Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Today, Jan. 11, is the birthday of our first prime minister. The 200th anniversary arrives next year. Just three months ago, Phil Fontaine and Bernie Farber mentioned John A. Macdonald in The Globe. They refer to his “policy of starving First Nations to death.”
Currently, my 2002 article in Historic Kingston, “John A. Macdonald and Aboriginal Canada,” remains, to my knowledge, the only academic article on this topic. I am the first to admit the essay is far from complete, in fact, it ends: “We await a full study of our first Prime Minister’s attitudes and policies toward Aboriginal Canada.” But still it marks a beginning, a starting point for others. I know the complexity of the issues involved in providing a reasonably sound historical assessment of his Aboriginal relations. The point of my article is to encourage a young scholar to take up the challenge of a full examination of our first prime minister’s Aboriginal relations.
Would-be chroniclers of John A. Macdonald’s relationship with Aboriginal Canada face four challenges: first, the paper mountain. They must examine forty metres of John A.’s correspondence and papers. Library and Archives of Canada also contains metres upon metres of material relating to the administration of Indian Affairs in the late nineteenth century.
Secondly, the very length of Macdonald’s political career is intimidating. First elected in 1844 to the legislature of the Union of the Canadas (Quebec and Ontario were then combined in political unit at the time), Macdonald served in this assembly (and subsequently in the Canadian House of Commons) for 47 years. He led the Conservative party from 1854 to 1891. In 1867 he served as Canada’s first prime minister (and apart from the years 1873 to 1878) remained in office to his death in 1891. As Wilfrid Laurier emphasized immediately after Sir John’s death in 1891, he “is the history of Canada”.
Thirdly, even a cursory review of Macdonald’s relationship with Aboriginal Canada reveals the topic’s complexity. In 1885, for instance, John A. Macdonald who served as prime minister, as well as Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, suppressed the “Rebellion” in the North West. Yet, in the same year, Canada’s first prime minister worked to give all those adult male Indians in Central and Eastern Canada, who had the necessary property qualifications, the federal franchise – without the loss of their Indian status.
Finally, the topic is a difficult one for it demands a review of Macdonald’s Indian policy in Central and Eastern Canada as well as Western Canada. In my preliminary examination of Central Canada I felt, “if judged by the standards of his age, not ours, he emerges as a complex and relatively tolerant individual.” He was, for instance, quite moderate in comparison with Oliver Mowat, the Liberal leader and premier in Ontario. “The Christian politician” as he once termed himself, believed that the First Nations had no legal title at all to their lands: “The claim of the Indians is simply moral and no more.” The Royal Proclamation of 1763, to which the Macdonald government adhered, and on the basis of which the federal government made treaties North West, was, according to Mowat, “expressly repealed by the Quebec Act of 1774”. He believed the federal government had no obligation even to make treaties with the First Nations.
Macdonald was a rounded character. He represented his age, one of supreme and absolute British self-confidence. His Liberal opponents also had little knowledge of the First Nations and the Métis. In fact, the Liberals had argued to diminish the Conservatives’ modest outreach on rations to the Plains Indians in the early 1880s. They contended that the federal government’s responsibilities included only the meeting of the narrowly stated terms of the treaties. This led the prime minister to insist continually that his administration was struggling to keep expenditures low.
One the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, now is the time to begin an in-depth study of our first prime minister’s relationship with Aboriginal Canada. The United Nations might well request to see the finished product.
Don Smith is professor emeritus of history at the University of Calgary