The Problem of Legacy: John A. Macdonald and the Politics of History

Andrew Nurse

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) and the Friends of Canadian History have issued a statement in “In Defence of Sir John A. Macdonald and his Legacy.” The statement–which is actually not just a statement but a petition—is a response to the on-going statue wars in which Macdonald and his legacy have come under an unusual public scrutiny. What has become clear is that, for a significant sector of the Canadian population, Macdonald’s legacy is closely associated with the repression of Indigenous peoples. Statues have been relocated, Macdonald’s role in Canadian history questioned and, in one case, a statue was decapitated. “In Defence of Sir John A. Macdonald and his Legacy” self-consciously intends to re-assert a more traditional way of looking at Macdonald and at Canadian history. Indeed, his legacy is presented as little short of “greatness.”

I don’t agree and I’d like to explain why. The argument encapsulated by the statement cum petition, its authors, and the MLI institute is as follows. The deep critique of Macdonald is a form of “myopic” presentism that ignores the positive (“great”) things he did for Canada and so presents an inaccurate picture of both the past and the country. The press release that accompanied the statement reads:

“Macdonald’s legacy is one of remarkable accomplishments. He, alongside his contemporaries like George-Étienne Cartier, set themselves the task of creating Canada, overcoming sectarian and linguistic strife and years of mistrust and political deadlock. He led the original Confederation effort, persuaded three other provinces to join, hugely expanded Canada’s territory, dissuaded American expansionism, brought economic stability, promoted unity between Canada’s language and religions factions, and much more.”[1]

Moreover, where there were problems (or “policy failures”), these were mistakes and to focus on them does a disservice to Macdonald who was, we are told, only human: “Sir John A. Macdonald was neither angel nor devil, but a fallible human being who accomplished great things. Looking solely at our past errors is not the right standard by which to measure Canada or Macdonald and their great achievements.” In case that point was missed, the “statement” makes it in starker terms. Macdonald, it notes,

“[m]ade many other mistakes respecting Indigenous peoples and policies Canadians today strongly disapprove; we understand the frustrations of the descendants of those affected by these mistakes. Macdonald’s failures must, however, be weighed against an impressive record of constitution and nation building, his reconciliation of contending cultures, languages and religions, his progressivism and his documented concern for and friendship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada.”

What is wrong with this? Several things.

First, the statement begins with an odd double standard in that it calls for interpretive historical balance but ignores its own injunction, presenting Macdonald in only what its authors must see as the most positive historical light possible. Said differently, there is something odd about a statement that begins by calling for balance whose first act is to ignore the very balance for which it calls.

The second problem is accuracy. The statement reduces residential schools to a mistake, a product of a human foible that have caused some measure of “frustration” for First Peoples. The historical problem here is that the statement ignores the context in which residential schools were created. In place of context – something vitally important to historical study – we are told that the residential schools were “widely supported at the time” and that Macdonald had “documented concern for and friendship with” Indigenous peoples.

If we put this history back into context it begins to look different: the residential schools were not an accident or a product of human “frailties.” They were a significant part of an intentionally designed and sustained effort to culturally – and physically[2] – eradicate Indigenous people. In the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), perhaps the most extensive public study of the residential schools that has been undertaken, they were an act of “genocide.”[3] Set in its context, in other words, the residential schools were part of the apparatus of Settler colonialism in Canada. In Macdonald’s time this included dispossession, the pass system, the military suppression of the Plains Cree, the assumption of legalized control over Indigenous identity, the law against the potlatch, and the “peasant farming” policy. Residential schools did not just pop up out of nowhere as if they were simply a mistake and to call them a mistake or “policy failure” seems like a shockingly inaccurate characterization for statement concerned about accuracy. To completely ignore the context of history is an odd approach for statement interested in an effective presentation of the past.

As others have pointed out, Macdonald’s policies were not the only approach that could have been taken. In his day they were subject to debate, discussion and critique. They were, of course, firmly rejected by First Peoples—a voice missing from the MLI’s “statement”—but also subject to concern in Settler society.[4]

Similar things might be said about the idea of balance in interpretation. Here, the statement runs into more than a bit of an ethical problem. The argument it sets out seems to be this: the fact that a person did some things that were good balances out – or outweighs if we take the discourse of “greatness” seriously – the negative elements of their history, discursively constructed as simple mistakes. Is that true? Ethical arguments are inherently complex but also an unavoidable part of history, as the statement itself acknowledges. As an analogy, imagine a situation where Person A is walking down the street and steals something from Person B. Later, they are nice to Person C. Does the fact of their niceness to a completely separate person nullify their theft of Person B’s property? Or, let me ask the question like this, if you were Person B, what would you think?

There may be other issues to address, or others may have different perspectives, but I’ll end on what is a final point of confusion for me. As I read this statement, I see a form of historical practice that is embedded in an odd double standard. It calls for balance but ignores its own call, asks for accuracy but neglects context, speaks to history but disregards fundamental aspects of historical research.

For my part, however, I wonder if the best use of historical discussion is to debate whether John A. Macdonald was great. It seems like the kind of thing historians were doing in the 1960s and not a reflection of the evolution of Canadian historical research and writing since then. Canadian historians, by and large, rejected the “great man” approach to history over a generation ago. In its place, new approaches dramatically broadened and – in my view – deepened the scope of historical practice in Canada.

If I could choose, I’d encourage Canadians to learn about colonialism and its operation in Canada, I’d ask them to think about the TRC and the role history can play in reconciliation (the general conclusion seems to be: an important one), and I’d ask them to think about the character and nature of public memory. We’re at no risk of forgetting John A. Macdonald. The question is whether we employ history to build a different kind of legacy.

Andrew Nurse is Purdy Crawford Professor of Teaching and Learning and Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.


[1] “Over 200 Experts Issue Statement in Defense of Sir John A. Macdonald,” Macdonald-Laurier Institute, January 12, 2021, https://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/defence-sir-john-macdonald-legacy/.

[2] Karen Stote, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women (Halifax: Fernwood, 2015). The fact that there were sterilization programs targeting Indigenous woman (among others) has been known for some time. See Angus McLaren, Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990).

[3] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation (2015). Accessible via: http://nctr.ca/assets/reports/Final%20Reports/Principles_English_Web.pdf.

[4] For examples, see this thread: https://twitter.com/SeanCarleton/status/903408953396150273.

Featured Image: “Phrenological Chart of the Head of the Country,” by John Wilson Bengough (1887), Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1937-455, via Wikimedia Commons.


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