Sunday, June 09, 2019

John A. Macdonald and Reconciliation

On Thursday I went to Kingston at the invitation of the Kingston Historical Society to give the Address at the annual graveside commemoration of the death of John A. Macdonald -- an event that has gone on on June 6 since 1892! I chose the topic "John A. Macdonald and Reconciliation."

It was a beautiful day. It was a moving ceremony. Thoughtful and enlightening conversations followed. The text will be published in good time by the Kingston Historical Society, of whose good works I am most appreciative. I am posting it here as well. 

Canada's first prime minister, John Alexander Macdonald of Kingston died on the 6th of June in 1891 and is buried here. Every year this gathering marks his death and commemorates his life. Today I propose that we consider as the theme for this commemoration: Reconciliation.

A graveside is a particularly appropriate place to discuss such matters. In Christian theology, Reconciliation means the end of the estrangement between God and Humanity. John A Macdonald, dead now these 128 years, would have trusted that in going to this grave he would settle his life account, make his reconciliation with his maker, and end all life's estrangements. So here, at the grave of John Macdonald, on the traditional territories of Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples, let us among the living consider reconciling our own accounts, not so much with God as with each other.

For in recent years, the Reconciliation concept has moved from religion to politics. Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped inspire one of the first Truth and Reconciliation processes to help South Africa face the legacies of apartheid. Inspired by that example, Indigenous survivors of Canadian residential schools used some of their class-action settlement fund to create a Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commissioners said in their final report that the intent was to establish "a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples." I want to consider today what the life and career of John A. Macdonald can say to us about building that more nearly respectful relationship.

Anyone who has dabbled in bookkeeping knows that reconciliation can also mean a balancing of accounts. On one hand, we commemorate John A. Macdonald's work in building this country: his constitutional vision, his long and successful leadership in building up a new nation, and also his personal qualities: camaraderie, humour, and dedication to Canada.

On the other hand, this is the same John A. Macdonald whose statues are today splashed with red protest paints or removed entirely from public view, who is denounced as an architect of genocide, and whose place in our national history -- it has to be said -- is under active review by scholars and by public opinion. Is John A then an obstacle to Reconciliation? Can we balance these accounts and achieve some Reconciliation between them? I will try to do that today by proposing to you two sides of the legacy of John A. Macdonald.

One side of the legacy is represented by the Indian Act. The Indian Act developed over many years. Not all of it was Macdonald's responsibility; he was not in office in 1876when the Act itself was first passed. But both before Confederation and after, from the 1850s to the 1890s, he was deeply involved with its development and application.

The Indian Act expresses the consensus of the Canadian political system that the state had to control and determine the lives and status of Indigenous people. Beginning as the Gradual Civilization Act in 1857, it always saw assimilation -- the end of Indigenous identity in Canada -- as its goal. Residential schools were one aspect of that program. So was the system that confined Indigenous people to reserves and controlled every aspect of their lives there. The Act defines who is and is not an Indian and provided for the legal extinction of that status.

It is generally understood today that that whole system of control and coercion aimed at assimilation, whatever its original intentions, has for a hundred and fifty years been in all respects a failure and also a moral catastrophe: the cause of poverty, inequality, dispossession, marginalization, disrespect, and often despair -- all the very opposite of Reconciliation.

We have to say that in many ways the Indian Act and John A. Macdonald were suited to each other. Macdonald was a connoisseur of power. He had a genius for discerning where power lay and how to put himself where it was. He was confident in the use of power all his life, and he believed in the centralization rather than the diffusion of power. The Indian Act provided power. It facilitated Macdonald's program for Canada's expansion. It helped "open" the west and the north to settlement and industry. It helped make possible the resource exploitation that fueled national prosperity. It meant not having to worry about First Nation objections. It promised to put an end to "the Indian problem."

We can, however, balance the Indian Act aspect of Macdonald's legacy with another part of his legacy: the Treaty part. We know of John A. Macdonald's role in the drafting of Canada's constitution in 1867. One consequence of that was the entrenchment within the constitution of treaty rights and responsibilities.

There was only a single line in the British North America Act of 1867 about First Nations. It simply declared them a federal responsibility. But that clause was and is unique and significant. The constitution imposed no equivalent responsibility on Canada regarding any other group. That responsibility place within the Canadian constitution an obligation regarding First Nations that went back to 1763 and the Royal Proclamation of that year.

In 1763 the Crown declared -- principle mixing with dire necessity -- that Indigenous allies of the crown "should not be disturbed" in the possession of their hunting grounds and territories. Finding agreement with First Nations on these matters was a fundamental responsibility of the Canadian state, to be discharged when necessary "at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians, to be held for that Purpose by the Governor or Commander in Chief."

John A. Macdonald was part of the group that imported that old obligation into the new constitution. Constitutionalizing the Treaty relationship between Canada and First Nations was not Macdonald's work alone, any more than the Indian Act was, but he and the other constitution makers did not repudiate or abolish the commitment of 1763. They did not delegate it to the provinces or anyone else, either. They rooted in our constitution the principle of self-governing First Nations and self-governing Canada dealing as equals on questions of land and territory.

I think we might surmise that entrenching the Treaty obligation in the constitution suited John A. He never sought constitutional revolution. As much as possible, he wanted to preserve in the new Canada all the British North American constitutional principles and inheritances, including this one. He deeply respected what he would have called "the rights of Englishmen," but that we now call civil rights, even human rights, protected to all by the rule of law. And Treaties are the rule of law extended to relations with First Nations.

So we have, simultaneously, a relationship among equals based on the Treaty obligation of self-government and mutual respect, on one hand, and in the Indian Act, on the other -- a relationship rooted in power and inequality. How do we reconcile the program of the Indian Act and the principle of the Treaties?

For John A. Macdonald, I suggest we leave the reconciliation to him and his God. It was possible, perhaps, for Victorian Canadians to reconcile a commitment to rights and justice for all with the deliberate assimilation of peoples considered primitive and in need of gradual civilization. John A Macdonald is dead these 128 years. We should trust he has made his own reconciliation with his maker on these and other matters. But what about us the living?

We live with an unavoidable contradiction between the Treaty relationship of dealings among equals and the Indian Act relationship of power and dependency. Reconciliation politics was not a burden upon John A. Macdonald and his generation. It is a burden upon us. How shall we respond?

The Cree have a saying: We are all Treaty People. They don't mean all Cree or all Indigenous people. They mean all of us. We ought to hear them. Both in practice and in principle, the Indian Act approach, based on power and inequality, has failed all of us. We need to recommit to the better side, the constitutional side, the Treaty relationship.

How exactly do we do that? There is a generation now of Indigenous jurists and statesmen and scholars and elders to contribute to that discussion. We should listen before we speak. But a few things are clear about the Treaty relationship.

First, a Treaty-based relationship, a negotiated relationship, must be built on equality. Equality requires real, workable self-government on both sides: Canadian and First Nations. The First Nations need to be able to negotiate the relationship, and to manage their side of it.

Second, that kind of self-government requires self-sufficiency. Seriously self-governing First Nations cannot be based on financial dependency, on handouts from Ottawa. They need their own financial resources to support their own policies. This is where the Treaties matter.

We are probably aware of those numbered treaties made along northern rivers or on prairie grasslands in the 19th or early 20th century. We may know of the Treaty texts filed in Ottawa and how they speak of First Nations that "cede, yield, and surrender" their land to Canada and give Canada a right to "take up" at any time any First Nations land not already ceded. The notion is widely held that for better or worse the Treaties transferred the Canadian land irrevocably to the Canadian state.

But one of the achievements of Canadian historians in recent decades -- my own generation, and I'm proud of them, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous[1] -- has been to explode that notion. Historians who study what was actually agreed at the treaty negotiations have confirmed again and again that Indigenous oral tradition has been correct all along. No matter how the Treaty texts read, no one ever agreed simply to give away their land for an Indian Agent with total authority and a bit of welfare.

At one Treaty negotiation after another, chiefs simply would not affix their marks to treaties until they were guaranteed "The land will always be yours," "You will hunt and fish forever," even "as long as the sun shines and the rivers run." Those words did not get into the official texts of the treaties, but a historical consensus has formed: treaties as actually negotiated were agreements to share the land, not to transfer it once and for all. We might say that they were attempts at a nineteenth-century version of Reconciliation and a repaired relationship.

Imagine for a moment if we Canadians actually lived by the treaties we are bound to, to land sharing agreements. Suddenly the First Nations would actually possess a resource basis that would make their communities and governments self-sufficient, able to consider addressing their pressing issues, newly able to deal with Canadian society as equals.

Take Attawapiskat on James Bay here in Ontario as an example. In recent years Attawapiskat has become a byword for poverty, youth suicide, boil-water alerts, and degradation. But Attiwapiskat has a diamond mine in its back yard. Why is it poor? The Mushkegwok Cree territory has waterpower resources, has mineral resources, has transit corridors, has tourism opportunities. If the Cree share that land, why do they not share in benefitting from those resources and the revenues from them? If we were sharing instead of appropriating the land, suddenly First Nations like that one would not be the poorest demographic in the country but one of the more prosperous. First Nations controlling their share of the land could begin to run their own affairs from their own revenues, begin to deal as equals with Canadian governments. Begin, perhaps, to reconcile with settlers and colonizers.

Is a commitment to the Treaty relationship likely? At the moment, I do not think there is a single Canadian government able to contemplate it seriously. And at the moment I doubt that a Canadian government willing to contemplate sharing the land with First Nations could survive politically. Look what has been happening to Canadian governments willing to propose even modest efforts at combatting climate change. And climate change is a much more existential issue to most Canadians than Aboriginal Rights.

I might guess that John A. Macdonald himself would be cautious about Reconciliation and all it requires. He was a canny and cautious political leader, reluctant to get ahead of the popular will, adept at placing himself where it already was, rarely eager to antagonize the voters. He might still be one of those waiting for a signal from the public that it was time to take the Treaty relationship seriously.

But Macdonald was also a supremely realistic, pragmatic politician. He could make difficult decisions when they had to be made. Soon after confederation, when the alienation of Nova Scotia threatened to break up the country when it was still coming into being, he declared "It is no use crying peace when there is no peace." He took radical steps that may not have killed eastern alienation but did in fact make some kind of reconciliation with Nova Scotia possible to keep the nation whole. Some condemned the compromises he was willing to make: an Orangeman basing his power on an alliance with Catholic French Canada. Macdonald was not fanatical about endlessly pursuing causes all the way to disaster.

Will Canadian politicians take the steps that might make Reconciliation between Canada and Turtle Island possible? That is not John A. Macdonald's problem anymore. It is ours.

But I know one thing. If we did move forward and make Reconciliation more than an empty slogan, then in future decades Canadians would be freer to come here to John A. Macdonald's grave without a certain ambivalence. They would be able to commemorate the great things he did, without having to wrestle so much with more contentious aspects of his legacy.

Thank you.

[1] I think of the work of James R. Miller, Blair Stonechild, John Borrows, Marie Battiste, John Long, among many others.

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