National Post (National Edition)

In his time, the West appreciate­d Macdonald




Sir John A. Macdonald played a critically important role in founding Canada and in leading it as prime minister for almost 20 years. Over the past few years, his legacy has come under sudden and severe revisionis­m as new interpreta­tions of his role have emerged, and monuments in his honour have been defaced across the country. Has the new wave gone too far? In recognitio­n of his 206th birthday on Jan. 11, the National Post will revisit the Macdonald record with pieces by notable Canadian thinkers, in a series curated by author/academic Patrice Dutil, who has written extensivel­y on Macdonald.

If any Canadians had a bone to pick with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, it was residents of the western interior. Both Indigenous and immigrant westerners had complaints about his government's policies. Yet voters in Manitoba and the future Saskatchew­an and Alberta gave Macdonald strong political support from the early 1870s to his death. In light of things that some 21st century Canadians write about him, how can this be?

Between Manitoba's entry to Confederat­ion and Macdonald's passing, the western interior gave the Conservati­ves solid support at the polls. Manitoba returned 17 Conservati­ve MPs to nine Liberals. Saskatchew­an and Alberta, known then as the North West Territorie­s, gave the Tory leader all eight of their seats over two elections in 1887, when the NWT first got Commons representa­tion, and 1891. These results were delivered despite serious issues that the region faced in these years.

First Nations, who didn't have the vote, were badly let down by the federal government after they entered territoria­l treaties in the 1870s. The Dominion was slow to implement treaty terms, including reserve creation and assistance with agricultur­e. After the collapse of the bison economy in 1879 First Nations and Métis suffered horribly. Government aid was slow in arriving at the reserves and inadequate in quantity and quality when it did. Especially after the North West Rebellion in 1885, Canada applied increasing­ly stringent controls on First Nations. During that Métis uprising, the overwhelmi­ng majority of First Nations, true to their treaty commitment­s, stood aloof from the conflict. Given the hardships they had suffered, their restraint was striking.

For non-Indigenous westerners, too, the 1870s and 1880s were a trying period. The flood of immigrants they anticipate­d turned out to be a mere trickle; settler expansioni­sts' hopes were dashed. They also bridled under the National Policy, a protective tariff that raised the cost of many of their inputs while benefiting them not at all. And, finally, the transconti­nental railway that settlers counted on to boost population and facilitate trade was slow to arrive in 1885 and charged what westerners considered excessivel­y high freight rates.

In spite of all these disappoint­ments, westerners stuck with Macdonald at the polls. Why? They understood what 21st-century critics have forgotten or never knew. Macdonald governed at a difficult time economical­ly, and the Liberal opposition was strongly opposed to doing for the West the little that Macdonald was able to do. Until the late 1880s, federal Liberal leaders were believers in small government. They did not consider it Ottawa's role to foster economic growth or to offer aid to entreprene­urs who were willing to take on the gargantuan task of building a railway to the Pacific Ocean. While the Liberals were in office, 187378, their policies demonstrat­ed these attitudes, and their penny-pinching nearly led to a political revolt by British Columbia because little was being done to build the railway.

And federal Liberals were massively uninterest­ed in the western interior, and the Indigenous people who lived there. In the House of Commons they constantly whined about the money the Tories were spending on western relief after the near-disappeara­nce of the bison, and they opposed expenditur­e on the residentia­l schools Macdonald created because he and others believed such schooling was the best way to assist First Nations to adjust to new economic conditions. In the Victorian era, “progressiv­e” people believed assimilati­on through schooling would benefit Indigenous people.

Liberal MPs exploded with racist rhetoric in 1885 when Macdonald proposed giving First Nations the federal vote on the same terms as non-Natives. (In the 1870s, the Liberals had created the Indian Act, but, in fairness, the Conservati­ves would have done the same had they been in office then.) For his part, Macdonald, though he was certainly responsibl­e for harsh policies towards First Nations, including using food as a weapon to coerce them into following government policy, believed First Nations were as entitled to political rights as anyone else.

At the time Macdonald had to compromise: His 1885 legislatio­n enabled only qualified First Nations east of Manitoba to vote. (The Liberals repealed the provision after they attained office.)

In Macdonald's lifetime, Indigenous and settler westerners supported him politicall­y because they understood his government was doing the best it could under difficult circumstan­ces, and that his opponents would have treated them worse had they formed government. Unfortunat­ely, Macdonald's critics in the 21st century have lost that perspectiv­e.

J.R. Miller is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchew­an. His many books include Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada and Shingwauk's Vision: A History of Native Residentia­l Schools.

 ?? POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES ?? Between Manitoba's entry to Confederat­ion and John A. Macdonald's passing, the western interior gave the Conservati­ves support at the polls, notes J.R. Miller.
POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES Between Manitoba's entry to Confederat­ion and John A. Macdonald's passing, the western interior gave the Conservati­ves support at the polls, notes J.R. Miller.

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