Two hundred years ago, two men were born who would grow up to be the founders of our country. Now we celebrate the 200th anniversary of their birth, though somewhat unequally considering how much each actually did.
Sir George-Étienne Cartier celebrated his 200th birthday late last year, and his partner (and drinking buddy), Sir John Alexander Macdonald, celebrated his 200th on January 11. While both made news across the country, it was rather subdued. Of course it is hard to get aroused concerning the 200th birthdays of two stuffy old politicians who fought no great wars or rebellions, and whose political creation was brought about (with the exception of Manitoba) through meetings profuse with alcohol ($13,000 worth of champagne at the Charlottetown Conference for example).
It is Macdonald who famously serves as our Founder, which allows him extensive commemorations for his 200th including a special toonie, on top of his dashing visage on our ten dollar bill. Cartier receives no such commemorations despite being Macdonald’s Co-Premier during the existence of The United Province of Canada and Acting Prime Minister of Canada when Sir John A. was incapacitated, intoxicated, or simply not “in”.
Cartier, Macdonald, and Brown (the Grit leader) ought to be remembered together, although the Conservatives would like us to believe that Macdonald alone led Canada’s “Founding Party”, the Conservative Party, which single-handedly made Canada a reality, this was not the case. A cultural coalition of Anglophones and French Canadians, hand-in-hand with a political coalition of Conservatives, Liberal-Conservatives, Grits, and Rouges made Canada a reality. Macdonald did a lot, but so did other men like Cartier. So why does Macdonald get all the credit?
Perhaps Prime Minister Harper’s most-recent remarks on Macdonald (the longest-serving Conservative Prime Minister in Canadian history) give a clue as to why we are so quick to celebrate the whisky-soaked chieftain as opposed to the eloquent, hardworking Cartier. Harper said of Macdonald that he did great things yet was “an ordinary man of whom little was expected.” Cartier came from a wealthy French-Canadian family – great things were expected of him (talk about pressure). Macdonald was born in a slum in Glasgow, and his family moved to Canada when he was only one year old, where his father continually failed at business. Although he studied hard, Macdonald never went to university and was eventually apprenticed to a lawyer to learn the trade, starting his road to politics. Lawyers could find work back then, but it wasn’t steady, and they moved around a great deal.
Thus perhaps we put Macdonald first because his story seems more “Canadian” – an individual up against the odds, of whom little is expected, but great things come. It certainly makes Macdonald more attractive as an icon when 40% of French Canadians have labelled Cartier a traitor; though that Macdonald’s story is truly Canadian is a far more poetic explanation.
In a speech in Kingston this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (another man from humble beginnings) couldn’t resist a partisan jab citing that Justin Trudeau is unready to govern, being too young, too inexperienced, etc. Is it not ironic that he says these things about Justin Trudeau, when centuries ago much the same was said of Macdonald? Sir John A. might not have had a famous name, but his background would certainly have painted him as an “upstart” among the political class at the time. Harper confirmed (remember) that Macdonald was underestimated.
Is it not possible our Prime Minster is underestimating Trudeau now?