In the late 19th century, John A. Macdonald was celebrated as a great man, but time has changed the definition of a ‘great man’. Macdonald is known for leading the scattered provinces of pre-Canada to confederation, being the nation’s first political forefront and for being a cornerstone of the country we live in today. Despite this praise, Macdonald is currently being ridiculed for the discriminatory laws he created and the questionable decisions he made during his years as a Prime Minister. Macdonald’s image as the reassuring founding father of Canada has not stood the test of time, as his name and statues are requested to be removed from view by the public. As much as our values have changed since Macdonald’s time as founding father and Prime Minister, we cannot remove his image from statues and buildings because, taking into account the societal norms of late 1800s Canada, Macdonald made highly progressive decisions that were incredibly valuable to the creation of the Canada we know today.
Views on racism and sexism in the late 19th century were far different than they are today. It would have been shocking if John A. Macdonald paid attention to minority problems or gave women the ability to vote. Nevertheless, Macdonald was not fazed by these expectations, promising voting privileges to women and bringing new laws to help protect the Indigenous people of the prairies. “He was uncannily modern” for his time, being “the first national democratic leader in the world to try to extend the vote to women.” (Gwyn). During the start of Macdonald’s time as Prime Minister, fur trade declines lead to growing whiskey trade, which made “many [Indigenous people of the prairies to be] drawn into alcohol dependency”, threatening the well being of prairie Aboriginal peoples (Peters). In response to this issue, Macdonald created the North West Mounted Police “to quell the whiskey trade” and, in turn, helped preserve the welfare of the Indigenous peoples of the prairies. Alongside this accomplishment, European Canadians were tried in court for their wrongdoings against First Nations people under Macdonald’s government. This justice for Indigenous people was so contrary to the systems in the United States, that Indigenous people of the prairies called the border “The Medicine Line, suggesting that above it there might just be some fair play […]” (Gwyn). These pushes for justice and equality were groundbreakingly modern at the time, proving Macdonald to be an innovative Prime Minister, even if his views seem outdated today.
It is a fact that Macdonald is responsible for the creation of the residential school system and the destruction of many Aboriginal families. These actions cannot be justified, yet, Macdonald’s decision to allow residential schools was affected by a major external factor: these schools were already a societal norm when Macdonald first came to Canada in 1820. “Churches had built schools for Indigenous children since the mid-1600s”, and the first origin of the residential school system can be traced back to the 1830s (Royal Canadian Geographic Society). “These schools were often in a poor state and, in some cases, were even dangerous,” frequently burning down and lacking in tents or temporary shelter. When Macdonald accepted the residential school system in 1883, he was creating a better-funded and safer alternative to a societal constant by building the new schools in strong and fireproof “heavy bricks-and-mortar-style architecture”. Macdonald made the best decision he could with the societal norms of the time, because in the late 19th century, a Canada without residential schools was both unheard of and unimaginable, and without government support the schools would remain underfunded and dangerous.
It is easy to accuse John A. Macdonald of unethical decision making from a current moral viewpoint. However, it is important to understand that Macdonald lived in an entirely different period than we do, and that the actions that he took were considered modern at the time. Macdonald does not deserve to be erased from history books and monuments for his shortcomings, because he governed as best as he could while staying within the societal viewpoints of late 19th century Canada, making him a progressive leader that needs to be recognized for the actions he took to build Canada.
Gwyn, Richard. “Sir John A. Macdonald, the Greatest PM of All.” Thestar.com, 9 Jan. 2015, www.thestar.com/news/insight/2015/01/09/sir_john_a_macdonald_the_greatest_pm_of_all.html.
Gwyn, Richard. “Canada’s Father Figure.” Canada’s History, 6 Jan. 2015.
Peters, Hammerson. “How John A. Macdonald Helped the First Nations.” Canada History and Mysteries, 25 Aug. 2018, www.mysteriesofcanada.com/alberta/how-john-a-macdonald-helped-the-first-nations/.
Royal Canadian Geographic Society. “History of Residential Schools.” Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, Canadian Geographic, 15 June 2018, indigenouspeoplesatlasofcanada.ca/article/history-of-residential-schools/.