Sir John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister and the man who more than anyone else made Canada a bicultural confederation from sea to sea, died this month in 1891, age 76. Liberal opponent Wilfred Laurier called him “the foremost Canadian of his time.” Another contemporary said “his work—a nation—stands as his monument.”
Recent times have been less kind. Macdonald’s statue has been removed from a place of honour in Victoria; an Ontario teachers’ union has pushed to remove his name from a handful of schools; and his reputation has been ripped across the country he created—all because of views and actions he took 150 years ago in a very different time and place.
Put aside the dubious activity of judging figures from the past by the beliefs of today. (Thomas Jefferson, who declared that “all men are created equal,” owned hundreds of slaves; Winston Churchill held Mahatma Gandhi in contempt.)
My main concern is that the knocks against Macdonald, a man whose devotion to Canada was unmatched, a man of “great amiability” and “gentleness of nature” (as colleague and successor as prime minister, John Thompson, described him), are based largely on history misconstrued. That this should be done by educated people (such as teachers) who ought to know better makes the matter sadder, the need for rebuttal greater.
It is true that Macdonald, British born, embraced British civilization, which gave us Shakespeare, parliamentary democracy, and rule of law. But he was a Canadian nationalist at heart. He grew up and was educated in and around Kingston, Ontario. The evidence shows him to be a compassionate prime minister who set out to help, and did help, Indigenous Peoples when they needed it most.
He respected the Metis uprising of 1869-70 and Louis Riel’s leadership of the French and English residents of Rupert’s Land, sending a senior and highly capable man, Donald Smith, to sort out the troubles. As per Riel’s demand, Manitoba was granted provincial status with an elected local assembly 150 years ago (on July 15). Ottawa had planned to give it territorial status with an appointed governing council of mostly non-local white men. As prime minister, Macdonald legislated these improvements.
A few years later Macdonald’s government established the North-West Mounted Police. In 1874, they were sent west to protect Blackfeet and Assiniboine people being corrupted and killed by U.S. whiskey traders in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
This police presence was a huge endeavour before the railroads and involved a long overland march. It is a heroic part of our past. A grateful Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot later said: “The Mounted Police have protected us as the feathers of a bird protect it from the frosts of winter. I wish them all good.” That was Macdonald’s work.
In 1885, Sir John attempted to pass a bill that would give Indigenous men the vote. The Liberals opposed the idea. Indigenous people didn’t get the vote (without giving up Indian status) until March of 1960. Did you know that in the 1880s Macdonald was the first national leader in the world to attempt to give women the vote? They wouldn’t get it until the First World War.
Macdonald’s detractors deride him for supporting the Indian residential schools, the industrial and day schools set up in the 1880s. An amendment to the Indian Act was passed in Parliament in 1884 to require the children’s attendance, as other Canadians were required to attend school. The intention was to help them transition to the new conditions as starvation stalked them and treaties restricted them.
Macdonald had foresight but he was not a clairvoyant: he could not be expected to predict the harms against children, by persons in authority at the schools, which lay in the decades ahead. In any case he was not responsible for their actions, they were. Personal responsibility was very much in vogue in his day.
Also alarming to the Indigenous people of the Prairies were events south of the medicine line, or Canada-U.S. border. Sioux members came north to the land of the “Great White Mother” (Queen Victoria) to escape from the “long knives” (U.S. cavalry). They spoke about the war of extermination waged against native tribes by the likes of George Armstrong Custer, who in 1868 massacred 103 Cheyenne, including women and children.
Killing “Indians” was U.S. federal policy in an effort to clear the plains for immigration. I know this, having gone through microfilms of the period for a master’s thesis. It was not Canada’s policy, and the two should not be conflated. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which reigned over Rupert’s Land from 1670 to 1870, developed a mutually beneficial and collaborative relationship with the Indigenous people. In exchange for furs they got kettles, knives, guns, and clothing, which greatly improved their quality of life, especially for the women. The HBC did not interfere in their ways, but helped them in times of hardship.
Much is made of Macdonald’s talk of “savages.” It was a commonplace term at the time, meaning primitive and fierce. The fact is, many Indigenous people were savages in part. Wars, killings, and hunting (often slaughter) were basic to their existence. Rupert’s Land was wild and free, untamed by laws or courts. Savagery was necessary to their survival. Today, we tend to laud fierceness in wartime as heroism.
One of my own ancestors, Jimmy-Jock Bird, a mixed-blood man who became a Blackfoot chief in the mid-1800s, was a savage who fought and killed—because he had to, to survive and protect his own. Jimmy-Jock was the son of James Curtis Bird, an English factor of the HBC, and a Swampy Cree mother. Born about 1798, he died in 1892, after serving with distinction as an interpreter at the Blackfoot Treaty of 1877.
That doesn’t mean the Cree and Blackfoot didn’t also have much that was civil, because they did. Much in their societies was admirable and survives to this day. They shared food communally and practised a down-to-earth democracy in which many had a say. They were highly spiritual and had paintings (on their tipis) worthy of modern galleries. They also liked to have fun. But yes, to call them savages was not untrue.
This doesn’t help Macdonald, who will have to forgive our ignorance, our ingratitude, and our rush to judgment. But it may give pause to those whose minds remain open.
Brad Bird is an award-winning reporter and editor of English and Cree background. His great great uncle, Jimmy-Jock Bird, became a Blackfoot chief and helped translate Treaty No. 7 at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877. Birds Hill Provincial Park is named after his family. He has worked for the Winnipeg Free Press and other newspapers. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.