’s status in Confederation into jeopardy and eliminating the possibility of a Vancouver Island terminus. A “safe” seat in Victoria gave Macdonald the opportunity to placate a fractious province.

It gave him a perch from which to lull a nation into forgetting the election scandal, and from which he could build his third act. It kept him in office long enough to stir up more controversies — over land that the railway traversed, and the manner in which it was cleared, as well as the more mundane scandals of electoral politics — that would reverberate well into the 21st century.

P.E. Bryden, PhD, is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Victoria.

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