Sir John A. Macdonald, Race, and Our Times

26 08 2012

A recent decision by the Canadian government to rename a road in Ottawa after Canada’s first post-Confederation Prime Minister has generated considerable controversy, largely because Sir John A. Macdonald’s views on race were both reprehensible by today’s standards and unusually harsh even compared to those of his contemporaries. Professor Tim Stanley of the University of Ottawa critiqued the renaming of the road in a column in the Ottawa Citizen. Stanley, who has extensively published on Chinese-Canadian history, quotes Macdonald’s speech about the need to preserve Canada for the “Aryan race.”  Stanley wrote:

Lest it be thought that Macdonald was merely expressing the prejudices of the age, it should be noted that his were among the most extreme views of his era. He was the only politician in the parliamentary debates to refer to Canada as “Aryan”… In contrast, the second prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, had earlier refused discriminatory proposals on the grounds that they involved invidious distinctions that were “dangerous and contrary to the law of nations and the policy which controlled Canada.

Richard Gwyn, who is the author of a recent and very positive biography of Macdonald, responded to Stanley with a column praising Macdonald. He said that “to describe Macdonald as “a racist” is pure, and smug, “presentism,” or the judging of the past by the standards of the present, thereby proclaiming our moral superiority to all Canadians who lived earlier. It’s the equivalent of condemning Macdonald for not having implemented same-sex marriages.” Gwyn mentioned that Macdonald welcomed Jewish immigration, supported giving the right to note to Aboriginals, and lived at the time when the Underground Railroad was smuggling fugitive slaves into Canada.

Gwyn’s piece prompted Carleton University historian Stephen Azzi to publish his own column. Azzi wrote: “Macdonald deserves praise for creating and consolidating Canada, but we shouldn’t be blind to his faults and shouldn’t believe that our multiculturalism had its origins in the policy of a man who publicly declared that Chinese immigrants were unwholesome and could not “assimilate with our Arian population.” Azzi mentions Macdonald’s harsh treatment of the Métis and Aboriginals and his policy towards Chinese immigrants. He also points out that the Underground Railroad was supported by the Liberal George Brown, Macdonald’s great rival, not Macdonald.
(Full disclosure: Stephen Azzi is a former colleague. I read a draft of volume one of Richard Gwyn’s biography of Macdonald, which covers the period up to 1867).

My own view is that it was probably a mistake to re-name the road in Ottawa after Macdonald. I wouldn’t advocate renaming something that had already been named after Macdonald (e.g,the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway), but i do think that we need to be sensitive here.  I’m also a bit surprised to see a centre-right government do this, especially after it has invested so much energy in demonstrating its anti-racist credentials.

Macdonald’s ideas about race changed over the course of his long life. There is therefore plenty of evidence that critics and admirers of Macdonald can cherry-pick to support their respective positions. Throughout his career, Macdonald was committed to preserving and developing a “British Canada.”  What changed was his thinking about whether groups that weren’t of British descent were going to be fully accepted as members of this imagined community. The young Macdonald’s attitudes seem to have been largely “civic nationalist” in nature. Macdonald’s ideas took on an increasingly “ethnic nationalist” overtone as he aged, perhaps because the culture of the Western world was becoming more racist, thanks in part of the perversion of Darwin’s theory of evolution by pseudo-scientific racists. In the late nineteenth century, new racialist theories were popularized and became deeply entrenched in the English-speaking world, not to mention in other areas, such as Germany. Some historians argue, quite persuasively actually, that people in the early twentieth century were, in general, more racist than their predecessors circa 1850.[1] There is lots of evidence to support this theory. For instance, there was relatively little anti-Chinese racism in California until the early 1870s, even though many Chinese people started arriving in the 1850s.  Macdonald was a very well-read individual, which meant that he kept up-to-date with the shifting intellectual tides.

In 1861, Macdonald had said that he would welcome any man committed to the project of maintaining British rule in Canada, regardless of who his ancestors might have been. [2] This was civic nationalism. Macdonald was implying that anyone, whether of British, French, or even Black ancestry, could make a good citizen.

Speaking in 1885, Macdonald conceded that unrestricted Chinese immigration might help to achieve the goal of having “our hundred millions in British America.” Macdonald did not dispute that the Chinese had transformed the economy of the British colony of Malaya through their industry almost as soon as the imperial government had opened that territory to Chinese settlement. Nevertheless, the Chinese needed to be excluded from the Dominion because he “has no British instincts or British feelings.” Canada, Macdonald said, was for “the Aryan race and Aryan principles.” Macdonald was willing to make exceptions to this rule and grant the right to vote to Blacks and Aboriginals who met the property qualifications, but for the most part his definitions of who could be a loyal British subject had become predominantly, although not exclusively, racial.[3] Macdonald reinvented himself as an ethnic nationalist. A few people who clung to an older civic nationalist theory protested that many of the Chinese people who wished to enter Canada were actually British subjects by virtue of their birth in the British colonies of Hong Kong or Singapore. They said it was wrong, even un-British to discriminate amongst British subjects based on their race. [4] Macdonald did not draw such fine distinctions among different groups of Asiatics, essentially because he was now an ethnic nationalist. I also think that the increasingly ethnic-nationlist tone of Macdonald’s thinking influenced his decision to allow the execution of Louis Riel to proceed despite his knowledge of how unpopular this decision would be with the French Canadians.

[1] Douglas Lorimer,  “From Victorian Values To White Virtues : Assimilation And Exclusion In British Racial Discourse, c.1870-1914” in Rediscovering the British World, edited by Phillip Buckner and R.Douglas Francis. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005.

[2] Macdonald, ‘Remarks on the Composition and Policy of the Brown-Dorion Government’, 95.

[3] 4 May 1885 Official report of the debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada : third session, fifth Parliament … comprising the period from the twenty-seventh day of March to the eighth day of May, 1885 (Ottawa: MacLean, Roger,, 1885), 1582, 1589.

[4] Charles Dilke, Problems of Greater Britain (London: Macmillan, 1890), vol. 2, p. 304.




2 responses

6 02 2014
robert reid

If we were to follow Richard Gwynn’s logic on the issue of the condemnation of Sir John A.MacDonald’s racist attitudes as being presentism than of course it would be wrong for people of today to condemn the act of slavery that was still in effect at approximately the same period of time in the U.S. Where is the logic in that argument?.

6 02 2014

I agree that he is on the slippery slope to total moral subjectivism.

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