Canada’s first prime minister should be assessed from the perspective of those on receiving end of racist and colonial violence of the times, Azeezah Kanji writes Those who defend Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, erase history twice — by minimizing his misdeeds and by deleting the views of those who opposed them, Azeezah Kanji writes. Recent condemnations of the unsavoury aspects of John A. Macdonald’s record have drawn accusations of “presentism:” inappropriate application of 21st-century notions of justice to 19th-century history.
Canada’s first prime minister helped eviscerate the self-determination of Indigenous nations and subjugate them to colonial rule, through laws like the Gradual Civilization of Indians Act in 1857 (when he was attorney general for Canada West) and the first federal Indian Act in 1869; he deliberately inflicted mass starvation on Indigenous communities, in violation of treaty obligations, to clear the western plains for railway construction and European resettlement.
Macdonald introduced the “pass system,” which confined Indigenous peoples on reserves and prevented them from leaving without written permission from the Indian agent, an initiative that colonial officials acknowledged at the time was illegal; he was the architect of the residential school system, designed to take Indigenous children away from their “savage” parents in order to inculcate “the habits and thoughts of white men;” he criminalized Indigenous ceremonies and dances, which he deplored as “debauchery of the worst kind.”
Macdonald cheered the pro-slavery South in the American Civil War, and had family connections to the Caribbean slave trade; he justified keeping the death penalty for rape with the lie that Black men were “very prone to felonious assaults on white women;” he barred Chinese people from voting, and imposed a “head tax” on their immigration, because he believed that “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics” — a position that was considered extreme even by many of his political contemporaries, according to University of Ottawa historian Timothy Stanley.
Present-day supporters of Macdonald’s legacy maintain that he was a man of his era, so it is unfair to judge him by the standards of ours.
They recite a list of other leaders with similarly repugnant records — like George Washington, who enslaved hundreds of Black people; and Wilfrid Laurier, who increased the anti-Chinese “head tax” and tried to ban Black immigration — to apparently prove that Macdonald’s views were universal for his time.
This ignores all the Indigenous, Black and Asian women and men of Macdonald’s time who never accepted the racist premise that they were inferior breeds of humanity.
It ignores all those who spoke and struggled against the injustice of being exterminated, expropriated, exploited and excluded on the basis of white supremacist myths — for example, the Plains Cree people who protested and resisted being criminalized, starved and robbed of their lands by the Canadian government in the 19th century.
In 1884, Chief Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) castigated Canadian officials’ contravention of treaties supposedly signed in good faith: “Government came from far away to this place where we belong and said we must have a treaty. . . He said, ‘We are one blood, I want to help you stand on the same place with my white children, to live together like brothers. We are not going to buy your land.’ … I see [now] how government agents bring us everything crooked. They take our lands, they sell them and they buy themselves fine coats.”
And, in 1897, Chief Peyasiw-awasis (Thunderchild) objected to the unfairness of being jailed for participating in a traditional Give-Away Dance, under a law originally introduced by Macdonald: “Can things go well in a land where […]
Judge Macdonald by standards of his day: Kanji
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