May 8th 2019
It’s Immoral to Understate the Importance of John A. Macdonald
Historical rankings of Canada’s top prime ministers have consistently placed John A. Macdonald as the 2nd and 3rd most important Canadian politician. He brought together the provinces of Canada to form what we are today, yet he took many risks along that difficult road. His controversial actions in light of modern opinions implore us to debate how much attention should be shed on him and the values he represents. On one hand, he was an essential negotiator in 1867’s confederation process (“Canada History”). Contrarily, he was known to be “way more racist than his contemporaries”, which further segregated the country into ethnic groups with poignant beliefs, and impeded on basic human rights (Decoste). Nonetheless, Macdonald should be kept as a symbol of Canada’s history because he has developed its economic stability and defined its sense of nationality.
It is not the title of ‘confederation’ or moral obligation to cooperate that tied together the provinces, rather it’s the economy. Implemented by Macdonald, “The National Policy effectively closed Canada’s border to American imports by imposing high tariffs on American goods, and prevented Canadian producers from competing in foreign markets” (“Collections Canada”). In joining the provinces in economic solidarity, communities built off of one another and made the country more independent and self-sustaining. Work opportunities were reserved for local employees, such that in the making and running of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This method of transportation connected the east and the west of the county, allowing for trade to be simpler than ever before. Moreover, by implementing tariffs (or ‘taxes’), we were able to minimize the other countries’ ability to disturb our fragile economy. International companies became more reluctant to import their products to us due to the higher price that it took to get them across the border. This was especially important at that time, because we needed to build our own businesses instead of supporting American ones, who were in the pinnacle of their economy. Because Macdonald enforced radical ideas –such as the long railroad and higher tariffs- to the large demographic of people in developing Canada, he should be respected and represented as someone who made this country possible.
On the contrary, the most prevalent argument in favour of Macdonald’s removal is based off of his underlying discriminatory opinions that played a role in the confederation process. Macdonald is held accountable for implementing “the Indian Act, Indian Residential Schools and an over-bureaucratized Department of Indian Affairs” (Hopper). While it is completely unjust that people had to experience these things, Macdonald demonstrated immense effort in confederating so many provinces, for fear of being absorbed by America. He and many supporters believed that a native-ruled Canada would “forever have remained barren and unproductive, but which under civilised rule would afford homes and happiness to teeming millions”. In his defense, people already knew how terribly aboriginal people were treated by the states (especially during the revolution), so being under confederation would be the ‘better’ option anyways. While there is evidence to back up the skewed values of the time, “others charge that we cannot judge a historical person’s actions based on contemporary standards” (Innes). Because we do not know what sort of values were deemed as ‘good’ and ‘moral’ at the time, it is possible that people believed to be being their best selves by doing what was socially acceptable. In this spirit, racism wasn’t the same as it is today, and it would take a lot less moral corruption for Macdonald to hurt the aboriginal people in 1867 than now. Moreover, “while Macdonald did make mistakes, so did Canadians, collectively” (Gwyn). While we would want to blame the prime minister for all the wrongdoings of that time, “Macdonald admitted that he was supporting the policies largely because he was running a country full of racists (Hopper). For his ability to bring Canada together, even considering the price that it cost millions of people, he should be remembered for his perseverance and relative intentions.
Many today have no tolerance for Macdonald’s wrongdoings, and for good reason. At the same time, it is hard to think of an alternative way to make such a prosperous country while avoiding all the consequences of racist values worldwide. In the public sphere of Canada, we should represent Macdonald for his good contributions, such as stabilizing the economy and negotiating confederation, but also to model the inherent flaws that come with powerful leadership. Because of the circumstances he was put under, he was definitely not the perfect idol. Nonetheless, “’nobody is perfect’ is sooner to be adopted as a national mantra than rejecting [Sir John A. Macdonald] as a villain” (Daschuk).
Hopper, Tristan. “Sure, Jonh A. Macdonald was a racists, colonizer and mysoginist – but so were most Canadians back then”. National Post, 10th January 2015, https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/sure-john-a-macdonald-was-was-a-racist-colonizer-and-misogynist-but-so-were-most-canadians-back-then
Hopper, Tristan. “This is what John A. Macdonald did to indigenous people”. National Post, 28th August 2018, https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/here-is-what-sir-john-a-macdonald-did-to-indigenous-people
Lucsic, Nicola. “The ‘trial’ of Sir John A. Macdonald: Would he be guilty of war crimes today?” CBC Radio, 21st December 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-trial-of-sir-john-a-macdonald-would-he-be-guilty-of-war-crimes-today-1.4614303
Innes, Robert. “John A. Macdonald should not be forgotten, nor celebrated”. The Conversation, 13th August 2018, https://theconversation.com/john-a-macdonald-should-not-be-forgotten-nor-celebrated-101503
“Sir John A. Macdonald – A patriot statesman”. Collections Canada, 24th June 2008, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/sir-john-a-macdonald/023013-5000-e.html