Canada Needs to Come to Terms with the Toxic History of John A. Macdonald
Views My Own

Canada Needs to Come to Terms with the Toxic History of John A. Macdonald

The controversy over Canada’s first prime minister reveals a hard road ahead for reconciliation.
August 29, 2017, 12:00pm

Happy belated birthday, Canada! It was late getting here but for your 150th, we decided to get you the hottest toy in North America right now: a public existential crisis about your racist history. I know it's not as flashy as the United States having a convulsive meltdown over monuments to the Confederate generals who fought to preserve a brutal and terrifying society premised on chattel slavery. But trust me: Sir John A. Macdonald creates more than enough historical discomfort to go around.


Here is the situation: John A. Macdonald is one of the greatest statesmen in Canadian history. He managed to unite four divergent colonies together into a thoroughly modern liberal state that simultaneously preserved and advanced Victorian Britain's most sophisticated traditions of constitutional monarchy. He was a profound political thinker whose federal framework enabled peaceful coexistence between French and English and created one of the crown jewels of the international liberal order. Without him, there would be no Canada. Full stop.

He also did all this in order to create a rigidly hierarchical white nation, a "kingdom of the Northern races" that would be free from the racial degeneracy and vastly superior to the mongrel mob democracy that had nearly destroyed the United States. (He was also a Confederate sympathizer and shockingly racist even by the standards of his time.) In pursuit of this national dream he deliberately starved the First Nations of the Prairies into submission and established the residential school system to best facilitate their assimilation into the Canadian project or else ensure their elimination as an obstacle to it.

That's it. That's the score. This man was the first prime minister of Canada. You can't celebrate his significance in the history of Canada without acknowledging that he was the architect of a genocide, in the same way that you can't highlight the human misery his white supremacy was responsible for without acknowledging that he is the father of the Canadian nation-state.

Of course, holding this rounded picture of the man only seems to be a problem for the people who want us to just leave poor old Sir John alone. For most critics, the whole point in discussing the blood on Macdonald's hands is to underscore how much of the machinery he established remains in place and is indeed central to the growth, consolidation, and maintenance of the Canadian state today. Robert Jago put it best in his recent essay in The Globe and Mail: for Indigenous peoples, it doesn't matter whether Macdonald's name is on an elementary school or not—his real legacy survives in the suffering they continue to endure every day in this country.


A lot of white Canadians, meanwhile, seem less sure that Macdonald's contributions to Canadian history can survive such rude criticism. At least two other op-eds in the Globe admonish us not to hold Sir John to "2017's standards," glibly equivocating crimes against humanity with his failure to ask anyone about their preferred gender pronouns. All the hand-wringing about "presentism" is exceptionally ironic given the utter dearth of historical engagement in most of the apologetics; the words "historical context" are not actually a get-out-of-jail-free card for your problematic faves. (And yes, this also includes noted eugenics enthusiasts Nellie McClung and Tommy Douglas.)

The defensiveness about John A. Macdonald is revealing. There is an insistence (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) that calling the first prime minister into question is to call Canada itself into question, as if we have a blood pact with his ghost where taking his name off buildings or highways would make the country disappear.

And this is the heart of the matter: we're not dealing so much with history as mythology—Sir John A. Macdonald the Father of Confederation, rather than Prime Minister Macdonald, mere mortal man. As a matter of course, history—real history, messy history, history that includes the Indigenous voices to which it was previously deaf—is not welcome here. It disrupts the carefully cultivated emotional attachments we have to this thing called "Canada."

Nationalist affect and serious history are generally exclusive. "Getting history wrong is part of being a nation," Ernest Renan famously remarked, and any attempt to get it right is intrusive and uncomfortable. It's hard, if you genuinely love Canada, to be confronted by its many unlovable aspects; doubly so when they include one of the country's most cherished heroes.

That's why there is also a tendency to just abandon the debate altogether, to consign Macdonald to the dead past and divorce him entirely from the living present. (This was Pierre Trudeau's approach.) That doesn't work either, because Canada is inseparable from Macdonald and the other Founders. We live in the political system they built, and they built it to clear the land's original inhabitants out to make way for the railroads and the highways and the pipelines and all the other national dreams of the colonizer.

Coming to terms with history is part of reconciliation. Taking reconciliation seriously means taking John A. Macdonald seriously: not as a mythological founding figure, not even as a villain, but as a man whose sweeping vision of Canada was created through a monstrous injustice that is still in operation 150 years later.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.