The Trials of John A.

Our polarizing first prime minister. 

Essays by Frédéric Boily, Charlotte Gray, Lee Maracle, and Christopher Moore

Posted February 1, 2019
Headshot of Sir John A. Macdonald

Hero, villain, celebrated, scorned. Sir John A. Macdonald was both loved and loathed during his life, and he was mostly lionized immediately after his death.

Today, the legacy of Canada’s first prime minister is coming under intense scrutiny — and rightfully so, for history is never properly served by glossing over the past.

But has the pendulum swung too far? Across the country, critics are calling for the removal of monuments to Macdonald and other controversial historical figures. Macdonald’s defenders, meanwhile, say this is akin to erasing the past. The debate is polarizing communities, but is there a way for us to move forward together?

Canada’s History has asked several prominent historians and authors to weigh Macdonald’s achievements against his failures and to explore the challenges that surround commemoration in general. Their essays offer unique and important perspectives.

They don’t all agree.

But together their insights help us to develop a deeper understanding of the complex issues at hand. We hope these essays will spark new conversations about the past.

These discussions will be challenging and at times undoubtedly uncomfortable — but it’s the only way forward.


From Protector to Hangman

Macdonald’s reputation in French Canada shifted with his political decisions. 

We Need To Widen Our Views

Understanding Canadian History requires both context and a sense of proportion. 

Honour Indigenous History

Celebrating the culture and courage of Indigenous peoples is a key step towards reconciliation. 

Removing Statues Fails to Address Underlying Injustice

We should instead restore history by honouring achievements, recognizing flaws, and denouncing injustices. 

Questioning the Past

How to better understand commemoration controversies.

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Christopher Moore (christopher­ comments in every issue of Canada’s History. He is the author of many books about Canadian history, including 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal.

Frédéric Boily is a professor of political science at the University of Alberta’s Faculté Saint-Jean. He is the author of several books including John A. Macdonald: Les ambiguïtés de la modération politique.

Charlotte Gray is the author of ten acclaimed books of literary non-fiction, including most recently The Promise of Canada: People and Ideas that have Shaped Our Country. She advocated for Sir John A. on CBC Television’s 2004 production “The Greatest Canadian.”

Lee Maracle is a Sto:lo poet and author who teaches in the Centre for Indigenous Studies at the University of Toronto, where she is also mentor for Aboriginal students.

These articles originally appeared in the February-March 2019 issue of Canada’s History.

This article is also available in French.

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