Commentary

Three Solitudes: Canada and Macdonald's Legacy

Far from being the country that Sir John A. Macdonald founded, Canada is in many ways just the country he explicitly did not want.

By Shawn Selway
Published February 04, 2015

The Mohawk Flag, designed by Louis Hall as a variation on his original unity flag, has been adopted across the country. Here flying in the North End.
The Mohawk Flag, designed by Louis Hall as a variation on his original unity flag, has been adopted across the country. Here flying in the North End.

As widely reported three weeks ago, after members of the local Sir John A. Macdonald Society found a counter-demonstration underway at Macdonald's statue downtown, they decided to skip their planned wreath-laying and proceed directly to the tavern.

Ironically the protesters were going to take the same non-confrontational path and stage their protest at Dundurn Park, before deciding to assert themselves at the Gore.

Subsequently, one of the Society's members wrote a letter to the Spectator to express his disappointment. Reading David Woodward's letter about how aboriginal protesters were able to "hijack" the ceremony, intended to celebrate Macdonald's birthday, I was struck by the ambivalence with which he expresses his frustration.

Macdonald was a "great but imperfect" Canadian, and Woodward resents losing the opportunity to publicly display his "pride in the founder of our great nation." The day was hijacked but Woodward is "sympathetic" to the Haudenosaunee "cause" - although he doesn't say what that is. "Brant and the majority of Mohawks" are still "heroes", but imperfect beings also. But what is that Haudenosaunee cause?

Bigotry Refined and Made Systematic

How "imperfect" was Macdonald, anyway? He himself claimed to be a racist - generally regarded as an imperfection in a Canadian politician today, and in his own day as well - and certainly no longer something to be boldly asserted in Parliament.

Note that we are speaking here not of crude bigotry or customary prejudice, but of bigotry refined and made systematic, converted into a plan of social hierarchy, and usually tricked out with some fake science in an attempt to add dignity to what is simply a pretext to extract the maximum gain for the minimum compensation.

In 1885, an Act to draw up a federal elector's list was debated in Parliament. It was followed by a Chinese Immigration Act. During the debates, Macdonald argued that Canadian residents of Chinese origins should be denied the vote, and no further Chinese immigration allowed.

He started with standard bigotry about "British instincts" and "British feelings", and advanced to the proposition that Chinese should be denied entry, lest they produce a "mongrel race" which would "destroy the Aryan character."

Ditto for Africans. The cross of Aryans and Africans or Asiatics "like the cross of the dog and the fox" cannot ever work.

The opposing view, in a nutshell, was that a British subject who followed the laws was a British subject, with all that that entailed, regardless of ethnic origin, and this was frequently voiced by participants in the debates over these two pieces of legislation.

Much of Canadian political history could be written as the struggle between this second, inclusive or ecumenic view of the Canadian polity and that of the "British" i.e. white protestant supremacism espoused by Macdonald.

But the point I want to make is not that Macdonald could spout wicked nonsense, but that the nonsense and the encouraging effect it had on the white supremacism of the British Columbians whose votes Macdonald was wooing, has now been thoroughly rejected by the majority of Canadians.

So far from being the country that Sir John A. founded, Canada is in many ways just the country he explicitly did not want.

Macdonald's Legacy

I have taken Macdonald's words from an article by Timothy J. Stanley which appears along with sixteen others in a recent book titled Macdonald at 200. The editors, Patrice Dutil and Roger Hall, also provide a delicately balanced introduction which, for all its subtleties and nuances, still conveys to this reader some of same discomfort that floats between the lines in Mr. Woodward's letter.

These scholars hope that their work will "help contemporary Canadians distinguish between the monument and the man", but are in the unhappy situation of wanting to acknowledge the whole significance of Macdonald's tenure, no fudging, without being quite resigned to surrendering the heroic figure of the determined founder and visionary dear to Canadian patriotic lore.

Or at least that is how I am reading what may in fact just be a reluctance to say anything too strongly at the opening of their book, for fear of turning away devout Macdonaldites.

The protesters who upset Mr. Woodward certainly have no such problem. According to the Spectator, they taped a sign reading "father of native genocide" to the base of Macdonald's monument at the Gore. Their problem is how to get rid of a large portion of his legacy once and for all.

The Haudenosaunee of Ontario became aware of Macdonald's plans for them in 1857 when, as attorney general of Canada West, he introduced the Gradual Civilization Act.

The intent of the act was to eliminate the aboriginal land base by conferring the vote on natives who met certain criteria. Once qualified, the new citizen and ex-aboriginal would be given a grant of land, to be taken from the existing reserves.

Since the Haudenosaunee had agreements with the British crown, not the Canadian colonists, the Act was, in the aboriginal view, inapplicable. Canada West was promising away land which was not Canada's to give.

Indian Act

In 1860, the management of relations between natives and the crown was passed down from the colonial authority to the Provinces. Following Confederation, the Gradual Civilization Act, along with other provincial statutes and regulations, was subsumed under the Indian Act (1876). This Act is in effect the second founding document of the Canadian State.

The British North America Act had set out terms by which the colonies hoped to protect the territory and cultures of the "British" and "French" minorities in North America from each other and from absorption by the United States. Under the Indian Act, rather than extending similar protections to the native people, the new state undertook to destroy the aboriginal culture and atomize aboriginal communities.

Macdonald at Oshweken, 1886. He is on the right at the centre. The sign reads
Macdonald at Oshweken, 1886. He is on the right at the centre. The sign reads "Sir John our Great Chief." That's not what he was told in the Grand Council House. At Macdonald's urging, Parliament had given the natives of Eastern and Central Canada the federal vote, with no concessions. However, after listening to a two-hour speech, the chiefs told the P.M. that Canada was a foreign nation, not theirs, in which they had no wish to vote. Image: Library and Archives Canada C-6134.

The Indian Act and the administrative procedures it permitted have been amended many times, almost always in the direction of enlarging the powers of the Canadian State to interfere in native lives, the most pernicious measure being compulsory residential schooling.

Macdonald, of course, was not responsible for all that flowed from the Indian Act, nor could he have anticipated all the ill consequences of his policy to extinguish aboriginal institutions and solidarity.

But he knew very well what happened in the West after he had ensured that Canada could extend itself all the way to the Pacific shore, because he supervised much of it personally.

He knew that aboriginal agriculture was actively hindered, although Canada was obliged by explicit terms in treaties concluded with the natives, to help.

He knew that famine, resulting from the extirpation of the bison and extreme weather in the 1870's, as well as disease, was causing many deaths and great hardship. Complaints about the breach of treaty obligations or lack of assistance during times of hunger were generally met by reducing assistance, to discipline the complainants and to persuade bands who had rejected treaty to agree to go on reserves.

Collective Punishment

After 1885, Macdonald agreed to a division between "loyal" and "disloyal" bands, and the collective punishment of the second.

He consented also to the indefinite imposition of a pass system, intended to confine natives to reserves and control all movements away from and between them. This was contrary to treaty and had no basis in Canadian law. It was intended as a constant reminder of government power and to reassure prospective settlers that no further troubles like those of 1885 would occur.

When native farming began to succeed, as was occurring in the late eighties, a new assault was prepared. Reserves were to be re-organized and land allotted to individuals, with any "surplus" being reassigned to settlers.

At the same time, a program of "peasant" farming was introduced. The use of agricultural machinery was forbidden on reserves. Most tools were to be made at home. The purchase of nails, screws and hinges was not allowed: leather thongs would do instead.

This malevolent idiocy continued for seven years. It is simply not possible to farm commercially without machinery under western Canadian conditions, and without agricultural opportunities natives could never compete in the developing prairie economy and would have no recourse except to scratch out subsistence and work as labour for farmers off-reserve.

When making Indian policy, Macdonald did not bother with the racist rhetoric as with the Chinese, but went directly to the object of racist doctrine: the appropriation of resources and the extortion of land and labour from one group to the benefit of another.

And yet, even within Macdonald's own design for Canada, Indian policy in the west was irrational. The crux of the National Policy was the development of commercial agriculture on the prairies to sustain eastern manufacturing behind a tariff wall.

To that end, successful aboriginal farmers would do as well as new immigrants from central Europe, who were no more "British" than the Cree or the Blackfoot.

Big Bear and Poundmaker in captivity, 1886. Following the rebellion of 1885, a metis effort with little native participation, 46 metis and 81 natives were arrested. Seven metis and 44 natives were imprisoned, eight natives were hanged for murder. Big Bear's crime, in the eyes of Canadian authorities, was attempting to form an aboriginal alliance to renegotiate treaties so as to obtain contiguous reserves. A large native land block was the last thing Macdonald wanted, and his administrators in the west used hunger as a weapon to prevent it from coming about.
Big Bear and Poundmaker in captivity, 1886. Following the rebellion of 1885, a metis effort with little native participation, 46 metis and 81 natives were arrested. Seven metis and 44 natives were imprisoned, eight natives were hanged for murder. Big Bear's crime, in the eyes of Canadian authorities, was attempting to form an aboriginal alliance to renegotiate treaties so as to obtain contiguous reserves. A large native land block was the last thing Macdonald wanted, and his administrators in the west used hunger as a weapon to prevent it from coming about.

Dwelling in Ignorance

You can find the details in books by Sarah Carter (Lost Harvests), James Daschuk (Clearing the Plains) John Milloy (A National Crime) and others.

Who reads these things and the reviews and articles that flow from them? Aboriginal activists and specialists in aboriginal studies, no doubt; historians and the various wanderers in the ruins of empire that inhabit former English departments; and a few journalists and civil servants perhaps.

But it is a pretty safe bet that aboriginal readers are preponderant, which means that those most familiar with the long-term damages are ever more knowledgeable about the causes, while the descendants of those responsible for the harms recounted in those books continue to dwell in ignorance, relieved by the odd newspaper piece or radio report.

Canada consists not in two solitudes but in three: French Canada, English Canada, and Indian country. It is a discouraging experience to browse the comments appended to newspaper articles and blog posts by which English Canadians reinforce each other's petulance and rancour and deepen their isolation from those to whom they are constitutionally bound.

Again, the point is not that Macdonald's policy was wrong and so was he (though this is so.) The point is that the continuous assault on the livelihood, traditions and languages of aboriginal people has been a fundamental activity of the Canadian State ever since Macdonald built that function into it at the founding of that state.

And again, the continuing effect of section 35 of the Constitution Act, which recognizes and affirms the "existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada", has been to steadily reverse what Macdonald wished for this country. He was a "visionary" whose vision has proven immensely destructive and very costly, and which has been abandoned.

Cradled and Cursed

Should we nonetheless celebrate Macdonald's achievements in the bicentennial of his birth? Arguably we would not exist as the peoples we are within the territory in which we reside, without the appearance of an individual with Macdonald's political skills, without the railroad he contrived to complete and the protective tariff that he was able to establish.

But he also cursed the country he organized in its cradle.

All in all, I will have to take a pass on celebrating Sir John. The record is just too dark, and at least for the time being celebration is not compatible with the reconciliation that most of us would like to achieve.

In any case, there is a better birthday to celebrate, in July - the day to pause and recognize not only how far Canada has come from what Macdonald tried to make of us, but how much further there is still to go.

Elsipogtog, near Rexton, New Bunwick, Oct 17, 2013. Image: Andrew Vaughan, Canadian Press via The Globe and Mail.
Elsipogtog, near Rexton, New Bunwick, Oct 17, 2013. Image: Andrew Vaughan, Canadian Press via The Globe and Mail.

Shawn Selway is a Stelco trained millwright who runs a consultancy in the interpretation and conservation of historic machinery. He lives in the North End with his family.

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By JeremyP (registered) | Posted February 04, 2015 at 15:47:51

it's just too easy to judge history from a modern perspective. One may not agree with all Sir John A. MacDonald did but that doesn't mean we paint him entirely in a pejorative manner. He was a man who did a lot of good and some evil, just like you and I. Don Smith: “if judged by the standards of his age, not ours, he emerges as a complex and relatively tolerant individual.” See Don's article in the Globe and Mail for a more thorough treatment of MacDonald and early Canadian Aboriginal-European political relations.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 12:36:01 in reply to Comment 108723

One may not agree with all Sir John A. MacDonald did but that doesn't mean we paint him entirely in a pejorative manner.

People say this every time there is criticism of Sir John A., but you have to remember that for the last 200 years we have been honouring him as one of our countries founders and as a great man --- meanwhile, many Canadians today still suffer under both the lingering effects of his actions as well as the injustices perpetrated by those who followed him. It would be supremely unfair to talk about his legacy and not point out some of the wounds he inflicted on our country, especially given that they have not all healed.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 11:14:15 in reply to Comment 108723

Your backhanded treatment of what is a fine and very thorough analysis deserves a reply in kind.

I'm reminded of a footnote found in the introduction to a collection of essays on the trials and tribulations of a married couple who moved from Toronto out into the suburbs in the 1950s (satire, pretty well written).

The essays were published as the author put it "from time to time in the Globe and Mail, Canada's National Newspaper* when other material to hold the advertisements apart has been scarce".

The footnote (i.e. *): "Masculine readers will please remove their hats, stand to attention and place their right hands upon their hearts; a deep curtsey by feminine readers will suffice. Thank you. Pray proceed."

Backhand at you: if it's said in the Globe and Mail we must be deferential, after all it's our source of respectable thought, our national gatekeeper of the Truth.

Comment edited by RobF on 2015-02-05 11:24:00

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By IanReynolds (registered) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 04:33:06 in reply to Comment 108723

A lot of good and some evil.

He actively tried to exterminate an entire race.

People in Hamilton freaked out over a statue of a local legend being erected because he's supposedly a bad influence, for having the nerve to make music. A genocidal drunk can have one though.

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By McLung (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 07:00:25 in reply to Comment 108744

So did Nelly McClung, Lenin and Trotsky - not to mention many pre-Columbus North American dwellers. Also, he did not want to eliminate a race he wanted to assimilate them ala the Borg.

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By Selway (registered) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 01:01:07 in reply to Comment 108723

Yes it's true that it can be easier to judge with hindsight and there is a danger there. After all, we were not obliged to make the choice in the given circumstances, so we don't know what we ourselves would have done. It is self flattering to be morally superior while remaining untried. But is it really the case that standards vary from age to age, and that therefore the judgement of the present on the past is invalid? I certainly don't think that is true. We are all born into circumstances that we did not make, and don't get to choose between good and bad; only between the least bad. In order to choose for the best, we have to know what that is, which means we seek knowledge of the details of all the circumstances in order to make that best choice. (This is pretty much what RTH is about, setting aside the oceans of emotion that also get spilled here.)So one problem of historical judgement is to reconstruct past circumstances, and ask who knew what and when did they know it. Then there are other difficulties. The concept of responsibility varies, according to whether we have the means to address the circumstances we find, and according also to our understanding of who is "our own." Then there is the problem of our unfreedom, of our urge to do and say just what others are doing and saying, even if there is no immediate price to be paid for dissent. This is really what is meant by the "standard of the times". Some always resist but many do not. This is an undeniable political fact. But. As was pointed out in the Timothy Stanley article, there was lots of strong dissent at the time from Macdonald's views on Chinese enfranchisment and immigration. Similarly with Macdonald's handling of aboriginal issues. Macdonald decided early on that aboriginals could not be allowed to enter his grand new country as they were, and a great deal of evil followed from that. Obviously there is lots more to be said about all this, but we would certainly exceed everybody's patience if we tried to do it here.

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By mayornot (registered) | Posted February 04, 2015 at 16:12:15

The charge of presentism is convenient, contrived horse- --sorry--nonsense--baloney. It's a false, phony, defensive, intended to tell "opponents" to stifle yourselves, Edith. Good history & historians do exactly the opposite: they exactly look at the contemporary circumstances. Excellent piece, Shawn. Some of the books you mention are available at HPL, others through interlibrary. Timothy Stanley [2011] wrote an excellent, if academically languaged, study of Chinese Canadians in British Columbia--mainly in the cities: Contesting White Supremacy. Shows in McMaster catalogue; isn't at HPL but they'll go get it for any patron--interlibrary. Has extensive Biblio & notes. Anyway, good on you for this. Daschuk's info is frightening, and there's someone at U of Guelph [I think] who also looked at medical/historical records of/for First Nations people in 19th cent. re those Canadian governments. I tried to post part of this anon on RTH but it got called spam!

Comment edited by mayornot on 2015-02-04 16:13:18

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By China (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 07:04:07 in reply to Comment 108725

China (in its many variations) has had a no-whites (or anyone else for that matter) xenophobic racist culture for thousands of years. What's your point?

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By huh? (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 14:14:44 in reply to Comment 108747

like, there was thing with a railway? Macdonald? Chinese workers? Across Canada? you know, choo-choo?

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By Tribal (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 07:06:41

I agree with the author. Let's get rid of tribalism altogether. (So along with the Canadian flag, that "unity" flag would have to go.)

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By RobF (registered) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 11:22:47

"Dwelling in Ignorance" ... sometimes a single phrase captures the essence of the problem. Thanks for this very important analysis. It couldn't be more timely.

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By response (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 14:16:21



By China (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 07:04:07 in reply to Comment 108725

China (in its many variations) has had a no-whites (or anyone else for that matter) xenophobic racist culture for thousands of years. What's your point?


huh? (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2015 at 14:14:44 in reply to Comment 108747

like, there was thing with a railway? Macdonald? Chinese workers? Across Canada? you know, choo-choo?

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