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Commentary: John A. Macdonald's white-supremacist views were shocking, even by the standards of his time

By Timothy J. StanleyIn 1885, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. 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.

By Timothy J. StanleyIn 1885, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. 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.He did this not just in any piece of legislation, but in the Electoral Franchise Act, an act that defined the federal polity of adult male property holders and that he called “my greatest achievement.”Macdonald’s comments came as he justified an amendment taking the vote away from anyone “of Mongolian or Chinese race.”He warned that, if the Chinese (who had been in British Columbia as long as Europeans) were allowed to vote, “they might control the vote of that whole province” and their “Chinese representatives” would foist “Asiatic principles,” “immoralities,” and “eccentricities” on the House “which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles.” He further claimed that “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics” and that “the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.”For Macdonald, Canada was to be the country that restored a pure Aryan race to its past glory, and the Chinese threatened this purity.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.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. Even B.C. representatives who had been calling for Chinese exclusion for years objected to the supposed cultural practices of the Chinese, not to their biology.In contrast, the second prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, had earlier refused discriminatory proposals on the grounds that they involved invidious distinctions that were “dangerous and contrary to the law of nations and the policy which controlled Canada.”Even members of Macdonald’s own government would have been disturbed by his comments. His secretary of state and Quebec lieutenant, Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, had been a member of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration that debunked common anti-Chinese prejudices.A careful reading of the Commons debates suggests that Macdonald’s comments actually shocked members of the House. Indignation over the introduction of race as a defining characteristic of Canadianness was strong in the Senate. So strong that senators, including many Macdonald appointees, debated whether they could get away with voting the legislation down, even though it had taken Macdonald two years to get it through the House of Commons. The Senate ultimately did defeat further anti-Chinese measures in 1886 and 1887.The 1885 act fixed in law the idea that, at the highest levels in Canada, race could be the basis for voting rights. As the Opposition predicted, once the genie of race was out of the bottle, it had far-reaching effects. Ultimately race would define citizenship, immigration rights, access to jobs and services.In typically haphazard Canadian fashion, by the late 1940s, exclusions based on race had been extended piecemeal federally, provincially and municipally. These enactments caught up people from India, Japanese Canadians, First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, African and Jewish Canadians as well as Chinese Canadians.Meanwhile, invidious distinctions of race justified practices as diverse as the residential schools and the denial of shelter to refugees of the Holocaust during the Second World War, as one official notoriously said, because, “none is too many.” Race as a defining characteristic of political rights would only disappear in 1960 when so-called status Indians gained the right to vote.John A. Macdonald’s Aryan vision lives on today in contemporary imaginings of Canadianness.As a recent Ottawa Citizen editorial on the removal of an apparently Asian figure from the new $100 bill correctly noted, it lives on in the mistaken assumption that whiteness is neutral and that an Asian cannot rep-resent Canadians. We also see it in the repeated assumption that most often imagines Joe Canada as white, if not as Macdonald’s “Aryan.”In his announcement last week that the Ottawa River Parkway was being renamed for Macdonald, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird expressed the hope that it would stimulate Canadians’ interest in their histories.Perhaps interest in the histories of all Canadians would lead Baird and the federal government to reconsider whether in a multiracial, multi-ethnic society like that of Canada today, we should be naming public monuments after white supremacists.How does the “Alexander Mackenzie Parkway” sound?— Timothy J. Stanley’s recent book, Contesting White Supremacy: School Segregation, Anti-Racism and the Making of Chinese Canadians (UBC Press, 2011), won a Clio award from the Canadian Historical Association. He wrote this for the Ottawa Citizen.