Macdonald was a strong advocate for Indigenous Canadians. His record speaks for itself
There is an ancient axiom that “truth is the first casualty of war.” Apparently, it is just as true in cultural wars as in shooting wars. The turmoil of the last few years in relation to statues and buildings commemorating Sir John A Macdonald is a case in point.
And the latest entrant to this battle-strewn landscape? The news that some Calgarians plan to protest and demand the renaming of the Sir John A Macdonald school in that city.
As a Father of Confederation, no one is more responsible for creating the Canada we know today than Sir John A Macdonald. The list of his achievements both before and after Confederation is unparalleled. He wrote most of the Constitution and established a nation from sea to sea to sea with the purchase of all of northern and western Canada (the Hudson’s Bay Company territory) from Great Britain and with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
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And, contrary to the anti-Macdonald propaganda (quoting 19th-century language that grates on the modern ear and selecting government policies taken out of their historical context), he was also a defender and supporter of Canada’s Indigenous peoples in Parliament. He was a vigorous advocate for their fair treatment, and he backed his rhetoric with action and policies. And through his impassioned defence of his policies in Parliament (his speeches were often reprinted in the newspapers of the day), he persuaded the Canadian people to support his vision.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognized that reconciliation is a shared responsibility. There are two sides to be heard. As they wrote: “All Canadians, as Treaty peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships” and “Reconciliation is a process of healing of relationships that requires public truth sharing.”
Yet what have we heard recently of Macdonald’s many initiatives in support of Native Canadians that saved tens of thousands of lives? Those initiatives included:
Smallpox vaccination: Macdonald’s government, through the 1870s and 1880s, ran a national program to vaccinate every Indigenous Canadian (including those in the former Hudson Bay Territory) against the scourge of smallpox. The vaccination program was a success, and the threat of smallpox, which had killed more than 10,000 Indigenous Canadians in some pre-Confederation years, was ended.
Famine relief for Plains natives: When the much-predicted (for more than 30 years) collapse of the buffalo population finally arrived in the late 1870s, relief programs for Canadians at the time were largely privately funded. However, Macdonald immediately implemented a massive famine relief program run by the federal government. A year later, more than 30,000 Indigenous Canadians were being supported by the program, which ran for another five years, was a great success and saved many native lives.
Negotiating treaty rights before allowing settlement in the Hudson Bay territory: The United States allowed settlement of the West before negotiating treaties with the Indigenous inhabitants. The result was a series of “Indian Wars” fought over a period of 100 years that resulted in more than 60,000 native American deaths and 20,000 settler deaths. Macdonald was determined to avoid a similar outcome in Canada by negotiating land settlement treaties with native Canadians before settlement began. He succeeded: there were no Indian Wars” in Canada, and many Indigenous lives were saved.
The creation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP): A key piece of Macdonald’s plan to avoid conflict in the new territory was to create a police force to establish a Canadian government presence, deter formal or informal violent incursions from the U.S. and to protect the respective rights of the Indigenous and settlers when settlement began. As Macdonald stated in Parliament, “the duty of the police is not only to protect the white man against the Indian but the Indian against the white man”). The NWMP (now the RCMP), relying more on moral suasion than firepower, was a great success.
Residential schools: No, Macdonald was not responsible for residential schools. Indigenous residential and day schools existed before Confederation and were privately funded and voluntarily attended. The various treaties his government negotiated required the government to build schools when requested to do so by the band leadership. This resulted in the construction of about 185 day and 20 residential schools. However, it was the policy of Macdonald’s government that all school attendance for indigenous children, unlike the policy applied to other Canadian children, was voluntary and not compulsory. This policy continued long after the prime minister’s death.
Canada is a young country. We don’t have many towering figures to look to, political, military or otherwise. A fair-minded review of Macdonald’s contributions to our country, as both a Father of Confederation and as a strong advocate for its Indigenous peoples, suggests that he is one that we need to keep.
To paraphrase U.S. President Coolidge: “A nation that forgets its heroes will itself soon be forgotten.”
Greg Piasetzki is a Toronto lawyer and a Senior Fellow with the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy.
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