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DOL 2: John A. Macdonald

Inquiry Question: To what extent were John A. Macdonald’s social policies and views on minorities considered progressive or conservative for his time?


Historical Significance:

In the past few years, various activists in the United States have called to remove statues of those who supported slavery and racism to be removed from public areas. Canada, while not being a nation steeped in bondage, has not entirely escaped the conversation either. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Toronto recently passed a resolution that encouraged school boards in Ontario to remove the name of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from its schools (there are currently around a dozen with Macdonald as its namesake). A teacher stated that Macdonald played a “central role as the architect of, really, what was genocide of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island.”[1] Historians widely credit Macdonald, who was Superintendent General of Indian Affairs for ten years and thought of Indigenous people as “savages”[2], with creating the horrific Residential School system. However, was he the sole reason for why Indigenous people and other minorities such as Chinese immigrants and women were heavily marginalized for decades, or were his ideas and policies simply a reflection of the zeitgeist of his time?

Image result for john a macdonald secondary,_SJM,_Horwath_011___Super_Portrait.jpg

This question is an extremely important one to ask right now, not only because of the aforementioned situation currently ongoing in the United States and the fact that we need to reconsider our own ‘founding fathers’ and their ideas and beliefs. More importantly, it is important to distinguish whether Macdonald was actually the “real architect of residential schools”[4], as a Toronto Star article declared, and heavily pushed forward his agenda of Indigenous assimilation against parliamentary opposition. More often than not, the policies from decades ago that we find racist today were simply a reflection of what all (or at least the vast majority) of the people from a specific demographic wanted. Simply scapegoating Macdonald blindly overlooks the fact that he was a man who loved to conform to others to keep himself in power, even saying that a leader must “must yield to the times.”[5] We can also expose other public figures that are supposedly ‘clean’, but also turn out to be heavily prejudiced.


In Queen’s Park, Toronto.


Cause and Consequence:

I researched five major events that helped reveal some wisdom about my inquiry question. They are (in no particular order): Macdonald’s proposed legislation to allow widowed and unmarried women to vote, his role in denying Chinese-Canadians from voting, Macdonald’s proposed legislation to allow some ‘Indians’ to vote, the creation of Residential Schools, and the systematic starvation of Indigenous people in central Canada to make way for the building of the CPR.

First of all, women were still treated as inferior in Canada in the 1870’s, and would continue to be for decades under the law until the famous ‘Persons’ case in the 1920’s. According to author Richard Gwyn, the thought of women voting at the time was unheard of and thought to be a pipe dream even among the most passionate suffragettes. This made Macdonald’s sudden proposed legislation of extending the voting franchise to women in 1885 very shocking in the House of Commons. There is little to suggest that Macdonald had supported women voting before his proposal, even though he said in debate that “… with respect to female suffrage, I can only say that, personally, I am strongly convinced, and every year for many years I have been more strongly convinced, of the justice of giving women otherwise qualified [owning sufficient property, as was then the standard requirement] the suffrage.”[6] As was expected, his idea was shot down. Nearly all Quebec MPs voted against it, as did 3 in 4 of Macdonald’s own party. The issue was not raised again for more than 25 years, and Macdonald’s surprising call for equality is forgotten in comparison to Nellie McClung and the Famous Five’s successful campaigns for women’s voting rights.

Although seemingly unconnected from other events discussed, Macdonald’s proposition that allowed some women to vote occurred at the same time that he was making bigoted claims about Chinese-Canadian immigrants. It was Macdonald that supported bringing Chinese workers to help build the CPR a few years ago, and many Chinese labourers who survived the tortuous conditions settled in various areas of British Columbia. They were heavily discriminated against, and groups such as the Anti-Chinese Association were formed. Therefore, Macdonald’s motion of anyone of Chinese heritage not being allowed to vote was a reflection of the ideas of many racist white Canadians at the time. The legislation passed with majority support from the House of Commons. As a result, racists denigrated Chinese-Canadians even more, and the prejudice helped introduce the Chinese Head Tax in 1885, which commanded Chinese immigrants to pay a sum in order to enter Canada.

In the same encompassing Electoral Franchise Act, Macdonald secured a small piece of progress for Indigenous Canadians at the time. He successfully advocated another seemingly revolutionary piece of legislation: that Indigenous men, who lived on reserve and owned land that had seen more than $150 of personal improvement, should be allowed to vote. This select group of men would not have to give up their ‘Indian’ status to vote, as was previously the case. In context of his other actions conducted at this time, this proposal seemed strange, and some historians believe that Macdonald thought he would have had more votes from the Indigenous people that could now vote. In the prevalent British culture at the time, Indigenous people were seen as ‘half-breeds’ and ‘savages’ who had murdered Canadians such as Thomas Scott in the Red River and Northwest Rebellions. Being the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Macdonald introduced the Residential Schools system with support from other ministers including Hector-Louis Langevin. He also strongly supported denying Indigenous Canadians living in central Canada of food in order to clear them out of the planned CPR line. This resulted in the deaths of thousands, an increase in disease, and migration of groups away from their homes. The Residential Schools also culturally assimilated more than 150,000 Indigenous children for around 100 years, in what is now termed ‘cultural genocide’. Even today, widespread inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians can be directly credited to Macdonald’s acts.

Image result for john a macdonald house of commons


Ethical Judgment:

Macdonald’s assertion that “I had hoped that Canada would have the honour of first placing women in the position she is certain, eventually, after centuries of oppression, to obtain…of completely establishing her equality as a human being and as a member of society with man”[7] can be definitely be seen as progressive for his time. Even granting a select demographic of women that could vote was extremely forward-thinking, especially since Canada could have been one of the first countries to allow women to vote had the legislation passed. Today, all women in Canada are allowed to vote, but Macdonald also spoke of “equality as a human being […] with man”, a thought that resonates with us. The wage gap in Canada between women and men is still at least 15 percent, according to StatsCan.

Image result for canada electoral franchise act

On the subject of Chinese immigrants, Macdonald claimed that “if [the Chinese] came in great numbers and settled on the Pacific coast they might control the vote of that whole Province, and they would send Chinese representative to sit here, who would represent Chinese eccentricities, Chinese immorality […] which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles, on this House.”[8] Even among the rampant racists of the time, Macdonald was the only parliamentarian to use the word ‘Aryan’ to describe British-Canadians, according to history professor Timothy Stanley. These comments would make him more of a radical then, say, his Liberal opposition, but the act still passed with majority support from the House of Commons. Also, it was the Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier who raised the Chinese Head Tax in 1895 to an obscene $500. The tax was abolished decades later, and all citizens of Canada regardless of heritage could vote. From today’s perspective, the comments are not only bigoteds, but also invoke scary connections to Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric against Jews.

Madonald’s actions against Indigenous people weren’t out of place with the views of other cabinet ministers and political figures of the time. His proposal to allow some Indigenous males to vote was an exception, and was revoked by Laurier’s government in 1898. As for Residential Schools, according to Sean Carleton, a historian, “Macdonald dreamed of creating an organized system of federal schools for Indigenous children that could be used to disrupt Indigenous lifeways and control over the land to accelerate successful settler colonialism.”[9] While this was absolutely true, similar schools were also being built in America at the same time. Nicholas Davin, who wrote a report investigating the American schools, wanted to help solve Canada’s “Indian problem”[10]. Hector-Louis Langevin declared that “the fact is if you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages.”[11] Of course, we must admit that Macdonald’s actions directly led to the traumatization and deaths of thousands of Indigenous children. His choice to starve thousands of Indigenous people in Saskatchewan was not only against treaty law, but forced people to leave their homes of hundreds of years. Today, Indigenous Canadians have an unemployment rate more than two times the national average, an incarceration rate ten times the national rate, and a life expectancy almost ten years less than non-Indigenous Canadians.

We also need to consider Macdonald’s statements were not always completely accurate. He was notorious for being a wishy-washy leader, and frequently flipped sides on issues as soon as he saw that he could win more public support from switching. Examples include on ‘responsible government’ and representation by population. Therefore, it is possible that some of his racist statements against Chinese Canadians and Indigenous people might not have fully reflected his own opinions.

Image result for cpr land indigenous


Social Studies Inquiry Process:

The first conclusion I drew from my research is, above all, that many of Macdonald’s actions towards minority groups were racist and even genocidal. Even in a time where his ideas were widely supported, I believe that people in positions of power hold the responsibility to all of their people, especially Macdonald because he was the first leader of a newly created country. To openly support the cleansing of an entire demographic cannot be defended. As the title of a Globe and Mail opinion piece said, “Sir John A. doesn’t need a school to be remembered. He lives on in Indigenous pain.” [12]

Even after such a clear verdict that Macdonald played an instrumental role in creating terrifying living conditions for Indigenous and Chinese people in Canada, we must take a step back and realize that Macdonald – no matter how racist – was a man of his time. This is the second conclusion I drew from my research: actions are inexcusable, but so are the conditions under which they are made. I make a connection from this topic to that of my eminent person, Dmitri Shostakovich. Many call him an anti-Stalinist dissident, but that is simply not true – he openly condemned anti-Soviet composers and writers. He did so to survive, and perhaps that is a little egotistical. However, the fact still remains that speaking out against heavily regimented norms is incredibly difficult and not without intense repercussions. In our time today where a public platform to state all of our opinions is nothing than a click away, we sometimes lose perspective on how hard it was to go against the status quo. John A. Macdonald was a racist, but so were the near-anonymity of white people who lived in Canada. Therefore, in considering his more positive actions as well, in which he was clearly ahead of his time, such as achieving Confederation, and building the CPR, I believe that his name should remain on several schools in Ontario.

Mr. Macdonald could have been a leader that supported equality for all. Hoping for a 19th century leader like that is nothing more than wishful thinking.





[3] I chose to include women as a minority in this investigation because, while women comprise of half the human population, a power imbalance between genders was prevalent in Macdonald’s time, and still is today.







[10] Same as above.

[11] Same as above.




6 Responses to DOL 2: John A. Macdonald

  1. aislyn says:

    Lucas, you did an amazing job with balancing various views on John A. Macdonald without being aggressive or unreasonably judgemental. There was an excellent mix of paragraphs with Macdonald represented as a progressive, compassionate leader and with Macdonald represented by his genocidal, racist, and oppressive actions. This made it feel comfortable to read your piece regardless of the perspective of the reader while still getting the facts and a healthy comparison.
    You also made strong connections to the present state of politics in Canada. Providing an opportunity for this understanding allows for an answer to the crucial ‘but why?’ question. There is historical and contemporary relevance in your piece!

    I connected to your investigation through the Chinese Head Tax, and what Macdonald’s actions (and lack thereof) meant for the treatment of Chinese Canadians through the Chinese Immigration act. Without stepping between the racism of parliament at the time and their power to affect the lives of Chinese citizens, Macdonald in many ways is an essential contributor to the historic oppression of Chinese Canadians. At the same time, my biography project is about Nellie McClung, so it was interesting for me to see your connection between Macdonald’s progressive take on women and voting to the work of Nellie McClung.

  2. connormac says:

    Yet again Lucas I am amazed by your ability to immerse yourself in a topic and truly research and talk about it in-depth. Something in particular that stood out to me was your persistence to show both sides of the argument/discussion surrounding John A. Macdonald’s actions. I think it is extremely valuable to look at his (and all) situations from another perspective (even if you do not agree with it) in order to understand how/why decisions were made and find his faults and strengths that may have otherwise been ignored. I also appreciated the breadth of sources you used as well as the numerous article quotes. These quotations gave your writing and ideas more validity because you drew from such authentic and powerful sources to support your thinking.

    A connection I saw between John A. Macdonald and The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was very similar to the one I saw in Aislyn’s post, and the connection I am betting I will see in most posts. The common connection I am seeing is one of struggle to define and expand Canadian Identity and what that even means to different people. With some, such as Macdonald, it is one that included racism and bigotry that created division and loads of pain in the historical tapestry of Canada. In others such as the people who headed the Québec act, it was lead by the idea that Canada needs to be a connected country in order for it to thrive.

  3. lauryn says:

    Very thought-provoking post, Lucas! I really liked how you connected your inquiry question to the ongoing issues in the US and got the readers to consider whether or not school boards should remove the name of John A. MacDonald from their schools. Additionally, the fact that you use logos to build your argument to be even stronger and persuasive makes your investigation much more credible. Especially when you cite John A. MacDonald, it makes me believe that it’s not a fact you’re making up but is something MacDonald has actually said and advocates for.

    I can significantly relate to your Chinese head tax argument mentioned under ethical judgement. In my post I also explained how the Chinese were unfairly taxed after the CPR was completed and how John A. MacDonald was extremely racist towards minorities such as the Chinese and the Indigenous people. If he had known he was being unjust towards the minority groups, he wouldn’t have left the Chinese and Indigenous workers – who were’t trained at all – to take on dangerous tasks such as blowing up dynamites.

    • lucas says:

      Thanks, Lauryn! I definitely agree with you on the topic of the CPR. I really focused on trying to use Macdonald’s authentic voice, since I personally believe that the only person that can tell the best story about themselves is themself!

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