Richard Gwyn

Richard Gwyn is the author of John A.: The Man Who Made Us as well as a commentator for the Toronto Star and a frequent contributor to television and radio programs. The second volume on the life of John A. Macdonald, Nation-Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times will be published in September 2011.  

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Describe the genesis of John A: The Man Who Made Us. How did you come to write about Canada’s first Prime Minister?

I came at it sideways. An approach in 2003 by Penguin Canada about my writing a mini-bio of Macdonald as part of a Brief Lives series (since realized as the Extraordinary Canadians series), caused me to start reading up on Macdonald. After going through a few of the standard books on him, I realized that no full-scale biography had been done on him since Donald Creighton’s magnificent two volumes back in the mid-1950s. Given that he’s Canada’s most important prime minister, this struck me as somewhere between absurd and outrageous. So I set out to do what I could to fill that huge hole that has somehow been left gaping in our historical record.   

How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?

From start to finish, the project will have taken seven years, and it expanded from the original single volume I originally anticipated to two volumes, the first, The Man Who Made Us, covered the time from Macdonald’s birth to Confederation, the second, Nation-Maker, covered from Confederation to his death, in 1891. The second is due to published, again by Random House, this September. 

The major challenge was that there was so much to write about, from his personality to his politics and policies. At one time, a three-volume series was considered, and then rejected as one volume too many. To fit the material of his post-Confederation career—the CPR, the CPR Scandal, the two up-risings by Riel and Riel’s trial and execution, the creation of the North-West Mounted Police (the first distinctively Canadian institution), the National Policy of high tariffs to protect our manufacturers, and his attempt (the first world leader to do so) to extend the vote to women—into a second volume that wouldn’t dislocate a reader’s shoulder, involved some intense cutting and compressing, of something like one-quarter to one-third the original text. This exercise involved some pain, but it was well worth it (I hope and believe) in terms of readability. 

Were there any books that influenced you in your approach?

Not directly, but I deliberately read, or re-read, books by historians I admire such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Hackett Fischer, Simon Schama, Margaret MacMillan, Niall Ferguson, David McCullough, and back to Barbara Tuchman, Robert Blake, Elizabeth Longford. They reminded me of the simple, central fact about history: it’s a story about people.

Tell us a little about how you chose the title John A: The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, Volume 1: 1815-1867.

It came late, but once it came to me it was obviously spot on: Macdonald did make us, and but for him there wouldn’t be any Canada or any Canadians. Only he could have pulled off Confederation, which few Canadians wanted or cared about, and only he, as volume two will recount, possessed the political skill—on par with Lincoln and Disraeli, if as a politician rather than as a statesman—that it took for this odd, fragile, fractured country to “harden from gristle to bone” as he put it, or to gain the trappings and sense of actually being a country.

Did John A. change the trajectory of your career? In what way?

Yes, in the sense that for seven years now—a time-span I never anticipated at the start—I’ve been functioning like an historian rather than as a journalist. Now that the end is a few weeks away (but for the “flogging”), I’ve not the least idea what I will do next.

What do you think of the state of Canadian political writing these days? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more? 

I can’t make any useful comments about the state of Canadian political writing today because for seven years I’ve been focused on the 19th century, not the 21st.

There are, though, two books I’d like to see written. One concerns multiculturalism. How on earth did a country with our record of rivalries, fears, suspicions and out-right hatred between English and French, and between Catholics and Protestants, and between Aboriginals and those of European descent, manage somehow to become a world model for multiculturalism, with (proportionate to our size) easily the largest and most liberal immigration program in the world and with, so far, more success at integrating newcomers than any other country? Is it the water we drink, or is there some quality in the people now living here and in those who came before them? While we’ve done remarkably well with all the varied newcomers coming here from all over the world, we’ve mostly done atrociously in our relations with those who were here long before any of the rest of us arrived. 

The other book I’d like to see written is a variation of that last point: missing in all the extensive commentary on the state of our Aboriginals has been a chronicle of their thinking about non-Aboriginals. That wouldn’t be easy to accomplish because the historical record from their perspective is so thin, but the right Aboriginal historian could tell us a great deal about this.

Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favorite book and why? Are there any other books written in the last 25 years that you would suggest people read? 

My favourites among the dozen are: 1867 by Christopher Moore, which breathes life and sparkle into an old tale, On the Take by Stevie Cameron, the product of highly original, and highly risky, investigative journalism, and While Canada Slept by Andrew Cohen, a perceptive and passionate account of the diminution of Canada’s place in the world.

My favorite over the 25 years is Doug Saunders Arrival City, powerful and original.

What are you working on now?

Nothing, and instead recharging my batteries.

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In the first full-scale biography of our first prime minister in more than half a century, political columnist Richard Gwyn breathes fresh interpretation into the life and times of the “Old Chieftain.” Beginning with Macdonald’s birth in Glasgow and stretching to his role as one of the Fathers of Confederation, John A. tracks the development of his genius to create the country’s first true national party, combining French and English, straddling the political centre. The author discovers that the single most important decision Canadians of the day made was not to become a confederation, but not to become Americans, as they could have done so easily and profitably.