The Naming of the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway

In 2010 a national debate was launched in the Ottawa Citizen on the renaming of the street in front of Parliament Hill in honour of our first and greatest prime minister. Two former prime ministers — John Turner and Brian Mulroney — and some of the country’s most notable historians — Andrew Cohen, Richard Gwyn, Jack Granatstein — quickly came on board before the esteemed editors of the Ottawa Citizen concluded, “The street belongs to Macdonald.”

After a committee of Ottawa City Council voted to launch consultations, opposition forced manned the barricades. We were told that Col. John By had a hand in the naming of Wellington Street (although there was no street in front of what is now Parliament Hill when Col. By laid out the city).

We should loathe to alter the markings of our ancestors, unless, of course, there is a compelling reason to do so. The bottom line is that there is a payoff to invoking our relationship with Macdonald that we don’t get from the Iron Duke. That’s because Macdonald is as relevant to the challenges we face as a nation today as he was 144 years ago at the time of Confederation.

While the best way to honour Macdonald was to place him at the foot of Parliament Hill -- where parliamentarians and Canadians alike can be forever inspired by his vision and skill -- and despite the best efforts of Councillor Peter Hume and a number of his colleagues -- the renaming of Wellington Street was unlikely to happen. 

Regardless of that early rejection, the national debate featuring Macdonald and Wellington allowed us to get know both of these giants a little better. Meanwhile, the brilliance of Macdonald is being introduced to a new generation of Canadians. The CBC recently produced an exceptionally good movie titled John A: Birth of a Country. Richard Gwyn’s second volume on Macdonald had also just been released.

In the course of the debate on the street renaming, many thoughtful alternatives to Wellington Street were proposed on social media.

Some suggested that Macdonald should not be recognized without a link to his sidekick, Sir George-Étienne Cartier.  Macdonald died in office, 18 years after Cartier’s passing and there are strong reasons to recognize our first prime minister in his own right. Whatever the options, there was a risk of damning Macdonald with faint praise if the tribute was not significantly grand.

Giving regard to the legitimate opposition by archivists who wanted to preserve Wellington Stree, as well as the complexity of making a change that involves navigating multiple orders of government, we proposed that we rename the Ottawa River Parkway the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway.

It is an elegant and prominent route that delivers visitors directly into the parliamentary precinct. It is beautifully maintained by the NCC and patrolled by one of Sir John’s great creations, the RCMP. There are many scenic lookouts and even a beach. There were no addresses to change on the parkway. Being a relatively recent addition to our national infrastructure, it has limited historical significance as a promenade. While new, the route into our nation’s capital was no doubt well used in the days around Confederation.

The federal government and National Capital Commission endorsed this idea and renamed the Parkway for Sir John on August 15, 2012.

Bob Plamondon,
17 Jun 2010, 08:19