Right now, Canada is experiencing another spasm of controversy over the legacy of its first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. Although he undoubtedly laid the foundations of modern Canada, he also personally set in motion all the most damaging elements of Canadian Indigenous policy.
Here, in brief, is an accounting of the toll that Macdonald had on Canada’s First Nations.
“I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense,” Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1882 .
It’s one of the most damning quotations ever attributed to Macdonald. And yet, in the parliament record it’s immediately followed by an even more damning comment as the Liberal opposition benches accuse Macdonald of not starving Indians enough.
“No doubt the Indians will bear a great degree of starvation before they will work, and so long as they are certain the Government will come to their aid they will not do much for themselves,” said David Mills, who had served as minister of the interior under the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie.
This was clearly an Ottawa that had no time for the rights and culture of what they would have called “savage” nations. Even in that context, over his career Macdonald would pursue an Indigenous policy so draconian that even his contemporaries would come to accuse him of going beyond the pale.
“Macdonald basically had Indigenous people locked down so tightly that they became irrelevant after 1885,” said James Daschuk, the author of the bestseller Clearing the Plains, from which many of the primary sources quoted in this article were obtained.
When Macdonald took office for the second and last time in 1878, the plains were in the grip of what is still one of the worst human disasters in Canadian history.
The sudden disappearance of the bison, caused largely by American overhunting, had robbed Plains First Nations of their primary source of food, clothing and shelter. Suddenly, all across the prairies were scenes reminiscent of the Irish Potato Famine only 30 years prior.
Around what is now Calgary, Blackfoot had been reduced to eating grass. White travellers described coming across landscapes of up to 1,000 Indigenous so starved that they had trouble walking.
Macdonald did not cause the famine. Nor did he draft the Indian Act or most of the West’s treaties, which had been created under the prior Liberal government. Hayter Reed was one of the principle figures implementing Macdonald’s policies in the West, including the pass system. Here he is in costume for a historical ball on Parliament Hill. But Macdonald would capitalize on prairies wracked with famine. His Conservatives had returned to office with an ambitious “National Policy” that included quickly driving a railroad to the Pacific.
To do this, Macdonald effectively gave himself near-autocratic control of the prairies, including supervision of Indian affairs and the Northwest Mounted Police
“Indian matters … form so great a portion of the general policy of the Government that I think it necessary for the Prime Minister, whoever he may be, to have that in his own hands.” Macdonald wrote in 1881.
In government archives, Daschuk found ample primary evidence showing that Macdonald’s Indian agents explicitly withheld food in order to drive bands onto reserve and out of the way of the railroad. A Liberal MP at the time even called it “a policy of submission shaped by a policy of starvation.”
But the hunger did not stop under government care. In some cases, it got worse. Reserves were equipped with meagre agricultural equipment and relocated natives […]
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