What would Sir John A. say?

Two Canadians make a pilgrimage to the founding PM’s birthplace and are surprised by what they find

National Archive of Canada/The Canadian Press

It is not easy to find John A. Macdonald’s childhood home in Glasgow. No statue stands to celebrate Canada’s first prime minister in his native Scottish city, and it was only with some sleuthing that we arrived at a boarded-up, derelict pub, above which the nation maker is thought to have been born on Jan. 11, 199 years ago.

Glasgow itself is a little different from tourist-friendly portrayals of the country’s wild Highlands or elegant streets of the Enlightenment. Unlike Edinburgh, Scotland’s largest city faces west towards the North Atlantic. On the day of our visit, the streets were wet with rain and grey clouds glowered overhead.

As two Canadians living and studying in Scotland, we made the afternoon trip from Edinburgh and Stirling, hoping to find a tiny Mecca for Canadian patriots and history pilgrims. The wreck of a pub that stood before us did not qualify.

The graffitied walls and broken windows of the abandoned Fox and Hound, although perhaps fitting to commemorate a man who was known to indulge in drink, do little justice to the achievements of the primary father of Canadian Confederation.

Glasgow itself has changed enormously since Macdonald’s birth nearly 200 years ago. The city’s resilient working class endured the excesses of the Industrial Revolution and successive declines in manufacturing, particularly shipbuilding along the great River Clyde. The legacy of Thatcherism still rankles here.

But all that came long after Macdonald left. Canada’s first prime minister was only a boy of five when his family departed his native Scotland. Still, he would draw on his Scottish connections throughout his life. Macdonald got first job in a Kingston law office, at age 15, through the local Scottish community. His membership in the Protestant—and sometimes sectarian—Orange Order grew out of his Scottish affiliation and would serve him well on the hustings throughout his political career.

And yet, a man who never shook off his roots now seems largely forgotten by his own hometown.

When we sat down at a nearby coffee shop with John McNamee, a Glasgow city councillor who has lived and worked in British Columbia, he shook his head at the lack of proper commemoration. “There’s really only one small and meagre memorial to the man and it is affixed to a former church. It is an absolute tragedy that the founder of the nation of Canada has no statue, or legacy, or education program to let kids know.”

Far from a place for young Glaswegians to learn about John A., the block where the man was supposedly born is shrouded in an air of hostility. “Children must not play on this site,” a sign warns. Barbed wire crawls across nearby fences and rooftops.

Although McNamee has been engaged in efforts to properly recognize the site since 2009, he notes it has been a struggle to rally institutional and financial support on both sides of the Atlantic. He says his initial attempts to reach out to the Prime Minister’s Office and the office of the Minister of Heritage garnered lackluster responses.

Heritage Minute, Sir John A. Macdonald from Historica Canada on Vimeo.

“If George Washington had been born in Glasgow there would be a huge, gaudy mausoleum to him.” says McNamee. “The discrepancy is that John A. was Canadian. That has to be rectified.”

In discussing his efforts to get the Canadian giant commemorated in Scotland, McNamee points to the example of John A.’s own perseverance in the face of grim circumstances and long odds. Macdonald is a model politician from McNamee’s standpoint, and one who influences his own work in politics.

But McNamee is not strictly fixated on celebrating the Macdonald of the past. He is equally curious about what the man’s legacy might have to teach us about our world today. In September 2014, Scottish citizens will vote on the question of their independence from the United Kingdom—and it is a question about which McNamee says Macdonald could still offer guidance: “He’d be hugely against it. John A. was a federalist,” says McNamee. “The reality is, I support the union for the same reasons that Macdonald would, pragmatic reasons, economic reasons.”

After spending some time with the councillor we walk back to the bleak exterior of the old pub. Although little physical proof stands of the famous Canadian’s early life in Glasgow’s Merchant City district, it occurred to us that current residents might bear his oral history. Could they illuminate Sir John A.’s elusive presence in his birthplace?

It was not to be. When we tried to strike up conversations about John A., just feet from what is thought to be his childhood home, we were mostly met with blank stares. Not only was Macdonald unknown to those we spoke to, but many of them were migrants from the wider EU, particularly Hungary, Russia, and Poland. Over the last decade, tens of thousands of EU residents have made Scotland their home.

At first, these conversations were yet another disappointment. We had traveled to this gloomy spot in Glasgow to connect with others who might appreciate Macdonald’s legacy. But our encounters with these people had a different lesson. Like John A. himself, many of those we met had found their way to a foreign country to build something new. And they soaked up stories of Macdonald with interest. “I hope you find him,” one Hungarian-born barista laughed, after overhearing us quiz three of her coworkers about Macdonald’s birthplace.

In our fixation on this Canadian historical figure, our mission to find a scrap of Canada in Scotland, we had been blinded to the currents of change, migration and political upheaval underway in the city around us. The upcoming referendum for Scottish independence, the changing face of the city of Glasgow, the remarkable political and economic patterns of activity in the EU that are transforming countries like Scotland—these are the issues of today that deserve our attention.

What would John A. say of Scottish independence or EU economic integration or the way that McNamee should represent his constituents? Does Macdonald’s vision for the relationship between Britain and Canada still make any sense, or do we need to move further past it? What bearing does his legacy have for us right now?

These questions are worth asking. History, we realized, is not just the stuff of plaques or statues—although it sometimes begins there. Our history is the part of the past that we carry forward to inform our politics and culture today.

John A. himself was not fixated on or blinded by his own ancestry. Instead, he leveraged his background to form alliances, build bridges and move mountains. In contrast with his rival George Brown, Macdonald’s visits to Britain primarily took him to England, rather than Scotland, to pursue political projects, rather than nostalgia.

In the end, we learned lessons about John A. rooted in the transience of identity and the uncertainty of our history. Like those people we met on the streets of Glasgow, Macdonald was, at first, a stranger to the place that he lived and he worked to make it his home.

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