Macdonald is richly deserving of harsh assessments but many people have grown concerned that the criticism has gone too far. Macdonald is being measured against 21st century standards and both his intentions and his administration are being interpreted wrongly and, sometimes, dishonestly, writes Patrice Dutil.
By Patrice Dutil, February 8, 2021
In the summer of COVID-19 when demonstrations of anger included destroying monuments to long-dead white men in government, Ontario was not spared. Statues to Sir John A. Macdonald across the province were splashed with paint.
Whether they stood in Kingston, Picton, Toronto, Hamilton or at Castle Kilbride in tiny Baden, the spray cans came out. In Montreal, the statue was brought to the pavement.
At Queens University, in Kingston, the decision was made to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name off the building that houses the law school. In Picton, the municipal council considered recommendations to remove the monument to Canada’s first prime minister from the main street.
Macdonald was no ordinary politician. He was Canada’s first prime minister in 1867 and headed government for almost twenty years. His Conservative government was elected or re-elected six times; five times it was with a majority of the popular vote. Although he was hardly alone in driving the Confederation bargain, he was the unchallenged leader of the mission to knit a country from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In 1869, his government completed the acquisition of Rupert’s Land (most of today’s Western Canada). Manitoba joined in 1870 as a province (after some protest); British Columbia was convinced to join in 1971 and Prince Edward Island joined in 1873. In less than six years, “Canada” had become a geographical colossus on the globe.
Macdonald accomplished a lot more and was a powerfully attractive candidate and won votes across Canada from every segment of society: Protestants and Catholics, French and English, workers and their bosses, farmers. He lost the election in 1874 because it was revealed that he had sought money to pay off voters and organizers in the previous election, but still took over 45% of the vote. He roared back to power in 1878 on the strength of a new economic plan, the National Policy, and remained the dominating political force across the country until his death in 1891.
But he has never been as controversial as today. His government was sometimes harsh with the indigenous peoples in the West and often impatient with communities who had trouble adapting to agricultural life. He created Indian Residential Schools in 1883 in the hope that families would soon assimilate into mainstream society. That policy was continued until 1996 and caused enormous harm among indigenous communities that lasts to this day.
Macdonald is richly deserving of harsh assessments but many people have grown concerned that the criticism — including calls for his name to be removed from public buildings and schools — has gone too far. Macdonald is being measured against 21st century standards and both his intentions and his administration are being interpreted wrongly and, sometimes, dishonestly.
In the early fall of 2020, things turned around a little as friends of Sir John A. Macdonald started to crop up. A group in Picton organized a resistance and a petition to the Prince Edward County Council. In mid-November, the tide against Macdonald turned as that Council voted to keep the statue where it stands.
At the same time, a group in Kingston decided to formally protest Queen’s University’s decision to drop the Macdonald name and a website was created to spearhead the cause.
In Toronto, a loose association of colleagues and acquaintances calling themselves the “Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald” chose to spearhead a drive to buy a full-page ad in a national newspaper to fight back. The idea was to convey the message that Canada’s first prime minister should continue to be considered a hero to the nation, regardless of his faults.
It joined forces with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a public policy think-tank and the ad appeared, along with about 130 signatures, on Macdonald’s birthday, Jan. 11, 2021, in the National Post.
In parts of Canada, the response to the headless demonization of Macdonald has begun and it promises to last a long time. Happy 206th Birthday, Sir John A. Macdonald. As they said in your day: You’ll never die!
Patrice Dutil is Professor of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He is co-editor of Macdonald at 200: New Reflections and Legacies.