restricted access John A. Macdonald: Canada's First Prime Minister by Ged Martin (review)
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Reviewed by
Ged Martin, John A. Macdonald: Canada's First Prime Minister (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2013), 215 pp. Paper. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-1459-7065-15.

Professor Martin's newest book will likely become the standard work on the life and times of Sir John A. Macdonald. Its appearance is timely, as recent years have witnessed a revival of interest in Canada's first Prime Minister. Martin's biography is a slim volume, which will likely make it more popular with the general public and undergraduate students than the rival works by Donald Creighton and Richard Gwyn.

This book is the capstone of Martin's distinguished career as an imperial historian. Martin now lives in the Republic of Ireland, where he is uniquely positioned to think about Macdonald's relationship with the British Empire. The book is very similar in approach to the best of the recent academic biographies of Gladstone and Disraeli. It does not dramatically change our understanding of Macdonald's place in Canadian histor y. Martin observes that

We cannot know whether Confederation would have happened if he had never left Scotland, whether Canada would have expanded westward and built a railway to the Pacific had there been no John A. Macdonald. But, equally, we must not assume that others would have filled the gap with the same combination of personal skills and political judgement.

(p. 192)

Few historians of Canada would disagree with this assessment of the man's legacy. Martin's research, however, does refine our understanding of particular episodes in Macdonald's life, including his health problems, relations with cabinet colleagues and the financial scandal that was brewing at the time of his death.

The great strength of this book is that Martin's perspective is a non-Canadian one. Martin has no axes to grind in any Canadian political debates. Readers will likely conclude that all of present-day English Canada's major political parties and traditions can legitimately lay claim to parts of Macdonald's complex legacy. This point is particularly important as Canada's current federal government is now tr ying to decide how it should commemorate the bicentennial of Macdonald's birth in 2015.

The major weakness of the book, however, is the paucity of materials on race, which is now a major theme of the curriculum in Canadian history departments. Gw yn's celebratory account of Macdonald generated a debate about whether Macdonald deserves to be labelled a racist for his policies towards the Chinese and natives. Stephen Azzi of Carleton University has debated Gwyn about this issue, and Christopher G. Anderson has shown that Macdonald's policy towards Chinese immigrants was illiberal even by the standards of his era. Martin does not engage with this debate at all, which makes this book seem curiously old-fashioned. The Canadians of a generation ago may have evaluated Macdonald mainly with regard to his views on the tariff or the relations between French- and English-speakers, since those were important political issues at the time. A lthough Martin does briefly mention Macdonald's views on natives, he does not [End Page 100] talk about his attitudes towards the Chinese, blacks and other groups. Despite this flaw, this book deserves to be read by many Canadians.

Andrew Smith
Coventry University