Photo Credit: St Albans Church

Righting the wrongs of the past: leadership lessons from Sir John A Macdonald

When we evaluate these leaders, we must recognize their flaws along with their great success.

I have long appreciated that the Old Testament does not whitewash leaders. King David is seen as one of Israel’s greatest kings. Yet he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah killed. The great leader Joseph forgave his brothers, was appointed second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt and provided his family with sanctuary from famine. Yet he returned to his family their payments for grain, which we consider corruption.

When we evaluate these leaders, we must recognize their flaws along with their great success.

The same is true for more modern leaders, and we have seen that played out over the recent holidays with government leaders taking trips that they urged us not to take.

Taking a look back in time, Sir John A. Macdonald has been lauded and pilloried. His statues have been removed by governments and by mobs.

Macdonald was Canada’s first Prime Minister. One of his biographers rightly calls him, “The man who made us.” Macdonald’s vision, determination and people skills were the driving force behind Confederation. Macdonald himself drafted much of the BNA Act. He was the Prime Minister when many of our political institutions were formed.

Macdonald’s flaws are equally apparent.

He was a binge alcoholic. He orchestrated kickbacks from the syndicate that had the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, resulting in the notorious Pacific Scandal and the fall of Macdonald’s government.

The current denunciations of Macdonald relate to his role in residential schools for Indigenous Peoples in Canada, the starvation of Indigenous Peoples in the Prairies resulting from American overhunting of bison and references to Indigenous people as “savages”.

These criticisms land appropriately at Macdonald’s feet. His attitudes as a leader and change-maker were consistent with the racism of the times that have shaped institutional racism throughout the history of Canada.

Recognizing that all leaders are flawed, on January 11, Sir John A. Macdonald Day, it is a good time to recognize Macdonald for his successes and his failures.

Christians have a strong focus on reconciliation. We have a high view of human dignity and justice.

Let’s focus our energy on righting the wrongs of the past. And let us recognize that all leaders, past and present, are flawed humans and will make mistakes. That does not absolve them of responsibility but calls Christians to exercise mercy and grace.

Janet Epp Buckingham is Director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre and Professor of Political Studies and History. Born in Toronto, Ontario, she has lived in Brockville and London, Ontario, as well as in Tarboro, North Carolina; Bel Air, Maryland; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Cambridge, England; Montpellier, France; Stellenbosch, South Africa; and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She currently resides in Ottawa, Ontario.