The Problematic History of John A. MacDonald
On September 29th, 2020, the John A. MacDonald statue at Place du Canada was toppled and beheaded by protestors during a protest calling for the police to be defunded.
Banners flew next to the decapitated monument, touting all his not-so-savoury exploits. This move was divisive as some have long heralded for the removal of the statue, whereas others, such as François Legault, disagreed with the move.
This discussion is not a new one either, as many opinions about the controversial figure have been shared within the past few years.
If you took a history class in Canada, the name John A. MacDonald may be very familiar to you. It most likely because he was the first Prime Minister of Canada (i.e. his most famous feat). He also happens to be the figure on the ten-dollar bill.
Despite having the title of first Prime Minister, his past is tarnished with questionable and problematic decisions, many of which are not known to the common Canadian. Our nation’s past must not be forgotten; we must acknowledge all events, especially the ones we have now come to regret. This is a brief history of the atrocities of John A. MacDonald.
In 1878, the plains suffered the disastrous and sudden loss of the bison, which was caused by American overhunting. The bison was the primary source of food and clothing for the Indigenous population.
The Blackfoot, in an area now known as Calgary, were forced to eat grass as a means to survive. Instead of sending aid to the suffering communities, MacDonald refused to, as he said in 1882: “I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”
With the disastrous state of the plains, the prime minister took advantage of the situation to enforce his National Policy which included building a railroad to the Pacific. His policy drove hundreds of Natives to reserves.
These places were ill-equipped with few agricultural supplies, yet the relocated Indigenous folk were expected to immediately grow food if they wished to sustain themselves.
With the reserves on the verge of famine, the government “generously”, and I use that term very loosely, provided food that was often rancid and most of it came from corrupt suppliers.
“Flour” provided to a Cree reserve was in actuality sweepings from a grist mill. Tainted flour ended up killing 20 of Alberta’s Kanai First Nations in 1883.
In 1883, MacDonald founded the first residential school, and soon, 130 other schools of the same nature were found across the entire nation. To quote the man himself: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages … He is simply a savage who can read and write.”
This forced assimilation of the Indigenous population went on until the last residential school was officially shut down in 1996. For those of you who are not talented with math, the closure was less than 30 years ago, or 24 years ago, if we want to be precise.
Over a hundred years of residential schools have caused irreparable inter-generational trauma among Indigenous communities, trauma that is ongoing to this day. Survivors have recounted horror stories of being ripped away from their families at a young age and of the abuses they suffered under the leadership of the schools.
Many have shared stories of being emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by members of the Church during their time in these establishments. To cope with the trauma, some survivors turned to alcohol and drugs.
This has led to the fracturing of many Native communities as their trauma continues to infect newer generations. These communities have seen high suicide rates and early mortality rates that have yet to be properly addressed by the government.
During his time as prime minister, MacDonald made his distaste for Chinese well known. In 1885, he enacted the Chinese head tax, which was meant to curb Chinese immigration after construction on the Pacific Railway ended.
From 1885 to 1923, Chinese people had to pay from 50 to 500 dollars to immigrate to Canada under the Chinese Immigration Act. Also in 1885, he declared that the Chinese were a threat to the “Aryan” nation of Canada and established the Electoral Franchise Act.
The latter excluded Chinese immigrants from voting as they were “foreigners”. MacDonald believed that the Chinese and Europeans were separate species and that it was necessary for the Chinese to be excluded. If they were not, he stated, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed . . .”
Later in life, he declared that this legislation was his “greatest triumph”. It was more a triumph in bigotry, now that historians look back on it.
This summary of our first prime minister’s abhorrent actions may not be the longest nor the most comprehensive, though it is important they do come to light. To name every horrible instance of his career would simply be impossible to cover equally and dutifully.
However, I do hope that you do look into the past of our founders to the likes of John A. MacDonald on your own time. History is bound to repeat itself if we do not learn from our predecessors and their mistakes. In our age of 2020, we should heed this warning, for a storm is brewing.
By Angel Chu