John A. Macdonald defenders fear admitting Canada is 'linked to white supremacy,' scholars say
TORONTO -- Historians told CTVNews.ca that white supremacy is linked to the legacy of Sir John A . Macdonald -- Canada's first prime minister, a champion of residential schools and whose government starved Indigenous people in order to expand railways -- but that connection is whitewashed when defenders lionize him.
A public letter entitled “In Defence of Sir John A. Macdonald and His Legacy,” released Monday signed by 149 people, including some prominent figures and former politicians, argued that Macdonald’s discrimination against Indigenous Peoples has to be weighed “against an impressive record of constitution and nation-building, his reconciliation of contending cultures, languages, and religions, his progressivism, and his documented concern for and friendship with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.”
But Indigenous history scholars told CTVNews.ca that the letter, from the advocacy group “Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald” and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, is continuing in a practice that sanitizes Macdonald’s racist views and actions.
“People are afraid of Canada being linked to white supremacy,” Robert Alexander Innes, Indigenous studies associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
“There’s a fear that his genocidal and racist tendencies say a lot about modern-day Canadians [which] a lot of Canadians don’t want to face. It’s a difficult thing.”
He criticized how the letter described what Macdonald did: he “acquired territory that made Canada the second largest country in the world” but doesn't mention how the land was taken from Indigenous Peoples. The letter said he “spearheaded the building of a railway to the Pacific,” without mentioning it involved starving the Indigenous people living on the land.
Innes and other scholars who spoke to CTVNews.ca believe the letter’s motivations were less of an actual attempt to reckon with history and was more of a political and nationalistic pushback to so-called “cancel culture” and the removal of Macdonald statues from public spaces.
Letter signatories included Conservative stalwarts such as former Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and former Finance Minister Joe Oliver; conservative columnists Barbara Kay and David Frum; Ryerson University professor Patrice Dutil and military historian Jack Granatstein.
Omeasoo Wahpasiw, an assistant professor of education and arts at the University of Prince Edward Island, called the letter “dangerous,” telling CTVNews.ca by phone: “if we want to continue to develop as a democracy, we have to remember that nuances are incredibly important.”
Wahpasiw, a Cree woman, said not linking Macdonald directly to the discrimination and genocide of thousands of Indigenous people “tells me that those people’s rights didn’t matter and still don’t matter. And as an individual, what matters are your great accomplishments, not how you treat[ed] people.”
Signatories of the letter purport to be seeking the prime minister’s “full story” but Innes, who advocated Macdonald should not be forgotten, nor celebrated, said “the irony is that by creating and having commemoration uncritically, you’re actually erasing the bad things that John Macdonald did.”
Innes estimates upwards of 5,000 deaths should be placed at Macdonald’s feet as a result of his starvation policy, which involved the government withholding food from First Nations in the prairies, until they moved to reserves to make way for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s construction during the 1880s.
While few comprehensive studies on these deaths exist, Innes’ figures are partially extrapolated from the deaths of one third of the Cowessess First Nation, a band Innes is a member of today. “[This event] has been completely erased from our historical consciousness [but] that’s a big part of our story.”
Students learn how to sew at Fort Resolution Indian Residential School (St. Joseph's Convent), in Resolution, N.W.T., in this undated image. (Library and Archives Canada)
Approximately 4,000 to 6,000 children died while in the residential school system which ran until 1996, according to estimates from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Approximately 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forcibly separated from their families and forced to attend these schools; were forbidden from practicing their culture, and often being subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
Although the letter does acknowledge residential schools and their lasting legacy, Sean Carleton, a historian and Indigenous studies scholar at the University of Manitoba, pushed back at the letter’s assertion that residential schools were “widely supported at the time.”
Carleton points out that newspapers, as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous critics at the time, were not only calling out his residential schools and starvation policies; but also Macdonald’s barring of Chinese people from voting, and the Chinese head tax (in which Chinese immigrants paid a fee to enter Canada between 1885 and 1923).
“John A. Macdonald should not be uncritically celebrated, mythologized and lionized,” Carleton argued. He said it “whitewashes white supremacy views and defends a shallow, sugar-coated version of Canadian history that protects anti-Indigenous racism and promotes a variety of undercooked dangerous ideas.”
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Scholars explained to CTVNews.ca the letter is defending a sanitized history based on accounts that were biased from the start. And part of historians’ work is undoing those glossed-over accounts.
Crystal Fraser, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alberta, said much of Canadian history that was deemed important came from government agents on First Nations reserves, military leaders and missionaries -- all of whom she said were majority white and supported colonization.
“Not very often do you see an Indigenous voice in an archive,” Fraser, a Gwichyà Gwich'in woman, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “I think if we had more of that, we could put to bed this misconception that Indigenous people were hapless victims. We’ve been pushing back for centuries.”
Carleton agreed saying the letter incorrectly implies that backlash against Macdonald is a modern-day occurrence. Carleton, Innes and Fraser all said Macdonald was a highly criticized, controversial figure in his own time.
“Indigenous people went to war against Canada,” Carleton said, referring to the country fighting the Métis in order to colonize what became Western Canada. “They were very, very critical of what was going on. There were a variety of critics in his role in the War of 1885 and the execution of [Métis political leader Louis] Riel -- that was critiqued in his own time.”
Carleton said when history is sanitized, it “doesn’t prepare Canadians to deal with the issues that are always bubbling underneath the surface.”
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He said since the 1960s, false historical narratives have been dismantled as more Indigenous and critical scholars are added to the group of historians who comment, research and re-contextualize history.
“In an era of reconciliation, celebrating an architect of Indigenous genocide isn’t very helpful,” Carleton said. “Many of the things they talk about in this letter need to be taught and understood but... he was also simultaneously a nation destroyer.”
Fraser, whose research focuses on the history of student experiences at residential schools, was critical of how Canadian school systems and educators hadn’t been living up to the Truth And Reconciliation Committee’s calls to action to teach more Indigenous history.
One survey found, half of Canadians say they’ve never learned about residential schools as students. A fact that’s disheartening for Fraser, who carries intergenerational trauma as both her mother and grandmother survived that system.
Fraser said the letter is indicative of the need for Canada as a whole to stop propping up inaccurate historical takes on figures like Macdonald, and instead “redirect our funding, our energy, our teaching onto subjects that can actually make a difference for people living in this country.”
Injustices today, such as murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, high suicide rates and lack of access to clean drinking water are the truer legacy of discriminatory policies of Macdonald and his contemporaries, Fraser said.
Wahpasiw, who regularly pushes her students in P.E.I. to dig deeper, agreed saying the letter “not only undermines our ability to think critically about the past but it undermines our ability to think critically about the future.”