While OLIP is focused on Ontario politics of the present day and shaping leaders of the future, on a Friday this past October we turned our gaze back into history with a walking tour of sites around Toronto connected to Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald.
Our tour began in the afternoon at the statue of MacDonald on the south end of the Legislature’s grounds where we met our guide for the afternoon, Dr. Patrice Dutil of Ryerson University’s Department of Politics and Public Administration. Dr. Dutil described to us the life and times of MacDonald and his impact on the founding and shaping of Canada. His extraordinary legacy was impressed upon us from the beginning of the tour, standing beneath the statue of him that over ten thousand people had come to see inaugurated in 1894. While the first few minutes of the tour were spent underneath umbrellas, the rain soon ended and a sunny autumn afternoon ensued as we traveled to our next destination, Dr. Emily Stowe Way.
Sir John A. MacDonald and Dr. Emily Stowe, despite no record of them having formally met, lived in Toronto at the same time and were both distinguished advocates for women’s suffrage. MacDonald became the only world leader of his era to propose extending the vote to women while he served as prime minister during the 1880s. Sadly, his motion for women’s suffrage was voted down by both the opposition and his own party.
Our next destination was the University of Toronto’s campus where we arrived at the MacDonald-Mowat house which MacDonald lived following his defeat in the election of 1873. We stood in awe upon entering MacDonald’s former office where he crafted the foundation of what became his National Policy. Our visit to the house also paid tribute to the dispute between MacDonald and its other namesake and former resident, Sir Oliver Mowat. As Premier of Ontario, Mowat was a stalwart defender of provincial rights and opposed MacDonald’s attempts to consolidate power at the federal level of government. Outside the house, Dr. Dutil shared with us stories of MacDonald’s drinking that were at times humorous yet also poignant in illustrating the hardships and stress he faced throughout both his personal and political lives.
As the afternoon sun faded to rainclouds, Dr. Dutil described the former Prime Minister’s chequered and controversial aspects of his legacy such as his policies towards First Nations Canadians and the Head Tax levied against Chinese persons wishing to immigrate to Canada. In the end however, Sir John A. MacDonald’s pivotal role in shaping Canada during its formative years is certainly worthy of both debate and recognition. On this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, his rich legacy can be seen not only through a fascinating tour of Toronto but across the country he helped build.