MacDonald’s Mistake

Commentary, Culture Wars, Brian Giesbrecht

Looking for a bargain for a statue of John A. Macdonald. Victoria City Council has removed John A. from City Hall where it was for has as long as can remember. Why: to promote reconciliation with Indigenous people. This is but the latest of attacks on Canadian historical figures. The war on statues and plaques only makes sense to bewildered officials who believe that a rewriting of Canadian history will help “reconciliation”.

John A. Macdonald is our greatest Canadian. Macdonald created a country where French and English live together – no small task. His vision included peoples from other parts of the world to settle and farm the west – with a railroad tying the country. Absent him, everything west of Ontario would be a northern extension of our troubled southern neighbour. Macdonald had flaws, one of his mistakes involves Indigenous people, then known as Indians.

By 1867 Indians had been laid low by disease, warfare, and their rapidly disappearing hunting and gathering way of life. Particularly in the north and west, where the fur and buffalo economies were ending, Indians were poor, scattered and few. Indians were of no importance to the new economy and then considered to be a minor obstacle to big plans.

Today’s critics of Macdonald suggest he was a racist and a bigot, and some of his words appear to reflect that. But, by today’s standards almost most everyone then would now be adjudged to be a racist and a bigot. It was taken as a given that some groups of people were superior to others. Chinese workers and Ruthenian peasants were seen to be inferior to Anglo-Saxons. White supremacy was taken for granted, while Jews, Irish and Catholics were not to be trusted. Indians were somewhere near the bottom of the totem pole, with other brown-skinned people. Such repugnant attitudes survived well into the 20th century. So, if it makes sense to take down Macdonald‘s statue, almost every statue that pre-dates modern attitudes should go as well. Museums would have to hold fire sales.

The real racists and bigots of the day were content to do nothing, and let Indians simply disappear. Macdonald was not one of those. He represented the philanthropic, urging action to save a seemingly dying people by bringing them into western civilization. This applies to his part in the creation of residential schools as well. Set aside the rhetoric that is today considered racist, and realize Macdonald wanted Indians to learn English. Why, so they could survive in a new world. Today, successful Indigenous people are fluent in English or French.

It was not any speech, educational initiative or other action made by Macdonald that constitutes his great mistake involving Indians. His was not opposing making special reference to Indians in The British North America Act, making necessary The Indian Act and its dead-end reserve system.

The BNA Act could have made no reference to Indians. But, there was precedent for singling out Indians for special treatment – The Royal Proclamation of 1763. But by 1867, the Royal Proclamation was outdated and Macdonald did not have to follow it. His government should have asked the British parliament to omit any reference to Indians in the BNA Act, leaving Canada’s government in charge of land allotments and compensation, as was done in The United States where Congress decides such issues. Instead, Indians were included in the BNA Act, which led to the Indian Act and a reserve system that isolated and made dependent most of Canada’s Indian population.

While there were complications depending on geography and existing treaties that would have had been dealt with, negotiations with Britain and Indian leaders leading up to Confederation would have had to sort these details out. Indians would be ordinary Canadians in every respect.  

Macdonald’s great mistake was not treating Indians the way everyone else was treated.

Compensation would have been made to Indians as individuals, and they would have adjusted. Indians had always adapted to new circumstances before. When the newly chartered Rupertsland created opportunities in the fur business, Indians adjusted and prospered. Same when a buffalo economy opened up. Same when the horse and gun were introduced from Europe. Some did better than others, that is the way things works.

Instead, Indians languished on reserves. The price was dependency and all of the social pathologies that inevitably flowed from it.  Today’s earnest statue removers are not in error when they say that Macdonald made a great mistake.

But the mistake was in not treating Indigenous people like everyone else.