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Antony Anderson: Happy Birthday Sir John A. Macdonald—warts and all

Commentary

Canadians’ ignorance of our own history is a pervasive and regrettable problem. The Hub is pleased to play a small part in attempting to turn this tide by presenting a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

January 10 or 11, 1815: Sir John A. Macdonald’s birthday

“It may be said without any exaggeration whatever that the life of Sir John Macdonald, from the date he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada.”

Wilfrid Laurier, House of Commons, June 8, 1891

Here’s a radical thought in this day and age: I remain in awe of this country. Here’s another radical thought: I remain in awe of Macdonald’s work and even the man himself. I see all his flaws and his failings. They’re right out there. Some are appalling. They reflect the larger tapestry of the world that shaped him. However, I was never looking for a saint in my search through history to understand this country, so, like I say, I remain in awe.  

He was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1815 though we’re not sure of the day, possibly the 10th of January (as noted in a birth registry), possibly the 11th of January (as recorded by his father). It seems right that Canada’s first prime minister should be born somewhere else, a permanent note to the collective self that we Canadians have all, at some point, come from away. So in his birth, Macdonald is the embodiment of one of our defining ideas: we are the immigrant nation ever remade, and he is the immigrant so central to that remaking.  

When I think of Macdonald, I imagine the five-year-old boy, standing on the swaying deck of a crowded passenger ship, staring out at the endless ocean of fears and dreams, enduring six weeks at sea, his safe arrival hanging by thin threads, the captain, the crew, the weather. He was on that ship because his father, a failed shopkeeper, had run out of chances at home and decided to gamble on a remote cluster of scattered, disconnected British colonies with little in common and much to divide them. The family reached Quebec City and then embarked on another hazardous journey by river to Kingston in what was then Upper Canada—really a Scottish outpost. The tragic irony in this epic narrative is that these waves of desperate newcomers striving for more justice and hope were generating such a terrible injustice for the Indigenous nations they displaced.  

Macdonald’s parents gave their only surviving son the best education they could afford, and surely he was the fulfillment of all their wild dreams. He became a lawyer, established his own practice, made a name, and made his money in land deals and railway investments. He went into politics, swayed the crowds with his humour and savvy, and kept winning elections. Leaving behind local politics for the larger canvas of nation-building, he revealed that he could combine the visionary and the pragmatic. 

With friends and foes, he displayed a vulnerable human touch perhaps because his life was marked by so much heartbreak: a younger brother struck and somehow killed by a possibly drunken servant; a frail, bedridden first wife who succumbed to her many maladies after 14 years; a first son who died after 13 months; a daughter born in his second marriage, profoundly disabled who remained essentially a child her whole life. His second wife recalled him in his old age lovingly rummaging through the daughter’s box of toys, lost in his memories. His alcoholism at times overwhelmed him. 

Macdonald was of course caught up in some of the hateful thinking of his time, as we ourselves are caught up in our own. He said absolutely appalling things about the Chinese living in Canada at the time. He expected, indeed, hoped Indigenous Peoples would become good British subjects because he thought that was the best thing to be. He was, however, able to transcend some of this conventional thinking, perhaps most brilliantly with the central fact of Canadian politics. 

Macdonald came from a small, conquered nation that had endured invasion and imperialism and which then pivoted to co-exist and eventually flourish within a union of other kingdoms. Biographer Richard Gwyn has argued that this frame of view equipped Macdonald to better understand the demands and anxieties emanating from another conquered nation, Quebec. To appreciate Macdonald’s triumph on this point, one only has to behold George Brown, an influential newspaper editor, a father of Confederation, and a self-assured and virulent anti-French bigot. Even when he was arguing for the right reform, Brown’s pious stridency was toxic to the greater good. Hence Macdonald’s wise quip that Canadians preferred him drunk to George Brown sober. 

Confederation wasn’t Macdonald’s idea or even his great passion at first, but he grasped its potential, joined the incoming tide, and became a dominant creative force at the constitutional conferences that took place between 1864 and 1866, where he dug into the details and is thought to have authored most of the resolutions. The paper trail is frustratingly thin so we will never know the real extent of his contributions or the exaggerations. I suspect some of his greatest work was done informally, off-stage, where he used his formidable gifts of persuasion to shape essential compromises.

Then, as prime minister, he worked political magic to maintain the tenuous confederation of solitudes against improbable odds, anchored in his accommodations and tolerance with Quebec. In so doing, he laid the foundation for this, one of the world’s oldest and most inclusive democracies. Thanks to Macdonald’s work with Quebec, the common ground in this country has always become more and more expansive. That was his gift to us. 

As to his crimes or sins or limitations (however you wish to frame them), which were shared by the vast majority of his contemporaries, and which, no question, inflicted terrible harm and cultural devastation for the Indigenous peoples on this land, it is for the current generation of Canadians and no doubt the next to heal and reconcile that ongoing personal and communal anguish. Macdonald and his Canada could only see as far as they could. The same applies to us. 

Malcolm Jolley: You cannot taste wine through a screen

Commentary

In the run-up years before COVID, I went on a frenzy of wine-related press trips, mostly to Europe. This era, the late two thousand teens, coincided with the ascent of social media and its most skillful set of actors, the Internet Influencers. Invariably in their twenties and good-looking, this new brigade of pretty young things caused much crankiness among the more wrinkled and word-bound members of the wine media community.

I remember spending a half hour waiting in the bus outside a winery in the South of Italy while an attractive young woman had photos taken of herself with every bottle of wine they made close to her chest. I don’t know if she sold any more wine than they would have without the shoot, but even in my annoyance, I couldn’t blame them for trying.

Fantasy wine shots are hardly the exclusive dominion of the young and attractive. Old people’s social media wine porn is all labels and no bodies, but it’s no less gauche. I follow a couple of European winos on Instagram who (I think) are in their seventies. Their sybaritic drinking habits, which seem to only feature old vintages of Grand Cru bottles, regularly make me blush.

Needless to say, I am envious, and, as the young say, experiencing FOMO: fear of missing out. Still, I have learned a few things from this louche group. For instance, if you come across a Château Yquem from the 1860s, make sure it has its original cork (so that the air on top of the wine is also old) for a truly authentic experience.

The greatest critique of pornography ever made was by the Anglo-Australian critic, poet, and broadcaster Clive James. In an essay in his book, Cultural Amnesia (2007), he pointed out that no amount of acrobatics or weird stuff would ever make up the fundamental deficiency of the visual depiction of the sex act and its variants. He wrote that, after all, sex is a feeling.

Well, wine is a feeling too. And if they said in the last century that the best things in life are free, then we might say in this one that the best things are in real life. There are no pictures of pretty winos, or pretty wine labels, or, for that matter, pretty words, that can make up for a swallow of a good gulp of wine or a clink of glasses with an old friend.

Wine is also a thought. A complex wine will demand study from its drinker; a momentary pause to determine what’s being tasted. Winemakers will sometimes market their big, powerful reds as “wines of contemplation”, as though they were meant to be sipped slowly in front of a fire while pondering Cartesian dilemmas.

Wines of contemplation are sold as alternatives to, or perhaps as complementary to, “food-friendly wines”. That term is mostly used for lighter wines, bright with acid, that are thought to pair well with this or that dish. The entire profession of the sommelier was devised (by the French, of course) to meet the intellectual challenge of matching the right wine from the cellar with what one decides to have for dinner. In any event, given the sheer number of distinct wines available for sale in the world, some thought must be given to which one to serve when.

Writing last summer in the World of Fine Wine, British wine and culture critic Stuart Walton points out that we owe the ancient Greeks and their fondness for symposia for the association of wine with intellectual pursuit: “As the Dionysian cult was absorbed into the Greek pantheon around the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., the intoxicant with which the god was associated was exclusively the wine that distinguished southern climates from the gelid brutishness of northern peoples.”

Snobby Greeks aside, it’s not a stretch to imagine that a connection to wine is some kind of connection to the foundations of Western civilization. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a political question, and one thing wine ought not to be is political. One of my favourite pieces to appear at The Hub in 2023 was Sean Speer’s take on the great Bud Light Backlash, arguing that there ought to be parts of our lives that aren’t political. He writes:

One of the great benefits of liberal democracy is to minimize the role of politics in our lives. It establishes democratic processes for selecting representatives and then delegates day-to-day governance to them. The rest of the constitutional model is about preserving space for people to live out their lives mostly free from political interference and even politics itself.

Notwithstanding the occasional contemplative fireplace, wine’s place is on the table, which should be a refuge from contention. If divisions appear around touchy subjects, like politics, then a toast can be offered to restore unity. Social cohesion around the table in the Republic of Georgia is maintained by the formal role of the Tamada. He (or maybe she these days) is the toastmaster who makes sure things are held together and everyone is literally toasted and hopefully not too figuratively.

The wine trade is mercifully non-political. Not because the people in it, or writing or influencing about it, don’t hold political opinions or even partisan identities. It’s not political because the market for fine wine is still relatively small and every new customer, or reader, is too valuable to alienate. And, like math or science that operate on their own plane, there is more than enough to know about wine in and of itself without complicating things.

Enrolment in wine knowledge courses, like the qualifications taught by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, are increasingly popular, often by people who don’t plan to work in the wine trade. I suspect the pull of wine knowledge has much to do with its paradoxical quality of both being away from the regular world and being very much about real life. You cannot taste wine through a screen.