Friday, January 15, 2021

John A Macdonald and his band of 150

A recent CTV News story gives substantial, and I think balanced, coverage to Monday's open letter from 150 public figures and historians defending the record and reputation of John A Macdonald. 

The CTV story gives detailed treatment to the letter itself (published at the website of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute). CTV also contacted mostly Indigenous scholars to drive the response to the letter's claim about matters such as Macdonald's "documented concern for and friendship with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada." Much of the critique of the letter's claims for Macdonald is driven by indigenous professors Robert Alexander Innes, Omeasoo Wahpasiw, and Crystal Fraser (whom I suspect to be considerably younger than the mean age of the signatories, for what that is worth.)

In a nicely historical touch, the CTV story links both to Richard Gwyn's full throated 2015 endorsement of Macdonald (in the Toronto Star) and to Timothy Stanley's vigorous critique of Macdonald, also from 2015 (at Active History).

In its response to the recent revisions to Macdonald's reputation, the open letter reverts to a traditional Creightonesque view of Macdonald. In the letter he really is the man on the pedestal. Consider its bulleted list of claims about Macdonald, with my annotations. The letter declares that Macdonald:

  • Re-imagined British North America as Canada and did so with courage, wisdom and integrity.  (Note the single-combat warrior image. Can Macdonaldians ever accept that confederation was the achievement of a broadbased, multi-party coalition, and that Macdonald was not an initiator of confederation and was notably late to the bandwagon?)
  • Dissuaded aggressive American expansionism. Macdonald, with Cartier, stared down opponents of Confederation in Quebec and Nova Scotia.  (As did every other member of the confederation coalition, many at much greater risk than Macdonald.)
  • Acquired territory that made Canada the second largest country in the world. (In the CTV story, indigenous scholar R. A. Innes points out acidly that "acquired" doesn't mention "how the land was taken.") 
  • Persuaded Manitobans, British Columbians and Prince Edward Islanders to join Confederation. Brought economic stability, with a farsighted Bank Act and an economic National Policy. (Persuaded Manitobans?  Wasn't there a little war and conquest in there? And in point of fact, PEI joined confederation under a Liberal federal government. Again the letter's single-protagonist model runs up against historical evidence everywhere.)
  • Spearheaded the building of a railway to the Pacific. (Again the letter glosses over Macdonald's long hesitations about the railroad project.)
  • Championed unity between English and French, Protestant and Catholic. (Indeed --mostly; he always had the Orange Lodges to fall back on -- but hardly alone.)
  • Promoted freedom of expression and the press. (As opposed by...?)
  • Launched policies that failed, as happens to all national leaders. This is certainly the case with the establishment of a national policy on Indian Residential Schools. Even though widely supported at the time, the schools had a dark legacy that hangs over the country to this day. (It's alarming how this point sustains the notion that "reconciliation" is solved by apologies for residential schools, as if there is no need to address such fundamental matters as self-government, treaty rights, and title to land.)
  • Made many other mistakes respecting Indigenous peoples and policies Canadians today strongly disapprove; we understand the frustrations of the descendants of those affected by these mistakes. (Surely this handwaving "many other mistakes" amounts to historical malpractice, made shameful by the cheerleading "but on the other hand" that makes up the extended remainer of this point.)  Macdonald’s failures must, however, be weighed against an impressive record of constitution and nation building, his reconciliation of contending cultures, languages and religions, his progressivism and his documented concern for and friendship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

The more I read the letter, the more I think the Macdonald defence has two problems. The first, its blinkered denial of the indigenous critique, is the most combatative and most distressing. But the second, in some ways deeper, one is the insistence on a Macdonald-is-Canada, Canada-is-Macdonald, one-man-made-us, put-up-more-statues vision of Canada. It is both bad history and useless as a vision for modern Canadians to build from. 

Pointing out that Macdonald was not the lone and sole creator of the Canadian nation no doubt invites the Macdonaldians' rejoinder, see, they all did it, why blame Macdonald? And that may be a valid and accurate statement, but not one that coheres with the Put Out More Statues ideology that prevails here.

I should say I have (and hope to retain) a fair number of friends and people I admire on the list of signatories to the Macdonald-Laurier letter. (The "Friends of Canadian History" is also credited, but when I Googled that organization, nothing came up except Canadian Quakers.) Friends, I'm okay with you not having approached me for a signature.  

Update, same day:  Jerry Bannister writes

Enjoying your blog, as always, and just wanted to point out that the list of signatories includes only a handful (perhaps less than a handful, depending on how one counts) of non-retired academic historians. There is a crucial difference, I think, between retirees who devote themselves fully to their own research and those of us who balance research with teaching, supervision, and administrative work. The list of signatories includes plenty of people who research and write about Canadian history but few people who actually teach, supervise, and mentor students.

 Thanks, Jerry.  Hmmm. I'm one who does not "actually teach, supervise, and mentor students." And while I don't doubt your stats, I have to say I incline to the view that anyone can and should develop views on historical questions, and be responsible for them. That's a quality of citizenship and culture, I like to think, not one's profession or employment status.  






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