Sir John cements the Cdn. bonds

Back in the prime minister’s office, Macdonald breathed life into his national vision. True to his campaign promise, he increased tariffs on imported American goods, which risked retaliation in the form of a prohibitive duty on the export of Canadian lumber. But it was the building of the transcontinental railroad that occupied most of his attention: “Until this great work is completed . . . we have as much interest in British Columbia as in Australia, and no more. The railway once finished, we become one great united country with a large interprovincial trade and a common interest.”

The railway was critical to increasing Canada’s population, strengthening its economy, and enhancing its ability to sustain itself against American incursions. Macdonald knew that Canada could not take on a project of such magnitude on its own and sought loan guarantees from the British government.

With the levers of power at his disposal, Macdonald put the might of patronage to work. He would not make appointments prior to an election, thus encouraging his campaign staff to “work harder for your return.” When Toronto Tories grumbled about the lack of jobs coming their way, Macdonald retorted, “As soon as Toronto returns Conservative members, it will get Conservative appointments.” Macdonald eagerly dished out patronage jobs, although he was frustrated that there were not enough to satisfy his party. “Five years’ opposition have made our friends rather hungry and they are worrying me about office, but the departments have all been crammed by the Grits so that it will be sometime before there will be any vacancies.” Macdonald dreamed of a more independent and assertive Canada, but he remained committed to Great Britain. Macdonald was prepared for the time being to have the British Empire represent Canada to the world, hoping “to stave off for a very long time to come any wish on the part of Canada for a separate set of representatives in foreign countries.” The prerequisite to an independent voice for Canada on the international stage was economic and military self-sufficiency. “The sooner the Dominion is treated as an auxiliary power rather than a dependency, the sooner will it assume all the responsibilities of the position including the settlement of its contribution to the defence of the Empire whenever and wherever assailed.”

And Canada was coming of age. In 1879, Macdonald’s former finance minister, Alexander Galt, persuasively argued the case for Canada to the Colonial office: “Canada has ceased to occupy the position of an ordinary possession of the Crown. She exists in the form of a powerful central government, having already no less than seven subordinate local executive and legislative systems, soon to be largely augmented by the development of vast regions lying between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains.”

Macdonald succeeded in establishing semi-diplomatic standing between Canada and Great Britain, which bypassed, to a degree, the representatives of the Colonial Office stationed in Ottawa. However, the rank of Canada’s emissary to Britain was to be a representative with limited authority. A British dispatch reported of the representative, “His position would necessarily be more analogous to that of an officer in the Home Service than to that of a minister at a foreign court.” In the end, the title for Canada’s representative to Great Britain was given the lofty and noble title “High Commissioner for Canada in London.” Alexander Galt was its first holder.

Great Britain did not see Canada as an independent nation with the right to have its views represented directly on the world stage. It was understood that if Canada was threatened, Great Britain would come to its defence. Consequently, in the view of the British government, Great Britain should decide Canada’s foreign policy. The foreign policy of Great Britain was the foreign policy of all of its colonies.

Besieged with pressing domestic and international issues, at age sixty-five Macdonald told his friends, “It is better to wear out than to rust out,” but he urged his Cabinet to consider the issue of his succession on March 25, 1880. The Cabinet, however, would not let him go. Then again, Macdonald was not very serious about leaving. If he was addicted to anything, it was politics. He was passionate about the child he had created—Canada—and like an obsessed parent, he could not let go.

By 1879, due perhaps to Macdonald’s protectionist policies, the economy had begun to strengthen. In the eyes of the nation, Macdonald’s policies had been vindicated. Canada was growing again and was open for immigration. Macdonald’s Conservatives believed in immigration and the railway was essential to Canada’s growth and independence.

On October 21, 1880, the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railroad was signed. It called for 1,900 miles of railroad between Callander, Ontario and Kamloops, B.C. Sir Hugh Allan was out and George Stephen was in as the railway’s president. Businessman Donald Smith, whom Macdonald once called “the biggest liar I ever saw,” was also involved. The railway was to be financed with British money, not American. Despite Macdonald’s protectionist and nationalist policies, the terms of the contract stated that all materials used for the construction of the railway were to be imported duty-free. The consortium was exempt from taxes and could build whatever branches off the main rail line they chose. However, the railway contract, which included a subsidy of $26 million and a land grant of 25 million acres, would be profitable only if thousands of settlers took up the offers and purchased the land the railway had for sale.

While it made economic sense to divert the rail line south of the border, Macdonald would have none of it. Every single inch of the transcontinental railroad would have to go through Canada. To protect the economic viability of the all-Canadian routes, Canadian Pacific was given a monopoly over all rail traffic in Canada.

Liberals opposed the railway contract and its monopolistic provisions. Blake said it was irresponsible for the government to sanction a rail line through the scrub country north of Lake Superior, calling it a “criminal absurdity of nationalism.” Common sense, the Liberal leader suggested, was to go west through American territory. Macdonald scoffed at the notion, suggesting that the Liberals had American money and American media on their side.

When a competing bid surfaced after the Canadian Pacific deal had been arranged, Macdonald saw it as a Liberal-concocted American-friendly sham.

Mr. Speaker the whole thing is an attempt to destroy the Pacific Railway. I can trust to the intelligence of this House, and the patriotism of this country, I can trust not only to the patriotism but to the common sense of this country, to carry out an arrangement which will give us all we want, which will satisfy all the loyal, legitimate aspirations, which will give us a great, a united, a rich, an improving, a developing Canada, instead of making us tributary to American laws, to American railways, to American bondage, to American tools, to America’s freights, to all the little tricks and big tricks that American railways are addicted to for the purpose of destroying our road.

 When the bill to create the railway company passed in the House of Commons on February 1, 1881, Alexander Morris, one of the men who had conceived of Confederation, and who helped bring Macdonald and Brown together, wrote to Macdonald: “I write to congratulate you on the second crowning triumph of your more recent life, second only to that of Confederation. You have now created a link to bind the provinces indissolubly together, and to give us a future and a British nationality.”

The election of 1882 on June 20 changed little in the composition of the House of Commons. Importantly, it confirmed the nation had indeed forgiven the Tories for the Pacific Scandal. Macdonald won support in all provinces, with a particularly strong showing in Québec, taking 52 of 65 seats. It was the first election for the new Liberal leader Edward Blake who, prior to Stéphane Dion, has the distinction of being the only official Liberal leader never to have served as prime minister.

It was inevitable that provincial governments seeking to assert their authority would clash with Macdonald’s vision of a strong central government. With residual powers, Macdonald believed he held the upper hand, stating, “We are not half a dozen provinces. We are one great Dominion.” He saw provincial lieutenant governors of the provinces as “officers of the Dominion.” Nonetheless, he was not prepared to usurp the provinces in all respects. When Macdonald’s French ministers wanted the Liberal-friendly lieutenant governor of Québec sacked, Macdonald resisted, telling the governor general that, “It was impossible to make Frenchmen understand constitutional government.”

Macdonald feared Ontario was becoming too large and too powerful. The federal and Ontario governments clashed over a number of issues, notably Ontario’s jurisdiction over liquor licenses. The federal government argued that its Temperance Act and residual powers trumped Ontario’s attempts to regulate this field of activity. Ultimately, Ontario’s legislation was upheld by the courts and other authorities.

The federal government’s hand in sorting out jurisdictional matters was supported by its power of disallowance, a power that had proved problematic over the course of Macdonald’s career as prime minister. Consistent with its monarchical beginnings, the British North America Act (section 55) requires royal Assent to any legislation passed by both houses of Parliament. (This “Imperial power of disallowance” has been used only once, in 1873. In 1930, it was agreed at an Imperial Conference that the power would never be used again.)

Another power of disallowance, articulated in section 90 of the British North America Act, gave the federal government the power to invalidate provincial legislation within one year of its enactment. As Father of Confederation and former prime minister Alexander Mackenzie noted, it was crucial that the federal government “have a control over the proceedings of the local legislatures to a certain extent ...[as] the want of this power was a great source of weakness in the United States.” This power was widely supported in pre-Confederation discussions by both the Colonial Office and Canadian politicians, although opponents such as member of Parliament Philip Moore, feared that “the veto power . . . if exercised frequently, would be almost certain to cause difficulty between the local and general governments.”

Unlike the Imperial power of disallowance, the federal power of disallowance over the provinces has been used on more than 100 occasions. Macdonald used the power 29 times between 1867 and 1881, mostly to void provincial legislation that reached into areas of federal jurisdiction. When pressed to reject New Brunswick legislation on nondenominational and mandatory schooling, Macdonald refused, arguing that because the legislation did not violate the BNA Act he had no right to intervene; that it would be a “. . . violent wrench of the Constitution.” During this time, Macdonald set himself up as a champion of provincial rights, but this would soon change.

In the 1880s, Macdonald set his principles aside and began to use disallowance power in an attempt to weaken the more powerful provinces, and as a partisan tool. When Ontario sought to expand its boundaries to the north and northwest, and then passed laws to regulate the use of rivers and streams, Macdonald was incensed at Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat, whom he once referred to as “a little tyrant.”

Macdonald tired of the fight with provinces. The economy, which had been strong in 1881–82, weakened in 1883. Immigration slowed. The growing season for farmers was poor. The CPR had run out of money and needed government guarantees to survive. Some banks holding railway loans were on the edge of bankruptcy. Some provincial leaders were threatening succession. The country was on the financial brink. In despair, Macdonald told a friend, “I have nearly made up my mind to get out of office. This is a good time for it and I’m breaking down. I can’t conceal this for myself, perhaps not from my friends.”

The Liberals opposed government support for the railway. Blake argued that the ill-conceived venture was underfinanced, monopolistic, and poorly designed. His arguments were not without foundation. Project management was indeed poor and the final price tag came in at double the original budget. Macdonald had difficulty keeping his own caucus together on the railway, with Québec MPs demanding support for their province in exchange for their votes on the railway. In frustration, Macdonald mused whether the French in Canada could ever be satisfied: “I had to circumvent a rather ignoble plot to cause a stampede of my French friends, by offering them, for their semi-insolvent province, large pecuniary aid. The plot failed, but this combination of the French to force the hand of the government of the day is a standing menace to Confederation.”

As if Macdonald needed more trouble, in early July 1884 Louis Riel slipped back into Canada from the United States. Macdonald issued orders to keep Riel under close observation: “I don’t attach much importance to these plots but my experience of the Fenian business has taught me that one should never disbelieve the evidence of plots or intended raids merely because they are foolish and certain to fail ...One cannot foresee what they ...under Riel’s advice, may do.”

Nevertheless, Macdonald wanted to address the legitimate needs of the Métis in a responsible manner. The Manitoba Act (1870) set aside 1.4 million acres of land for the Métis. That worked out to 240 acres of land for each child, and 160 acres of negotiable scrip to the head of each Métis family. Macdonald knew the dangers of passing out scrip: “The scrip is sold for a song to the sharks and spent in whiskey and this we desire above all things to avoid.”

But political agitation from the Métis was enormous and Macdonald relented in an uncharacteristic moment of weakness. In the House of Commons, Macdonald outlined his fear: “I do not hesitate to say that I did it with the greatest reluctance. I do not easily yield if there is a better course open; but at the last moment I yielded and I said: well for God’s sake, let them have the scrip; they will either drink it or waste it or sell it; but let us have peace.”

Macdonald was prepared to be open-minded and even generous with Riel. He wrote to the governor general. “There is, I think, nothing to be feared from Riel. In his answer to the invitation sent to him, which was a temperate and unobjectionable paper, he spoke of some claims he had against the government. I presume these refer to his land claims, which he forfeited on conviction and banishment. I think we shall deal liberally with him and make him a good subject again.”

As expected, Riel made demands for his people to the Canadian government, amounting to some two million acres of land. But Riel also demanded benefits for himself: $100,000 and a job, and offered to end the turmoil if his personal demands were met. Macdonald reported to the House of Commons that Riel, “. . . came in for the purpose of attempting to extract money from the public purse. Of course, that could not be entertained for a moment.”

Whatever settlement might have been negotiated with Riel ended on March 26, 1885, when forces clashed at Duck Lake. Macdonald’s first response was all business. “This insurrection is a bad business but we must face it as best we may. . . . the first thing to be done is to localize the insurrection.” Macdonald sent in the military. Transporting the troops gave the cash-strapped railway its first real test.

Riel and his followers were defeated at Batoche in what could hardly rank as a significant military accomplishment because the outcome was never in doubt. But Riel’s surrender on May 15, 1885 was cause for celebration in Ottawa. Macdonald wrote to Tupper, “Canada as you will see is delirious with enthusiasm on the return of our volunteers. This has done more to weld the provinces into one nation than anything else could have done.”

The trial of Louis Riel on six counts of treason began on July 20, 1885. Riel’s counsel presented an insanity defence, which lasted all of one day, and which Riel himself rejected. The Chief Justice said, “he seems to have had in view, while professing to champion the interests of the Métis, the securing of pecuniary advantage for himself.” Six jurors of English and Protestant stock convicted him of treason and Judge Hugh Richardson handed down the sentence of death by hanging. One of the jurors later remarked that the conviction might easily have been connected with the murder of Thomas Scott.

Macdonald was unmoved by pleas for clemency for Riel from French Canada, writing to the governor general: “I don’t think that we should by a respite anticipate—and as it were court—the interference of the Judicial Committee.” In other words, Macdonald did not want his government to intervene in a judicial matter, hardly a surprising statement for an elected official.

However, just as the last spike was about to be driven on the national railway, a solitary moment of great triumph, Macdonald’s government was besieged by division in his party and in the country over the fate of Riel. In response, Macdonald launched an inquiry into the state of Riel’s mental condition. A commission of three doctors, two English and one French, was asked to report on Riel’s current mental state. In issuing instructions to the commission, Macdonald was very precise: “Remember that the jury have decided that he was sane when his treasons were committed, and at the time of his trial. . . . I need scarcely point out to you that the inquiry is not as to whether Riel is subject to illusions or delusions but whether he is so bereft of reason as not to know right from wrong and is not to be an accountable being.”

The report of the commission concluded that Riel was accountable for his actions. In a letter to Macdonald, one commissioner, Dr. Jukes, added that Riel was “a vain ambitious man, crafty and cunning, with powers in a marked degree to incite weak men to desperate deeds. He seeks his own aggrandizement, and in my opinion, if he can attain his own ends, will care little for his followers.” Dr. Lavell was of the same opinion. The French commissioner, Dr. F.X. Valade, disagreed: “I have come to the conclusions that he is not an accountable being, that he is unable to distinguish between wrong and right on political and religious subjects, which I consider well-marked typical forms of insanity under which he undoubtedly suffers, but on other points I believe him to be sensible and can distinguish right from wrong.”

At its meeting on Wednesday, November 11, the Cabinet confirmed that it would allow the verdict of the court to stand and would not pardon Riel or commute the sentence. In response, 19 Québec MPs telegraphed Macdonald to express their disapproval and disappointment.

In one of the more monumental underestimations in Canadian political history, Macdonald thought that the aftermath to the Riel execution would be short-lived: “He shall hang though every dog in Québec will bark in his favour.” Macdonald tried to reassure his French-Canadian supporters: “Keep calm resolute attitude—all will come right. . . . we are in for lively times in Québec, but I feel pretty confident that the excitement will die out.” Macdonald’s assessment was that a megalomaniac seeking financial gain for himself could hardly command a sustained following. Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885.

The reaction astonished Macdonald. As if he himself had convicted, sentenced, and pulled the lever of the gallows, Macdonald was referred to, particularly in Québec, as the prime minister of a “hangman’s government.” Riel was cast as a Christian martyr, sacrificed to Orange fanaticism. Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier inflamed the bitter feelings by claiming that had he lived on the banks of the Saskatchewan River, he would have taken up a rifle against the Canadian government. However, Laurier’s siding with Riel revealed a rift among Liberals, particularly between Laurier and his Ontario colleagues, who had no common ground with Riel. The Liberal predicament was similar to the one Macdonald faced: commute Riel’s sentence and face outrage in Ontario; allow the execution and face fury in Québec.

The Québec legislature took Riel’s side when the question of his execution came up for debate in May of 1886. The challenge of being both a French Canadian and a Conservative was overwhelming to most Quebecers. Giving expression to Québec resentment was a new political party, “le parti national.” Called by the Mail newspaper “the party of race and revenge,” it was the first political party formed along the lines of race. French Québec was distressed not just with the Conservatives, but also by being in Canada.

Macdonald’s trouble with national unity went further than Québec. Because of a weak economy, declining federal subsidies, and cutbacks in shipbuilding, the popular view among Nova Scotians was that they had made a mistake in joining Canada. On May 7, 1886, W.S. Fielding, the Liberal leader, proposed a resolution in the Nova Scotia legislature for the repeal of the Union and a referendum on the matter. The resolution passed with a clear majority. Macdonald interpreted Nova Scotia’s dissatisfaction as, once again, a plea for “better terms,” what he called blackmail.

Despite the distress in Nova Scotia and Québec, however, Macdonald once again set his sights on expansion. He now had his intercontinental railway, but Canada, in his view, was not whole. “The Dominion cannot be considered complete without Newfoundland. It has the key to our front door.”  This lock, however, he was unable to open.

A dispute with the united states over trade and fishing erupted in 1886 with the seizure of an American fishing schooner, the David J. Adams, from Digby Harbour in Nova Scotia. The boat entered Canadian waters to buy ice and bait. A recent federal law permitted entry only for the purpose of acquiring wood, water, shelter, and repairs, and “for no other purposes whatever.” It seems peculiar and excessively nationalistic to deny a foreigner the opportunity to give Canadians money for what they regularly sold, but such was the sentiment of the day.

The Americans were understandably outraged. The Colonial Office initially sided with the Americans and set aside the Canadian law, which represented a humiliating setback for the Canadian government in its quest for independence. However, not long after, Macdonald persuaded the Imperial Government to consent to the Canadian bill and commit the Royal Navy to protect the Canadian fisheries.

A Québec provincial election was scheduled for October 14, 1886, the first time since Riel’s execution that French-speaking voters would go to the polls. The provincial Conservatives lost the election—but barely—taking 29 of 65 seats. Macdonald realized that his ability to sustain a national coalition depended on keeping Conservative forces alive and vibrant in Québec. “The triumph of the Rouges over the corpse of Riel changes the aspect of affairs

...of the Dominion government completely. It will encourage the Grits and opposition generally; will dispirit our friends, and will, I fear, carry the country against us at the general election.”

This gloomy prediction was partly influenced by the strong hand that Liberal Premier Oliver Mowat had in Ontario. But if there was any consolation in Québec, it was that Conservatives remained numerous in the legislature. It was far from a rout.

In Manitoba, the provincial government opposed the railway monopoly given to Canadian Pacific. Macdonald held firm. He was not about to allow his rail line to bleed into the United States. When the Manitoba government rebelled and passed legislation in 1887 creating its own competing Red River Valley Railway, an incensed Macdonald thundered to its Lieutenant Governor James Cox Aikins: “Your bankrupt population at Winnipeg must be taught a lesson, even if some of them are brought down to trial at Toronto for sedition.” He elaborated on his frustration to his colleagues: “When you reflect on the legislature of 35 members, with a population of 110,000, coolly devoting a million of dollars to build a railway from Winnipeg to the frontier, between two lines owned by the CPR, running in the same direction, one on the east and the other on the west side of the Red River, when there is not enough business for one of the two existing lines, you can understand the recklessness of that body.”

Within two weeks of the bill being passed by the Manitoba Legislature, it was “disallowed” by the federal government.

By 1887, more than four years had passed since the last federal election. Macdonald was biding his time, waiting for both the reaction to Riel’s hanging and general provincial discontent to dissipate. But he could not avoid the inevitable forever, and the election was called for February 22, 1887.

Despite Macdonald’s early predictions of defeat, his party won 122 of 215 seats, earning support from all parts of the country. The Liberals picked up only eight seats nationwide over their tally in 1872. Surprisingly, Macdonald outpolled the Liberals in Québec. Quebecers, it seemed, expressed their disapproval in the provincial election, but spared Macdonald when the federal vote was taken. For generations to come, Macdonald would be blamed for the poor showing of Conservatives in Québec, yet his supposed affront to French Canada did not undermine his political career. Nonetheless, the Riel incident was something Liberals would exploit for political advantage for the next century.

Despite Macdonald’s and his government’s longevity, the situation in Canada looked gloomy. The editorial in the Mail newspaper on October 27, 1887 raised serious doubt about the future of Canada.

Our enormous debt, the determination of the people of the Northwest to break loose from trade and transportation restrictions in defiance of the federal authority; the exodus of population from the Northwest and the far larger stream pouring out of the older provinces; and threats of secession heard in the three Maritime provinces; the decline in our exports which are less today by five dollars per head of population than they were in 1873, although since then we have spent no less than $120 million of borrowed money in developing our resources; the gathering of the local premiers at Québec to devise ways and means of allaying provincial discontent and averting provincial bankruptcy—these, to go no further, are phenomena, which, if they presented themselves in any other country, young or old, we should regard as the forerunners of dissolution.

The basic question was whether Macdonald’s vision of the confederation of British colonies, designed in large measure to resist an enormous pull of the United States, could be sustained. Would Canada succeed as an independent nation? Was Canada a mistake?

Despite a desire by Macdonald and the colonial office for a strong central government, the provinces had been winning more battles than they lost with the federal government. And citizen allegiance was proving to be more provincial than federal. The size of the provinces, particularly after expansion in Québec and Ontario, added to their power.

Macdonald envisioned provinces of roughly equal population, but seemed helpless when confronted with boundary changes. If he could not stop Ontario from growing, he had to let Québec acquire new lands to maintain balance. Macdonald feared more from provincial boundary readjustment than the other threats to nationhood. “I have little doubt that a great portion of the vast region asked for by the two provinces will be capable of receiving and will receive a large population ...I look to the future in this matter . . . farther ahead perhaps than I should. But are we not founding a nation? Now just consider for yourself—what a country of millions lying between English Canada and the Atlantic will be.”

Macdonald’s battles with the provinces continued. In the fall of 1887 the new Québec premier Honoré Mercier announced his intention to call a conference of the provinces to consider “their financial and other relations” with the federal government. The provinces urged revocation of the federal power of disallowance and sought more money from the federal government. Macdonald scoffed at the conference. There was nothing in the Constitution that contemplated such an arrangement and he was not about to give it legitimacy. He would negotiate grievances only with individual provinces. Harper appears to be following Macdonald’s lead, and did not hold a full-scale first minister’s conference over his first term as prime minister.

Macdonald wanted to retire, however, and was constantly surveying his Cabinet for a successor. He also wanted his Cabinet take more of the load of governance. But whenever Macdonald challenged the Cabinet to develop policy and offer opinions it simply deferred to his judgment. In frustration, he remarked “now this acquiescence is flattering enough, but it does not help me.”

Nevertheless, Macdonald opposed what he saw as a North America centric vision for Canada. Liberals called for a commercial union and unrestricted reciprocity with the United States. To Macdonald, this was an unacceptable first step towards political integration. “It looks like sheer insanity (for Liberals) to propose practically to limit our foreign trade to the United States when there is such an immense opening for the development of our commerce with the rest of the world.”

A larger threat to Canada than a debate over foreign trade policy, however, was the cultural divisions within its own borders. Agitator D’Alton McCarthy, a former Tory MP, had been fomenting discord over the use of the French language in Ontario and the West. He wanted Canada to pursue a vision and policies that supported a single national identity: an English one. He helped persuade the government of Manitoba to abolish the French language in public schools. Not long after, the Northwest Territories followed suit. But the use of the French language in schools was a right guaranteed by the articles under which these provinces and territories joined Confederation, a right that had been fought for and won by Louis Riel and his followers at a time when the decline of French in the West seemed inevitable.

Macdonald foresaw the inevitable concentration of the French language in Québec and its gradual disappearance elsewhere in Canada. “The people of Québec . . . wisely, I think, desire to settle the lands as yet unoccupied in their province and to add to their influence in eastern Ontario. The consequence is that Manitoba and the Northwest Territories are becoming what British Columbia now is, wholly English—with English laws, English, or rather British, immigration, and, I may add, English prejudices.”

Macdonald’s French-speaking colleagues wanted him to fight for the hard-earned rights of their brethren living outside Québec. But his English-speaking colleagues disagreed. With a divided caucus, Macdonald had to walk a fine line, opting for local self-determination and mutual respect on issues of language. “There is no paramount race in this country; there is no conquered race in this country; we are all British subjects, and those who are not English are nonetheless British subjects on that account . . . we must take great care, Mr. Speaker, that while we are calming the agitation and soothing the agitated feelings of the people of Québec, we are not arousing the feelings of the free men of the northwest by passing a resolution which postpones for an indefinite time, it may be a long period, a question which we can see, from the resolution they have adopted, that they are greatly interested.”

When a Liberal member from Québec moved an amendment that abolition of language rights in the Northwest Territories was inappropriate, he was supported by every French-speaking member of Parliament and opposed by almost every English-speaking member. Parliament was divided not along the lines of party, but along the lines of race, English and French.

Macdonald offered an unconvincing pretense of national unity after the federal government allowed the Northwest Territories more autonomy on language laws. Macdonald had deluded himself into thinking that issues respecting the French language would go away: “Let us forget this cry, and we shall have our reward in seeing this unfortunate fire, which has been kindled from so small a spark, extinguished forever, and we shall go on, as we have been going on since 1867, as one people.”

Having responded to problems in the Northwest Territories, Macdonald was confronted with new challenges in Manitoba. In 1890, the Manitoba Legislature unilaterally abolished legal guarantees for the use of the French language in the public school system. The federal government was called upon to disallow the legislation. As in the NorthWest, Macdonald was opposed to political intervention by the federal government, favouring a local resolution to the issue. Macdonald washed his hands of the matter in this letter to a French language resident of Manitoba: “I am strongly of [the] opinion that the only mode by which the separate school question can be satisfactorily settled in your province is by an open appeal to the courts.” The will of the majority, the letter suggests, was stronger than the provisions of the Constitution of the land.

As Macdonald faced domestic challenges, he still sought a better deal for Canada abroad. Increasingly, Canada was frustrated at being represented in the United States by a diplomat from Great Britain. Charles Tupper wrote to Macdonald urging him to take a stand on the matter.

In 1890, Macdonald was 75 and not up for many more battles with Britain or the United States. But despite his age, he did indeed have one more election to fight. He would die in office, he reasoned, fighting for his vision of strong and independent Canada, inextricably linked with Great Britain and firmly independent from the Americans. In a speech he could just as easily have delivered 30 years previously, Macdonald told the nation that he was in a fight to save it from the vultures in the United States who wanted Canada to fail. “Every American statesman covets Canada. The greed for its acquisition is still on the increase, and God knows where it will all end. . . .We must face the fight at our next election, and it is only the conviction that the battle will be better fought under my guidance than under another that makes me undertake the task, handicapped as I am, with the infirmities of old age.”

Parliament was dissolved on February 2, 1891 and Macdonald went to the people with the same national policies and ballot questions that had defined his career. “The question which you will shortly be called upon to determine resolves itself into this: shall we endanger our possession of the great heritage bequeathed to us by our fathers, and submit ourselves to direct taxation for the privilege of having our tariff fixed at Washington, with the prospect of ultimately becoming a portion of the American Union? . . . As for myself, the course is clear. A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.”

On March 5, 1891, Macdonald won his sixth election, besting his Liberal opponent, Québec native son Wilfrid Laurier, 117 to 90. The Liberals won Québec by the narrow margin of 33 to 27. Once again, the shadow of Riel affected Macdonald, even if minimally.

But Macdonald’s electoral win was soon eclipsed by his rapidly declining health. A few short months after his election victory, on Friday, May 29, 1891, a sombre Sir Hector Langevin addressed the House of Commons. “I have the painful duty to announce to the house that the news from Earnscliffe just received is that the First Minister has had a relapse and that he is in a most critical condition. We have reports from the medical men in attendance on the right honorable gentleman, and they do not seem to believe that he can live many hours longer.”

The legislature was adjourned. A hush fell over the nation. Macdonald died at 10:15 p.m. on Saturday, June 6, 1891.

Macdonald’s testament declared, “I desire that I shall be buried in the Kingston cemetery near the grave of my mother, as I promised her that I should be there buried.”

Since its founding, Canada had been guided by only one man. His vision, his determination, and his skill forged a nation and sustained its unity. Had the gristle of Canada, as he once called it, hardened into bone? Had Macdonald created a country that could survive his passing?