Since 1970, the Historical Society has sponsored the memorial service in Cataraqui Cemetery, and over the years, has invited distinguished politicians, diplomats, academic and others to give a key-note address at the service. The laying of wreaths by local and government organizations and a tribute from the Fort Henry Guard are also traditionally part of the service.
American journalists Nancy Gibb and Michael Duffy recently authored The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. Their book examines the formal and informal relationships established over the decades between sitting and past American Presidents.
Arthur Milnes delivering his speech on June 6th, 2013
Canadians are increasingly wondering, particularly since the publication of this fine volume, why we don’t have a Prime Minister’s Club in Canada. After all, we now have more former Prime Ministers living, six, than at any previous time in our history.
Well, I’m here to tell you that we do have a Prime Minister’s Club. And the man we honour at Cataraqui Cemetery today,John Alexander Macdonald, is the group’s President. Their members – seven including the sitting Prime Minister – rarely meet as a group.
But it is not necessary that they do so in American-fashion as we just saw at the opening of George W. Bush’s Presidential library in Texas. Instead, it is Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister, who meets with the members whenever he is needed.
When you enter Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s personal office in the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, your eyes are drawn to the portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald which the 22nd Prime Minister has placed on the wall directly across from his desk.
When the Prime Minister is alone, confronting the solitary decisions that only a leader can make, Sir John A. is by Mr. Harper’s side.
Previous Prime Ministers, they too, have been drawn to Sir John A. Macdonald. On June 6,
Arthur Milnes at the Kingston Historical Society’s memorial
1991, at the height of a national unity crisis in the aftermath of the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord, Brian Mulroney found inspiration and strength by visiting Sir John A.’s Kingston grave.
“As I reflected on Macdonald’s extraordinary challenges and the unfailing criticism to which he was subjected, my own problems appeared somewhat more manageable, and I disembarked the helicopter from Kingston in a more confident mood than I had felt in some time,” Mr. Mulroney wrote in his journal that night.
I once had the honour of picking up former Prime Minister Joe Clark at Kingston’s VIA station. He was in the city to attend an event at Queen’s University. Once in my car he eagerly accepted my invitation to visit Sir John A.’s nearby grave.
And so it was, here at Cataraqui Cemetery, on a beautiful fall day, and with no one else present, the 16th Prime Minister of Canada, spent 30 minutes at this spot reflecting on Sir John A. Macdonald. It is a journey to Kingston that other Prime Ministers such asArthur Meighen, John Diefenbaker, Paul Martin and John Turner have also made.
So, why is it that members of the Prime Minister’s Club revere Sir John A. Macdonald? In one aspect, the answer seems obvious: political success.
Arthur Milnes posing with members of the Fort Henry Guard
To be Prime Minister one has to be skilled in the art of politics. Sir John A. Macdonald won six majority governments. Think of that: Six majority victories. In our day and age, that’s a number of victories that would make even Jean Chretien blush with envy.
And to survive as Prime Minister of Canada you have to, as Sir John A. Macdonald did, play the “long game.”
The idea that Sir John A. Macdonald, when removed from office due to the Pacific Scandal, could have returned to majority status is impossible to fathom, then or now.
Off he went into the political wilderness for five years. He left office in disgrace and ruin. Despite this, he invented new mechanisms like the political picnic to refine his craft – the craft of politics and leadership. And in 1878 John A. Macdonald returned. From that point on, until 1891, no opponent could wrestle the Premership from him. It remains the greatest comeback in Canadian history.
It is no wonder that Wilfrid Laurier, during his famous eulogy to Sir John A. in the House of Commons, said of his rival: “For the supreme art of governing men, Sir John Macdonald was gifted as few men in any land or in any age ”
So, if you are a Prime Minister of Canada, the story of Sir John A. Macdonald reminds you that anything is possible.
When the “shifting sands” of popularity that Thomas D’Arcy McGee warned about in his final speech to the Commons, move beneath a leader’s feet, Sir John A.’s story provides a Prime Minister with the resolve to fight another day.
It gives each Prime Minister hope. It provides the members of the Prime Minister’s Club an example from which to draw strength in lonely times of challenge.
Finally, as any Canadian Prime Minister travels the nation – this giant, complex, beautiful but so very difficult land to govern – they must marvel that this man from Kingston, a politician just like them, brought it all together.
Arthur Milnes and special guest, the Right Honourable John Turner
In achieving this, Sir John A. Macdonald defied religion, region, language, geography and the colossal giant on our southern border to make it happen. It is an inspirational example from which to draw.
Finally, each Prime Minister of Canada knows they are far from perfect. They know their imperfections better than anyone. But they also know that the greatest Prime Minister of all, John Alexander Macdonald of Kingston, he too had flaws.
He too made mistakes. And he soldiered on despite of them.
In doing so, Sir John A. left a transcontinental nation in his wake.
This is why Prime Ministers of all parties continue to honour their exclusive fraternity’s founder, John Macdonald, the President of the Prime Minister’s Club.
As they will forever more.