David Frum defends John A Macdonald

Sir John A Macdonald's detractors say he starved First Nations people and sent their children to residential schools. Canadian expatriate David Frum defends Macdonald.

Recently, David Frum, a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine and a Canadian expatriate, wrote an article defending John A Macdonald against his detractors. Frum is piqued that Macdonald’s statues are being removed from public spaces, and in some cases vandalized.

It is not for me to tell cities, airport authorities or school boards what to do with Macdonald’s statues or name plates. They can debate and decide that for themselves. Vandalism is another matter. When that occurs, I ask who is doing the vandalizing; who elected or appointed them to do that; and who do they represent?

Sugar-coating Macdonald

That said, Frum sugar coats what Macdonald and others were doing. He describes Macdonald as a good humoured, tolerant and liberal minded man, albeit one who was blinkered by the prejudices of his time. Aren’t we all, asks Frum? Good humoured and tolerant?  At times, perhaps, but it was the same Macdonald who was adamant that Louis Riel would go to the gallows. Remember his quote: “He [Riel] shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.”

Frum argues further that Macdonald does not deserve his blighted reputation as a politician who starved First Nations into submission, and who created the residential school system which is so sadly prominent in the news these days. He writes that, “Macdonald believed that assimilation would save people endangered by the collapse of their accustomed way of life—and allow them to be welcomed as equals into the country he was building.”

Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? But it is an incredibly soft sell. What is assimilation to some, including Frum, is genocide to others. Frum argues that the word genocide, which has been used “to describe the worst atrocities in human history” is inappropriate here.

What is genocide?

There is, admittedly, room for legitimate debate on this topic. Jim Miller, a well-respected historian who taught at the University of Saskatchewan, argues that as cruel and destructive as they were, the policies of Macdonald and others were not aimed at eradicating Indigenous peoples as a race. Miller uses as his reference the 1946 United Nations convention on genocide, which Canada has signed. Miller writes that, “while government policies since Confederation were frequently terribly destructive to Indigenous peoples, those actions were never undertaken with the intent to destroy an Indigenous group.”  He adds: “If Canada had wanted to destroy First Nations, it would not have devoted so much effort to trying to turn them into Euro-Canadians.”

Counter argument

There is a counter argument. The Canadian Historical Association issued a statement this year on Canada Day titled: The History of Violence Against Indigenous Peoples Fully Warrants the Use of The Word “Genocide.” I encourage you to read it. 

The CHA statement was unanimously approved by its governing council and “with input from other Indigenous and settler experts in this history.” Quoting from the same UN convention on genocide referenced by Miller, the CHA says that the acts of violence and dispossession that Indigenous peoples experienced in what is today Canada “fully warrants our use of the word genocide.” The CHA says that the UN definition of genocide “does not simply refer to mass killings committed over a relatively short time period.”  Genocide can take other forms including acts “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” 

Think residential schools.

James Daschuk

Frum singles out the University of Regina’s James Daschuk as “the leading scholarly critic of Macdonald.” He then references Dashcuk’s 2013 book Clearing the Plains, but he does so selectively. Frum has Daschuk saying that it was disease, not starvation, that was the leading cause of death among Indigenous peoples in the 1870s and 1880s. Daschuk does write extensively about disease, but he also describes how hunger was deliberately used as a policy weapon in the West. Here is a quote from his book: “By the turn of the 1880s dominion officials tailored their response to the famine to further their own agenda of development in the west by subjugating the malnourished and increasingly sick Indigenous population.”

Sharing the blame

That is clear enough, but Daschuk’s book raises another uncomfortable question, and one which Frum also mentions in his article. Simply stated: Do we heap all the blame on Macdonald for food deprivation and residential schools? What about other actors?    

Daschuk shows in his book, that when Macdonald talked in the House of Commons about depriving the First Nations of food, he was responding to criticisms from the Liberal opposition that he was spending too much on that food. Daschuk writes: “Political pressure from the opposition Liberals was an important factor in constraining government expenditures on the Indian population.”  Do we apportion any blame for food deprivation to Liberal leader Edward Blake, or to other Liberal politicians who chided Macdonald for spending too much?

Macdonald introduced residential schools, but they continued in operation in some form until 1996. That means every prime minister from Macdonald to Jean Chretien kept the schools running. Do we blame only Macdonald, or do we also include icons such as Wilfrid Laurier and John Diefenbaker? There is plenty of guilt to go around.        

Vintage historians

In his article in the Atlantic, Frum describes Macdonald’s detractors as people with an agenda, a “motivated minority” who are “tired of being unimportant.” Would that include the 650 historians represented by the Canadian Historical Association who issued the Canada Day statement?

Frum, along with the right-leaning Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI), and the Postmedia newspapers, is engaged in a campaign to defend Macdonald and rescue his reputation. Recently there was a full-page advertisement to that effect in the National Post, signed by 200 people. They include Frum from his perch in Washington, some former Canadian politicians and journalists, and a few vintage historians. One wonders if any of them are tired of being unimportant. 

Stay tuned.  

Photo credit

Library and Archives Canada

12 thoughts on “David Frum defends John A Macdonald

Add yours

  1. Thanks for this, Dennis. Little is gained by vandalizing. But at least the statues are just mortar & concrete. The children were flesh & blood. I guess the most surprising thing is, not that statues are being overturned, or churches burned, but that there hasn’t been more of this a lot sooner, given the depth of the suffering and suppressed anger. I still think a middle ground would be to move them into museums with a full & complete explanation of the good & bad they left in their wake (how about the Museum of Human Rights in Wpg.) and off the public squares, where they’ve obviously been acting as open wounds & reminders of that suffering for way too long.


  2. Thank you for this Dennis. I am indeed very troubled by various aspects of the interpretations of history surrounding Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples: in particular everything around the residential school system. Precisely, as noted above, the system existed for over 100 years through successive federal administrations, therefore, both Liberal and Conservative. It has to be accepted that crimes were committed: physical and sexual abuse and more. Certainly there were bad actors: in some cases religious people but also lay people. No doubt, some of those individuals were racists and worse. Information was provided (ex. Bryce report in 1907); it was expressly suppressed and ignored, first by the Laurier government then obviously all succeeding administrations; the system continued under the responsibility primarily of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and the Indian Act. Question I am asking is how and why for so long? Where is the accountability? Prime Ministers, Ministers of Indian Affairs, Deputy Ministers?

    My personal perspective is affected by the fact I was taught by nuns and boarded at a convent (Montmartre) for over 10 years. The situation (that of myself & 4 siblings) was completely different to that of indigenous children being forced to attend, but it is nonetheless painful to hear and read it being implied that atrocities were committed by all such religious people. The nuns (Sœurs de Notre Dame de la Croix) I knew, while not saints (they were strict!), could never be described as committing anything close to what is being described in the media. I never expected to have to speak out one day to defend my teachers’ reputations, but now I now feel obligated in view of the fact all who taught me are now passed away and thus cannot defend themselves.


    1. Thanks for your comment Marty Murray. I am sure that not all of the teachers and administrators at residential schools were cruel and abusive. The problem is that they worked and existed within a system that was, by definition, cruel and destructive, Like you, I attended a Catholic boarding school, for boys in my case, It was a good experience for me, I do not know of anyone who was sexually abused there, although I cannot say with certainty that it did not happen. I think the big difference between your experience and mine), and that of Indigenous kids is that our parents sent us voluntarily. The police did not show up to remove us forcibly from the arms of our families and the comfort of our communities. We were caucasians and so were out teachers. No one tried to turn us into a facsimile of anything else. We were Catholics, so obviously there was no intent to disrespect our religion and strip us of it. We spoke spoke English at my school, although you may have spoken French at yours. No one forbade us to speak those languages or punished us for doing so. So, while our boarding school experiences had some similarities to that of Indigenous children, it was also radically different in matters of coercion and respect, What was a good experience for us was a nightmare for so many of them. I wish fervently that had not been so, but it was. What can we do, as settlers? We can now be allies when and wherever we can. Thanks again for reading and responding.


  3. It was useful to find the clarification that while residential schools started with Macdonald, all prime ministers down to the 1960’s did nothing to close the schools and allowed the negative consequences to continue. Vandalism is never acceptable no matter who is responsible and the suggestion that statues could be removed to a museum is a useful alternative. The burning of churches results from the anger of those affected but as several Indigenous women have stated, it hasn’t been helpful to destroy places where they can go to grieve their losses. The discovery of the graves has provided an opportunity for Indigenous people to speak publicly about the terrible mistreatment they received in residential schools. My hope is that it will push the federal government to act more quickly to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and those of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. I think action on this is a priority and should be dealt with before an election is called. Best regards, Frances


  4. Thanks for a good essay. The discovery of nearly 1500 unmarked graves at the four schools (out of 139) that have been searched so far indicates the extent to which the churches and government murdered children (and murder is not too strong a word). Compare the death rates at these “schools” to that of the same age cohort in the general population. I don’t think we need to bother with terms like “cultural genocide” any more. It was just plain genocide. The problem with focusing on removing statues is that it makes white folk feel good without delivering housing, jobs, or clean water. It becomes yet another distraction.


  5. Never ceases to amaze and disgust that very privileged white men and women speak so eloquently, fervently, and sanctimoniously about their white heritage while seemingly never listening to the words of sorrow, pain,and anger from those who actually lived [and too many died] in those residential prisons. What else would I call places that forced children into these places of horror, of depravation, starvation and malnourishment, sexual and psychological and physical abuse. Who among the ardent supporters of John A. ever had their years in any type of prison about which they tried to forget, never mind wanting to “reflect” on those experiences? Who among the privileged ever had to dig a grave for a classmate.
    Further, I for one regret that so many Indigenous youth never got to learn about their own cultures and ways of living within the natural world. We will all regret this loss in the future as “overshoot” and the resultant climate disruptions, food system debilitation, fresh water dereliction, and many more things come at all of us with more ‘gusto’. We all have to learn to live within the “limits” of a real natural planet and so many Indigenous traditions have much to teach us about doing so.


    1. Thanks for your comment Bruce. These things are painful even to think about; they would have been immeasurably more painful to experience. Our settler future must be one of being good allies.


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