Sir John A. Macdonald: Canada’s Guiding Hand
John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and a founding father, appears at first
glance to be a great figure in Canadian history. Recently, however, his name has become
embroiled in controversy due to some decisions made while in office that are now considered to
be very controversial. Calls for the removal of his name from the public sphere have amplified in
recent times, with swaths of people calling for the removal of his statues and the renaming of
schools bearing his name. The side calling for his removal cites his racist behaviours towards
indigenous peoples and his alcoholic tendencies as reasons why he should be removed,
regardless of his accomplishments in office. Although Macdonald did have his flaws,
Macdonald’s contributions to the formation of Canadian identity and the protection of Canadian
independence justify his position as a major figure in the public eye.
Macdonald’s national policy helped take Canada from “an eel skin of a country” to a
state with a defined presence on the global stage. In the early days after confederation, there
was significant doubt that the dominion would survive past infancy. The New York Times went
as far as to say that “when the experiment of the dominion shall have failed, as fail it must, a
process of peaceful absorption will give Canada her proper place in the Great North American
Republic” (Gwyn, 2015). Canada seemed headed on the path to Americanization, until
Macdonald enacted the national policy. It placed high tariffs on trade with America to encourage
the growth of the local economy and preserve Canada’s political and economic independence
from the U.S. It also boosted confidence among Canadians in the development of the country at
a time when growth seemed to be stalling and workers began leaving for a more prosperous life
down south. Macdonald’s revitalization of the economy and morale at a time when the country
was in a depression was an honourable act and as such he should be honoured by the public.
However, many in support of Macdonald’s removal claim his racist and bigoted actions
towards Canada’s indigenous people were too great an injustice to allow him to remain in the
public eye. However, the views that Macdonald held towards indigenous people were normal at
the time, and Macdonald actually presented a forward thinking idea of “co-mingling of the races”
(Gwyn, 2015). When Macdonald proposed the North West Mounted Police in 1870, he aimed to
create a force that would represent Canadians, and would include Metis, Indigenous,
Francophone, and Anglophone officers. Unfortunately his attempts at inclusiveness were
stopped by Louis Riel and the Red River Rebellion, but the fact that Macdonald even attempted
to include non whites in society was unprecedented at the time and shows how progressive he
was. When the NWMP was finally formed in 1873, it was successful in establishing “a good
relationship” with the Indigenous people (Peters, 2018). Macdonald’s attempts at including
indigenous peoples at a time when they were seen as lesser and treated poorly show how good
his leadership was and place him in a position to be remembered by Canadians.
Public institutions such as the Ontario Elementary Teachers Federation and Victoria City
Hall have been the centre of recent debate over whether Sir John A. Macdonald should remain
in the public sphere. Those for his removal cited his treatment of indigenous people as
justification, while the opposition stated that removing him would be “erasing the past” and that
his creation of Canadian identity are reasons for him remaining in his current position in the
public eye (Reid, 2019). If one considers the contributions Macdonald made to Canada
economically, through the national policy, as well as socially, through the North Western
Mounted Police, it is clear that Macdonald, although imperfect, did a great deal for Canada and
as such should be honoured for his achievements. By engaging in discussion about the past,
we can infer that even though norms and values change over time, there are certain figures who
we continue to honour in the present, even if the values they held at the time are no longer
accepted. In regards to this, without Sir John A. Macdonald’s leadership in the infancy of
Canada, the Canada we know and love today would not exist.
Moore, Christopher et al. “The Trials of John A. Macdonald.” Canada’s History Magazine, Feb. 2019.
“National Policy.” National Policy | The Canadian Encyclopedia, 7 Feb. 2006, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/national-policy. Accessed 9 May 2019.
Peters, Hammerson. “How John A. Macdonald Helped the First Nations.” Canada History and Mysteries, Mysteries of Canada, 25 Aug. 2018, www.mysteriesofcanada.com/alberta/how-john-a-macdonald-helped-the-first-nations/. Accessed May 9 2019.
Gwyn, Richard. “Canada’s Father Figure” Canada’s History, Oct/Nov 2012.
https://sd43bcca-my.sharepoint.com/personal/nmorris_sd43_bc_ca/_layouts/15/onedrive.aspx?id=%2Fpersonal%2Fnmorris%5Fsd43%5Fbc%5Fca%2FDocuments%2FDocuments%2FAcademic%20Controversy%20%2D%20JAM%20Articles%2Epdf&parent=%2Fpersonal%2Fnmorris%5Fsd43%5Fbc%5Fca%2FDocuments%2FDocuments&cid=f9d78e7d-322f-4a7e-8fbd-237208d8aec2 Accessed May 9 2019.
“The Formation of the RCMP.” The Formation of the RCMP | The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 22 Mar. 2013, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-formation-of-the-rcmp-feature. Accessed May 9 2019.