Stop apologizing for John A. Macdonald


Niigaan Sinclair: Stop apologizing for John A. Macdonald


In the 1891 election, the Liberal Party of Canada ran on a reciprocity platform. It lost to Sir John A. Macdonald who won with his nationalist slogan, "The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader."

In a Jan. 3, 1887 letter referring to Indians as "inveterate grumblers," Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald wrote that it would be "extremely inexpedient to deal with the Indian bands in the Dominion as being in any way separate nations."

A few days before his birthday, Macdonald clearly declared his government's agenda was "assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change."

These were the words of a racist politician hell-bent on solving what he saw as an Indian problem.

The problem, as it were, was Indians insisted on being treated as human beings. The "inveterate grumblers" wanted to raise their children to know their languages, histories, and traditions. On lands they had lived on for generations. With governments that protected, honoured, and ensured their future as a separate, unique people.

And now, this week, millions of Canadians from are joining together to celebrate Sir John's 200th birthday. Hmmm.

Macdonald's agenda of assimilation is well documented. He adhered to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which imposed British control over Indians - and designed the British North America Act to reflect this.

His list of accomplishments include: the residential school system, starving First Nations until they acquiesced, and negotiating treaties in bad faith. He ordered Canadian militia to kill M├ętis, Assiniboine, and Cree communities when they were asking for their rights to be recognized, and executed Louis Riel and eight First Nations leaders. And he systematically imposed a draconian Indian Act that resulted in rampant poverty, stifling control, and resulted in the painful, slow death of thousands more.

Historians wish to paint Macdonald with a generous brush, citing him "giving" franchise to Indians without loss of status, his participation in the treaty process, and that he displayed more tolerance then his contemporaries. To this I say that a leader, a prime minister especially, must always be someone with vision, honour, and a sense of compassion and honesty. What we have here is an ideological, violent, murderous liar who shares more in common with dictators then democratic leaders.

Canadians have been apologizing for Macdonald for decades now, for things like the Chinese head tax and residential schools. I don't have to cite how much the Indian Act costs this country in bureaucracy alone. Most Canadians are embarrassed when Macdonald's rampant alcoholism and other self-imposed ills are mentioned.

I haven't even mentioned the bribery scandal over the financing of the national railway, leading to his resignation in disgrace.

And people say First Nations leaders have problems. Sheesh.

Truthfully, Sir John A. did not act alone. He led the Conservative party for decades and was influenced by many along the way. He inspired with his grand vision of a "united" Canada. He was driven, unwavering, and forceful. He probably was the prototypical Canadian.

But this, I suggest, is the problem with many of our historical heroes in this country.

To be a hero in Canada's history is to be several things but it is often, and usually first and foremost, graded by an ability to disregard, disempower, and hate Indigenous peoples.

So many things are changing today. Canadians are waking up to the tremendously important, valuable, and historical contributions Indigenous peoples have made, and are making, to this country's identity.

Celebrating men like Sir John A. Macdonald doesn't do this.

No one can change history, but we can learn the truth about it. We might even be able to alter what we think a real Canadian is.

One other thing: Hey Johnny: me and a few million others aren't fit to change.

Your assimilation project failed.

Happy Birthday.

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and teaches history and culture at the University of Manitoba. He is co-editor of the The Winter We Danced: The Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement (Arbeiter Ring Press, 2014).


AFN press release

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Statement on the Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Sir John A. Macdonald

OTTAWA, Jan. 9, 2015 /CNW/ - Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde issued the following statement today on the 200th anniversary commemorations of the birth of Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, on January 11.

"The 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald's birth should not simply be an opportunity for celebration but an opportunity for reflection and education on the history of this country.  These occasions clearly have different meanings for different people.  Many Canadians know only the conventional history of Macdonald as a 'father of Confederation,' yet for many First Nations the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald is a painful one, linked to discriminatory and oppressive practices, policies and legislation that continue to have impacts today like the Indian Act, residential schools, and discriminatory laws that denied and disenfranchised First Nations people from their rights and their lands. 

First Nations are often lectured about 'not living in the past', but the decisions, policies and actions that are preventing First Nations from achieving the same quality of life and the full expression of our rights to control our lives and lands have a foundation in the early decisions of the settler governments.  These decisions excluded First Nations people and ran contrary to the Treaty relationship of partnership and respect.  Canadians need to learn their history and, equally important, learn from their history because First Nations are still dealing with the impacts of this legacy today.  The commemoration of Sir John A. Macdonald's birthday should be an opportunity to commit ourselves to understanding our past so we can understand how we can move forward together to create a country where we all thrive and benefit from the beauty and riches of this land."

The Assembly of First Nations is the national organization representing First Nations citizens in Canada.  Follow AFN on Twitter @AFN_Comms, @AFN_Updates.

SOURCE Assembly of First Nations

For further information: Alain Garon, AFN Bilingual Communications Officer, 613-241-6789, ext. 382, 613-292-0857 or; Jenna Young Castro, AFN Communications Officer, 613-241-6789 ext. 401, 613-314-8157,