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John A:
The Man Who Made Us Volume One: 1815–1867

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by Richard Gwyn

Random House Canada, Toronto, 2007
528 pp., $37 hardcover

A copy of John A. belongs in every Canadian household. For the fifty-four percent of Canadians who have no idea who John A. Macdonald is, Richard Gwyn provides an accessible and intriguing crash course into the life and times of our first prime minister. For the rest, Gwyn’s political insights and painstaking research and analysis provide an intimate and detailed portrait of the man he convincingly describes as Canada’s first great political leader.

As with Donald Creighton’s two volume biography published in 1952, volume I of Gwyn’s John A. spans the period from Macdonald’s arrival in Canada in 1815 to Confederation in 1867. Appropriately, fully half of the book is devoted to a very thorough account of the pre-Confederation negotiations and intrigues between 1860 and 1867.

Gwyn’s easy writing style helps readers connect the past with the present, and provokes an irresistible urge to compare Macdonald’s mastery of minority coalitions, issues management, and consensus-building with the skills of today’s leadership. The book uses wit and sometimes not-so-gentle irony to underscore those things that have not changed over time: the universal dissing of Ottawa; the ongoing challenges of accommodating Canada’s divergent linguistic and regional interests within a national agenda; and the unique ability of Canadians to define themselves by what they are not, rather than by who they are.

Although the book offers many insights into the tragedies of Macdonald’s personal life, Gywn’s John A. remains above all pragmatic, methodical, and calculating. But far from diminishing the legend of Macdonald as the passionate “Father of Confederation,” Gwyn’s approach reveals his quintessentially cool Canadian qualities, thereby affirming him as the man who made us.

— Deborah Morrison (Read bio)

Deborah Morrison is the executive director of SEVEC and the former president and CEO of Canada’s History Society.


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