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Sir John A. Macdonald: 5 Frightening Facts About Our First Prime Minister

The responsible way to remember the founding father is by acknowledging the entirely of his checkered legacy — not cherry-picking the feel-good foredges of his biography.
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As Canada commemorated the 200th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald on Jan. 11, CBC personality Shelagh Rogers shared her thoughts online:

Love the “grand notion” that Canada is, but the more I learn, the more I know I can’t unreservedly celebrate #sirJAM’s 200th. #reflect

— Shelagh Rogers (@RogersShelagh) January 11, 2015

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.

Research by Abigail Bakan, a Political Studies professor at Queen’s University, reveals:

From historian Stanley Ryerson 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.
(cited in 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).

2. John A. Macdonald may have named Canada a “confederation” in deference to the Southern Confederates with whom he sympathized.

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.”

In summary, Sir John A. Macdonald was a complex figure. For all the achievements attributed to him, there are as many flaws. The responsible way to remember the founding father is by acknowledging the entirety of his checkered legacy, not cherry-picking the feel-good foredges of his biography. Not only does the truth elevate general knowledge of our country, it allows Canadians to fully appreciate how we came to be and who we are. Through an increased awareness of Canada’s past, we can shed new perspectives on present-day struggles, and move forward together as informed Canadians.

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