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His Life

Every school child in Canada knows the name Sir John A. Macdonald. He is the first prime minister of our country and the man who helped, along with many others, move Canada towards Confederation. It would be incorrect to call him the Father of Canada, but he is certainly one of the many Fathers of Confederation.

While his legacy as our first prime minister is without question, what he did as prime minister has resulted in changing views into the 21st century. In this first episode of the podcast, I am going to look at who this man was, his impact on Canada and how his still influencing our country to this day.

The story of John Alexander Macdonald begins with his birth in January 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland to Hugh Macdonald and Helen Shaw. There is some discrepancy with his birth date, with it being listed as either Jan. 10 or Jan. 11. The reason for this is that his father’s journal lists his birth date as Jan. 11 and his family would celebrate his birth on that day each year as well. That being said, a certified extract from the registration of his birth lists it as Jan. 10. Hence, the confusion.

Macdonald’s time in Scotland was short and at the age of five he would come to Kingston in Upper Canada with his parents, where he would grow up and spend his formative years. In Kingston, he would attend Midland District Grammar School and later a private school where he learned grammar, math, geography, Latin and Greek. His father, while not wealthy, was a man of importance in the area, becoming the magistrate for the Midland District in 1829.

It was clear that Macdonald was looking to become a lawyer because at the age of only 15, he began to article with a prominent lawyer in Kingston. At 17, he was managing a branch legal office in Napanee by himself and by 19 he had his own law office in Kingston. This was all before he was even called to the Law Society of Canada when he was 21.

An interesting aspect of Macdonald is that during the 19th century, there were three notable rebellions and resistances The first were the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions of 1837 and 1838, followed by the 1870 Red River Resistance and the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. In all three, Macdonald had a role in some way.

When the Upper Canada Rebellion began, Macdonald was in Toronto and he would serve as a militia private beginning in December 1837, where he took part in the attack on the rebels at Montgomery’s Tavern. Interestingly, despite fighting against the rebels, he would represent them, including Nils von Schoultz, the leader of the attack on Prescott, in court in 1838. This would first bring him to the notice of others in the area because of the high profile case and the fact he was defending the rebels. Another case he took, often choosing sensational cases that garnered public attention, was defending William Brass, a member of a prominent family in the area who had been convicted of a sexual assault in 1837. Macdonald would often lose as often as he won but his reputation for being a quick-wit and his ingenuity was growing.

Macdonald would also be involved in land development and speculation, purchasing properties in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s in Kingston, Guelph and Toronto, often selling the land in parcels of 9,700 acres at a time.

Law would be a huge part of the life of Macdonald and something he would continue at for the rest of his life. He would operate his law firm from the mid-1830s until 1874, and then he began to practice law from that year on in Toronto. More often than not, Macdonald focused on commercial cases allowing him to develop connections with businessmen and corporations in Upper Canada. This also resulted in him becoming a director of several firms, some of which he would run for a decade or more, up until the end of his life.

The political life of Macdonald would begin in 1843 when he dipped his toe in the waters of public office in Kingston. It was in that year he started to serve an alderman in Kingston, a role he kept until 1846. At the same time, he became active in Conservative politics and in 1844, while an alderman and at the age of only 29, he would be elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. It was also in 1843 that Macdonald would marry Isabella Clark. The couple were actually cousins, sharing a maternal grandmother but such a thing was not uncommon at the time. The marriage also appears to have started well but Macdonald was primarily focused on business, rather than on his wife. Nonetheless, they would have two sons. The first, John, was born in New York in August of 1847 but the child died 13 months later. Macdonald never appeared to get over the death of John and until the day he died, he kept a box of the child’s toys with him. The birth was difficult for Isabella as she was 39 at the time and needed several months of rest following the birth. She would give birth to Hugh John Macdonald when she was 41. Hugh would go on to serve in the Canadian House of Commons from 1891 to 1893 and from 1896 to 1897. He also briefly served as the eighth premier of Manitoba from Jan. 10, 1900 to Oct. 29, 1900. Sadly, for much of her marriage to Macdonald, Isabella was in ill health and often was in such pain she could not get out of bed. To deal with the pain, she would often drink opium mixed with wine. She would die on Dec. 28, 1857 at the age of 48.

Coming into politics in the 1840s, Canada was two decades away and Upper and Lower Canada had only dealt with a rebellion less than a decade previous. It was an interesting time to be in politics in what would be Canada. The Governor General often ruled like a king, and responsible government was still a few years away. It became apparent that not only was Macdonald smart, but he was also shrewd when it came to politics. This belief in his abilities was evident when only three years after being elected, he was given the cabinet post of receiver general.

Macdonald would write, quote:

“Politics is a game requiring an utter abnegation of prejudice and personal feeling. If we get the right man in the right place, it does not matter what his race or religion might be.”

Until 1854, Macdonald remained in the opposition of the Province of Canada but that year he would become involved in creating the Liberal-Conservative Party, which was an alliance between the Conservatives, the Upper Canadian Reformers and the French Canadian majority political party of the Bleus. In the 1854 election, with his party now ruling, he was given the important post of attorney general of Upper Canada. Macdonald then engineered the retirement of Sir Allan Macnab, the Conservative leader of the party, at which point Macdonald came in as the joint premier of the Province of Canada with Etienne-Paschal Tache. From 1857 to 1862, he was co-premier with George-Etienne Cartier.

These were tumultuous times for British North America, and the Province of Canada. As Macdonald was serving as co-premier, he was dealing with the fact that in Canada West many were growing opposed to the political union with Canada East. This union had happened in 1841 when Upper and Lower Canada merged into the Province of Canada. The issue that those in Canada West had was they believed the French Canadian influence of Canada East was dominating the needs and aspirations of those in Canada West. Amid this deadlock in the Legislative Assembly, Macdonald agreed, not without reservations, to working with Reformer George Brown to create a new coalition that consisted of the Conservatives, the Bleus and the Clear Grits, who would work together for a constitutional change beginning in 1864. This coalition would play a key role in the creation of Canada and the formation of the first four provinces.

Working with George Brown was actually surprising to many in politics at the time. Macdonald had been able to remain in power as joint-premier of the province by working with Tache and then Cartier. This allowed him to push his rival, Brown, into the opposition. While Macdonald kept in government for long periods due to his alliances, he often saw his support undercut by Brown, who wanted representation by population. Brown had actually asked for a constitutional change and confederation for some time, but Macdonald waited until he felt the time was right for himself. This came when his government fell in 1864, at which point Macdonald accepted Brown’s offer to form a new coalition government to reform the constitution.

It was George Brown who proposed a Great Coalition, in order to create Canadian Confederation, he took part in conferences in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and in London. During the Charlottetown Conference that ran from Sept. 1 to 9, 1864, Macdonald and the others with the Province of Canada delegation dominated the conference, overshadowing the concerns of the representatives from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, and putting forward policies and a foundation that benefitted the Province of Canada the most. During this conference, Macdonald also began to find allies that would enable him to have a more dominant role at the next conference. At the Quebec Conference that ran from Oct. 10 to 24, Macdonald and the delegates had the goal of building policies around federalism and creating a single state. At this conference, the Quebec Resolutions would be drafted, 72 in all, that would form the outline of the Canadian Constitution. After the conference, Macdonald claimed most of the responsibility for the resolutions and Brown would resign from the process of Confederation in 1865. This allowed Macdonald to become the chief architect of Confederation.

One individual said, quote:

“Macdonald is a sly fox. He is well-briefed, subtle, adroit and popular. He is the man of the conference.”

Talking about his charisma, Joseph Rymal would say, quote:

“Good or bad, able or unable, weak or strong, he wraps them around his finger as you would a thread.”

Macdonald wanted to pursue a strong, centralized unitary form of government and he would take a main role in drafting a federal system in which a central government had dominance over provincial governments. Through the various conferences to build what would be Canada, Lord Monck, the Governor General of the Province of Canada, saw the political abilities of Macdonald and on July 1, 1867, appointed him as the first prime minister of Canada. At the same time, Macdonald was knighted and became Sir John A. Macdonald.

It would not be until later in the year that Sir John A. Macdonald would be elected as prime minister. From Aug. 7 to Sept. 20, the election was held with a 74.3 per cent turnout of 361,000 voters. Macdonald and his party would win 100 seats, gaining a majority government over the Liberal Party and the Anti-Confederation Party.

The same year he became Canada’s first prime minister, Macdonald married his second wife Agnes Bernard. She had come to Canada after he father’s death to live with Hewitt Bernard, her brother. Hewitt was a lawyer and the private secretary of Macdonald and she would meet Macdonald for the first time in 1856. She would meet Macdonald again in 1866 when she was in London and he was there negotiating the British North America Act. The couple would marry on Feb. 16, 1867 and from their marriage a daughter, Margaret, was born in 1869, and had severe mental and physical handicaps her entire life.

During his first administration, running from 1867 to 1873, Macdonald would go through several important Canadian events that define the country to this day. In this administration, Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island all joined Canada as provinces, while the North-West Territories came into being after the purchase of Rupert’s Land, which would form the future provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as a large portion of Manitoba. In addition to this, the Intercolonial Railway between Quebec City and Halifax had its construction started and plans were made to build a transcontinental railway to the Pacific, linking British Columbia to the rest of Canada.

Of course, in 1869, only two years into his term, Macdonald would be faced with the Red River Resistance, which was a direct response to Canada taking over the territory of Rupert’s Land, previously owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In a letter to Lt. Governor William McDougall, who was now in charge of the area, Macdonald gave him advice on how to proceed stating:

“The point which you must never forget is that you are now approaching a foreign country under the government of the Hudson Bay Company. You cannot force your way in.”

He also advised working with Riel, whom he called a clever fellow, for use in future police, stating in that and he uses a word here we don’t use anymore, quote:

“give a most convincing proof that you are not going to leave the half breeds out of the law.”

At the time, it was home to farmers and hunters, many of them Metis, and they feared they would lose their culture and land rights under a Canadian government. The resistance was launched and a provisional government was declared with the goal of negotiating terms to enter Confederation. During the resistance, the only death was that of Thomas Scott, who opposed the provisional government and was executed by firing squad by Louis Riel, which is seen as a blunder amid efficient and capable leadership of Riel. Governor General Lord Lisgar was persuaded by Macdonald to grant amnesty for all in the Red River area who put down their arms, and he appointed HBC representative Donald Alexander Smith to serve as a special commissioner to negotiate with the provisional government.

Macdonald seemed to understand the plight of the Metis, saying in a letter to his colleague Cartier, quote:

“All that those poor people know is that Canada has bought the country and that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us and they are told that they lose their lands. Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that they should be dissatisfied and should show their discontent.”

While Manitoba would become a province in 1870, no amnesty was granted to Riel or his lieutenants and while 607,000 hectares was reserved for children of Metis families, later governments mismanaged this arrangement and the Metis nation was severely impacted. Many Metis chose to move farther to the west, away from the provincial control of the government in an effort to retain the culture. Riel went into exile to the United States for five years and under pressure from Quebec, Macdonald took no action. This would not be the last time that Riel and Macdonald would cross paths in the history of the country.

At the time that the bill to create Manitoba was going through the House of Commons, Macdonald was actually dealing with the passage of a gallstone and was so weak he could not leave his home.

In 1872, Macdonald would win his second majority government, maintaining 100 seats, while the Liberals came closer to power with 95. It was during this election that large campaign contributions had been made to Macdonald and his colleagues by Sir Hugh Allan, who was the head of the railway syndicate attempting to get the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Several groups were interested in building the Pacific and Macdonald had attempted to bring them together but issues between the various groups prevented this. In the summer of 1872, Macdonald asked Hugh Allan to put a company together to build the railway and he was promised the presidency of that company. Allan, possibly without the knowledge of Macdonald, was also guaranteed the charter and the majority of stock in return for additional election funding, amount to $350,000. On April 2, 1873, the scandal broke in the House of Commons and there were calls for a committee of inquiry and charging that Allan’s company had been financed with American money and that Allan had given large sums of money to senior members of the government in the election. On July 18, telegrams published in Liberal newspapers showed that Macdonald and others had accepted large sums of money.

While Macdonald maintained that his hands were clean, stating he had not profited personally, his government would be forced to resign on Nov. 5, 1873, and the Conservatives would lose in the Jan. 22, 1874 election. Macdonald remained as leader, but his party lost 35 seats in that election. Macdonald would state that due to his heavy drinking in 1872, he did not remember periods of time during the election or negotiations with Allan. After losing his role as prime minister, Macdonald began to drink less.

In many ways, the loss of that election may have helped Macdonald because the country soon fell into a business depression, which severely hurt the popularity of the Liberal government under Alexander Mackenzie. As for Macdonald, he began to feel like his political career was over. He sold his house in Ottawa that year and made plans to move to Toronto where is law firm and main client was located.

In 1875, Macdonald had decided to take a loose rein to the party, and he fell into drinking a bit too hard. In February that year, while his wife Agnes was visiting Niagara, he had been drinking brandy and by 3 p.m. was drunk. He was rushed into the House of Commons to give a scheduled speech, and spoke with enough clarity but during the speech of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, Macdonald interrupted him constantly. His party tried to get him out of the House of Commons but he refused to leave and his temper would get the best of him, as often happened when he drank. Agnes, who was able to keep him under control, was called back and Macdonald decided to turn over a new leaf, at least for a time. On March 2, he would join the Church of England. Of course, as I will get to later, his drinking continued and a few months later, he would get drunk at a dinner party and insult several people including future prime minister Charles Tupper.

In 1876, a group of Montreal manufacturers began to advocate for a policy of readjustment of the tariff, a policy he latched onto and which helped him return to power as Prime Minister in 1878. Macdonald had tried to give up the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1877 but his party would not accept his resignation and Macdonald was forced to continue on, which would lead to him being prime minster again the following year. Interestingly, Macdonald was not elected in his usual Kingston, and instead was later elected in both Victoria, British Columbia and Marquette, Manitoba, choosing to represent Victoria. One year later he introduced the changes to the tariff policy, which became known as the National Policy. This is a system that protected Canadian manufacturing through the imposition of high tariffs on imports, with a special emphasis on the United States. The results of this policy were uneven during Macdonald’s time in office though because of tough economic times that continued.

Arguably, the biggest accomplishment of Macdonald during his time as prime minister was the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, but even this was not without controversy. Macdonald would award the contract to a new syndicate headed by George Stephen, providing a government subsidy of $25 million and 25 million acres of land. In 1884 and then again in 1885, he provided legislation for further financial support of the railway. With the completion of the railway in November 1885, the railroad to British Columbia was complete but it would come at a great cost for the Indigenous of the west.

On his first trip out west on the new rail line, Macdonald would build Agnes a platform on the cowcatcher of the locomotive with a chair nailed to it so she could see the mountain scenery of British Columbia better.

Macdonald did not want Canada to be completely independent from the United Kingdom, but wanted to be in a partnership with the mother country. That being said, he would move the country more towards its own independence in affairs in a variety of manners. One example of this was during the negotiations of the Treaty of Washington in 1871. Macdonald was one of five commissioners representing British interests, but he was there to represent Canada. The treaty issues included the American desire to resume use of Canadian inshore fisheries, which had been banned from 1818 to 1854 and from 1866 to 1871, as well as the ownership of San Juan Island in the Georgia Strait, and restitution for Canada over the Fenian Raids of 1866 to 1870. While Macdonald was there, in reality he played a very small role and held little power in the decisions. Further to establishing more independence from England, he also created the Canadian High Commissioner to Britain in 1880.

As Macdonald moved towards the end of his political career, he would be faced with several issues in the provinces and the territories. The biggest was the North-West Resistance, which would happen while Macdonald was not only prime minister but also the superintendent general of Indian Affairs. At a time when the Indigenous were losing their land to the government through a series of treaties, and were then confined to reserves where food rations were low at best, Riel came back into the picture and launched a resistance in the future province of Saskatchewan. With many Metis feeling that the government was not protecting its rights, land or culture, they launched the resistance that saw early successes. Eventually, a Canadian militia that included the North West Mounted Police arrived on the newly built train line and the resistance was defeated at a four-day battle at Batoche. Eight Indigenous leaders would be captured and convicted of treason. All were hanged in the largest mass hanging in Canadian history, authorized by Macdonald. Riel would also be hanged for leading the resistance. The killing of Riel would launch a national controversy between English Canada, who saw him as a traitor, and French Canada, who saw him as a hero.

In writing prior to the hanging to his friend J.R. Gowan, Macdonald would say, quote:

“He will certainly be executed but in the present natural excitement people grumble at his not being hanged off hand.”

Two days after the hanging of Riel, Macdonald wrote to Gowan stating, quote:

“From what you wrote me I did not doubt the result but I felt most uneasy to the last knowing how public men are often obliged to take a course they do not individually approve. The fact may affect you prejudicially with Lower Canada but looking at the subject with all anxiety to see the wisest course for you to take I felt it would have been an act of political insanity to yield, simply because the man was of French blood.”

The Conservative Party and Macdonald would lose most of its support in Quebec as a result. In addition to this, Macdonald would go up against longtime Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat, who successfully challenged the powers of the central government. This would lead to a less centralized system of governance than what Macdonald had wanted. Up to this point, the federal government had the power to cancel provincial legislation and would be gone by completely by the end of the century.

Despite this, his main goals as leader of the country was maintaining independence from the United States and loyalty to the British Empire. He would say during his life, “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die.”

During the 1891 election campaign, Macdonald would collapse on the campaign trail and had to conduct political activities from the house of Hewitt Bernard in Kingston. While the Conservative Party would again be elected, their support was slipping. Following the election win, Macdonald was in bed recovering from a cold when he would suffer a terrible stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak on May 29. He remained mentally alert but unable to speak until he died on June 6, 1891 while in office as prime minister. His body would lay in state in the Senate Chamber and thousands filed by before his body was transported back to Kingston. Crowds greeted the train at each stop and in Kingston his body would lay in state in City hall.

Speaking of his death, Wilfrid Laurier would say:

“In fact the place of Sir John A Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country, the fate of this country, will continue without him. His loss overwhelms us.”

The Legacy

Despite the issues with Macdonald, which I will get to, there is no denying he did have an impact on Canada during its formative years. His 19 years as prime minister is second only to William Lyon Mackenzie King and in polls during the 20th century, he is often ranked as one of the greatest prime ministers in Canadian history. Mount Macdonald was named for him in 1887, and in 2001 Parliament designated Jan. 11 as Sir John A Macdonald Day but it is not a federal holiday and is generally unknown to the general public.

From 1971 to 2018, Macdonald appeared on the $10 bill, and several roads, buildings and parks are named for him.

There are several statues of Macdonald around Canada but many are starting to come down in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement because of the treatment of the Indigenous and the Chinese by Macdonald and his government, which will I will get to.

His Legendary Drinking

The Canadian public knows three main things about Macdonald. He was our first prime minister, he had issues with some races and he was prone to drinking too much.

One historian described Macdonald as a whiskey-soaked statesman who was not constantly drunk, but who had episodes of public drunkenness that came between spells of sobriety and hard work. It is believed that his drinking was often triggered by stress.

A famous example of his indulging of alcohol comes in 1864 when Macdonald vomited on stage during a debate with his Liberal Party opponent. His opponent responded with “Is this the man you want running your country? A drunk?”

Macdonald, showing his quick wit, responded with, quote:

“I get sick not because of drink but because I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent.”

Maybe that’s not exactly what was said but the story has persisted for over 150 years.

It has been argued that Macdonald was not a drunk but a binge drinker. Nonetheless, the drinking would have consequences occasionally. In 1866 during the Fenian Raids, he was the acting minister of militia and defense but was too drunk to answer telegrams according to accusations made several years later. Another example comes in 1862 when the Militia Bill was introduced to overhaul Canada’s defenses but failed because of Macdonald suffering what was described as “one of his old attacks” during crucial debates.

Another story comes from the Quebec Conference in 1864 when a friend found Macdonald, in his room standing in front of a mirror in a nightshirt, a train rug over his shoulder, practicing lines from Hamlet.

There are also stories of Macdonald becoming violent. In 1872, the Daily British Whig reported that he slapped the face of his opponent during a campaign event. Alexander Campbell, who was with Macdonald would say Macdonald, quote:

“Kept himself more or less under the influence of wine and had no clear recollection of what he did on many occasions.”

During that same campaign, he had a habit of disappearing from time to time and could not remember the day events. Even the Governor General would write back to London about Macdonald’s drinking, saying it was a notorious vice of his.

Going further, he also injured himself while drinking. At one point he was staying in London when he got drunk and set fire to his hotel bed, suffering extensive burns. The incident occurred in 1866 when he was negotiating the British North American Act and after a wild night, he fell asleep so deeply from drinking that he didn’t notice his room was on fire. He had been wearing a thick flannel shirt and the actions of George-Etienne Cartier saved his life.

 In 1870, he dealt with acute pancreatitis that was caused by alcohol abuse.

As time went on, Macdonald would drink milk more than alcohol due to severe digestive problems.

The Issues With Macdonald

There is no denying that Macdonald had a huge impact on Canada in its early years. Today, Macdonald is seen as the Father of Confederation, but this isn’t quite true. Confederation, the protective tariff and the CPR were not his ideas. He knew how to achieve his goals and he was a skilled politician, and that allowed him to get many policies, good and bad, through. As an Anglophone, his policies tended to favour English Canada and his only concern with Quebec was based on earning seats in the province.

Beyond that, his role as leader and minister of Indian Affairs led to some terrible policies when it came to immigration and the Indigenous.

The building of the CPR was something Macdonald wanted done above anything else and that meant going through the traditional lands of the Indigenous. This would lead to treaty negotiations in an effort to move the Indigenous. The hunting of the bison would wipe out a major food source for the people of the Prairies and Canadian officials would withhold food from the Indigenous until they moved to reserves. Thousands would die through these policies, but for Macdonald the main goal was the railroad.

In 1882, he told the House of Commons, quote:

“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.”

Of course, one of his Liberal opponents then accused Macdonald of not starving the Indigenous enough.

The policies were devastating to the Indigenous. The Blackfoot near Calgary were reduced to eating grass and travelers in the area said the Indigenous, up to 1,000, were so starved they could barely walk. Between 1880 and 1885, the population of the Plains Indigenous fell from 32,000 to 20,000 according to some scholars.

Father Louis Cochin would see the result of the policies of the government first hand in the winter of 1883 when he wrote, quote:

“I saw the gaunt children dying of hunger, although it was 30 to 40 degrees below zero their bodies were scarcely covered with torn rags.”

In addition, he developed the residential school program. In 1883, he would say in the House of Commons, quote:

“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.”

By 1886, following the North West Rebellion, even some of his long-time supporters were questioning his policies. Thomas Jackson, who had followed Macdonald for 25 years, told a crowd that he had seen half-frozen Cree being turned away by government agents. He would say, quote:

“In the case of one Indian, within two months seven of his children died because they had not the necessaries of life.”

Macdonald then authorized a pass system which required all Indigenous to obtain permission from an Indian agent to leave the reserve. His government also outlawed powwows and potlaches.

When eight Indigenous leaders were hanged after the North West Rebellion, Macdonald wrote to Edgar Dewdney stating, quote:

“The executions of the Indians out to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”

Oddly, he did attempt to give the federal vote to all Indigenous men but the move was controversial and the Electoral Franchise Act of 1885 was passed as a compromise. This act gave the right to vote to Indigenous men who lived on reserves if they owned land and had $150 worth of improvements on the property, but it did not give the right to vote to any Indigenous men in the west. He wrote to a friend, who was a Mississauga Ojibwa chief named Peter Jones, stating quote:

“I hope to see some day the Indian race represented by one of themselves on the floor of the House of Commons.”

He would also criticize those who came before for their treatment of the Indigenous, which seems ironic. He would write, quote:

“We must remember that they are the original owners of the soil, of which they have been dispossessed by the covetousness or ambition of our ancestors.”

All of this, the acknowledgement that the Indigenous had suffered, and his own role in their suffering shows that Macdonald was not a man bent on genocide, but possibly worse, was a man who saw the Indigenous as an obstacle in the way of his national dream, the railroad.

Another issue is Chinese immigration. Roughly 15,000 Chinese labourers came to Canada to work on the CPR, getting paid little and dealing with harsh conditions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds. At the time, Macdonald defended the use of Chinese labourers as needed for the railroad but as soon as the railroad was done, Macdonald prevented any Chinese from voting stating that they had no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations. In 1885, he passed the Chinese Immigration Act which required any Chinese person entering the country to pay $50.

Due to these issues, a statue of Macdonald was removed outside Victoria City Hall in 2018, and the Macdonald Monument in Montreal has been vandalized repeatedly. On Aug. 29, 2020, the statue was toppled and decapitated.

In 2017, the Canadian Historical Society removed Macdonald’s name for their prize for best scholarly book about Canadian history. There is also a move in Ontario to remove his name from various schools in light of the now archaic and racist sentiments he expressed during his life.

Historian James Daschuk would say regarding Macdonald, quote:

“He built the country but he built to the country on the backs of the Indigenous people.”

Other examples of his racist views, which some would attribute to the time, but which does not excuse them include the matter of a death penalty for sexual assault. In a letter sent to the Chief Justice of Nova Scotia by Macdonald before Confederation, he states, quote:

“Principally on account of blackguards of all kinds from the United States and on account of the frequency of rape committed by negroes, of whom we have too many in Upper Canada. They are very prone to felonious assaults on white women.”

With Sir John A. Macdonald, there is no doubt that he did have an immense impact on the creation of our country. While he was not the only Father of Confederation, he was an important one whose policies shaped the country, good and bad, to this very day. With that comes the fact that he had views which were possibly normal for the time but considered racist by our current standards and his impact on the Indigenous is nothing short of catastrophic. I’m not here to say if there should be statues of Macdonald or not, or if he should be celebrated. As I go through my series on all the prime ministers of Canada, we will find many examples of racism and terrible hatred to other races. Macdonald is by no means the only one. He was a flawed man, but he was also an important part of our history, and with him we must take the good and the bad.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Global News, Wikipedia, University of Alberta Law, Britannica, Library and Archives Canada,, CBC, National Post, Biographi,

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