In 1887, the first of Vancouver’s many anti-Chinese riots had just broken out when Sir John A. Macdonald stood up in the House of Commons to propose further measures to keep out the Chinese.
The Chinese took white jobs, he said. The Chinese would breed a “mongrel” race in British Columbia and threaten the “Aryan” character of the Dominion. Altogether, the prospect of having white working classes living alongside Chinese could lead only to “evil.”
But in an odd aside, Macdonald admitted that he was supporting the policy largely because he was running a country full of racists.
“On the whole, it is considered not advantageous to the country that the Chinese should come and settle in Canada,” said Macdonald. “That may be right or it may be wrong, it may be prejudice or otherwise, but the prejudice is near universal.”
Although they were laying the groundwork for one of the world’s most tolerant nations, the Canadians of 1867 largely took white supremacy for granted. Blacks were barred from staying in Toronto hotels. The average British Columbian saw Asians as a threat to racial purity. And almost everybody was fine with the expectation that the native way of life would soon be extinct.
On Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday, the country’s founding prime minister has no shortage of critics to deem him a racist, a colonizer and a misogynist. They’re right on all counts, but the man who founded Canada was the product of an age that made Archie Bunker look like Mohandas Gandhi.
“This is unfair, they didn’t know the things we know,” said Don Smith, a historian at the University of Calgary, responding to modern-day criticism of Macdonald.
Richard Gwyn, the author of a bestselling two-volume biography of Macdonald, warned in a recent piece for The Walrus that Canadians are lazily using the country’s founder as a “scapegoat” for the sins of the past.
“While Macdonald did make mistakes, so did Canadians, collectively,” he said.
Criticisms of Macdonald generally centre on his policies concerning non-white Canadians. In short, he worked to keep out the Chinese, smashed Métis rebellions and set Canadian First Nations on track to decades of poverty and isolation.
But almost nobody gets a pass in 19th century Canada.
George Brown, Macdonald’s chief political rival, had a solid anti-slavery track record and urged racial harmony between Toronto’s whites and blacks.
At the same time, though, he also told Torontonians to distrust Jews, Catholics and the Irish. As refugees from the Irish Famine streamed into British North America, Brown wrote that these half-starved migrants were as much of a curse on Canada as “were the locusts to the land of Egypt.”
‘First Nations people in Saskatchewan, I would bet you $5 to a person, consider Macdonald the agent of their subjugation’
Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Macdonald’s Liberal successor, was famously responsible for boosting the Chinese head tax to $500 in 1903.
In 1886, Laurier told the House of Commons that it was moral for Canada to take lands from “savage nations” so long as they paid adequate compensation.
A native-ruled Canada would “forever have remained barren and unproductive, but which under civilised rule would afford homes and happiness to teeming millions,” he said.
Below the border, even Abraham Lincoln, Macdonald’s 1860s contemporary, held the view that as soon as the Civil War was over, the United States should get to work shipping all its black people back to Africa.
As the 16th president said in 1858, “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
Compared to the age he inhabited, say defenders, Macdonald was comparatively tolerant. He hung out with Irishmen, he had native friends, he urged unity with French speakers and he candidly acknowledged that the Canadian project was not going well for the country’s indigenous inhabitants.
“At all events, the Indians have been great sufferers by the discovery of America, and the transfer to it of a large white population,” he said in 1880.
Macdonald oversaw the execution of Louis Riel, yes, but the man had staged two violent rebellions against his government.
“We still admire the way he tried to get Canadians to co-operate,” wrote historian Ged Martin in a recent piece. “But we don’t like the price that had to be paid, in sleaze and pork, to keep the country working together.”
The steepest price, by far, came on the aboriginal file. In addition to being Canada;’s first and longest serving prime minister, Macdonald remains the country’s longest-serving aboriginal affairs minister.
Serving in the post from 1878 to 1888, he laid the groundwork for basically every institution now blamed for the horrid state of Ottawa-aboriginal relations: The Indian Act, Indian Residential Schools and an over-bureaucratized Department of Indian Affairs.
“First Nations people in Saskatchewan, I would bet you $5 to a person, consider Macdonald the agent of their subjugation,” said University of Regina professor James Daschuk.
Last May, Mr. Daschuk, the author of a decidedly anti-Macdonald book, found himself in the somewhat awkward position of winning the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for non-fiction.
‘He didn’t need to be so cruel’
That book, Clearing the Plains, based on 20 years of research, outlines how Canada capitalized on famine and disease in the prairies to force native populations to relocate to reserves well away from the coming railroad.
Mr. Daschuk notes that the evidence can still be seen on maps. In the once-populous areas southwest of Regina, there are only two First Nations reserves — both of which were established after the railroad was finished.
It was understandable for Macdonald to build a railroad to British Columbia or even pursue a policy of assimilation. But Mr. Daschuk says that what happened on the plains was needlessly draconian: Natives were barred from selling their agricultural products to white settlers, in some cases they were restricted from using modern farming implements and they could be arrested if found off their reserve without a pass.
“He didn’t need to be so cruel,” said Mr. Daschuk.
But it’s not like he had opponents. When critics accused Macdonald’s government of wasting money on feeding the Cree, the Prime Minister had no qualms in telling the assembled House of Commons that his agents withheld food “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”
As Don Smith noted in one of the few papers ever drafted on Macdonald’s aboriginal policy, the first Prime Minister was also somewhat progressive in his belief in Aboriginal title as something to be extinguished with treaties.
Other politicians of the era reasoned that the natives had never owned the land in the first place, so it was free for the taking.
In the 1880s, a landmark Ontario court decision ruled that “there is no Indian title in law or in equity. The claim of the Indians is simply moral and no more.”
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As the ugly business of nation-building goes, Macdonald can still boast some of history’s cleanest hands.
Unlike Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, Macdonald didn’t unify Canada by engineering a series of bloody foreign wars. He never owned people, like George Washington. And he never personally killed anyone, like Simon Bolivar.
And even within the 19th century British Empire, the devastating relocation of several thousand native peoples was barely a blip.
As Mr. Daschuk noted, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad was occurring at the same time as drought and negligent colonial management was conspiring to kill millions in British India.
But even if Macdonald wins the historical context game, it does not mean he will ever be anything less than an antihero for those Canadians who got the short end of the Confederation stick.
As Anishinaabe academic Hayden King wrote in a Twitter post this week, “’nobody is perfect’ is sooner to be adopted as a national mantra than rejecting [Sir John A. Macdonald] as a villain.”