Old Macdonald

Sir John A. was a racist, a colonialist, and a drunk. Why are we celebrating him?

• 1,288 words

Portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald/Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1940-64-1
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1940-64-1 Unknown artist, Portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, c. 1868–1870.

There can hardly be a father of any other country in the world with so little to show for it as Sir John A. Macdonald. George Washington is remembered with an enormous phallus looming over a capital city that bears his name. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has a bridge, a major international airport, a dam, and an Olympic-sized stadium in Istanbul. There’s an asteroid named after the founder of the Netherlands. But Macdonald has nothing iconic to honour him. There’s a rather meagre airport in Ottawa and a freeway in southern Ontario—both of which he has to share with Sir George-Étienne Cartier. There’s also a town in Manitoba (population 6,280). Sir John A. Macdonald Day is January 11, in case you’ve forgotten, but it’s not the kind of holiday where you get time off (what can you do on January 11 in Canada, anyway?). The city of Macdonald’s birth, Glasgow, Scotland, plans to build a memorial in his honour, but the fact that it has taken 200 years to get started shows just how unimpressed Scots are that one of their own established the second-largest country in the world. As the bicentennial of his birth approaches, Canadians and British alike treat him, for the most part, with indifference—a terrible error. Far from deserving indifference, John A. Macdonald deserves considered and active contempt.

Let us not bother, in his case, with the pettiness of historical revisionism—the undercutting and the belittling that so often bedevil accounts of the past when new visions of virtue happen to overtake the facts. The judgment of Richard Gwyn, in his definitive biography of the man, is no doubt correct: “Among all the ablest nineteenth-century democratic leaders, including Lincoln, Disraeli and Gladstone, he was one of the most skilled and most experienced, and probably the most wily. He was also exceptionally determined, whether in pursuit of his country’s interests or of his own.” Confederation would have taken a great deal longer without him; British Columbia might well belong to the United States right now. Like all idols, the man had clay feet. He was a drunk. Who cares? Without him, the country that we have would not exist.

And therein lies the reason why his memory calls for a more profound re-examination. John A. Macdonald was the corrupt, inebriated, racist father of Canada. The corruption, the inebriation, and the racism weren’t the problem: His failures were typical. His triumphs are what we need to worry about. He gave us Confederation, which we celebrate as the origin of our country—though we remained a British dominion with little say in our foreign affairs until 1931. He taught us that the Empire should act like “one great nation,” and declared, “A British subject I was born, and a British subject I hope to die. With my utmost effort, with my latest breath, will I oppose the ‘veiled treason’ which attempts by sordid means and mercenary proffers to lure our people from their allegiance.” So tormented and so shallow was the vision contained in the British North America Act of 1867—his proudest accomplishment—that the ghosts of its omissions continue to haunt us. It’s not just the spectre of Quebec separatism. To this day, if you mention the Constitution at a cocktail party, whomever you’re talking to will simply walk away. Our national vision is so compromised, so utterly lacking in any idea other than “why don’t we all get along,” that the mess our first prime minister left behind has spiralled into a series of crises that may never be resolved.

Macdonald’s other great achievement was the Canadian Pacific Railway. Again, this supposed glory has left unhealed scars on the country that was its beneficiary. The final push came from the crisis of the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. The blood of Canada’s fundamental symbolic crime stains him: he hanged Louis Riel, or at least he refused to reprieve him in his madness—which is possibly even worse and more symbolic. The violation of Treaty Number Six, which promised food and aid to First Nations in times of hardship, was more directly genocidal. When the bison herds collapsed and famine came, Macdonald bragged of efficiencies: “We are doing all we can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.” The Canada of “Peace, Order, and good Government” did not allow for the massacre of Aboriginal peoples, but it did allow for their starvation: it was a quiet, unostentatious ethnic cleansing. Famine cleared the way for the railroad. It also prepared the way for the government nutritionists in the 1940s and 1950s who instead of feeding hungry communities used them to study the effects of malnutrition.

Macdonald’s other crime in the West was of a more ordinary, more classic, more lasting variety. After the vast corruption of the railway contracts, he popped into British Columbia at the last moment to bang in the final spike at Cliffside Station—the eastern elite sweeping in to take the resources and claim the credit for western effort. It would not be the last time.

Then there is his hatred of immigrants. You’re not always to blame for your admirers, but Canadian Nazis have been known to throw John A. Macdonald parties when they don’t feel like calling their gatherings Nazi parties. Macdonald was a white supremacist. That’s really the only name for it. Our first prime minister denied Chinese immigrants the vote because, in his words, “he is a stranger, a sojourner in a strange land…he has no common interest with us…he has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote.” Granted, his wasn’t a particularly rare point of view in the late nineteenth century; on the other hand, it was not an inevitable position.

Macdonald believed, above all, in subservience to the British Empire. As his campaign promised in 1891, “The old flag, the old policy, the old leader.” Because of him, we are our own country, but not our own country. Our symbols, even our head of state, belong to another nation and probably always will. A colonial mentality penetrates Canadian culture; successive waves of nationalism have failed to budge it.

Under the shadow of Sir John A. Macdonald’s glorious accomplishments, we remain connected to a defunct empire; we possess no national vision that connects French-speaking and English-speaking populations; and we have not dealt, nor are we dealing, with the underlying crime of taking land by force from the people whose rebellions against English dominion we crushed while he was prime minister. The memory of Macdonald is the nightmare of history; it is the memory we should forget but cannot.

The Canada that we want to have is open, tolerant, and, above all, itself. Sir John A. Macdonald would have hated every word in that sentence. He was the father of the country, sure. But he was the father of the country we don’t want to be.

Teaching Sir JAM’s legacy

The leaders who created this great country lived at a time when racism, sexism, and corruption were the orders of the day. The Walrus wants to hear from Canadian educators: How do we instill respect in our nation’s founders, while teaching children about the regressive attitudes that permeated nineteenth century Western societies? Please leave your response as a comment below, or send an email to [email protected].

This appeared in the January/February 2015 issue.

Stephen Marche (@StephenMarche) published The Hunger of the Wolf, a novel, in February 2015.

  • Basil Moore

    Why Stephen would you defame anyone? I haven’t seen your name in lights!! what have to brag about? you enjoy putting someone down. I hope you aren’t married, i would pity your wife!!!

  • Cakes1994

    Stephen Marche’s Canada is not the one MacDonald envisioned. Stephen and his cohorts have an elitist belief in the country being something it is not, was not, and should never be.

    To justify this, this shambolic article is written to ‘disgrace’ the accomplishments of Sir John A. MacDonald for reasons that do not have much to bear on the significance of uniting the country as a whole. The political and personal faults of MacDonald are well-known, but they do not serve to diminish the great achievement and work he did to form this country. To call him a drunk and a racist to shame his contributions to Canada is ignorant and dishonest.

    Canada was formed through the vision MacDonald and the other Fathers of Confederation had for the country, and has developed from those precarious days in the 1860s to something unique and respectable, if imperfect. I don’t think this Canada is Macdonald’s Canada anymore than the U.S. is Washington’s… but I do believe that Sir John A. should be admired and applauded, not reviled.

  • jonnm

    Any political figure would have clay feet if you base your analysis on todays standards. What makes a person exceptional is that they went beyond the norms of their time and advanced society. Almost all people of the time were racists including those who fought slavery. Name some famous politicians of the period who were not racist by modern standards. I love the idiots who make something out about John A’s father in law was a slave owner. Perhaps we should check out all leaders relatives and ancestors, I sure we could find some juicy bits including those related to the author of this piece. As far as Riel goes armed rebellion usually resulted in the death penalty aside from the fact treating Riel as some great hero begs the question what makes him a hero. He had someone killed simply because the person opposed him and led a fruitless rebellion that only resulted in many deaths. If your going to pick heroes try Big Bear. Finally he got the Indians the vote only to have it withdrawn by Laurier and tried unsuccessfully to get women the vote in 1880 far earlier than any contemporary. Paraphrasing when addressed in parliament that he was drunk he responded by saying the people preferred him drunk to his opponent sober. Name a person from that period or earlier that envisioned Canada as it is today.

    • puskwakau

      “As far as Reil goes…”
      As is typical of those that run with a few facts and make up the rest to fit a version of a story they prefer to believe.
      Reil was not rebelling against the leader of his sovereign nation. He and the Metis were resisting the encroachment of a foreign government’s imperialism.
      The British Orangemen that was the militia that rode west from the Canadas into Cree and Dene and Metis country were the war criminals. But, as with all victors, they dictated the terms of their usurpation. And labelling the leader of a sovereign nation a ‘traitor’ then hanging him for it, was one of those terms.

      • jonnm

        Nice try,
        please state the countries that recognized the so called sovereign nation, If
        you had studied the history of this period you would know that Riel did not
        even represent all Metis(primarily but not all the French Metis) much less
        the Indians or the other inhabitants. They did have rights that were not
        respected but they were only a segment of the population and represented only
        that part of the population not some imagined state. In Manitoba he not only recognized
        Canadian sovereignty but was a member of parliament. Many of the Metis in the
        rebellion were part a group that moved from Manitoba after the agreements that
        settle his first rebellion. So pukwaskau you might try learning a little
        history yourself.

        • god

          Wasn’t he an American business man asked to return to Canada to save Canada from their elected so too got elected and then was hung. Makes one think twice about saving Canadians from the rights of the provincial government claims that they too are Crown equal to the Crown of England.

          • jonnm

            Riel was from the Metis settlements in Manitoba. He originally led a rebellion there during which he had a person who opposed him verbally executed. When the Canadian army showed up the rebellion failed without a fight. Riel was not punished and ultimately elected to the federal parliament. He had mental issues. After leaving parliament he settled in the northern US originally as a teacher and had some business activity. When the rebellion failed part of the French Metis from Manitoba moved to Sasketwan in the Qu’Appelle Valley area mostly. The was considerable dissatisfaction among not only the French Metis but the British Metis , Indians and European settles in the territory. Riel was invited back with support from all the communities to petition the government to change their policies and initially that is what he did. But in a short period he started a full scaled rebellion but only supported by the French metis and opposed by the rest of the population. Even the Catholic church came out in opposition to him. At the same time some of the Indians raided some locations for food because with the dying off of the buffalo they were starving. This was separate from the Riel rebellion and opposed by the chiefs. The starvation was caused by the federal government withholding suppliers to force the Indians on to reservations. The Canadian government responded quickly and with the railroad was able move troops into the area. Riel and his supported were corned and defeated partly because Riel refused to fight a guerrilla war for which they were well suited and retreated to Qu’Appelle were they were defeated. He was tried by jury in the territory who found him guilty but recommended mercy. The judge however had him hanged.

          • god

            The problem with self publishing is that historical facts, like provincial creations do need to be understood and the Red River Colony of letter patents England was at play here. What the Royal want for their governor generals and capitalists, be they religious powers who determined the worth of the individual based on the colour of their skin and their beliefs, or the barons and capitalists who will take from anyone, not too fussy about who, where, what, etc as the issue is to centralized the money source to control international trade and create monopolies to rule the world. And now a switch, could determine the freedom of the press. So how are we free people feeling about that? If only those commercial and charitable interests for education had not merged and taken over the commons we might not be in this mess.

        • puskwakau

          Yet he was hung in Regina in1885, twenty years before that territory of the some foreign monarchy that had gifted it to some other foreign corporation for resource exploitation was finally claimed by the British owned country in short pants called Canada.
          The treaties made with the actual owners in lieu of extermination have yet to be honoured. Just how long of nonpayment does it take before those cheat chits are deemed bogus?
          And of course the British ‘SIR’ Macdonald hung the French Metis Reil. The Metis did most of their commercial activity with the French based North West Company and the lackey Macdonald took his bigot directive from the British and their corporate exploiter Hudson Bay Company.
          Those prigs were of a type that mixed marriages between a White and an Indian was abomination to the point of most of their rectors were nothing but a bunch of family abondoning amorals.

          • jonnm

            Unlike your claim when Riel originally returned to Sasketwan it was not to lead a rebellion but a widely supported petition by much of the population to the Canadian government to redress a number of wrongs not to create a rebellion. He never had a mandate to establish a new state and in fact he was originally there to petition the government which means that the majority recognized said government. It was his decision to abandon this consensus and try to set up a state based an a the French Metis portion of the population and opposed by the rest of the population. Even the Catholic church opposed him. So no he did not have a mandate, and did not represent the majority of the population. Even the leadership of the Indians did not support him. There is no question the federal government did not live up to its responsibilities particularly with the Indians but there is zero question who was sovereign over the territory. Certainly not a couple of thousand French Metis many of who had only moved there recently. The real heroes are people like Big Bear who tried to prevent war showed mercy under horrific conditions.

          • jonnm

            Again work on you history, the North West company was not controlled by the French but by mostly ex pat Americans living in Montreal. At the time we are talking about the North West company had not existed for about 64 years because it merged with the HBC in 1821.

    • Queequeg

      The Russians often sent insurrectionists to Siberia rather than execute them…but I agree it is arrogant and intellectually dishonest to judge ahistorically

      • jonnm

        The Brits of course sent them to Australia including some from Canada. but that was not used for the leaders of rebellions such as the 1837 one in Ontario, and from the point of view of the government they had already allowed him one rebellion. As it was the so called Orangemen of the jury recommended mercy but the judge decided on judicial homicide. I’m not sure a prime minister in our system has the right to give pardons although it is unlikely MacDonald would have done so anyway. People ignore the fact that Riel had initially widespread support from most of the communities in Sasketwan . But he took the movement to redress widespread injustices and complaints to the federal government into armed rebellion that ultimately was against some if not most of his earlier supporters and ended up only supported by French Metis and not all of them. Even the Catholic church distanced itself from his actions. Taken by many as a romanticized symbol of resistance to the central Canadian government many oddly by the western decedents of the very people whose ancestors opposed and hung him, His actual record is failed rebellions by a portion of the population that resulted in many dying. His failures were not simply the result of nefarious plots by central Canada.

        • Queequeg

          Thanks. And, for me hindsight is always a good deal better than acting in the moment—but not to act is also often immoral. I know nothing about Reil, nor the calculus he used to determine his insurrection. Sometimes we see that these characters are romantic narcissists, other times, hardheaded visionaries—I tend now to take a measured approach that attempts to understand the circumstances of the time…Any decent books that take a cautious scholarly approach, that you suggest?

          • jonnm

            I can’t suggest any specific book on Riel but there are many out there, most supportive of him and overall it is worth reading more than one to try to get a balanced understanding. My problem with him is that I think rather than being remembered as he was, he has been turned into a symbol of western criticism of the federal government and central Canada and at that time there was much to criticize. This is fairly common in the west I remember sitting in a class in Regina being told that the federal government’s support of settling Sasketwan was a giant conspiracy despite knowing that it the Pallisers triangle was uninhabitable. Regina is a great city that I like a lot that sits in the middle of Pallisers triangle.

  • Kim Weaver

    Right on Stephen Marche. You have it right. His grand tradition carries on today with the continued efforts to wipe out Indigenous Peop[le. By the way, it was not just treaty 6 but also Treaty 7 and Treaty 4 that suffered starvation and disease at his bidding. You missed the part about holding back the smallpox vaccine.

    For the 3 comment writers below, go read a real history book that is not sophomoric cheerleading by some white high school teacher in a textbook. Read Clearing the Plains by James DAschuk and see if your opinion changes.

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  • James Knoop

    Judging history by today’s standards of political correctness is one of the easiest mistakes to make. Needlessly trashing our country’s founder is simply poor form. One thing that impresses me about John A. is his National Policy, which was that Ontario and Quebec’s manufacturing goods would go to western farmers, while the western farmers would send their products back east. Simple. It’s this kind of nation-building we don’t do any more. There’s more to John A. than watching him at the bar make an ass of himself…

    • Queequeg

      Not knowing MacDonald or much Canadian history I was struck by the bias in the article–he actually seems to be an interesting character. Agree, actors all exist in a particular context, and ought to be understood in that context.

      • Robyn L

        If you don’t know much about MacDonald or Canadian history, how would you know if a bias exists, or if that bias is incorrect?
        Understood in context? Well, let’s go with your idea of interesting character? Sure, one could say that but one may have said the very same words about Hitler as it was he who admired enough of JAM’s efforts in ethnic cleansing to copy them. Add to that JAM’s drunkenness, corruption, endless scandals, and enough racist views and dictates to shock even his fellow legislature holders of the day, and that is saying quite a bit for context.

        • Queequeg

          I don’t know you but I can smell your anti-intellectual bias a continent away

          • Robyn L

            No, I do believe we just established yours. Have a better day.

          • Queequeg

            ur bitterness is hilarious

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  • paulthe

    There are two reasons why we are not citizens of the United States, one is the War of 1812 and the second was the way Sir John A was able to bring 4 argumentive colonies together to form a federation. Sir John was truly a man of his times and a man of all times. He was flawed but he had a vision, one that still exists. On the 11th I shall give a toast to his memory, and a thanks that because of him, I am a Canadian.

    • Robyn L

      Where is the credit of that war in 1812 that goes to the Indigenous on this side of the border that were responsible for keeping the national lines as they were? Because of JAM? Not so damn fast.

      • paulthe

        I do want to thank you for bringing up a point that is totally irrelevant to my comment. I didn’t realize I was crediting Sir John A for defeating the Americans at places such as Lundy’s Lane, Detroit and Queenston Heights.

        • Robyn L

          You’re welcome.

  • David Leonard

    Stephen Marche should be ashamed of himself for writing such drivel and demeaning our first Prime Minister in such a way. I say “Boooo!” to Stephen Marche and his commentary!

  • http://ljpkjsah.wordpress.com/ G. Murphy Donovan

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, although my father was a Newfie. Nonetheless, I believe America will be happy to have the remains of John MacDonald if Canada will repatriate Justin Bieber and Celine Dion.

  • tikiliberationfront

    You have to love it when drama majors who cannot get tenure track jobs get all uppity and try their hand at punditry.

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  • http://www.sdm.com.tr/ ingilizcekursu

    Thank you for information

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  • Nephanor

    I am curious, you mention a couple quotes from JAM, what source do you have for these quotes? I have not been able to find any source at all.

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