Sir John A. Macdonald: National Hero or Architect of Genocide?
Updated: Sep 2
On Saturday August 29, 2020, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Rights protestors unbolted and pulling down a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald at a defund the police rally in Montreal. The statue had already been the target of vandalism in the months of protests leading up to the rally, mirroring the backlash against Confederate monuments in the United States and colonial figures in Europe. Canada has seen its own wave of activism in response to the lasting racism from its colonial past and these protests have centred heavily around one figure: Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
Macdonald is a popular historical figure in Canada. Considered the “founding father” of Canadian confederation, he consistently appears high in polls ranking the greatest prime ministers in Canadian history. Since his death in 1891, Macdonald has been memorialised in numerous public monuments, including mountains, highways, the Canadian $10 bill, and 10 [now 9] statues across the country, including one on Parliament Hill, the seat of the Canadian federal government. Yet he is also a controversial figure. Since 2018, activists across the country have increasingly called for Macdonald statues to be removed from public memorials, citing his treatment of Indigenous Canadians and other racial minority groups as a shocking example of colonial oppression.
Who was John A. Macdonald?
Macdonald was born in Scotland in 1815, and his family immigrated to Kingston, Upper Canada in 1820. He spent his early career as a lawyer before being elected to the Parliament of the Province of Canada in 1844. By 1864, Macdonald was Premier of Canada West and played a key role at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, where the Province of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia agreed to join together in confederation. Macdonald himself wrote 50 of the 72 resolutions that would become the British North American Act, Canada’s first constitution.
Macdonald served as Canada’s first prime minister from 1867 to 1873, during which time he worked to secure the entry of Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and the Canadian north into confederation. After a five-year absence, Macdonald was again elected prime minister from 1878 until his death in 1891. During this second term, he supervised the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway - which relied heavily on imported Chinese labour - and fostered the settlement of western Canada by mainly European immigrants.
This celebratory portrait of Macdonald hides the darker side of his legacy.
Why is Macdonald a controversial figure?
As part of Macdonald’s plan to acquire the Northwest Territories and settle the region with Europeans, the Canadian government negotiated treaties with the Indigenous peoples of western Canada. The government wanted to secure their land for settlement and move them onto ‘reserves’- separate areas of land across the country where nomadic groups would be encouraged to adopt western systems of agriculture. While some indigenous groups willingly entered into treaties and moved onto reserve lands (territories which were chosen by the Canadian government and usually the least desirable for settlement), some resisted. The Macdonald government used starvation tactics to encourage resistant groups to submit to the treaties. During the 1870s, the buffalo of the Western Plains were slaughtered en masse by white hunters collecting leather and bones for industrial use in the east. The result was widespread famine for the Indigenous groups that relied on the buffalo for their lifeways.
In order to force compliance, Macdonald’s officials withheld rations from starving Indigenous Canadians until they agreed to sign the treaties and move to reserve lands. Even after this, rations were used as a means of subduing and controlling any dissent on reserves. The transition to agriculture was exceptionally diffiult due to the poor quality of the lands selected by the government and crops continued to fail. Even still, Macdonald continued to encourage that rations be given only sparingly and used as a bargining chip for the acceptance of white authority. When some Indigenous Canadians fought back during the 1885 North-West Rebellion/Resistance, Macdonald had eight Indigenous men executed, along with Métis leader, Louis Riel.
Indian Residential School system
It was a common view in late nineteenth-century Canada that Indigenous Canadians were doomed to disappearance if they did not assimilate into Euro-Canadian society. To facilitate assimilation, the Canadian government passed the Indian Act in 1876. This Act would grow to control almost all aspects of Indigenous life. The government when on to fund a system of Indian Residential Schools across Canada. Run by different churches and paid for by the Department of Indian Affairs, these schools forcefully took Indigenous children from their families and sought to educate them to fit into Euro-Canadian society. Chronically underfunded, residential schools were plagued by poor food, lack of medicine, harsh discipline and punishment, poor education, and shocking accounts of physical and sexual abuse. By some estimates, more than one-quarter of Indian Residential School students died at or shortly after leaving the schools.
Macdonald also instituted policies that targeted other racial groups. In 1885, his government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants who wanted to come to Canada. Although Macdonald encouraged Chinese immigration when he needed cheap labour for the construction of the railroad, as soon as the railroad was complete, he vocally opposed allowing Chinese immigration to continue. In British Columbia, many Euro-Canadians were concerned that Asian immigrants threatened their jobs and posed a moral hazard to society. Macdonald would go on to warn the House of Commons that “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed” if Chinese immigration was allowed.
How has Macdonald’s legacy been reformed?
As scholars have learned more about the mistreatment of Indigenous and non-European Canadians by Macdonald and his government, activists have pushed for a reckoning of his place as a national hero. The legacy of Macdonald’s role in Canada’s Indian Residential School system was exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-2015), a royal commission that examined the history of residential schools in Canada and released a detailed report of its findings in December 2015. In light of this report, the City of Victoria voted in 2018 to remove a statue of Macdonald from Victoria City Hall as part of an effort to promote reconciliation with local Indigenous people. The removal of the Victoria statue sparked a national conversation about Macdonald statues and the public memory Canada’s first prime minister, but many statues remain standing. In light of the Black Lives Matter protests that have spread across the world following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, activists have renewed calls to remove Macdonald statues from Canadian cities.
Should Macdonald statues be removed?
If they celebrate Macdonald as a national hero, yes. If they can be turned, through consultations with Indigenous Canadians and other minorty groups, into contested sites that reconcile Macdonald’s role in the founding of Canada and the legacy of his government’s treatment of minority Canadians, then perhaps some can remain. But we can no longer continue to uncritically honour such historical figures without acknowledging their impact on all people.
By Scott Dumonceaux
 Stephen Azzi and Norman Hillmer, “Ranking Canada’s best and worst prime ministers,” Maclean’s, 7 October 2016, https://www.mac leans.ca/politics/ottawa/ranking-canadas-best-and-worst-prime-ministers/  For a full list of all John A. MacDonald memorials, statues, and named locations, Maclean’s has compiled a comprehensive interactive map here.  Graeme Hamilton, “‘A key player in Indigenous cultural genocide:’ Historians erase Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from book prize,” National Post, 29 May 2018, https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/a-key-player-in-indigenous-cultural-genocide-historians-erase-sir-john-a-macdonalds-name-from-book-prize  Aaron Wherry, “Was John A. Macdonald a white supremacist?” Maclean’s, 21 August 2012, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/was-john-a-macdonald-a-white-supremacist/  “TRC Findings,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, http://www.trc.ca/about-us/trc-findings.html  Justin McElroy, “City of Victoria to remove John A. Macdonald statue from front steps of city hall,” CBC News, 8 August 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/john-a-statue-victoria-helps-1.4777810  Jennifer Basa, “Kingston, Ont., protesters ask city to remove City Park Sir John A. Macdonald statue,” Global News, 22 June 2020, https://globalnews.ca/news/7094482/kingston-ont-protesters-john-a-macdonald-statue/; Bryan Eneas, “Protesters continue pressuring city of Regina to remove John A. Macdonald statue,” CBC News, 12 July 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/group-continues-pressure-city-hall-john-a-macdonald-statue-1.5647097