I am a unionist. I was a member of three different unions throughout my working life, spending the last 19 years of my career in the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. I paid my dues, used my benefits, and now draw on a pension sufficient for my needs. Unions are by and large a very good thing for workers, but that doesn’t mean their members agree with everything they do. A couple of years ago ETFO decided that all schools named after Sir John A. Macdonald should be rechristened because of his mistreatment of aboriginal people. The union did not consult its members before taking this decision, nor did it bother to inform us before announcing it. Perhaps they were afraid that there would be too much pushback from high school history teachers. Certainly Macdonald treated Aboriginal Canadians badly, but this was not atypical at the time.
It is never fair to base one’s entire perception of an individual on things they have done without considering their motivations, as well as the historical, political and societal context in which they acted. Macdonald did displace several tribes in his efforts to build the Trans Canada Railway, and he did order his agents to withhold food from native populations, but he was pushed into both these decisions. He tried to be fair in the former instance by paying for indigenous lands through treaties, but other politicians disagreed with this idea. They filed suit with an Ontario court claiming that aboriginal people had never owned the land in the first place, so no money was owing. In 1880 the court ruled in their favour, stating, “…there is no Indian title in law or in equity. The claim of the Indians is simply moral and no more.” Morality clearly held no water with the court, and Macdonald was thus legally barred from paying natives for their land.
As to starving tribes into submission, he did that in response to concerns from the opposition that his government was wasting money feeding the Cree – a program he had initiated. He instructed his agents to stop handing out food in order to placate his parliamentary opponents as much as to blackmail aboriginal leaders into giving up their land. In 1880 Macdonald acknowledged that indigenous peoples had been dealt a losing hand by Europeans, stating,
“At all events, the Indians have been great sufferers by the discovery of America, and the transfer to it of a large white population.”
Macdonald proved himself well ahead of his time with this statement. He was actually quite tolerant in comparison to those around him – he had Irish and native friends, and he advocated for unity with French speakers.
Modern day detractors also want to remove all monuments to Macdonald because he imposed the Chinese head tax. Some 17,000 Chinese men were brought to Canada between 1880 and 1884 to complete the Trans Canada Railway. They were paid $1 a day, out of which they had to pay for food and lodgings consisting of make-shift tents woefully inadequate for the climate. It is estimated that at least 600 of them died in accidents during the railway’s construction. Many of them wanted to stay in Canada after the job was completed and so began sending for their families. Macdonald responded by putting a $50 head tax on every Chinese national entering the country as of 1885.
The research I did for this article readily provided evidence that Macdonald was unsure about the head tax, but imposed it anyway to appease both his fellow parliamentarians and the Canadian public at large. People on the west coast were so adamantly against Chinese immigration that there were numerous anti-Chinese riots in Vancouver even years after the tax was imposed. Macdonald railed against Chinese immigrants the day this measure was voted into law, but privately said the policy,
“…may be right or it may be wrong, it may be prejudice or it may be otherwise, but the prejudice is near universal.”
In other words, he wasn’t convinced of the tax’s merit, but he tabled it to satisfy the people. This “universal” prejudice was in the hearts of white Canadians.
The Canada in which Macdonald lived was populated almost entirely by individuals we would now call white supremacists. Blacks were banned from bars in Toronto, B.C. residents saw Asians as a threat to racial purity, and pretty much everyone was fine with the idea of the native way of life being extinguished entirely. Macdonald was merely enacting the will of the people in his dealings with aboriginal populations and Asian immigrants. Isn’t that what leaders in a representative democracy are supposed to do?
It is so easy to cast aspersions on people who lived in radically different times for not living up to modern standards, but that is a slippery slope with virtually no bottom. George Brown, a Father of Confederation, was a staunch abolitionist and promoted harmony between blacks and whites while simultaneous being vocally anti-semitic and harbouring a deep mistrust of Catholics and the Irish. When people displaced by the potato famine began landing on our shores, Brown wrote that they were as much of a curse to Canada as “…were the locusts to the land of Egypt.” Sir Wilfred Laurier rose the Chinese head tax to $500, and said it was moral for Canadians to steal property from “…savage nations” because under native rule Canada would “… forever have remained barren and unproductive.”
Leaders in the 20th century also acted in racist ways in reaction to, and as a reflection of, their times. Both P.M. MacKenzie King and President Franklin Roosevelt set up Japanese internment camps during World War 2. Roosevelt took the decision in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbour and because of concerns about Japanese loyalty to the U.S. once war was declared on Japan. King had similar concerns about national security, but also moved Japanese families away from the coast in response to violent riots targeting Japanese Canadians staged by whites in Vancouver. Being a feminist I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that women got the vote in Canada in 1922, and were not given “personhood” status until 1929. Any man of note before these dates was almost certainly sexist if not downright misogynistic by modern standards.
There is absolutely no way any of these men could possibly satisfy the current P.C. police. The ideas we promulgate now – of equal rights for all people regardless of race, creed, religion, sex, gender or sexual orientation – were completely unthought of by previous generations. Caucasian North Americans paid lip-service to such ideals in founding documents, but in reality were horribly bigoted. The vast majority of white Christian men and women felt they were intrinsically better than members of other races and religions, and the men also believed they were innately superior to women. It is patently unfair to hold famous men to a higher standard of humanity and egalitarianism than the average person of their time.
These men did important, noteworthy, often nation-building things that merit commemoration. It makes no sense to try and erase them from history by pulling down monuments erected to their memory or rechristening buildings named in their honour. I would suggest the solution is to insist on a more rounded portrayal of them. Most statues bear plaques enumerating the accomplishments of their subjects, so why not simply add more information to these descriptions? Sure he did this wonderful thing, but he also did this terrible thing. Adding additional details would provide viewers a balanced representation of the person being commemorated, thus allowing them to draw more thoughtful conclusions about that individual’s overall merit. Also, school textbooks need to contain more thorough and truthful depictions of men like Macdonald and Brown, tempered by information about the general feelings of superiority held by the average white Canadian at the time. Textbooks need to contextualize the information they convey, explaining the broader society in which historical events occurred.
I suspect that my union’s insistence on taking Sir John A. Macdonald’s name off of Ontario schools was an example of virtue signalling. It was their way of saying, “Look how woke we are. Kudos to us!” Their decision undervalues the massive importance to our country of the man they are thus disparaging, and overlooks the pressures and realities that forced him into his most racist acts. Perhaps a better way forward for teachers’ federations would be to insist on a history curriculum that includes an exploration of the long-standing mistreatment of indigenous and non-white people in Canada at large, and to ensure that schools built in the future are dedicated to Indigenous Canadians who have made a difference. Sir John A. Macdonald was not a bad man for treating natives and Chinese immigrants poorly; he was simply an average 19th century white man who acted on political imperatives and the prevailing norms of his time. Luckily for us he founded our nation in the process.