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To vilify Sir John A. Macdonald is to wrongly seek a single scapegoat for Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous people

Bob Plamondon is the author of The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien defied the elites and reshaped Canada.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario wants to take his name off their schools. Because of vandalism, his birthday is no longer celebrated in Kingston. Members of the Canadian Historical Association will soon vote on dropping his name from its annual literary prize. Is it only a matter of time before we knock down Sir John A. Macdonald's statue on Parliament Hill?

How could the man so extensively studied and widely admired for the past century – the man without whom this improbable country may never have come into being – now be so vilified?

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It likely began with the 2013 award-winning book by historian James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains. While the book includes only two brief quotes from Macdonald, one strikes at the heart: "We cannot allow them to die for want of food. [We] are doing all we can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense."

Mr. Daschuk's case against Macdonald's government is disturbing. But it is also incomplete. When Macdonald made his infamous remark in the House of Commons in 1872, during a debate on government spending, it was in response to a question by Liberal MP David Mills (who later served as Justice minister in the Laurier government and then on the Supreme Court of Canada). While protesting the cost of food rations, Mills warned, "… a barbarous population like the Indians may very easily be made wholly dependent upon the government … to the extent … that it will be very difficult to induce the Indians to devote themselves to industrial pursuits."

What Mr. Daschuk omitted in his book was Macdonald's admonition of Mills: "In the case of apprehended famine the matter is to be dealt with on the spot … When the Indians have been starving they have been helped."

While Macdonald can certainly be criticized, he was nonetheless enlightened by the standards of his time. He was in rare company in expressing sympathy for the Indigenous people: "We must remember that they are the original owners of the soil, of which they have been dispossessed by the covetousness or ambition of our ancestors … the Indians have been the great sufferers by the discovery of America and the transfer to it of a large white population."

While an overt policy of assimilation is offensive, Macdonald looks saintly compared with U.S. leadership. Indeed, many Indigenous peoples migrated north, referring to the Canada-U.S. border as "The Medicine Line."

South of the border, the commander of the U.S. army in the West once remarked, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Theodore Roosevelt moderated that statement, but only slightly: "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are." Macdonald wanted to avoid an "Indian war" that had ravaged the United States, arguing it was better to feed them than to fight them.

At a time when Canada was overwhelmingly and overtly racist against Indigenous peoples, Macdonald offered to extend the vote to Indians. One Liberal MP said it would be like bringing a scalping party to the poll; another that it was an insult to place white brethren "on a level with pagan and barbarian Indians." Liberals also feared that Macdonald would get most of the "Indian vote." Full voting rights were not given until 1960.

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While Macdonald's government failed to provide adequate food rations as was stipulated in the treaties in the case of famine, Mr. Daschuk points out there was rampant bureaucratic mismanagement, fraud, local prejudice and overt cruelty of the local agents involved. Macdonald, who wanted Indigenous people to replace hunting with farming, was bewildered by news of famine and death and set up a council to study the issue. It was perhaps the first in a long line of futile commissions to study Indigenous issues.

Macdonald's reputation has also taken a dive after the attention given more recently to the residential-schools catastrophe. While Macdonald was acting on the recommendations of the experts in his day, he was succeeded by 18 prime ministers before the last residential school was closed. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission records, residential schools were in place before Macdonald became prime minister and did not reach their peak until about 40 years after his death.

Macdonald's priority was a railway that would enable Canada to achieve sufficient strength to withstand the continental pressures of the United States. This required land and immigration. A tragic consequence of implementing this vision was the eradication of a long-practised Indigenous way of life. Macdonald's failure is Canada's failure.

Today, many Indigenous Canadians live in disgraceful conditions without access to clean water and facing epidemic levels of suicide among the youth. How will we be judged by the generations that follow? So, before historians cast their vote on Macdonald, they might want to reflect more broadly than to look for a single scapegoat.

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