You might think, given the role of Ontario in Canadian history, that Premier Wynne (or at least her speechwriters) would be at least passingly familiar with Canadian history. Or at least did a brief search on Wikipedia.
“I’ve said that if Stephen Harper had been the Prime Minister instead of Sir John A. Macdonald and B.C. had said ’well we need a railway,’ he would have said ’well, you know, we’re not going to help you with that, build it yourself,”’ Wynne said.
One of the big problems with this rhetorical technique is that it fails to take context into account. Macdonald’s Canada is not Stephen Harper’s Canada: it had less people, a smaller tax base, and a more hostile neighbor to the south. Which, in case she hadn’t noticed, was still in thrall to the idea of “manifest destiny” expressed a mere fifty years or so earlier.
Which means that, had Stephen Harper been PM at that time, issues of national security would have overridden any reluctance to rely solely on the private sector — a sector which, incidentally, would never have built a transcontinental railway within British North American borders, due to the engineering effort required to get through the Rockies.
Of course, there’s also the question of whether Harper would encounter the Pacific Scandal, which was a direct result of the decision to build a transcontinental railway; Macdonald was more tolerant of what we would today call patronage, and living in an age which was altogether more tolerant of patronage and bribery.
I think we should consider Premier Wynne’s oration an example of someone with political blinders on. Macdonald is one of those few Tory prime ministers that Liberals, provincial and federal, have to acknowledge as important to Canadian history, especially since he’s considered a primary nation-builder. She might have been better off making comparisons to R.B. Bennett, the Tory Prime Minister of the Great Depression, or Robert Borden, the Tory PM of the First World War; both are more relatable to the current political situation that Macdonald, and such comparisons would have given the Premier a stronger reputation as someone who’s learned from studying history.
Instead, what we see is a retail politician using poor research and cheap rhetoric to score a point that even now is fading from public consciousness, mainly because the educated public knows better than she does.