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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Old Chieftain's last resting place

Last weekend I dropped my partner off at the VIA Rail station in Kingston, Ontario to catch the train to Ottawa. As I was leaving I noticed a historic marker across the street pointing the way to Cataraqui Cemetery and "the burial place of John A. Macdonald", Canada's first Prime Minister, who lived in Kingston for most of his early life. It was a nice spring day so I drove in to take a look. For such a colossal figure in Canadian history, the Old Chieftain is buried in remarkably humble circumstances.

Cataraqui Cemetery is on the western outskirts of Kingston, near the intersection of Sydenham Road and Princess Street. The area is now a hodge-podge of strip malls and subdivisions near busy Hwy 401, but the cemetery is a peaceful green oasis, presided over by the beautiful 19th century Christ Church Cataraqui.

When you pull into the main entrance, there isn't much to indicate that Macdonald is buried here except for a few discreet signs along the driveway.

Sir John is buried in the Macdonald family plot, which is tucked away in an area of little rolling hills, surrounded by a small wrought-iron fence.

There is a large obelisk in the centre of the plot with the family name on the base, but Sir John's grave is a plain granite cross (a modern replacement of the original) with the simple inscription "At Rest".

Nearby, the Government of Canada has erected a plaque which says "John A. Macdonald, a Father of Confederation and Canada's first Prime Minister, dominated the life of the new nation for a quarter of a century. Macdonald was a visionary statesman, a determined Conservative partisan, and a much-loved leader. His polices of westward expansion and of railways to the Atlantic and Pacific laid the basis of a successful transcontinental nation. Still Prime Minister, Macdonald died in Ottawa on June 6 1891. A simple stone cross marks his grave, as he wished."

When Macdonald died of a stroke in 1891, thousands of people filed past his casket as it lay in state in the Senate chamber. Thousands more turned out to watch his body pass by on a special funeral train which bore him from Ottawa back to his hometown of Kingston. After the funeral, Wilfrid Laurier said of him: "In fact the place of Sir John A. Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country, the fate of this country, will continue without him. His loss overwhelms us." For such an important historical figure, Canadians do little to celebrate his legacy. There is no national holiday in his honour, there are no provinces or cities named after him, and save for a couple of statues here and there there are precious few monuments erected to commemorate his importance. However, I think that is appropriate and probably what he would have wanted. In Canada we don't make cult figures out of our political leaders (save for the brief period of collective insanity known as Trudeaumania, and look how that turned out). The fact that his grave is not a national shrine, but a simple stone cross marked "At Rest" tucked away in an obscure Kingston cemetery, is somehow fitting and proper. I think the Old Chieftain would have wanted it that way.

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