Hundreds gathered at the Grand Theatre on Friday evening to watch the Honourable Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and the Honourable Bob Rae, former interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, present their arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ the “greatness” of Canada’s first Prime Minister.
The debate — “Was Sir John A. Macdonald Canada’s Greatest Prime Minister?” — was moderated by TVO’s The Agenda host Steve Paikin and organized by the City of Kingston as part of the bicentenary events for Macdonald’s birth.
Many remarks — including Rae’s response to “who is the greatest Conservative Prime Minister in history?” — incited laughter from the audience.
“I think Macdonald was the greatest Conservative Prime Minister in history — but on the other hand, look at the list!” Rae joked.
He added that he doesn’t think the country has had its “best” prime minister yet — although “a young Aboriginal girl” in Friday’s audience could become the greatest prime minister, he said.
Wilfrid Laurier was Alexander’s choice for the greatest Liberal Prime Minister in history.
When Paikin brought up recent literature from the University of Regina — which he said suggested that Macdonald had a policy in place to starve Aboriginal people in western Canada — he sparked debate between Rae and Alexander over whether the former Prime Minister’s actions could be considered genocide.
“I think the destruction of people and the destruction of a culture … fits the United Nations’ definition of genocide,” Rae said.
“And having said that, we have to deal with the consequences.”
Alexander wasn’t in favour of extending the UN definition of genocide to the Macdonald case, saying there’s “nothing to think there was a deliberate policy to destroy their lives.”
The debate was followed by questions from the audience, with topics including corruption with respect to the Pacific Railway and tragedies in Sir John A’s personal life — among them the health of his wife and premature death of his first-born.
There was some agreement over the former, with Alexander saying that policies with respect to the railroad sometimes benefited Macdonald’s friends and Rae noting, “what happened with the Pacific Railway was corrupt.”
Attendees at the debate included former Canadian Prime Minister John Turner; Sophie Kiwala, MPP for Kingston and the Islands; the Rt. Hon. Tricia Marwick, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament; Principal Daniel Woolf; and former House of Commons Speaker and recent Order of Canada recipient Peter Milliken.
After the debate, Woolf told the Journal he thought there was “general agreement” on Macdonald’s greatness, but “a little disagreement” over calling him the greatest. He added that he enjoyed the historical examples used throughout the debate.
“It’s always entertaining to watch two very fun parliamentarians such as Chris Alexander and Bob Rae go at it, and I think it’s all done in good spirit, good humour,” he said.
Milliken said he thought it was a “great debate” and that both sides did very well and had good arguments.
Knowing Alexander and Rae, Milliken said, the debate was what he’d expected.
“I thought it would be quite lively, and it was.”
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