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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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