He’s the “Father of Confederation,” had the vision and will to build a railway that stretches across the entire country, and was present and played a role at the 1839 meeting at which the decision was made to establish Queen’s College, the forerunner of Queen’s University. So it’s not surprising that Sir John A. Macdonald continues to intrigue us in ways no other Canadian prime minister – or other elected official – ever has.
Arthur Milnes, Artsci’88, who shares in that sense of wonderment, is heading the organizing committee that’s planning what promises to be the “biggest birthday party in Canadian history.” Set for January 11, 2015, with some events later that year), the party will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth. As head of the non-profit, non-partisan Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission, Milne is overseeing the planning and execution of events that are scheduled to take place across Canada. “Our main goal will be to engage Canadians, particularly youth, in the celebration,” he says. “It’s not just about history, it’s about culture and education, too.”
With funding from the federal government and from corporate sponsors, the Commission hopes to encourage and assist every town and city in Canada to come up with events that will celebrate Sir John A.’s legacy and his local historical heritage.
Milnes is thrilled that all six living former prime ministers – Joe Clark, John Turner, Kim Campbell, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, and Paul Martin – have agreed to serve as honorary commissioners. And they’re not just lending their names to the project, they’re rolling up their sleeves to get involved. “They’ve all been extremely enthusiastic and helpful,” says Milnes.
Sir John Major, the former British Prime Minister, is another of the group’s honorary commissioners, as are former Ontario premier Bob Rae and former Quebec premier Jean Charest.
Some aspects of the celebration are already underway in Kingston, Macdonald’s adopted hometown. He lived much of his life in the city, practised law here, and represented Kingston in Parliament for many years. Fittingly, it’s in Kingston that the Commission plans to test run ideas and events. Earlier this year, the first Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Bursary at St. Lawrence College in Kingston was awarded to a student. And a video contest was held to encourage participation among Kingston elementary school-aged children. It will be the model for similar national contests.
The Commission is also hoping that Queen’s will host a multi-day, national academic conference in 2015 to examine Macdonald’s legacy. The event, which would bring together historians, political scientists, archivists, and other academics to examine how Macdonald shaped Canada, would be modeled on the one-day academic conference held in January 2013 by the Commission in partnership with Queen’s Institute of Intergovernmental Relations. Experts gathered to discuss Macdonald and Canadian federalism. “Our goal [in staging the conference in 2015] is to spark academic discourse on a whole variety of Macdonald topics,” says Milnes.
Perhaps one of the most exciting initiatives so far is the staging of the play Sir John, Eh? The Musical. Written by Jim Garrard, Arts’67 (who is also the Bicentennial Commission’s Executive Director), and being performed this year by the SALON Acting Company throughout Ontario, the musical comedy is about a band of young musicians who encounter the ghosts of Sir John A. and his first wife, Isabella, on a summer night in Kingston’s Cataraqui Cemetery. The theatrical production is billed as a “ghost story, a love story, and a rollicking comedy, a tale of scandal and great achievement – not without tears. The story of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s founding prime minister, warts and all.”
Milnes hopes to see the play go on a national tour. He notes, “Sir John A. was a political genius and a consummate politician. He had a national vision that no one else was capable of seeing at the time. He built a railway even when people said it was folly to do so. That’s what makes him such an intriguing politician. And on top of all that, he was a flawed man, something he never hid or denied. That’s what makes him such a fascinating character.”
For more news about the Macdonald 200th anniversary celebrations, please visit www.sirjohna2015.ca.