A TRB Q&A with Richard Gwyn, author of Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times

In the lead-up to the announcement of the winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, The Toronto Review of Books will feature Q&As with each of the five finalists.

Nation Maker
Nation Maker, by Richard Gwyn

In 2007, Richard Gwyn published John A: The Man Who Made Us, the first volume in his biography of Canada’s first prime minister, which won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction. John A. was a also a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, and the Writers’ Trust and Samara recently named it one of the Best Canadian Political Books of the Last 25 Years. Last month, the second volume of Gwyn’s biography, Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, came out to rave reviews and was quickly greeted with a nomination for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize. The Toronto Review of Books caught up with Gywn via e-mail to talk about his latest book, why Sir John A. Macdonald is so interesting, and why Canadian history can be hard to teach.

TRB: In Nation Maker: Sir John A Macdonald: His Life, Our Times you reveal some surprising facts about our first prime minister, such as his attempt to extend the vote to women. Were you already aware of his – would you call it proto-feminism? – or was that something you discovered in your research? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
RG: I discovered it in my research, and was astounded that no historian had written about it, nor any professor of gender studies. (Please don’t call him a proto-feminist, though.) He was an intelligent individual who simply concluded that women ought to be and would become eventually anyway fully equal citizens, and, essentially, said so out loud—he being easily a skilled enough politician to be fully aware he had no hope of getting this legislation through. I discovered a good deal else that ought not to have been discoveries, such as that he was a great admirer of the Salvation Army because it reached out to the poor as did no other religion (also, not coincidentally, because women could hold senior posts in it), and that he enacted perhaps the most enlightened reform for Indians, (today correctly termed Aboriginals), in a century, offering them the vote while retaining all their special rights under the treaties and Indian Act; the Laurier government cancelled his reform and it was not enacted again until 1960, by John Diefenbaker.

What these “discoveries”, and others show—for instance, that far from the cap-doffing colonial or imperialist he’s often portrayed as, Macdonald, while most certainly an anglophile, was fully prepared to exploit Britain to advance Canadian interests—is that there’s a lot more to John A. than is  widely assumed, principally because we’ve been given a sort of caricature image of him as just a clever, charming politician with no ideas except gaining and holding power, and besides being corrupt and a drunk. He was all those things, although while everyone knows he was a drunk, few know that he quit drinking. He was, rather, far more interesting and far more intelligent than he’s remembered as. The point of correcting the record isn’t to be “fair” to him: he was fully aware life isn’t fair, and anyway is dead. It’s to be fair to ourselves, to present our Founding Father as someone we can make use of today. That matters because history isn’t about the past.  It’s about the way we became the way we are today, and in extension, the way we are going to be in the future.

TRB: When you began researching Sir John A. Macdonald in 2003, did you know your biography would span two volumes?
RG: No, essentially I started off as an innocent assuming that a single volume would be enough for his life. After a couple of years of research as well as writing first, pretty rough, draft chapters, I realized that two volumes was essential. I carefully prepared a string of arguments, went off to see  my publisher at Random House—Anne Collins—started my pitch which she interrupted by saying, “Of course it should be two.” In fact, much later I argued for three volumes but this time the answer was No, almost certainly justifiably although the material for a third existed (the final text was cut by perhaps a quarter, some of this being repetition).

TRB: You’ve written about modern politics in your books about Pierre Trudeau and multiculturalism, as well as Joey Smallwood – what inspired you to go right back to the beginning to write about Macdonald?
RG: It happened by circumstance. Penguin was planning a series of Brief Lives and originally asked me about Trudeau; my reply was, “Been there; done that.” Diane Arbide then asked if John A. might interest me. I asked for time to bone up a bit on him and concluded she was right but that with the last full biography on him over a half-century old (Donald Creighton’s two great volumes of course), he  deserved a full-scale biography.

TRB: In high schools, Canadian History is a required credit, and one that many students complain about as being boring. As your writing makes clear, though, Canadian history is fascinating and even exciting. The educational aspect of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Award will bring your book into schools across the country – do you think it will help students appreciate our history better?
RG: The educational project of the Weston Prize is one of its most important aspects, although almost as important  is the challenge, as yet unaddressed, of making Canadian history relevant to immigrants. Instead, our history is at real risk of becoming extinct, sort of like the buffalo. In by no means all high schools is Canadian History a required credit, while the conviction of many young people that our history is boring and irrelevant to them is wholly justified — because that’s how it is presented to them. As troubling, most of our professional or academic historians have retreated to doing detailed research on narrow subjects so that they can no longer discuss broad national issues. There are encouraging signs of change: suddenly, Canadians have become strongly interested in, and proud of, our military history; independent historians are now writing a lot of readable history books; the federal government clearly wants to promote our history (not easy for it to do because education is exclusively a provincial responsibility).

TRB: That’s a long question, but I ask because I think we’re often more fascinated with the history of other countries. You moved to Canada when you were 20 – do you think that made you more interested in Canada’s history?

RG: Not easily, to be honest. Canadian history lacks drama and melodrama — namely kings and queens losing their heads. It also lacks sex. So it’s not easy to compete with the Tudors, or the Borgias. But it is our history, our story, the record of how we come to be the way we are. And the way we are now is actually interesting. Multi-culturalism, for instance. We’re doing better at it, and have a more ambitious program of integration than anyone else. No-one, though, has yet written a study of how this happened, that is how a rather conservative, pragmatic society could become so ambitious and how one once so hostile to anyone other than Europeans (to white that is) could now be so accepting of probably the most ethnically accommodating society in the world.

TRB: As a regular columnist for the Toronto Star, did you find it hard to move between your writing style as a newspaper columnist and that of political biographer?
RG: Not really. In both instances, you’re telling a story. Unless you tell stories, you’ll have no readers. Obviously, any serious historical work requires an incomparably higher standard of accuracy than a newspaper column. But the demands of scholarship are actually stimulating: you’re forced to go to the limit to get things right, a challenge I came to enjoy immensely.

TRB: It’s easy, I think, to get caught up in contemporary politics, because there always seems to be something going on. Would understanding Macdonald help us better understand the political climate of today?
RG: Absolutely. Human nature hasn’t changed at all, or has mostly only changed in the mode of expressing ambition, self-interest, glory-seeking, and also of idealism and altruism. As an obvious example, where once we worshipped royals, aristocrats, and also saints, as celebrities; today we worship rock stars, athletes, and the very rich. Unchanged is our need to have people to admire, and to envy. Nor does the nature of power change. Even absolute monarchs and dictators had to take account of public opinion.


Nation Maker: Sir John A Macdonald: His Life, Our Times is available from Random House Canada ($37).

About the author

Angela Hickman

Angela Hickman is a Toronto-based freelance arts writer. Her work has appeared in such publications as the National Post, The Gazette in Montreal, and the Maple Tree Literary Supplement. She blogs about books at booksunderskin.com.

By Angela Hickman