I've spent a goodly chunk of my vacation with John Adams. That's not some visiting relative who won't leave, but the HBO series on the second U.S. president. It's been running on Canada's History channel for the past five weeks, and I've been taping it in anticipation of having the time to sit down and watch it in an extended stretch.
I am untroubled by the fact the series debuted in 2008; after all, the basic facts of the remarkable story have not changed in the 185 years since Adams died (on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the same day as Thomas Jefferson passed — but I guess all Americans know this).
Having spent so much time watching Paul Giamatti and cast sweat through 50 of the formative years of the USA in powdered wigs and heavy wool frocks, I am left with several thoughts. One is how well the series succeeds in capturing the human drama of the American uprising against the British and the creation of a new country. That's probably a tribute to how well the producers adapted the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by David McCullough.
I'm also left thinking who might be the Canadian equivalent of John Adams, an individual who had a crucial role in the creation of his country and without whom things could have gone badly, very differently — or nowhere.
Of course the circumstances leading to the creation of each country are quite distinct, but the key common denominator is that both colonial entities had to find a way to shake off the Brits. Adams and company did so with a unilateral declaration of independence backed by a willingness to shed blood.
British North Americans, by contrast, had to wheedle and wangle their way out of the British grip, and, we should note, the job remains unfinished since Elizabeth 2 is still constitutionally queen of Canada.
Regardless, based on my scanty grasp of Canadian history, the nominee for the John Adams award for most important contribution to the overthrow of British rule in Canada is: Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, financier and future Father of Confederation.
Galt was not the first advocate of unifying the British colonies of Canada — Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — into a single entity independent of Britain. But, the Sherbrooke and Montreal-based land developer and railway baron was the first to take effective action and devise a detailed plan for confederation.
In 1858, as a leader in Lower Canada, he led a small delegation to London to seek talks on colonial union. According to one history text "to Galt we owe the introduction of the policy into practical politics." Like, we might say, the ever-practical Adams.
To put some teeth to his conviction that confederation was the only way to go, Galt made it a condition of his acceptance to serve in the Canadian colonial government that it take the lead in the pursuit of a federation of the British American colonies.
It should be noted that Galt was motivated at least in part by his interest in the protection of Quebec's interests. By being part of a larger union, the province would be better able to defend its language rights, rather than be overwhelmed by rapidly growing Ontario.
Galt thus recruited the most powerful French-Canadian figure of the day and his business colleague, Sir George-Etienne Cartier, the essential partner of the man who became a key negotiator of Confederation and Canada's first prime minister in 1867, Sir John A. Macdonald.
So, had it not been for Galt, Canada today would be … well, who knows? We do know that unlike Adams, Galt did not go on to become the first minister of his country. But, like Adams had been for the United States of America, Galt was the first official diplomatic envoy to Great Britain after Canada, in its turn and in its own way, had declared its independence from the mother country.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.