Defining "Canadian": Anti-Americanism and Identity in Sir John A Macdonald's Nationalism

By Wood, Patricia K. | Journal of Canadian Studies, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Defining "Canadian": Anti-Americanism and Identity in Sir John A Macdonald's Nationalism


Wood, Patricia K., Journal of Canadian Studies


The patriotic rhetoric of the general election of 1891, won by Sir John A. Macdonald's Conservative Party, was well-received at the time and echoed far into the twentieth century. While the campaign revolved around anti-Americanism, its language, images and symbols were referential to specific discourses of ethnicity, gender and class. These discourses privileged British-Canadian, middle-class males, who used this election to further entrench their positions of social, cultural and political power. In the newly formed Dominion of Canada, Macdonald and his supporters appropriated national and nationalist language that suggested inclusion and excluded or devalued others, in patterns that are still visible today.

An attack has been made upon the independence and freedom of the Canadian people. It is true that it is not made by an armed force of organized troops such as Montgomery once lead [sic] against Montreal the commercial capital of Canada; or such as subsequently, on several occasions, attempted the invasion of this country in 1812-14 and again in 1868. No warlike preparations are visible. No foreign troops march upon our frontiers. But even so, the crisis is not less momentous; and the bounden duty of our people is not less clear.(2)

In February and March of 1891, Sir John A. Macdonald fought his last electoral battle. He was 76 years old and unwell. Midway through the campaign, he was overcome by exhaustion and remained out of the public eye for the duration. Instead of a liability, however, his illness was seen by some members of the electorate as evidence of Macdonald's loyalty to his office and to the nation. As a letter to the Montreal Gazette expressed it:

The public must remember in the approaching elections that it represents the greatest politician of his country and perhaps of his age, appealing to the people for support for perhaps the last time it may be the privilege of the people to vote for him.... Wait a little, friends and let the old gentleman serve his time out as a veteran servant of the state and then do what you like.(3)

Such an appeal to loyalty was not out of place in this election, for March 1891 was a call to show one's colours, to pick sides in the battle for Canada. J. Murray Beck says that "there can be no doubt [that] Macdonald sincerely believed that Canada's very existence as an independent nation was at stake," and that Macdonald "was not too squeamish about the tactics he used."(4) Those tactics included an allout attack on the Liberals under Wilfrid Laurier, criticizing and insulting not only their policies, but also their character. This was done under an overarching theme of anti-Americanism. Macdonald's Conservatives depicted their opponents as in league with annexationist Americans, set in the context of a construction of the United States as a landscape of imperialism, greed, violence, dishonesty and mob rule. In a common political move, the Tories sought sole ownership of the power to define "Canadian," and paradoxically externalized their Canadian opponents by presenting them as a foreign enemy. The choice put before the voters was not merely between two parties, but between two visions, two destinies: either remain nestled in the Union Jack behind the British lion, or sell your birthright and your soul to Washington, soon to be the capital of North America. The Tory strategy was successful and won the party another term in the House of Commons.

The anti-American content of the campaign is striking. Yet few of those who have written about this election have had much to say about it. Macdonald's biographers focused on the broader picture of a final contest in a political career of more than half a century. George Parkin and Donald Creighton's portraits, while more analytical than some, are unquestioning and uncritical of Macdonald's nationalism.(5) D. Owen Carrigan's overview of Canadian elections, Canadian Party Platforms, only goes so far as to say that the "question of allegiance" that was the focus of the contest "raised a great deal of debate.

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