Her Honour The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, OC, OOnt Lieutenant Governor of Ontario


Royal York Hotel, Toronto
Saturday 10 January 2015

Premier, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, Mesdames et messieurs:
Je suis ravi d’être ici ce soir.
I am delighted to be here this evening, to join the Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald Toronto in celebrating the Old Chief’s 200th birthday.

As the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation approaches, it is entirely fitting that we pause on this day to pay our respects to Sir John Alexander Macdonald, a proud Scottish-Canadian, an Ontarian before Ontario, and a significant figure in the building of this great nation of ours.

Historians paint a picture of a complex man at a time that was very different than today. He was at times brilliant in exercising his leadership and political skills, yet on occasion perceived to be insensitive and flawed in his behavior. Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that Sir John A’s place in history, as a (if not the) Father of Confederation, is assured.

Others tonight will no doubt elaborate upon what makes him so.

Certainly this past week, through media coverage and serious scholarship, we have had opportunities to explore the question – Who was this man? The man who was present at the birth of this country, who contributed so much to the discussion and drafting of our legislative foundations and then went on with great determination– as first Prime Minister – to implement such a visionary and remarkable grand project – the nation of Canada.

I also hope that a little attention will be paid to his life partner, the redoubtable Lady Agnes, whose contribution to Canadian history has gone largely unsung.

In fact, Richard Gwyn notes in the second volume of his magisterial biography of our first Prime Minister, “In her own way,” Lady Macdonald can be ranked … as a Mother of Confederation.”

Miss Susan Agnes Bernard, who married Sir John A. just a few short months before the momentous events at Charlottetown, remained his helpmate, political ally and caregiver through 24 years of marriage. She was highly intelligent and intellectually curious – qualities that made her an important partner.

Behind the well-known Charlottetown photo are many other actors, real people with intriguing lives, a product of their times. For us to understand that historical moment we cannot separate the man from the context of the times. By way of illustration, many of us are unaware of Sir John A’s views on female suffrage.

Sir John A espoused the cause of votes for women, introducing the Franchise Bill in January 1885 and noting, during the contentious and raucous debate that continued for months thereafter, that he had always hoped “that Canada should have the honour of first placing woman in the position that she is certain, after centuries of oppression, to obtain…”

In the event, the bill was withdrawn, and Canadian women would not obtain the vote until 1918. But the fact remains that John A. Macdonald was the first government leader in the world to attempt female franchise, and he did so in the face of opposition from political friends and foes alike.

Clearly, Sir John A’s vision of nation-building included women. For that I am grateful.
On the occasion of celebrating impressive people and milestones from our past, we can develop a better understanding of who we are as a people – what has helped to define us – and what will help us realize a promising future.
Au nom de la reine, je vous offre salutations.

In the name of The Queen and on behalf of the people of Ontario, I bring greetings. And I thank you for inviting me to take part in this evening’s auspicious birthday celebration! I look forward to the stories yet to be told.
Merci et Megwich.

[1] Gwyn, Richard. Nation Maker. Sir John A Macdonald: His Life, Our Times Volume Two: 1867-1891. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2011