Opposing Aboriginal Views of Sir John A. Macdonald Day

By: BC Métis Federation leader Earlene Bitterman

On January 11th 2014 the office of the Prime Minister of Canada offered this statement on Sir John A. Macdonald day:

“Sir John A. Macdonald first dreamed, and then achieved, great things for Canada. During his 19 years as Prime Minister, he accomplished remarkable feats at an astounding pace – herculean tasks that laid the foundation for the wealthy, prosperous country we enjoy today. Among many noteworthy accomplishments, he saw the establishment of the Dominion of Canada, the entry into that new nation of British Columbia, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, providing Canada with its link to the Pacific Ocean, the founding of the North-West Mounted Police (later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), the defeat of the North-West Rebellion, and the development of the National Policy, which encouraged immigration, agriculture in the west, industry in the east, and the movement of goods across the country”.

In this statement marking Sir John A. Macdonald Day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised Macdonald for his “drive and ambition to unite and expand the country.”

However, Macdonald’s colonial legacy was not once remembered with such positive reverence for many, both Metis and First Nation people and others who have a differing narrative of Canada’s history — one that includes some of the less praise-worthy actions of Macdonald’s tenure, such as the residential school system, the Indian act, the mistreatment of Chinese railroad workers and the execution of Métis leader Louis Riel for high treason.

The perceived founder of this country’s historical accomplishments impacted many generations that continues to this day, with the first implementation in 1879 of the church-run boarding schools to assimilate Aboriginal children under Sir John A. Macdonald’s government. In 1884, bowing from pressure from churches, Ottawa passed an amendment to the Indian act making attendance mandatory at these schools. The legacy of Aboriginal policies had on the Aboriginal people was devastating and by 1907 the Montreal star, reports that 42% of children attending residential schools die before the age of 16 calling the situation a “national disgrace”. It is noteworthy that timeline of these policies of the residential school system continued well into the 1900’s, as recent as 1984.

All the while, John A. Macdonald who served as Prime Minister, as well as Superintendent General of Indian affairs, suppressed the “Rebellion” in the Northwest, and with the policies of the day set the stage for the Indian Act. The residential school system designed to “take the Indian out of the child”.

Recent news being release by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission paints a different story which relates to a past of deprivation, abuse, poverty and despair; not the ‘noteworthy’ accomplishments of a government past. During this time Treaties and Scrip commissions were being initiated to bring forth development forcing Métis and First Nations people to choose what system they wish to live in, being Treaty Indian or take Métis scrip, or being disenfranchised all together.

James Daschuk Author of “Clearing the Plains” wrote: “The key aspect of policies of the day was to prepare the land with the subjugation and forced removal of Aboriginal communities from their traditional territories, essentially clearing the plains of Aboriginal people to make way for railway construction and settlement. Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine from the Government of Canada in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to politically control and shape a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway snaked across this country.

For years, government officials withheld food from Aboriginal people until they moved to their appointed reserves, forcing them to trade freedom for rations. Once on reserves, rations intended to feed were withheld or rotted, communities fell into a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases. Thousands died.

Sir John A. Macdonald, acting as both Prime Minister and Minister of Indian Affairs during the darkest days of the famine, even boasted that the Aboriginal population was kept on the “verge of actual starvation,” in an attempt to deflect criticism that he was squandering public funds.”

Macdonald’s involvement in the negotiations for a contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway to British Columbia involved him eventually in the Pacific Scandal. During the 1872 election large campaign contributions had been made to him and his colleagues by Sir Hugh Allan, who was to have headed the railway syndicate. The discussions of the day in 1888 parliamentary debates paid heed to Métis of “halfbreed” Scrip’s falling into the hands of Indian Agents, and predominate banks that profited by the expansion of the railroad lands. Although recognized in the 1888 debate that these Métis or “halfbreed” Scrip’s were falling into the hands of the non-Aboriginal population and action needed to be taken, nothing was done about the practice. See Parliamentary debate 1888

The provisions of the Indian Act and the policy framework established for the Indian Affairs department attempted to destroy all of the traditional political systems and replace it with a municipal style of governance that allowed a very limited degree of internal control. Another system of election – the one year elective system of the Indian Advancement Act – was initially proposed as a municipal style government.

Sir John A. Macdonald, who was Superintendent General of Indian Affairs at the time, described the intention of the legislation in 1880:

“ It is worthy of consideration whether legislative measures should not be adopted for the establishment of some kind of municipal system among such bands as are found sufficiently advanced to justify the experiment being tried. It is hoped that a system may be adopted which will have the effect of accustoming the Indians to the modes of government prevalent in the white communities surrounding them, and that it will thus tend to prepare them for earlier amalgamation with the general population of the country.”

The persistent features are readily apparent in Macdonald’s statements riddled throughout historical parliamentary minutes:

  • The readiness of the government to impose systems on the First Nations and Mètis;
  • The intention to establish band councils as municipal style governments with assimilation as the final objective; and
  • The underlying premise that the “white” style of government was decidedly superior to any form of existing Indian or Métis government, in one grand, “experiment”.

Nothing will change for Canada’s First Nation, Inuit, Innu and Métis nations until missing traditional Aboriginal infrastructures are repaired , recognized and harmonized into both the Canadian and global systems. Only then will true Aboriginal reconciliation in Canada be achieved.

Parliamentary apologies are empty without a true recollection of Canada’s past record on the Aboriginal population. The Métis people cannot forget the past when Sir John A MacDonald used every length possible to ensure the wrongful execution of Louis Riel in 1885. This wrongful execution along with other oppressive, restrictive and discriminatory principles of this 19th century legislation led by Prime Minister MacDonald creates quite the opposite view of his alleged achievements.

Yesterday’s announcement of a great celebration on Sir John A. Macdonald Day is not met with the same over exuberant fanfare upon examination of historical records. On the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, now is the time to put forward accurate historical realities of our first Prime Minister’s relationship with Aboriginal Canada.
There must be a better way forward.

[ilink url=”[ilink url=”http://bcmetis.com/wp-content/uploads/BC-Metis-Federation-Letter-re-Sir-John-A-MacDonald-Day-January-12th-2014.pdf” style=”download”]Download this in PDF[/ilink]
[ilink url=”[ilink url=”http://bcmetis.com/wp-content/uploads/Statement-by-the-Prime-Minister-of-Canada-on-Sir-John-A.pdf” style=”download”]PM’s Statement Sir John A Macdonald January 11th 2014[/ilink]
[ilink url=”[ilink url=”http://bcmetis.com/wp-content/uploads/SirJohnAMacDebate1888.pdf” style=”download”]Sir John A. Macdonald 1888 Parliamentary debate[/ilink]
[ilink url=”[ilink url=”http://bcmetis.com/wp-content/uploads/IndustrialSchoolsReport.pdf” style=”download”]1879 Industrial Schools Report[/ilink]

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