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The Legacy of Canada’s First PM Much Darker to First Nations

TORONTO, Jan 16 2014 (IPS) - Many of the challenges faced by the Conservative government in its relations with Canada’s aboriginal peoples may come to a head at the 200th birthday events for Sir John A. Macdonald, the country’s first prime minister, set for Jan. 11, 2015.

The emphasis in the events organised by the officially non-partisan and non-profit bicentennial commission – underwritten by Ottawa to the tune of one million dollars plus another 300,000 dollars from private donors – is on Macdonald’s record as the consummate politician, speech-maker, provider of humour and statesman who in the end forged a transcontinental nation starting in 1867 out of a string of disparate colonies in British North America.

“There is denying that Macdonald built the country, but the collateral damage in building the country the way he did was the legacy of Canadian aboriginal relations.” -- James Daschuk

Commission spokesperson Arthur Milnes says there will be no “whitewash” of Macdonald’s decisions or personality (for example, his alcoholism is often discussed and is the butt of some jokes). He intends to get Canadians, who are not known to be up on their history, to start talking about their founder.

“In some ways we are still dealing with some of his negative policies towards aboriginal people,” he concedes.

But Milnes declined to comment on the interpretation that the Stephen Harper government itself will place on the Macdonald bicentennial.

Today, some First Nations’ bands in western Canada are challenging the building of oil sands energy projects and pipelines because the Harper government failed to fully consult and accommodate them as required constitutionally under a treaty that began with the royal proclamation of 1763 under the British crown.

The same government is resisting making available to a judge-led inquiry complete documentation of credible instances of physical and sexual abuse experienced by approximately 100,000 aboriginal children who were forced by law to attend church-managed residential schools from 1876 (when Macdonald set them up to reduce the “savage” in them) to 1996, when they were finally closed.

The problems faced by aboriginal peoples in Canada today – poverty, high rates of diabetes, poor nutrition, lower life expectancy and broken treaties, especially the 1876 treaties in the Canadian northwest – can be traced to Macdonald’s government, when he held the jobs of both prime minister and minister of Indian Affairs during much of the 1867 to 1891 period, argues historian James Daschuk.

He is the author of a new scholarly work, “Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life,” which outlines the spread of infectious diseases such as smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis in the northwest following the first contact with Europeans beginning in the 1600s and leading to the decimation of certain First Nations tribes.

Daschuk’s calling public attention to Macdonald’s starvation policies has struck a political “nerve,” says another colleague who wishes to remain nameless. Despite guarantees of food in times of famine under 1876 treaties, rations were withheld from destitute and malnourished First Nations (following the disappearance of the buffalo) from Regina to the Alberta border on the western prairies in order to force them to leave their traditional lands for selected reserves. This was done to pave the way for white settlement and the construction of the cross-country Canadian Pacific Railway.

“There is no denying that Macdonald built the country, but the collateral damage in building the country the way he did was the legacy of Canadian aboriginal relations,” Daschuk told IPS.

Daschuk is scathing in his criticism of his own “self-referential” profession that is focused more on “theory” and “deconstruction,” versus doing the hard slogging of researching the lesser-known chapters of Canadian history.

“We as citizens in Canada have not engaged in this kind of debate about what the state did on our behalf. Canadians don’t know their own history and don’t know the uglier parts of their history,” says Daschuk, an assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology and health studies at the University of Regina.

Why did Macdonald, who as prime minister had a lot on his plate, bother with the additional job of Indian Affairs? He faced, among other things, a major railway corruption scandal which temporarily threw him out of power in one election for a single term of office and a struggle to keep the new country (still connected to the British Empire) united, despite being divided between English-speaking Protestant Ontario and French-speaking Catholic Quebec.

Additionally, his army fended off two separate insurrections in the newly acquired northwest by the Métis (a separate distinct people of mixed First Nations and European ancestry) over Ottawa’s failure to follow through with promised land grants – the subject of a 2013 Supreme Court of Canada decision favouring the Métis in Manitoba.

Blair Stonechild, a historian at First Nations University in Regina and a member of the Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation in the province of Saskatchewan, suggests that Macdonald’s effort to erase the traditional First Nations’ cultures through residential school education amounted to “cultural genocide.” But one must not single out Macdonald from a 19th century Canada or world where the social Darwinist notion of a superior white race was widely held, he told IPS.

“Obviously, [Macdonald] was the founder of Canada and he was a hardworking person, very dedicated. Those are good points, but he was a creature of his time and he didn’t see First Nations as equal or advanced or anything. He saw them as inferior people who needed to be basically assimilated,” Stonechild says.

The shrinking of the First Nations people on the Canadian prairies – they numbered as low as 20,000 in the 1880s – seemed to fit racist theories that weaker people were bound to disappear, he adds.

Another historian, Patrice Dutil, a professor at Ryerson University, is currently compiling a series of scholarly essays on Macdonald for an upcoming book. He told IPS that he is uncomfortable making “tidy conclusions” about Canada’s first PM.

Macdonald, he explains, functioned in a nastier and laissez-faire 19th century where government did very little for its citizens while politicians mostly focused on building things like roads, canals, railways and harbours.

“Workers worked in miserable conditions, women were beaten, orphans were abused, indigenous peoples were starved, labourers worked to their deaths, Catholics were routinely disparaged, Jews were condemned. This was Canada,” explains Dutil.

Also, Dutil notes that Canada does not have a pristine record with regards to aboriginal peoples but it never went as far as the Americans did with a strategy of “extermination” during the Indian wars while pursuing an equivalent western expansion within North America.

Furthermore, University of Calgary professor emeritus and a specialist in indigenous history Donald Smith suggests that more research is required by his colleagues to obtain a fuller picture of Macdonald’s aboriginal policies before drawing any conclusion about the man.

He notes, for instance, that Macdonald supported the right to vote in federal elections for First Nations adult males with property in eastern Canada without the loss of their treaty Indian status.

“The topic is a difficult one for it demands a review of Macdonald’s Indian policy in Central and Eastern Canada as well as Western Canada [before and after 1867]. I would wager by the standards of his age, not ours, he emerges as a complex and relatively tolerant individual.”

Incidentally, First Nations people or treaty status Indians living on reserves, as they are also called, did not become full-fledged Canadian citizens with the right to vote until 1960.

Maybe the issue is about how Harper’s government is promoting a “jingoistic” and “nationalistic” interpretation for recent and upcoming anniversaries marking the Macdonald bicentennial, as well as Canadian involvement in the war of 1812 and World War I, suggests James Daschuk.

Harper himself provided in an official web site statement a listing of Macdonald’s accomplishments on Jan. 11 for the latter’s 199th birthday – that is “the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the founding of the North-West Mounted Police (later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the defeat of the North-West Rebellion” – without mentioning the tragic back story of the first nations and Métis peoples.

Queens University historian Brian Osborne, who studies national narratives, expects that the current prime minister will put a “conservative” face on Canada’s founder. “I think Harper has a partisan political view of Sir John A because he was also a Conservative party leader.”

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  • Paul Bodnick

    Very interesting

  • MidaFo

    This is an informative article that allows for optimism and the hope that the american people of Canada may be able to avoid the cynical mess of the presumptively exceptional Americans in the USA.

    But then there is Harper. He can clearly be detected from my abode in the orient. Admittedly his dark aura is carried all this way by the small number of his political kind who have come to this part of the world but then this aura is so murky as to cause such wonder amongst the locals and most expatriates that they have developed great respect for the size of Russia to their west and the Pacific ocean to their east.

    Could it be that the horror of the tar sands is nothing on Harper?

  • Marty Logan

    I think the campaign against John A might be a case of misdirected energy. He was no progressive by 21st-century standards, but according to biographer Richard Gwyn, Macdonald often used the phrase “the original owners of the soil” to describe First Nations. As Paul wrote, he also extended the right to vote to FN. I’m not sure about his role in establishing residential schools but certainly the prime ministers who held office until the last school was closed in the 1970s also bear responsibility. As of course do those – including the current government – who scoff at criticism of their treatment of Canada’s indigenous people.