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Ottawa Citizen: Stop apologizing for John A. Macdonald

January 9, 2015 — 

Niigaan Sinclair, assistant professor in the department of Native Studies, wrote column for the Ottawa Citizen.

As he writes:

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 Métis, 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 than 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.






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