Whether criticizing his politics, commemorating his death or celebrating his birthday with jokes about his alcohol consumption, Canadians have never ignored Sir John A. Macdonald. But how Canadians celebrate our heroes or heroines traditionally has been modest in scale – with the possible exceptions of hockey players or marking Canada’s centennial when the world came to visit in Montreal glorious summer of Expo ’67. As plans gear up for the 200th anniversary of his birth, it is interesting to reflect back on how past generations of Canadians feted his life and times.
Twice when Canada joined in two world wars, celebrating Macdonald, for the most part was low key given events in other parts of the world.
When the 100th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth rolled around in 1915, Canada was at war in Europe. According to Rev. Byron H. Stauffer, who spoke at Toronto’s Empire Club in February 1915, it was “only the absorbing thought of the war” that made celebrations a month late.”
(Established in 1903, the Empire Club of Canada (ECC) is recognized as one of Canada’s oldest and largest, more important speaker’s forum)
Stauffer’s address was a lengthy one, paying tribute to Macdonald citing the “Old Chief’s political accomplishments, but also larded with numerous humorous personal memories: “The chief thing about [his] physique was his nose [which was] the centre and almost the circumference of his face.”
In 1965, for Macdonald’s 150th birthday Canada was on the cusp of planning the country’s centennial. Yet funding from the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada ensured a celebration would indeed happen.
In Kingston festivities began at Kingston’s Outer Train Station (now in a sorry state.) Dignitaries boarded a barouche, used by the “Old Chieftain” himself in election campaigns, and toured points of interest associated with Macdonald ‘s time in Kingston.
At the dinner, held in the La Salle Hotel (now demolished) more than 300 people sat down to down to a banquet where wines favoured by Macdonald were served.
It was at this banquet that the 401 highway was to be renamed in honour of Macdonald and his “Quebec lieutenant” Sir George-Etienne Cartier.
Other announcements made at this time included:
· $100,000 in Federal funding to restore Kingston City Hall’s portico;
· $100,000 in provincial funding to create Centennial Park in front of City Hall
· Establishment of the Sir John A. Macdonald Fellowship in Canadian history;
· One-year exchange professorship between the University of Glasgow and Queen’s;
· Provincial funding for Canadiana libraries at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh;
Copies of Professor Donald G. Creighton’s two-volume biography awarded to a Grade Thirteen student in Ontario’s then 400 high schools for proficiency in Canadian history