Opinion: Macdonald’s assimilation supported by non-Indigenous Canadians


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Recently, popular movements have emerged across Canada to remove the statues and names of public buildings from historical figures responsible for Canada’s complicated relationship with Indigenous peoples. The Prime Minister of Canada is at the center of this discussion. Much of the new negativity focuses on his policies towards “Indians” as the First Nations were then called. To give this article more perspective, I include references to several of Macdonald’s political contemporaries in the late 19th century. As depressing as it is from today’s perspective, the reality remains that in Canada in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, assimilation, or “civilization” as it was called. era, when “cultural genocide” as many call it today, was the universally accepted approach.

As in my new book, Seen but Not Seen, my goal is not to condemn or praise, but rather to understand the perspective of late 19th century non-Indigenous Canadians on First Nations.


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Undoubtedly, John A. Macdonald (1815-1891) was the most important Canadian politician in shaping Indian politics in Canada after Confederation. In keeping with British tradition, the federal government between 1871 and 1877 negotiated seven treaties with First Nations, from northwestern Ontario and from the Prairies to the Rockies. The Conservative premier was the instigator of the first three treaties and his Liberal successor Alexander Mackenzie of the next four, the last being Treaty 7 in what is now southern Alberta. The top priority of the new Canadian government was to seize the Prairies to acquire land for settlement.

In some circles, Macdonald and Mackenzie’s decision to enter into treaties has been controversial, as it was not universally accepted in Canada 150 years ago. The two leaders acted contrary to the opinion of Oliver Mowat (1820-1903), Premier of Ontario from 1872 to 1896. He argued that it was not necessary to conclude treaties since the First Nations had no legal title to their land. The Government of British Columbia fully agreed.

As he was in opposition from 1873 to 1878, Macdonald did not introduce the Indian Act of 1876, which was Mackenzie’s work, but on returning to power he approved it and created the department. of Indian Affairs to administer it. He was Superintendent General of Indian Affairs from 1878 to 1887. Authorized by the Indian Act, his government in 1883 created the modern residential school system. He and others believed this was the best way to introduce First Nations to new economic conditions. The first prime minister of Canada believed that First Nations were culturally, not biologically, inferior and that a European education would eliminate cultural inferiority. Looking back, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Vol 1. The Story, Part 1. From the Origins to 1939 (2015) sums up the enormous shortcomings of schools.


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British Canada had unwavering confidence in the superiority of its society. The Conservatives and Liberals have done little to consult with first nations. As Macdonald made clear in his last year as Minister of Indian Affairs Canada, “the great goal of our legislature has been to eradicate the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects. to the people of the Dominion, as quickly as they are apt for change.

Macdonald and his political contemporaries wanted the First Nations to become like Euro-Canadians and forget their specificity. The second Prime Minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, fully endorsed the idea of ​​total assimilation of First Nations, his Draconian Indian Act of 1876 allowed the federal government to control many aspects of the life of Status Indians. The legislation aimed to integrate them into the majority society, thus putting an end to their special legal situation. Speaking in 1875, Mackenzie said: “It is the mission of the Anglo-Saxon race to bring the power of Anglo-Saxon civilization to all countries of the world.

John A. Macdonald was a very complex person. His use of a starvation policy to force Plains First Nations to settle on reserves may well be seen as the biggest failure of his career. The contradictions of its policies include the ruthless repression of the Plains First Nations after the disturbances of 1885. What is now Alberta and Saskatchewan were administered in 1885 as a police state. Yet in the same year, Macdonald extended federal voting rights to adult Indian males who met the property test in central and eastern Canada – without forcing them to give up their existing rights as Indians. registered. Thirteen years later, Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals abolished this right (it was not granted again to Status Indians without loss of status until 1960).


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By the end of the 19th century, the “doctrine of discovery”, a legal concept used to justify European sovereignty over indigenous lands, was enjoying great popularity. Almost the entire Euro-Canadian community endorsed it. Wilfrid Laurier, in the silver tongue, popularly summarized the concept and its implications in 1886. In April, the young French-Canadian lawyer and member for Quebec, who would become the leader of the federal Liberal Party the following year, declared to the Chamber of Commons: “England, and all other Christian nations which established colonies on this continent, have always held the view that it was not against moral law to take possession, and even compulsory possession, of lands which were traversed rather than possessed by savage nations – lands which in their hands were to be forever barren and unproductive, but which, under civilized rule, would provide homes and happiness to millions of people.

The Indigenous narrative asserts, contrary to the “doctrine of discovery,” that there were people who lived in what is now Canada for over 500 generations before the arrival of Europeans. They had customs, languages, laws and beliefs – and a totally different relationship with the land – than newcomers from Europe.

Macdonald and his non-Indigenous political contemporaries and many of their successors misread the future, failing to understand that First Nations had different cultures that they were determined to maintain. Until 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, Minister of Indian Affairs, continued to view assimilation as both desirable and achievable. The legislative proposals they put forward in their policy document, commonly referred to as the White Paper, were rejected by First Nations. During the special presentation of what became the Red Book on June 4, 1970, a revealing photo of a dramatic moment from this encounter appears on the cover of Seen but Not Seen, Indigenous leaders rejected the White Paper so strongly that the federal government backed down and formally withdrew it in 1971. A new era in non-Indigenous and First Nations relations has begun in Canada.

Donald B. Smith taught Canadian history at the University of Calgary from 1974 to 2009. The University of Toronto Press has just published his new book, Seen but Not Seen: Influential Canadians and the First Nations from the 1840s to Today. It explores the history of Indigenous marginalization and why non-Indigenous Canadians have failed to recognize Indigenous societies and cultures as worthy of respect.


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