Sir John A. Macdonald: 5 Frightening Facts About Canada’s First Prime Minister

The mayor and city council in Victoria, British Columbia voted to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the entrance to their City Hall. Indigenous people and anti-racists celebrated. Conservatives, however, are upset, labeling the move “erasing history.”  But what is history?  Is it only by and for the ruling elite?  The rise of Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, and a growing working class self-awareness, are forcing recognition of the ugly past, and demanding the inclusion of facts that promote a freer future, shorn of illusions in the Canadian state.

Macdonald was not shy about his support for the pro-slavery side in the American Civil War.

On the 200th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald, January 11, 2015, CBC personality Shelagh Rogers shared her thoughts online:

“In the spirit of educational awareness in ways not taught in school, here are some buried frightening facts about the first PM, #SirJAM.

1. During the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), Montreal served as refuge to Confederates — southern Americans who wanted to keep slavery and secede from the United States union. The Southern slavers found a friend in John A. Macdonald.

From historian Stanley Ryerson, author of “Unequal Union”, we learn of the political sympathies towards the southern Confederacy of John A. Macdonald. Macdonald was the hired advocate for an organization of vigilantes committed to “peace” through support for the South. One of these Copperhead conspirators, a man named Headley […], set fire to a dozen large hotels in November of 1864, hoping to create panic in the North and divert military efforts. In his memoirs, Headley writes:

‘At the suggestion of Col. Thompson (the chief Confederate Commissioner) it was deemed advisable that we retain Hon. John Macdonald as counsel in the event of a requisition, as he is friendly to our cause and was regarded as a very eminent lawyer. One evening…we rode in a sleigh to the residence of Mr. Macdonald in the suburbs of Toronto. He greeted us cordially and we discussed our case fully until a late hour. The arrangement was made and a retainer fee was paid the following day. But it happened that the time never arrived when his services were required.’ (Ryerson, 1983: 334-35).

Macdonald was not shy about his wish for the pro-slavery side to win the Civil War. When speaking at a banquet, Macdonald made a point of lauding “the gallant defence that is being made by the Southern Republic” (Ryerson, 1983: 335).

For John A. Macdonald, Canada was to be the country that restored a pure Aryan race to its past glory.

2. John A. Macdonald may have named Canada a “confederation” in deference to the Southern Confederates with whom he sympathized. According to research by Professor A. Bakan of Queen’s University:

Stanley Ryerson notes that even the unusual designation of the new Canadian state as a ‘Confederation’ may be suggestive of sympathy with the southern states in the US Civil War. The term itself, he maintains, is a misnomer. The ‘confederacy’ refers a union of states which delegate authority to a central government of limited sovereignty; while a federal government indicates a state that is fully sovereign, and the constituent bodies have limited authority. Ryerson cites W.P.M. Kennedy’s The Constitution of Canada, where it is suggested that in the debates in 1865 leading to Canada’s confederation, the terms “federation” and “confederation” were deliberately used without clear definition. The aim of the advocates was to confuse and camouflage the contentious issue, and in so doing, ensure consent.” (Ryerson, 1983: 443).

Regarding the invention of “confederation” as a term applied to the Canadian federal dominion state, Ryerson muses: “[W]as it derived from a politician’s instinct to steal something from the Opposition or from the well-known Tory sympathy with the Southern Confederacy?” (1983: 371).

The founding party of the Canadian state was a strong ally of the most racist section of the global elite of the day. (Mayers, 2003).

3. John A. Macdonald was a Sinophobe, according to Timothy J. Stanley’s research.

In 1885, PM Macdonald told the House of Commons that, if the Chinese were not excluded from Canada, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed.” This was the precise moment in the histories of Canada and the British dominions when Macdonald personally introduced race as a defining legal principle of the state.

Macdonald justified taking the vote away from anyone “of Mongolian or Chinese race” in the Electoral Franchise Act — he called it “my greatest achievement.”

4. John A. Macdonald was way more racist than his contemporaries.

For John A. Macdonald, Canada was to be the country that restored a pure Aryan race to its past glory. Lest it be thought that Macdonald was merely expressing the prejudices of the age, it should be noted that his were among the most extreme views of his era. According to Timothy J. Stanley’s research, he was the only politician in the parliamentary debates to refer to Canada as “Aryan” and to justify legalized racism on the basis not of alleged cultural practices but on the grounds that “Chinese” and “Aryans” were separate species.

5. John A. Macdonald’s policies of forced starvation helped clear First Nations from the prairies in order to build the railway, according to James Daschuk of University of Regina. An excerpt from his book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life:

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, food placed in ration houses was withheld for so long that much of it rotted while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases. Thousands died.”

Not mentioned above is the Pacific Railway Scandal of 1872. Macdonald and 150 members of his Conservative government were famously bribed by Sir Hugh Allen, head of the railway syndicate.  Unstated is Macdonald’s role in the hanging of Louis Riel, the Metis rebel leader.  Or how Macdonald first gained public office by buying votes with liquor.  Or that he frequently neglected his duties due to his chronic alcoholism.  Sir John A. was an architect of the genocidal Residential School system that stole thousands of Indigenous children from their families, leading many to appalling physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and death.  The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario is asking that Macdonald’s name be removed from schools. 

Does this racist, corrupt drunkard deserve to be honoured as a ‘founding father’, or should he be exposed for his genocidal policies, exposed for his unwavering service to the corporate elite?  No, do not destroy the statues of John A. They belong in museums, adorned by plaques that tell the whole sordid story of the founding of the Canadian colonial settler state.