The recent removal of the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from the front of Victoria City Hall has drawn heated responses from across Canada.
Until recently, most of those defining what was important and legitimate Canadian history — and who were viewed as important and revered Canadian historical figures — were white Canadians. This included the small group of primarily Conservative businessmen, professionals and politicians who got together to raise funds to erect the statue of Macdonald at Victoria’s city hall in 1982.
Today, other voices are starting to be heard. So when the reconciliation process embarked on by Victoria’s city government over the past year led local Indigenous people to tell council that the statue was hurtful to them, council listened.
In recent decades, Canadian historians have begun to uncover the injustices previous generations have imposed on Indigenous people, Chinese-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, Jewish-Canadians, gays and lesbians, and many others. This evidence has begun to change how Canadians see our history — but it is an uncomfortable process, and one that many would prefer to reject, in favour of the patriotic certainties we learned as children. Others accept that Canadians were less just in the past than we might wish, but downplay such issues, arguing that we can’t judge our ancestors by today’s standards.
This explanation might work for many, particularly those of us who are white. But for those who were the victims of these injustices, such easy answers don’t always work. If your ancestors were starved into submission on the plains, witnessing many of their children dying of hunger, or suffered through the physical, sexual and emotional abuses of residential schools, it is not surprising that one might be uncomfortable to regularly pass statues of Macdonald, who played a central role in implementing such policies.
The argument that he simply reflected the racism of his time doesn’t dilute the fact that a person who implemented such injustices is still being honoured in the present, at a time when we claim to seek reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
In any case, historians have found evidence that not everyone in the late 19th century was as racist as honoured leaders such as Macdonald. For example, not only did Macdonald implement the policy of deliberately starving Indigenous people on the Prairies to get them to settle on reserves and clear a path for white settlement, but he ignored the fact that even when the starving people settled on reserves, they often received rotten and inedible food from corrupt contractors.
When accused by other politicians of ignoring these practices, Macdonald responded that: “It cannot be considered a fraud on the Indians because they were living on Dominion charity … and, as the old adage says, beggars should not be choosers.” When a small number of Indigenous men rose up against the policy of starvation and humiliation, eight of them were hanged, in the largest mass execution in Canadian history.
Indigenous people from the local reserve and Indigenous children from a nearby school were forced to witness the hangings. Macdonald saw the executions as politically important — because they “ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”
Macdonald’s legacy includes other racist acts.
In 1885, the Parliament of Canada debated the Franchise Act, which developed a federal voting system. Macdonald was adamant that men of the Chinese “race” should not have the vote in Canada. In arguing that Canada needed to remain a pure Aryan nation, he stood in opposition to some of his own Conservative colleagues in the House and Senate, as well as many Liberal opponents, who recognized the common humanity of Chinese and white and argued against the injustice of depriving people of Chinese origin of the vote.
Sometimes, Macdonald was more racist than his colleagues. Other times he played a leadership role in implementing policies that were accepted by most — though not all — white Canadians. Certainly, his policies helped to create a country that has served the interests of most white Canadians. But does this mean that we continue to honour him, and continue to ignore the voices of those who see only pain in the honouring of such a legacy?
Lynne Marks is a professor of Canadian history at the University of Victoria.