Ex Uno Plures:
Federal-Provincial Relations in Canada 1867-1896

404 pages,
ISBN: 0773516336

John A. Macdonald

1216 pages,
ISBN: 0802071643

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The John A. Mythos
by Christopher Moore

He's full of clichés, Creighton. A bit like Shakespeare is.

Dip into the new edition of Donald Creighton's nearly fifty-year-old John A. Macdonald as if it were a new book, and it will seem full of familiar stuff. Creighton's Macdonald is the Macdonald we already know. In his pages we find the same homely face from the ten-dollar bill, the same star of Berton's railway history, the same genial, canny, inebriated political genius who put Canada together and held it until (in his own phrase) the gristle of a nation hardened into bone. We know this guy.

Actually we know this guy from Creighton. That familiar Macdonald hardly existed before Creighton cast him in the form we take for granted. Many of the values Creighton celebrated are today shunned as the things most reprehensible about the Canadian past, but much of what "everyone knows" is bits and pieces from the Creighton version, repackaged as common knowledge. When the CBC, pondering the future of the Progressive Conservative party, calls it "the party that made Canada" and puts up a photo of Macdonald, it thinks it is reporting History, but really it is paraphrasing Creighton. For good or ill, a remarkable amount of Canadian history is still Creighton's history.

This new edition of one of his great works marks another Creighton triumph. He has become the first Canadian historian whose work seems worth publishing beyond his own lifetime, not as an historiographical curiosity but as a still authoritative voice. Even crammed into one volume (when it deserved to be a proper two-volume boxed set), this is a handsome publication, with a rich new appreciation of Creighton by Peter Waite to introduce it.

The persisting influence of an historian now twenty years dead is all the more remarkable when we consider how disposable Canada's historians have always been. What John Metcalf says of Canadian literature is true in spades of Canadian history: there is no tradition, and our writers look to international models, not Canadian forebears. There's little worth reading in our nineteenth-century historians, and on examination the great names of the twentieth century fare little better. Harold Innis with his windy theorizing and ill-digested statistics, Arthur Lower writing the latest political fashions into the past, Lionel Groulx sermonizing on the church and the farm as the eternal bulwarks of the French-Canadian race-these simply cannot withstand re-reading. Creighton, on the other hand, may be among our most politically incorrect historians, but he is still mightily there.

The Macdonald biography shows off nicely why Creighton survives while his contemporaries fade. It displays at least four great strengths of the great historian.

First, he could write. Among fictional stylists, he might resemble Robertson Davies most; the voice and style may be old-fashioned, but his mastery of it shines, and he makes each adjective a stiletto. Peter Waite tells us Hilda Neatby complained when the book was new that we don't really see into Macdonald's mind, for "every time Professor Creighton opens a door, he stands in the way and blocks the view." It was Creighton's rhetorical skill, as much as his command of the sources, which made that blurring together of author and subject possible and persuasive. From its first line, "In those days they usually came by boat," Creighton's Macdonald is a book people will read.

Second, Creighton did the work. From the mid-'30s to the mid-'60s, all his great work was grounded in a command of the clinching details that must have required prodigious archival work. Waite recalls Creighton as a historian who carried his page proofs back to the archives to confirm every reference and quotation. He put in the hours, and he knew how to pay attention to sources, not merely read them.

Third, Creighton could marry that hard-won command of the details to substantial interpretive argument. And fourth, he had the wit or luck to focus on a big, compelling subject, the nature of the country, no less. Some notable historians get by on one or two of these attributes. Not very many display four.

The argument of Creighton's Macdonald was born when Creighton grew bored with Canadian history as a tedious sequence of constitutional steps that created an independent Canadian nation out of a gaggle of dependent colonies. That tradition had focused on liberal politicians, from the Baldwins to Mackenzie King. Creighton turned instead to political economy, redirecting attention to the Tory entrepreneurs who built the commercial empire of the St. Lawrence into a continent-spanning Canadian system. In the biography that made Macdonald into their great heir and advocate, Creighton wedded a compelling life story to the idea of an east-west Canadian nation rooted in geography and economics. Macdonald's career became the linchpin that bound Canadian history together, from Champlain and the voyageurs to the CPR and the CBC.

This was a great feat of reading and thinking and writing, but any theory of history must dismiss as much as it includes. Creighton saw his nation-builders as pragmatists and doers, wedded to the Empire that provided markets and capital, valuing order and control. To establish the values of these Tory nation-builders at the centre of Canadian history, Creighton had to dismiss debates about rights and liberties and parliamentary representation as distracting theoretical palaver. He marginalized the indigenous Canadian tradition of reform-minded political theory on which many of his precursors had been raised.

In his first book, The Empire of the Saint Lawrence, Creighton had reduced responsible government, the hard-won achievement of Canadian parliamentary democracy in 1848, to merely another symptom of the collapse of the old commercial system. In Macdonald, he treated the swearing-in of Baldwin's and Lafontaine's new government, the first to be genuinely answerable to the people's elected representatives, as merely another switch of ins and outs. (Macdonald, of course, remained on the wrong side in 1848, still preferring collaboration with an appointed governor over an elected government which his rivals might dominate.) On Confederation, Creighton similarly skimmed over the responsible government principles in which much of the debate was framed. He preferred the pragmatism of Macdonald, actually a latecomer to the Confederation idea. "Responsible government" did not appear in the index of Macdonald, and since then it has vanished from history texts and political science models alike.

The consequences of Creighton's triumph are deeply etched in the way Canadians have understood constitutional history during the constitutional crisis of the last quarter-century. When scholars and intellectuals look for constitutional usages in Canadian history, they turn to Creighton. There they read that this country was founded on colonial deference, social hierarchy, centralized authority, aphilosophical deal-making, and fear of democracy as an alien and American threat. Since not even conservatives celebrate those values any more, Creighton mostly authorizes Canadians to repudiate our history as something to escape from. Paradoxically, our greatest political historian now mostly teaches that our political history has nothing useful to teach us. As Creighton erased democracy and representation from our historical tradition, modern Canadian constitutional thought became a tabula rasa on which any Rube Goldberg model for a new constitution could demand attention.

A good representation of what Creighton still does to Canadian political thinkers is available in Garth Stevenson's Ex Uno Plures: Federal-Provincial Relations in Canada 1867-1896. As a writer, Stevenson's no Donald Creighton; his prose voice is mostly disembodied Academic Standard (though readers in Victoria will laugh to read that southern Ontario has a mild climate "by Canadian standards"). Nor are his views those of a servile Creightonian. Against a political science tradition that has assumed that serious federal-provincial battles only began after the rise of big governments in the twentieth century, Professor Stevenson wants us to understand that federalism has a long heritage. He deploys copious evidence to support his case that early provincial governments were "just as important and influential" as Ottawa's federal government. Well before the end of the nineteenth century, he declares, "strong autonomous provincial governments" competed "on fairly equal terms" with Ottawa. Stevenson's sympathy for the federal-provincial "equilibrium" that he sees emerging soon after Confederation would have appalled Creighton, who had no time for provincial pretensions to anything like partnership in the federation.

Yet there is a boundary which Stevenson will not cross as he moves into Creighton territory, and the line is July 1st, 1867. Stevenson believes that democracy ("a gradual move toward de facto democracy," he calls it), federalism, provincial autonomy, and the balancing of powers were all somehow jerry-rigged into Canadian government after Confederation. This might be called a July 2nd theory: everything valuable about Canadian politics, the whole lively and subtle political world that Professor Stevenson describes, started just after July 1st, 1867. The making of Confederation itself remains a black box of elite-driven, autocratic centralism that offers nothing to engage the interest of a modern political scientist. Even federalism itself, Stevenson declares, was a by-product, not "a conscious design", of the Confederation process.

Stevenson believes this because he has read his Creighton. "The details," he writes of the Confederation process, "have been ably filled in by Creighton" and other contemporaries, and "there is no need to repeat their research." Stevenson says this even as he takes his quotations on Confederation from a skimpy set of documents compiled in 1895 by John A. Macdonald's secretary. (There has never been a serious scholarly collection of documents on Confederation.) In effect, Stevenson has learned from reading Creighton that the documents are hardly necessary, because at Confederation there were no constitutional ideas worth the name. Stevenson accepts that Confederation was the work of Macdonald's brilliant pragmatism, abetted by a few servile "Fathers" of Confederation (Stevenson condescendingly dismisses their "confusion"), a powerful, domineering Colonial Office, and the inexorable political flow of the St. Lawrence.

For every political event after Confederation, Stevenson provides a careful reading of original sources and thoughtful reflection on their implications. But Creighton, in all his bulk and brilliance, forms a barrier that prevents Professor Stevenson from going farther, from discovering that debate on the ideas that interest him- about federalism, about democracy, about the uses of the state-actually thrived before July 2nd, 1867, and despite Creighton, despite Macdonald, rooted themselves in the Confederation settlement itself. Taking the political history of federalism back to its roots will require confronting Creighton on the details, and we have not yet seen an academic scholar do that.

Professor Jack Granatstein has recently offered another of his angry laments about the death of Canadian "national" history, by which he means the political, constitutional, diplomatic history of the Canadian state. Granatstein blames the killing on a conspiracy of social historians and do-gooder bureaucrats, and his remedy is even more federal patronage for the right kind of historian. But to revive history, a clash of ideas is always worth more than a barrel of pork. This republication of one of Donald Creighton's masterworks reminds us that it has been almost fifty years since we have seen big new scholarship about the political career of John A. Macdonald or the forging of the nation. If the return of Creighton could stimulate some of the "national" history professors to put some big new ideas up against his big old one, they might not have to worry so much about students and readers turning elsewhere for excitement. 

Christopher Moore is a Toronto writer, whose most recent book is 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. He acknowledges with some regret that a recent novel called The Island of the Sequined Love Nun is the work of some other Christopher Moore.


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