News and Interviews

On Writing, with James Laxer

Three men shaped one of the most influential decades of North American history. John A. Macdonald, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, each an icon in his own right, all contributed in ways that are still felt in North America today. James Laxer delves into the lives of these three men, including their unusual backgrounds and their historic decisions, in Staking Claims to a Continent (House of Anansi). Immensely readable, and fascinating both for history buffs and those who know only the basics of the continent's history alike, Staking Claims to a Continent is essential reading. We're pleased to welcome James to Open Book today to give us the most interesting history lesson we've gotten in a long time.

He tells us about the strong mothers that influenced these three iconic leaders, what Canadians ought to know about our first Prime Minister, and how we're still feeling the effects of this whirlwind period of our history even today.

Open Book:

What led you to write this book now? Why were these three men the right lens through which to view the continent?

James Laxer:

The 1860s was the most explosive decade in the history of North America. John A. Macdonald, Abraham Lincoln, and Jefferson steered three states in a desperate struggle to control huge portions of the continent. What launched the deadly phase of the struggle was the secession of seven states in the Deep South in the months between Lincoln’s election as President of the United States in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861. Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, a cotton plantation owner, resigned his seat, traveled south to Montgomery Alabama, and was sworn in as the provisional president of the newly formed Confederate States of America. This triggered the great war between the North and the South in which at least six hundred thousand men were killed, possibly as many as eight hundred thousand.

Faced with the conflict to the south, British North Americans shook off the parochialism of their politics to begin the journey to the creation of a new federal state. Next year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Dominion of Canada. John A. Macdonald emerged as the master builder of this unique new state, a federation established within the British Empire.


How significant was it for these three men to be from comparatively humble backgrounds and become such influential leaders? Did this represent a change in the history of leadership?


Macdonald, Lincoln and Davis were unlikely leaders. None of the three came from a wealthy family. All three had relatively weak fathers. For instance, Macdonald’s father was noteworthy for founding a series of businesses that soon failed. All three, however, had strong and devoted mothers who helped provide them with the confidence to pursue their goals.

All three were skilled, worked hard and not least they were lucky. Lincoln toiled as a rail-splitter for twenty-five cents a day. Macdonald completed his schooling by the age of fifteen and then set out to become a law clerk. By the time he was twenty-one, he was a lawyer.

The turbulence of the times thrust these men to the top. In part, their pre-eminence was aided by the new technology of the time — the telegraph — which meant that the speeches of public figures could reach a very wide audience through the medium of daily newspapers.


What is your impression of what the average Canadian knows of John A. MacDonald? What, if anything, do you wish more Canadians knew about him?


Most Canadians know that John A. drank too much and they are right about that.

What they ought to know is that he was by far the most skilled political leader of his day in Canada. He did, however, have one deep flaw, which had tragic consequences for the country he was building. Macdonald’s racist outlook meant that when Canada acquired Rupert’s Land (a large portion of the Canadian West) from the Hudson’s Bay Company, his government thought that all that was needed was to negotiate the sale of the territory in London. As Macdonald publicly stated, he did not believe the inhabitants of the region — Metis and indigenous peoples — were capable of managing their own affairs. In his view, self-government for the region would have to wait until a flood of migrants from Canada altered its demographics.

The consequence was the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70, whose leader, Louis Riel, forced Macdonald to establish the new province of Manitoba. The Metis of Red River did not get the guarantee of land ownership they had been promised. Many left for the further west where a second rebellion broke out in 1885. Again the leader was Louis Riel who was hanged in November 1885, an execution that deeply divided the country, turning French Canadians who identified with Riel against English Canada.


Where in our current political and social climate are the effects of the period examined in this book most apparent, in your opinion?


Among the many effects, let me mention one: the Canadian government has now recognized that the Metis in 1870 were cheated out of the land they were promised. Nearly a century and a half after the Red River Rebellion, compensation and a new relationship between Canada and the Metis is at long last on the agenda.


Where do you write most often? Tell us a little about your writing space.


The truth is that I write everywhere, in cafes, on the subway and in my car in parking lots, when I’ve driven a family member to a store. While I hate shopping, I enjoy writing while others shop. My office at home, where I do a lot of writing, grows ever more cluttered over the course of a book. By the end, like Sherlock Holmes, I can only find books and papers by the thickness of the dust that has accumulated on them.


What will you be working on next?


For many months, I’ve been writing my next book whose working title is: Ten Days in September. This book tells the story of Canada’s decision to declare war on Germany in September 1939 and to join in the British war effort. After the fall of France in 1940, Canada was, for a considerable time, the second power in the war against Hitler. This had immense implications for the survival of Britain in her darkest hour.

This book tells the tale of how the far from heroic William Lyon Mackenzie King morphed into a very effect wartime leader.

James Laxer is the award-winning author of more than twenty-five books, including the #1 national bestseller Tecumseh and Brock: The War of 1812, Stalking an Elephant: My Discovery of America (published by the New Press in New York as Discovering America), and The Border: Canada, the U.S., and Dispatches from the Forty-Ninth Parallel. He is a professor of political science in the Department of Equity Studies at York University. He lives in Toronto.