This is Part 5 of a multi-part series examining Macdonald’s legacy. Previous parts can be found in the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
Up until the last several decades, Western historians took considerable satisfaction in recounting stories about people who strove to become better over time. Teachers were unafraid to share heroic accounts of national origins and founding fathers.
This is no longer the case. Today, persistent criticism of past decisions and those who made them are the special preoccupation of public intellectuals who feel they alone are free from poor judgement, irrational thinking, or moral turpitude.
Given the dominant zeitgeist in Canada’s formative institutions, it was entirely predictable that our progressive establishment would come after the reputation of Sir John A. Macdonald.
The guiding principles that informed the actions of John A. represent just about everything 21st-century progressives are against, from the free-market ideas of Adam Smith and the conservative principles of David Hume, to British traditions of loyalty to the Crown, individual liberty, free speech, property rights, rule of law, and parliamentary democracy.
‘Critical Theory’ Denies the Best Impulses in Human Beings
The Canadian left has been itching to bring down Macdonald, and the present intellectual weapon of choice for North America’s enemies of liberty is critical race theory. For readers who have better things to do than keep up with the lexicon of the professoriate, the term “critical” is academic code for Marxist analysis.
Since the 1960s, disciples of the Marxist-inspired American progressive philosopher John Dewey have had an enormous influence on Canadian education and, through our schools and universities, Canadian culture in general.
A familiar strategy of North American Marxists has been to deny the best impulses of human beings and focus on the worst in people on the opposite side of a political debate. Nowhere has this strategy played out more perniciously than in the left’s gaslighting on issues related to race relations.
Playing the Familiar Race Card
So-called “progressive” educators in Canada have taken their cues from the American left for at least the last 60 years. Today, they too play the race card.
Given the absence of slavery in the Canadian colonial experience, Macdonald’s accusers pivot naturally to the “critical” examination of issues related to the history of indigenous peoples.
David Frum, senior editor of The Atlantic, recently pointed out that Macdonald’s detractors concentrate more on things he failed to do than on things he did.
Macdonald’s critics point to his failure to provide sufficient help for indigenous people imperilled by the destruction of the buffalo herds. They say he should have anticipated the abuses that occurred in the residential schools his government created for native students.
In the wake of the catastrophic material and cultural destruction endured by prairie indigenous people in the late 19th century, Macdonald was inclined to rely on a single policy option: “The great aim of our legislation,” he stated, “has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”
With the exception of the Second Riel Rebellion, which resulted in close to 100 violent deaths before it was brought under control, Macdonald resisted the idea of U.S.-style military campaigns against indigenous peoples. He sought to bring them into Canada as full citizens. Rightly or wrongly, he sincerely believed that civic integration and the adoption of agriculture was the only way to save the indigenous from the collapse of their traditional hunter-gatherer way of life.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that even the best intentions can pave the way to hell. Indigenous residential schools became the default policy option for pre- and post-Confederation governments up until at least the mid-20th century, and their operational standards were considerably less than perfect.
Nevertheless, over several decades, the Canadian nation, which Macdonald brought into being, has persistently endeavoured to correct past injustices and create extraordinary levels of opportunity for indigenous descendants. In a symbolic but nonetheless important gesture of reconciliation, prominent Inuk leader Mary Simon was recently appointed as Canada’s 30th governor general.
Presently, assimilation is roundly condemned by dominant voices in academia, government, and the media. As Frum wrote: “Today’s approach includes formal recognition of Native sovereignty and large, permanent, economic support of Native communities.” Only the unfolding of history will determine the merits of this turn of mind on the well-being of indigenous peoples.
Humiliation, Patricide, and Redemption
Political activists who set out to stain historical reputations generally prefer to start at the top. Such has been the case with the legions of social justice warriors seeking to destroy the memory of Sir John A. Macdonald.
Canadians are constantly being invited to participate in humiliating public denunciations of our founding prime minister. Despite Macdonald’s enormous contribution to the development of Canada, his critics insist on castigating his record solely on the basis of indigenous policy issues.
But affections for national trailblazers are not easily removed from the hearts of common men and women. In 2018, an Angus Reid Institute survey found that 70 percent of Canadians still thought the name and image of Macdonald should remain in public view. Most ordinary citizens intuitively perceive assaults on our national icons to be assaults on the nation itself.
Reconstructing the nation’s feelings after the announcement of Macdonald’s death in 1891, Richard Gwyn wrote in “Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times”:
“All the churches in Ottawa began to toll their bells. As the news spread out by telegraph and telephone, through towns and hamlets connected by railway lines, along the coasts by calls shouted from one fishing boat to another, and out in the countryside by solitary riders passing farmers in the fields, church bells everywhere began to toll—from Cape Breton to Vancouver, all the way across the impossible magnitude of the country Macdonald had created.”
By the standards of any era, Macdonald was a good man. He toiled all his life to achieve accommodation between mutually suspicious cultures: French and English, Indigenous and European, Canadian, British, and American. Scholars still speak of his liberal-minded respect for opposing opinions, his charm, good humour, and deep-seated loyalty to the nation he worked to create and preserve.
Summing up Macdonald’s legacy, Gwyn concluded: “He made some bad mistakes. But he never made the one mistake that would have mattered: he never gave up.”
Increasingly, the case for Macdonald’s redemption is being taken up by well-informed citizens throughout the Dominion of Canada. Outside the confines of the country’s woke faculty rooms, most Canadians still understand that patricide is not a sound basis for the advancement of the common good.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
William Brooks is a Canadian writer who contributes to The Epoch Times from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He currently serves as editor of “The Civil Conversation” for Canada’s Civitas Society.