National Post (National Edition)
In his time, the West appreciated Macdonald
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.
SIR JOHNA FORT NIGHT
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.