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Is John A. Macdonald Really the Canadian Hero We Think He Is?

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Library Of Canada
Library Of Canada

Last January, the Macdonald Bicentennial Commission was criticized for celebrating the 199th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada. Photos of party-goers in period clothing and "red face" were posted on Twitter, triggering public debate about John A's legacy.

This year, a Sir John A. Macdonald-inspired beer was launched to "celebrate the heritage and greatness of being Canadian" and mark his 200th birthday. Old Tomorrow Canadian Pale Ale recognizes Macdonald as an "under-celebrated Canadian hero" who was "skilled in uniting the colonies" and "linking the nation from coast to coast with the Canadian Pacific Railway."

Looking closer at the real history, should we celebrate Sir John A as a beloved Canadian hero?

The truth is, Canada's first prime minister was also responsible for genocidal and racist policies whose repercussions are still being felt today. Here are some PR landmines that the beer-makers are hoping consumers will forget:

1. Macdonald "unified" Canada through land dispossession and cultural genocide.
Yes, Macdonald was a "Father of Confederation" and expanded the Canadian Pacific Railway. But before you put on your party dress, remember that Macdonald resorted to some hella bad shit to make this happen.

Sir John A. Macdonald and his government saw First Nations and Métis communities as barriers to Confederation and the railway. They sought to remove Indigenous nations from their lands and eliminate their ways of life. So they got busy enacting legislation.

First came the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857. The name of this legislation is pretty hilarious given that Macdonald was notorious for binge-drinking and getting wasted in public. Once, he showed up to a debate drunk and vomited on stage. Dude, get it together before you start pointing fingers and telling others to "get civilized."

Drunken stupors aside, this law required all Indigenous men over the age of 21 who could speak, read, and write English or French to be "enfranchised." While this might sound inclusive, it meant that they had to renounce their Indian status and become British subjects.

Next up was The Dominion Lands Act of 1872, which encouraged white settlement in the prairies by "giving away" Indigenous land to settlers. The Indigenous nations who already lived there for centuries were like, WTF? Think about it: how would you react if a bunch of nobodies showed up at your house to "settle" it?

Based on John A's previous legislation, the Indian Act was introduced in 1876, authorizing the government to define "Indians" and their rights. It's kind of a big deal: would you want a stranger to dictate who is a member of your family and can live in your house?

What's more: John A. later amended the act to ban cultural ceremonies, such as potlatches and the Sun Dance. Because they were scary and posed such a huge threat to settlers (seriously?).

So if you celebrate John A's birthday and his vision for Canada, you're also getting jiggy with cultural genocide and land theft. By the way, the Indian Act is still mostly in effect today.

2. Macdonald used starvation to clear Western lands for white settlement and the railway.
As John A's railway headed through Western Canada, it ran into the Plain and Wood Cree and Assiniboine peoples of Treaty Six territory. At the time, these First Nations faced famine from the loss of bison. They turned to Ottawa for help, as their 1876 treaty included a clause for government support during times of need.

But apparently John A. was "Just kidding! LOL!" when he negotiated the treaty. He refused their request for aid, and ordered Department of Indian Affairs' officials in Prince Albert to withhold food until the First Nations moved to federally-designated reserves away from the CPR's route.

Once on reserves, rationed food was withheld for so long that much of it rotted. Aboriginal peoples suffered decades of malnutrition, suppressed immunity, and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases, leading to thousands of deaths.

During the famine, Sir John A. bragged that the Indigenous peoples were kept on the "verge of actual starvation" to curb any criticism that he was wasting tax dollars.

Sound familiar? The federal government still boasts about cutting taxes while half of First Nations children live in poverty.

3. Sir John A. Macdonald is responsible for implementing the official government policy of forced assimilation (a.k.a. the residential school system).
In 1883, Sir John A authorized the creation of residential schools. The intent was to "kill the Indian, but save the man." In total, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their families and forced to attend these institutions, which were really more like child labour camps. Separated from their families and punished for speaking their native languages and practicing their cultures, the vast majority experienced neglect, suffering, and abuse, and thousands died.

Although the federal government apologized for residential schools in June 2008, it later refused to provide thousands of documents necessary for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to do its work.

4. Macdonald was responsible for hanging freedom fighter, Louis Riel, and eight other Indigenous resisters.
Louis Riel was the Métis leader of the 1885 Northwest Rebellion - a movement to protect Indigenous land and treaty rights and to preserve the Francophone and Aboriginal cultures.

Macdonald was pissed off. The movement didn't fare well for expanding white settlement or building his choo-choo train. So he sent in the military and crushed the rebellion.

Afterwards, Riel was tried and executed for treason, along with eight other Indigenous leaders. Sir John A was instrumental in upholding Riel's sentence, and is famously quoted as saying: "He shall die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour."

5. Macdonald applied racist ideology to public policy.
Macdonald's racist policies went beyond Indigenous peoples. While debating the 1885 Electoral Franchise Act in the House of Commons, John A proposed that "Chinamen" should not have the right to vote on the grounds that they were "foreigners" and allegedly separate species: "the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics," and "the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful." He amended the legislation to exclude "a person of Mongolian or Chinese race."

But he didn't mind using cheap "Mongolian" labour to build his beloved railway, did he? Once the CPR was complete, John A. imposed a "head tax" or fee on each Chinese person entering Canada to curb future immigration.

Macdonald's views were controversial even for his time, and shocked the House of Commons. His justification? To preserve "the Aryan character of the future of British America."

So what's Old Tomorrow got to say about all this? The beer company acknowledges "that Sir John A. was not perfect," but claims the "debate is best left to historians and other experts who can lead such dialogue with an understanding of today's values and the historical context of the time."

But throwing parties and making beer to celebrate John A. Macdonald is taking a side in history. It's the white-washed version that ignores or makes light of a hurtful legacy that still haunts Indigenous peoples and Canada today. For many people, Sir John A. Macdonald is a symbol of oppression, and his image evokes pain rather than patriotism.

It is time for us to acknowledge these facts, reflect on the real history, and find new figures to celebrate and emulate as "Canadian heroes."

Special thanks to Professor Jeffrey Denis at McMaster University for consulting on and providing input into this article.


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