John A. Macdonald: Nation-builder, Nation-destroyer

Dr. Sean Carleton, an assiatant history professor at the University of Manitoba, appeared before the Holding Court Statue Working Group via Zoom on Friday afternoon. Dr. Carleton said the statue should be removed from its position in front of the Picton Library.
Dr. Sean Carleton, an assiatant history professor at the University of Manitoba, appeared before the Holding Court Statue Working Group via Zoom on Friday afternoon. Dr. Carleton said the statue should be removed from its position in front of the Picton Library. Whig Standard, September 28, 2020.

On September 25, 2020, Sean Carleton, Assistant Professor in the Departments of History and Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, made a deputation to the Macdonald Working Group in Prince Edward County. Dr. Carleton spoke about Macdonald’s legacy as a nation-builder and a nation-destroyer, and about the difference between history and commemoration. With permission, I’d like to share a transcription of his remarks:

“Hello, and thank you for taking the time to be in dialogue with me today. My name is Sean Carleton. I am a scholar and Assistant Professor in the Departments of History and Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. I hold BA and MA in history from Simon Fraser University and a PhD from the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. I am currently teaching a history course at the University of Manitoba called ‘Inventing Canada,’ which invites students to learn more about the contested nature of commemoration practices in Canadian history, such as erecting statues, monuments, and giving infrastructure in public and private spaces honourific names, so I believe I am well-positioned to provide a deputation to the committee for consideration.

“With my time today, I will be making a presentation that talks about the complicated legacy of John A. Macdonald. I will be arguing in favour of the committee considering removing the statue or, at the very least, considering not leaving the statue in its current form. I believe that, if the committee and Picton and Prince Edward County are really committed to the values of Truth and Reconciliation, and trying to find ways of using history in ways that can bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples into better relationships, I think that reconsidering the legacy of John A. Macdonald is actually quite an easy way to symbolize the County’s commitment to that work.

“In that spirit, what I want to do this afternoon is share some truth-telling about John A. Macdonald, to help guide the committee’s work in this matter, because there can be no Reconciliation without Truth. Truth precedes Reconciliation, and the Truth about Macdonald, quite simply, is that his legacy is more complicated than most commemorations can convey – and, in particular, the Holding Court statue – can convey. Indeed, most commemorations uncritically celebrate Macdonald and, thereby, consciously or unconsciously reinforce the colonial story of how Canada began with European settlement and became a nation, and afforded Macdonald the lead role in that story.

“Let me address the more complicated legacy of Macdonald. Commemoration debates, such as these, are really a matter of perspective. Most Canadians, including myself, learn about Macdonald in history and social studies class, as being a nation-builder. He’s a founding-father of Canadian Confederation, played a prominent role as a politician in bringing French and English interests together, and supporting major infrastructure projects, like the CPR, the transcontinental railway that was the key to growing Canada’s economy and society in the late nineteenth century.

“This is true, in fact, though it should be corrected that, without Macdonald, there would be no Canada. I hear this argument quite a bit. Macdonald, of course, played a pivotal role, but he did not act alone. The work of uniting British settler colonies in an economic union likely would have been picked up by others concerned about the economic consequences of American annexation. The formulation of ‘No Macdonald, No Canada’ – as a historian – is an ahistorical formulation, and is part of the mythologizing that actually clouds Canadians’ understanding of the complicated nature of Confederation as a political process.

“Much of Canada’s history education, that is, how people are taught about history, is designed, specifically, to make people proud to be Canadian. So, it’s really unsurprising that a lot of us learn about history, and Macdonald’s role in it, in particular, uncritically, as a nation-builder. As a result, Macdonald really is a cornerstone of Canada’s nationalist mythology. He rightly or wrongly stands in for the country itself, in a way that someone like George Washington does in the United States.

“The issue, of course, is the way that we learn about Macdonald really is actually a white-washing of history. It’s a deliberate lionizing of a more complicated figure who, to build Canada’s federation, did so through racist and genocidal policies that operated through both within the legal framework, established and imposed by Canada, as well as outside of it. Macdonald, then, needs to be understood as both a nation-builder, but also a nation-destroyer from an Indigenous perspective. That’s something that uncritical statues don’t convey, unfortunately. Canadian nation-building was experienced as an oppression and a genocide by many Indigenous Nations, who had lived in these lands, only recently claimed by Canada, since time immemorial, with their own life-ways, including complicated legal systems. For example, acquiring new territory and resources in the West saw Macdonald going to war against the Metis and other Indigenous communities, supporting the creation of the reserve system, forcing Indigenous Peoples onto reserves to clear the way for that railway, and enforcing their containment on those reserves by supporting the operation of the pass system which existed outside of the law, whereby Indigenous Peoples were required to obtain a pass from the local Indian Agent to leave the reserve. So, Macdonald was very comfortable using extra-legal options to enforce colonization. The idea was to restrict Indigenous mobility, particularly on the Prairies, so that they could not interfere with colonization and nation-building; moreover, Macdonald supported using starvation as a political tool. Quote: ‘I have reason to believe that the [Indian] Agents as a whole are doing all they can by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation to reduce the expense,’ Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1882. This is genocide, according to the United Nations, and people were aware – and critical – of those decisions in Macdonald’s own time. There are articles and political cartoons criticizing the use of starvation to enforce colonization in the 1880s. Historian James Daschuk’s book, Clearing the Plains, outlines a lot of this history, and is a good resource on the politics of starvation as genocide for those wanting to read more about that particular part of Macdonald’s policy.

“After going to war in 1885 against the Metis and Indigenous allies to wrest the West and its resources away from Indigenous Nations in favour of Canada to support nation-building, Macdonald sanctioned the arrest and execution of some of the leaders, including Louis Riel, in questionable legal proceedings. So, the idea of Macdonald Holding Court and celebrating that, although he was a lawyer, again, is problematic. Explaining his objective at this period, Macdonald wrote, “The execution of the Indians ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.” Macdonald’s government also used the Indian Act to criminalize Pow-Wows and Potlatches and other cultural policies, and these lasted well into the twentieth century.

“One issue for consideration is how responsible Macdonald was for the policies of his government. People need to realize that Macdonald was Prime Minister and, while he was Prime Minister, the Prime Minister has the ability to choose a portfolio for themselves. The portfolio that Macdonald chose for himself was Indian Affairs. He was the Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs. It was a portfolio that he chose for himself, so he could oversee the colonization of the West to support nation-building. He used his position, not only to help enact the policies that I’ve mentioned already, but he was the main figure in marshalling the resources required to bring the Indian Residential School system into being and to have it launched in 1883. He continued to defend it as an effective tool of removing Indigenous children from their parents and communities, as a way of assimilating Indigenous Peoples, disconnecting them from their culture and the land, that Canada had desperately wanted to acquire for its economic development and nation-building. Again, this is a form of genocide, as defined by the United Nations, and that system that he helped found and defend in its early phases continued to operate in Canada, including in Ontario, until 1996.

“So, Macdonald also played a role as a nation-destroyer. He was a father of Confederation and a nation-builder, and that is an important distinction, that needs to be taught to Canadians of all generations. But he was also an architect of Canada’s genocide against Indigenous Peoples to build that nation. That’s the part that we don’t learn about in high school because it doesn’t make us feel very good. People not knowing about that, leads people down the wrong path, to want to uncritically celebrate and mythologize Macdonald as a nation-builder. The problem is, that is not taking into consideration how Indigenous People understood that nation-building process, which was a process of colonization and genocide.

“I suppose the last point that I’d like to make is that a lot of commemorations – we’ll hear a lot about “Oh, you can’t remove a statue because it’s erasing history.” As an historian, I can tell you very confidently that statues are not history. They are commemorations. They are celebrations of particular values that people want to enshrine and embody and project in public spaces to future generations. They’re supposed to be people that we are to look up to. In reality, people will say, ‘Oh, you can’t take away the statue, that’s politically-motivated.’ We need to remember that the creation of monuments and statues and commemorations – and their defences – are also political. For example, there were very few statues that were erected to Macdonald in his own lifetime, even after his death. The vast majority of commemorations, statues, school names, etc., come in two phases. One, in the 1960s and ‘70s, when people were looking for a figure in the past that perhaps could link French and English tensions at a time of Quebec separatism. Macdonald was chosen – although he did do some things in that way, he was not the best – French-Canadians often criticized a lot of his policies, including the execution of Louis Riel. The second wave, of course, comes around the bicentennial of his birth, which is where the Holding Court statue also comes out of. The problem is that, in the 1960s and ‘70s and even 2015, things have changed quite a bit. The project of either celebrating Macdonald for his birthday or trying to combine French and English tensions to combat Quebec separatism, those aren’t the major projects defining the country today. The major project defining Canada right now is Truth and Reconciliation, of trying to find ways for Canadians and Indigenous People to reconcile their relations, to build a better future together moving forward. Unfortunately, while Canadians understand Macdonald as a nation-builder, Indigenous People understand him as a nation-destroyer. Having uncritical statues of people like Macdonald, and there are others, that were favour of those policies, are perhaps not the best symbols today. As historians, that’s OK. We can make different decisions about who we celebrate and what are the kinds of values we want to inspire new generations to uphold. Uncritically celebrating an architect of genocide is perhaps not the most suitable person in these times to be uncritically celebrating in our public spaces.

“I will conclude by saying that, reflecting on the Macdonald statue in downtown Picton actually is an opportunity for the community, not only to think about its commitment to Reconciliation, which we began this meeting by outlining, but to prove it, by finding more appropriate and creative means to not forget Macdonald, but to remember his contributions without uncritically celebrating him and, in the process, whether consciously or unconsciously, the genocidal policies he used to build Canada on top of already existing nations.

“That brings an end to my formal deputation. I’m looking forward to answering any questions that the committee might have. Thank you very much.”

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