A Prime Minister’s Problematic Legacy: Sir John A. MacDonald and a Long History of Racism
You probably learnt all about Sir John A. MacDonald as Canada’s first Prime Minister, as well as his many achievements in your history classes: how he built Canada’s government, aided in the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and successfully expanded the new Dominion of Canada, building it into the country we know today (Britannica). That said, underlying each of these achievements is a very dark history of violent genocide and racism.
With the rising knowledge of cultural genocide and the legacy of colonialism in Canada; many people have become aware of the large part in which Prime Minister MacDonald played in all this. Sure, he did a lot for Canada, but this was often at the expense of others. Especially the Indigenous people. According to Robert Alexander Innes, an Indigenous Studies Professor, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was built, MacDonald withheld food and resources from an estimated 5,000 First Nations people until they agreed to move from the construction site and onto designated reservations, even if this was their land (2021). As one of the leading legislators of the Indian Act, he oversaw the creation of the residential school system, stating it was necessary to “kill the Indian in the child” (McCarten 2021). According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, about 4,118 children died in the residential schools, some of which may never be recovered (Deer 2021). With this knowledge becoming more prominent within the wider public sphere, monuments and statues dedicated to MacDonald have since been defaced, some even being beheaded, and he is no longer on the ten dollar bill like he used to be.
This has raised the question: If MacDonald has such a problematic legacy, does he deserve to be studied and acknowledged as part of Canadian history? Even if his legacy is indeed very violent and difficult to come to terms with, Sir MacDonald still has his defenders. For instance, in his article, “Why should Sir John A. take all the blame for Canada’s injustices to Indigenous peoples?” Canadian journalist John Ibbitson argues that many politicians throughout history have been found guilty of genocide and racism, and he did not act alone. However, MacDonald has likely been held to higher standards because as Prime Minister, he was the one who had the most power to change things. Many have also argued that, in some ways, Sir MacDonald was actually a bit more progressive than many of his counterparts. In a letter to Peter Jones, an Ojibwe chief, Sir MacDonald wrote, “I hope to see some day the Indian race represented by one of themselves on the floor of the House of Commons.” (Hopper 2018).
There is also the argument that many other prime ministers failed to do anything about the residential school system, even if they were fully operational around the 1830s all the way to 1996. Yet, none of them did anything. Everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions, but especially Sir MacDonald because he is largely responsible for beginning all of this in Canada. It should not be a secret that he was a white supremacist and a racist; this is something that must also be fundamentally acknowledged as part of Canada’s history.
When it comes to history, it is easy to pick and choose which parts we want to acknowledge and actively include. But if you do not learn from the actions of those who came before you, then you are doomed to repeat the same actions. This is not a question of whether John A. MacDonald can be erased from Canadian history; he’s part of it no matter the type of man that he was. The question, and where we should start to act is learning about all sides of Canadian history: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Perhaps we can utilize history to create a different kind of legacy for Canada (Nurse 2021).
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Sir John Macdonald.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Jan. 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Alexander-Macdonald. Accessed 18 March 2023.
Deer, Ka’nhehsí:io. “Why it’s difficult to put a number on how many children died at residential schools.” CBC News, 29 Sept. 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/residential-school-children-deaths-numbers-1.6182456. Accessed 14 March 2023.
Ejeckam, Chuka. “Canadian media justifies Canada’s genocidal foundations.” rabble, 1 Feb. 2023, https://rabble.ca/columnists/canadian-media-justifies-canadas-genocidal-foundations/. Accessed 14 March 2023.
Hopper, Tristan. “Here is what Sir John A. Macdonald did to Indigenous people.” NationalPost, 28 Aug. 2018, https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/here-is-what-sir-john-a-macdonald-did-to-indigenous-people. Accessed 14 March 2023.
Ibbitson, John. “Why should Sir John A. take all the blame for Canada’s injustices to Indigenous peoples?” The Globe and Mail, 24 Jan. 2023, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-why-should-sir-john-a-take-all-the-blame-for-canadas-injustices-to/. Accessed 14 March 2023.
McCarten, James. “Canada’s tragic residential-school reckoning could be grim harbinger for U.S.” LethbridgeNewsSnow, 27, June. 2021. https://lethbridgenewsnow.com/2021/06/27/canadas-tragic-residential-school-reckoning-could-be-grim-harbinger-for-u-s/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CIts%20founder%20coined%20the%20phrase,prime%20minister%2C%20Sir%20John%20A. Accessed 14 March 2023.
Nurse, Andrew. “The Problem of Legacy: John A. Macdonald and the Politics of History.” WordPress, 1 Feb. 2021, https://earlycanadianhistory.ca/2021/02/01/the-problem-of-legacy-john-a-macdonald-and-the-politics-of-history/. Accessed 14 March 2023.
Rodriguez, Jeremiah. “John A. Macdonald defenders fear admitting Canada is ‘linked to white supremacy,’ scholars say.” CTV News, 14 Jan. 2021, https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/john-a-macdonald-defenders-fear-admitting-canada-is-linked-to-white-supremacy-scholars-say-1.5266977?cache=tjcjnjuh. Accessed 14 March 2023.