Letter to the Editor – John A. Macdonald’s 200th anniversary

Macdonald set the bar for English-French relations

Canada’s commitment to both official languages is rooted in our history.

John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, played a leadership role in the Constitution Act, 1867 – then known as the British North America Act, 1867—which we will be celebrating in 2017. As January 11, 2015, marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on how Macdonald contributed to the Canada we know today—by framing the question of language in terms of a founding principle of respect.

Armed with extensive political experience and lessons gained from observing the failures of others, Macdonald became a key player in building an alliance between Upper-Canadian conservatives and French-Canadian moderates—an alliance that proved crucial in the negotiations leading to Confederation. Although he essentially spoke no French, Macdonald developed a fast and enduring friendship with his French-speaking colleagues, and a close partnership with George-Étienne Cartier. He understood the importance of bilingualism and that building an effective relationship with French-speaking Canada was an essential component of a prime minister’s duty.

However controversial, Macdonald’s personal shrewdness, psychological insight, political wisdom and sociological prescience shaped his understanding of Confederation, and by developing his view of the need for a positive relationship between French- and English-speaking Canadians, he laid out a blueprint for every successful prime minister who followed. His analysis can be applied to the conscription crises, the October Crisis, the reaction to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the persistence of the Bloc Québécois and Parliament’s recognition of Quebecers as a nation.

On March 10, 1865, the last night of the Confederation Debates, John A. Macdonald responded to a question about the status of French in the new political arrangement that was being developed. He said that the use of the French language should form one of the principles on which the Confederation should be established. George-Étienne Cartier immediately rose to add that it was also necessary to protect the English minorities in Lower Canada with respect to the use of their language.Footnote 1

That reflex established the foundations for respect for linguistic duality as a fundamental Canadian value, and the capacity for conciliation as we know it today.

That commitment to the principle of respect for both languages, anchored in the founding debate over Confederation, has sometimes wavered over the past 148 years, but it has been steadily reinforced over the past four decades with the Official Languages Act, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a series of Supreme Court decisions interpreting the language rights in the Charter, and amendments to the Official Languages Act.

Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation will provide an important opportunity to evaluate how far the country has come, including in matters of language. Moreover, that evaluation will be conducted in light of the seminal remarks made by John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier during the Confederation Debates.

Although Canada has changed a great deal since 1865, those principles remain as valid in the 21st century as they did in the 19th. Translating them into reality remains a challenge for national leadership.

Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages


Footnote 1

Richard Gwyn, John A.: The Man Who Made Us, The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume One: 1815–1867, Toronto, Random House Canada, 2007, p. 323.

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