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 forces manned the barricades. We were told that we should first show respect for Col. John By because he 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 certainly hesitate 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 was introduced to a new generation of Canadians. The CBC recently produced an exceptional movie titled John A: Birth of a Country

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 Street, 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.

On the occasion of the renaming, the following op-ed was published in the Ottawa Citizen under the Title The Spirit of Sir John A. Endures

Since it is not a new road, does it really matter that we will soon be driving down the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway?

The point of the renaming of the Ottawa River Parkway is that by invoking the memory of Macdonald, we may well inspire future generations of Canadians to learn from his example. Simply put, Macdonald is as relevant to Canada today as he was 145 years ago.

Ever wonder why we are not Americans? Through Macdonald, we can learn how we built upon our British traditions to fight for an independent Canada that thwarted the Americans’ Manifest Destiny.

What keeps such a distinctive and diverse nation together? Through Macdonald we learn about national unity and how he treated people with tolerance and respect. Perhaps he said it best, before Confederation, with these remarks: “(We) must make friends with the French, without sacrificing the status of his race or religion, and we must respect their nationality. Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do — generously. Call them a faction and they become factious.”

Through Macdonald, we learn how his design for Canada makes us strong by respecting our regional differences while embracing our strengths as a nation.

Through Macdonald, we learn how he built a platform for prosperity by extending Canada from coast to coast, against all of the odds and financial obstacles, with the largest private-public partnership in our history — the national railway.

And through Macdonald, we learn how he hardened the gristle that was Canada in its precarious early days, an improbable country in many respects, into bone. He was there to see the creation of the RCMP, our judicial system, even the location of our national capital in Ottawa.

With the renaming, we get much more than a tribute to Macdonald. More important than remembering his accomplishments, we can find guidance and inspiration from his vision that has endured to this day.

Perhaps the current crop of politicians can learn from his good nature and wonderful sense of humour. At the funeral of a deceased senator, Macdonald was tapped on the shoulder with the pleading, “Sir John, I would like to take that man’s place.” Macdonald’s quick retort: “I’m sorry my good man, but you are too late. The coffin is nailed shut.”

In a time when the easiest thing to do is nothing to avoid criticism and cynicism, Minister John Baird rose above on Wednesday and displayed clear leadership. He stuck his neck out because he wants future Canadians to learn about Macdonald and to be inspired by his vision. That’s why the former president of Historica-Dominion, Andrew Cohen, was an early proponent of the renaming. As was Councillor Peter Hume and former prime ministers John Turner and Brian Mulroney. And the NCC, under chair Russell Mills, CEO Marie Lemay and board member Jacquelin Holzman, helped to pave the way.

This was not an idea that came out of the Tory war room, but was hatched in the community by Citizen columnist Mark Sutcliffe and myself, and spawned in the pages of the Ottawa Citizen in a continuing series. The idea, originally to rename Wellington Street after Macdonald, inspired a national debate, caused editorial writers across the country to take a position. For me, just the debate over the idea was a victory since Canadians were talking about Macdonald. When assessing the merits of the renaming, we explored his contributions to Canada and what they mean for our future.

In some ways, the impact of this change is modest in scope. It’s probably the cheapest street renaming in Ottawa history, as only a handful of signs will be affected and no addresses impacted.

In the scheme of life, the parkway is a relatively new road, although none in Ottawa is more beautiful. But for those who believe there is merit in learning about who we are by exploring our history, the announcement Wednesday at the Deschênes Rapids lookout area is an important step forward.

Whether it is today or 145 years from now, whenever someone takes a glimpse of the sign as they veer onto the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, perhaps a seed will be planted where he or she will be inspired to get to know him a little better. He is not only our first prime minister but he is our greatest. But even if you disagree with my assessment, we both win by having the debate.

Bob Plamondon is the author of Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper.

Bob Plamondon,
17 Jun 2010, 08:19