John A. Was Not Our First?

Sir John A. wasn’t Canada’s first prime minister? Maclean’s magazine professes to be astounded!

Says who? Well, who else but John Ralston Saul.

“There in the midst of describing a riot that clogged the streets of Montreal on an April afternoon in 1849, Ralston Saul describes Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine as ‘the first prime minister of a democratic Canada.’ John A. Macdonald does not turn up for another 178 pages. ”

Saul should know. He’s been writing about LaFontaine for years.

It depends how you ask the question. If you want to know the name of the first prime minister of the British North American federation that now goes by the name of Canada, sure: it was Macdonald. But if you want to know the first prime minister in British North America, it was Lafontaine.

Lafontaine’s is not a story that resonates in academe these days and I’m glad someone’s telling it. (Jack Granatstein said years ago that it’s Canada’s public intellectuals rather than members of university departments who keep alive our sense of National History.)

Saul’s book is entitled Extraordinary Canadians: Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin (Penguin Group).  The first prime minister of a democratic Canada!  I’m looking forward to reading this one.

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5 Responses to “John A. Was Not Our First?”


  1. 1 ___ October 24, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Eric Bedard, a professor at the University of Quebec a Trois Rivieres is writing about him as well. He just published a book called “Les réformistes. Une génération canadienne-française au milieu du XIXe siècle”. Any thoughts?

  2. 2 Stephen MacLean October 26, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    Poor Sir John Alexander! If he could find his way to a bar–or a bottle–in his present capacity, surely no angelic observer (I refuse to countenance the alternative!) would begrudge him.

    Many contemporary Canadians have no compunction about using his record against him to serve their own purposes. At least, it may be argued, his own contemporaries took him for what he was and praised or excoriated him on the facts.

    One end of the political spectrum sees Macdonald as a supporter of ‘provincial’ rights or of an elected Senate of Canada; whereas the other end misconstrues Sir John’s progressive conservatism not as an expanded view of the night-watchman state to include welfare-enhancing public goods–Victorian Toryism for the 21st century, as it were–but instead for expanded government along lines synonymous with ‘social democracy’.

    Not having read Saul’s volume-in-question, one can easily surmise that simply inserting ‘Canada’ as shorthand for the ‘United Province of Canada’ is another disingenuous slur on Macdonald’s record. I can only hope that earlier in said text fuller forms were used that excuse this out-of-context truncation.

    One more thing: I assume that ‘democratic’ is meant to refer to ‘responsible government’. Professor Ajzenstat notes that this first premiership does not refer to the Dominion which was created by the British North America Act. But Nova Scotians will demur that it should even refer to British North America as a whole.

    We claim that honour in the person of Joseph Howe, who was premier of Nova Scotia which achieved responsible government in February 1848, a full month before LaFontainein the united Canadas.

  3. 3 Alastair Sweeny November 13, 2010 at 12:25 am

    What’s all the fuss? Baldwin and Lafontaine were co-Premiers of the Province of Canada, not the Dominion of Canada, and no, not British North America.

    Joseph Howe seems to be forgotten in all the rush.


  1. 1 Macdonald Laurier Institute » Blog Archive » John A. Was Not Our First? Trackback on October 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm
  2. 2 John A. Was Not Our First? « Macdonald Laurier Institute Trackback on October 25, 2010 at 8:55 pm

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